How Mascarenhas’s report changed Bangladesh’s Liberation War
On this day 50 years ago (Sunday June 13, 1971), a report by Neville Anthony Mascarenhas, a Pakistani journalist, that appeared in the Sunday Times (London), shocked the world and made global-leaders take notice of the Pakistan Army’s genocide in Bangladesh.
Pakistan Army had launched the brutal Operation Searchlight in East Pakistan at Zero Hour on March 26, 1971, (though the killings had already started on the night of the 25th) in which hundreds of thousands of Bengalis were killed and thousands of women were raped. The initial resistance put up by the gallant Bangladeshis was crushed by the second of week of April. General Tikka Khan was boisterous about his achievements and wanted to showcase his success in supressing the revolt. Pakistan Army took eight senior journalists of leading West Pakistani newspapers on a conducted tour to write cover-stories that would say that everything was normal in East Pakistan. Mascarenhas of The Morning News, Karachi, was one of them. He was born in a Goan Roman Catholic family in Belgaum (aka Belagavi) in Karnataka State of India in 1928. He had studied in Karachi where his family lived and was a Pakistani citizen since they had stayed in Pakistan after the partition. On April 14, 1971 the journalists were flown to Dhaka and were entertained with the best of everything. In turn they were expected to furnish a rosy picture of the outcome of “Operation Searchlight” and portray a decent image of the soldiers whose hands were coloured with the blood of Bangladeshis.
Mascarenhas found the streets of Dhaka deserted, shops shattered, homes vacant and eerie silence everywhere he went. In Dhaka University he saw heads of four students rotting in Iqbal Hall. Next day they were flown to the vibrant city of Comilla where he saw only soldiers in the ravaged town. In the circuit hous that evening he heard thuds of rifle butts and screams of numerous men being bludgeoned to death. He was horrified when listening to Pakistani army officers discussing their kills proudly and justifying the sorting out of the unfaithful “bastards”. They revealed a scheme of recasting East Pakistan as a colony of the Urdu speaking majority province. The journalists flew back to Karachi after spending 10 agonising days in atrophied East Pakistan. What Mascarenhas saw and heard in those 10 days had a lasting effect on his psyche and emotions. He was never the same person and went into a terrible state as he was traumatised after witnessing Pakistan Army’s coldblooded carnage. Immediately upon returning to Karachi, he reported to his bosses that he was sick. Except him, the remaining seven journalists filed their reports garnished with engineered pictures of people welcoming Pakistani soldiers with waving national flags. Mascarenhas got upset further by reading their false stories. He knew that the Pakistani military junta wanted to whitewash the truth about the brutalities being committed in East Pakistan. But more agonising for him was that the Pakistani media was becoming an accomplice in this heinous crime against humanity. “I did not know what to do. I was torn between my duty towards humanity and supporting the false narrative of a military dictator,” he told me in 1982.
He could not tell the truth in Pakistan since the media was being censored. Moreover, he could have faced harsh punishment if he dared to say anything against the Pakistani Army. Even his wife and children could have been tortured. After thinking about it for 10 days, one day he saw “the light” and took a decision that changed the course of his life forever. He discussed with his wife Yuone who supported him and a plan was chalked-out. He told his bosses that his sister Ann who stayed in London was critically ill. On May 18, 1971 he left for London and met Harold Evans, the editor of Sunday Times in Thompson House. Evans later wrote about the meeting, “the well-dressed Mascarenhas entered my camp office with profound melancholy.” Evans believed that the Goan Christian was speaking the truth because his younger brother John was posted in the British High Commission in Islamabad who wrote to him about the gruesome acts of Pakistani soldiers in East Pakistan.
Evans agreed to publish the report but wanted to evacuate his wife, daughter, and four sons from Pakistan before that. Mascarenhas sent a pre-decided coded telegram to his wife—”Ann’s Operation successful”. On getting the message Yeone started preparing to leave Pakistan forever. Mascarenhas returned to Pakistan to ensure the smooth departure of his wife and children to Europe. Sunday Times bore all the expenditure of their travel. From Karachi he sent a coded telegram to the Sunday Times, “Export formalities completed. Shipment begins Monday.” He escorted them up to Karachi Airport as he could not fly with them to London due to the restrictions imposed on citizens by the Pakistan government for going abroad for more than once a year. After ensuring the safe arrival of hi family members, Mascarenhas went to Peshawar and from their slipped into Afghanistan on foot. He flew from Kabul and reached London on June 12, 1971 and Evans gave the green signal to publish his article.
On June 13, 1971 the 9,047-word article of Mascarenhas appeared in a double-page centre spread of the Sunday Times under a one word heading: “Genocide”. Evans attached an article under the title, “Stop the Killings”. The emotionally charged article written by Mascarenhas vividly portrayed the true picture of the most cruel genocide of Bangladeshis. It was the only eyewitness account of Pakistani Army’s brutalities and that too being narrated by a Pakistani journalist. It proved to be the game-changer in the history of Bangladesh’s Liberation war. The world was stunned. The Pakistani propaganda apparatus was thoroughly devastated. This single article completely tore-down the screens of silence throughout the capitals of the world. There were spontaneous outcries all over the world. Global media and world leaders could no longer remain mute spectators to the biggest man-made tragedy against humanity. Global public opinion turned in favour of Bangladesh. The Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi told Harold Evans, that Mascarenhas’s article had shocked her so deeply that it set her “on a campaign of personal diplomacy in the European capitals and Moscow to prepare the ground for India’s armed intervention.”
Mascarenhas worked for The Times (London) for 14 years. He received numerous threats to his life as he was labelled as a traitor by the Pakistanis. He was granted Indian citizenship in 1976. His extended family stayed in Belgaum, where Indian Army’s Infantry School Young Officers Wing was located. I was posted as an instructor in YO’s Wing from January 1982 to June 1984. I met him several times during this period. Each time the topic of Pakistan Army’s Genocide in Bangladesh came up to haunt us. Having witnessed similar brutalities myself during the 267 days of Liberation War, we wondered how the war criminals of such heinous genocide could be let off scot-free. I was shocked to read the news of his death in December 1986 at 58 years of age. He was a great soul who stood up for his principles against all odds.
Brig RP Singh, VSM, is a retired Brigadier of the Indian Army. He is a veteran of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, in which he was involved in different capacities from day one till the surrender of the Pakistan Army on December 16, 1971.