The triumvirate of the Diplomat, the Journalist and the Artist | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, December 17, 2016 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, December 17, 2016

The triumvirate of the Diplomat, the Journalist and the Artist

The power of the media during Bangladesh's Liberation struggle

Diplomacy, journalism and artistry are three powerful, yet sometimes confrontational tools in the world of international relations. With the rise of the Syrian crisis in Aleppo, we observe the severe distrust between international diplomats and journalists, while we observe celebrated artists voice their dissent over the hypocritical nature of the two former professions. Whether this is mere ideological hostility or the truth, it is not for me to decide. However, what is certain is this: the collective efforts of an American diplomat, a British-Pakistani journalist and a group of renowned artists fundamentally reshaped the course of Bangladesh's struggle for freedom on the international scene. 

The Blood Telegram was by far the strongest formal resistance towards the American policy of supporting the Yahya Khan regime against the Bengalis. In a strongly worded cable sent to the US Secretary of State on 6th April, 1971, erstwhile US Consul General to Dhaka, Archer Blood, expressed his office's opposition towards Nixon's policy concerning Bangladesh. President Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger directed military and diplomatic support towards the Pakistani military establishment as part of their larger Cold War politics. In his telegram, Blood stated that 'Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities. Our government has failed to take forceful measures to protect its citizens while at the same time bending over backwards to placate the West Pakistan dominated government and to lessen any deservedly negative international public relations impact against them.' The cable ended with the powerful statement 'We, as professional civil servants, express our dissent with current policy and fervently hope that our true and lasting interests here can be defined and our policies redirected'. Signed by 20 members of the Diplomatic staff, the Blood Telegram, as it later came to be known, was seen as the most vocal expression of dissent in the history of the US Foreign Service. This motivated protests and outspoken condemnations from American intellectuals including Senator Ted Kennedy, who subsequently led a global struggle on behalf of the Bengalis. Blood was recalled soon after his telegram reached the White House, nevertheless his message created the environment for the Bangladeshi movement to garner international support. Nixon and President Yahya Khan were pressured by the UN and the mass global population aware of the situation, to bring an end to the genocide. Nixon and Kissinger were as a result heavily criticised by the domestic media who cited Blood's telegram as representative of the common belief of apprehension concerning the White House's policy towards Bangladesh.

Journalists pointed out the severity of the genocide and mass emigration taking place from Bangladesh, whilst criticising the world's lack of response to the humanitarian crisis. In what became the most influential piece pertaining to the war, journalist Anthony Mascarenhas' article titled 'Genocide' was published on the front page of the Sunday Times on June 13, 1971. Mascarenhas pointed out that according to a senior Pakistani official, the Yahya regime was 'determined to cleanse East Pakistan once and for all of the threat of secession, even if it means killing of two million people and ruling the province as a colony for 30 years.' In exposing the scale of the brutality undertaken by the Hanadar Bahini, Mascarenhas' article helped to turn world opinion against Pakistan. The Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi credited Mascarenhas' piece as being the persuader for her 'to prepare the ground for India's armed intervention'. In response to Mascarenhas' article, celebrated guitarist George Harrison and sitar maestro Ravi Shankar organised the 'Concert for Bangladesh' on August 1, 1971, in New York. Harrison and Shankar's initiative reverberated onto increasing protests around the world against the actions of the Yahya regime, and wholehearted support for the Bengali people.

From a larger picture, Mascarenhas' Pakistani descent made his article even more powerful to the world. It showcased the critical point that it was not the Pakistani people, rather its military and political leadership, which was to blame for the ongoing crisis. He pointed out the systematic genocide of minority groups such as Hindus, the mass graves in East Pakistan's villages and the open admittance of genocide by the Pakistani military. It thus became a symbolic voice of the media's opposition to Yahya Khan's policies and consequently created the basis for the international community's final push to tackle Pakistan's policies. 

August 1, 1971, saw former Beatles lead guitarist George Harrison and Indian sitar maestro Ravi Shankar organise the famous 'Concert for Bangladesh'. A star studded lineup comprising the likes of Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ali Akbar Khan and others, in resemblance with the efforts of Senator Ted Kennedy, gained traction in the USA and amongst the international media. Billboard, the American entertainment brand, described the performances of the artists as the best ever in their careers, not simply because of the songs, rather because of what their performances represented. Funds were raised for the Bangladeshi refugees, along with organisations such as UNICEF providing tangible support to the relief programme. It set the precedence for humanitarian aid projects in the future, and the subsequent rise of international campaigns in favour of Bangladesh's struggle for freedom. Harrison's song 'Bangla Desh' became an iconic statement of social mobilisation and awareness in favour of Bangladesh. Billboard described it as 'a musical appeal to help our fellow man' that 'should find immediate and heavy chart action'. It went beyond merely being number 1 in the charts. Rather it became a summarising call for the world to intervene and assist the Bangladeshis who were suffering the wrath of genocide. It pivoted Congressional leadership to openly oppose President Nixon's pro-Pakistani policies. And it surely left a big place for Harrison in the hearts and minds of the Bengali people. 

The above events unitedly represent the wills, wishes, passion and altruism of diplomats, journalists and artists in supporting the humanitarian aspect of Bangladesh's bloody war of independence. The 1970s represented a revolution in the world of the media, both from a journalistic and public opinion point of view. Blood, Mascarenhas and Harrison used this new phenomenon to support the Bengali resistance through the symbolic power of activism. As Bangladesh celebrates our 45th year, we owe them our gratitude and everlasting appreciation. They are truly the friends of Bangladesh. 

The writer is an undergraduate student of Economics and International Relations, The University of Toronto 

Email: aftab.ahmed@mail.utoronto.ca

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