Anthony Mascarenhas: Pakistani Who Turned Tide For India

Pakistani journalist Anthony Mascarenhas wrote an article in 1971 detailing for the first time the scale of suppression in East Pakistan and helped shape the world’s opinion in favour of India’s intervention and Bangladesh’s creation

Anthony Mascarenhas wrote an article detailing for the first time the scale of suppression in East Pakistan

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

In 1970, Bengali nationalist Mujibur Rahman-led Awami League swept Pakistan’s general election in the country’s eastern wing. It won all but two seats in what is now Bangladesh to emerge as the biggest party in the national parliament. 

What was expected to be a new dawn after years of military rule catalyzed Pakistan’s dismemberment as military ruler Yahya Khan refused to transfer power to Rehman and imprisoned him. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, whose Pakistan People’s Party finished second in the poll, egged on Khan’s crackdown on Bengali separatists.

The Awami League’s civil disobedience campaign sparked a civil war and attacks on non-Bengalis mainly Urdu-speaking migrants from Bihar, who fled India after Pakistan’s creation in 1947.

The Pakistan Army flew in reinforcements in March 1971 to intensify the crackdown named ‘Operation Search Light’ when local troops joined the Awami League’s campaign after a mutiny. 

The crackdown appeared to be working. It encouraged the army to invite West Pakistani journalists to highlight what they thought were their successes and also the massacre of civilians at the hands of rebels to discredit them.

The attempt to project its role in restoring order in the face of the civil war would boomerang on the army. Anthony Mascarenhas, one of the embedded journalists, ended up writing an article in the British paper The Sunday Times headlined ‘GENOCIDE’ after a 10-day tour of East Pakistan and turned the tide against Pakistan.

The article detailed for the first time the scale of the punitive action to suppress the separatist movement when East Pakistan was cut off from the outside world with the expulsion of foreign journalists. It proved to be a turning point in shaping the world’s opinion against Pakistan and provided India with a reason to intervene militarily and create Bangladesh.

Pretending he was visiting his sick sister in the United Kingdom, Anthony Mascarenhas flew to London after travelling across East Pakistan for 10 days. He headed straight to the office of Harold Evans, The Sunday Times editor, in London to discuss the possibility of writing about the situation in East Pakistan.

Evans wrote Anthony Mascarenhas, who had ‘appealing, almost soulful eyes and an air of profound melancholy’, was shocked by the outrages of Bengali separatists. But Anthony Mascarenhas thought what his country’s army was doing was altogether worse and on a grander scale. 

Anthony Mascarenhas, a Christian of Goan heritage who also broke the story in 1979 about Pakistan’s development of nuclear weapons, earlier returned home to Karachi from East Pakistan distraught. His widow, Yvonne, told BBC she had never seen her husband looking in such a state: shocked, stressed, upset, and terribly emotional. Anthony Mascarenhas told her if he could not write the story of what he saw he would never be able to write again.

Anthony Mascarenhas sensitized the world about the goings on in East Pakistan and played a role in the birth of Bangladesh, where his article is displayed in the country’s Liberation War Museum as a token of gratitude.

In December 2011, BBC described the article as one of the most influential pieces of South Asian journalism of the past half-century. The Guardian columnist Ian Jack wrote in May 2011 that Anthony Mascarenhas’s long piece of reportage ‘more than any other single piece of journalism changed how the world saw and would remember the conflict inside Bangladesh.’

The article came as a shot in the arm for Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s campaign in the European capitals and Moscow as she prepared the ground for India’s military intervention in the face of American backing for its key ally Pakistan.

The US refused to withhold arms, ammunition, and spare parts to Pakistan even as American diplomats in East Pakistan sent cables to Washington detailing the atrocities there. President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, were hostile to Indians. They regarded them as repulsive, shifty, and pro-Soviet.

Nixon even used expletives for Indira Gandhi and dispatched ships from the Seventh Fleet into the Bay of Bengal besides encouraging China to move troops to the Indian border to deter India. But an undeterred Indira Gandhi went ahead with the 1971 war, which ended quickly with Bangladesh’s creation.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide

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