Forgetting Anthony Mascarenhas


Frederick Noronha

If the chance for travel comes my way, I’d love to reach Cambodia, Uganda, and even Bangladesh, rather than antiseptic Berlin, Singapore or Stockholm. Once, I found myself at the Dhaka airport, with a few hundred (non-convertible) Taka in my pocket, en route back home, wondering what was to be done.

Then, at the airport bookshop, one ran into a book. It took five seconds to decide to buy it, another 14 hours of the long, frequently-breaking journey to read it, and many years of nostalgia understanding the role the book and its author played in India’s friendly-unfriendly neighbour Bangladesh.

Last week marked the anniversary of the creation of Bangladesh. Those of my generation would remember the event, as children. Blackouts at night, brown-paper masks on home windows, sirens blowing suddenly, and us fearing plane attacks.

There were images too of millions of refugees trekking into India from what was then East Pakistan. It was a time of shortages and Cold War politics. The US Seventh Fleet and the Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty were in the news then.

There was a big debate nationwide over Prime Minister Modi’s claims about having undertaken satyagraha and being jailed for a while in connection with the Bangladesh protests. Was his version of history accurate? Be that as it may, in Goa itself, everyone seems to have forgotten about Neville Anthony Mascarenhas (1928-1986). So, to make amends, permit me to share a slightly updated version of something written some time back, in a blog format. Here goes:

“Mas-ca-ren-has?” queried a curious Chat Ramilo as I showed her the book cover. Given the Philippines’ Spanish colonial heritage, she might have found the name faintly familiar. But, seeing it in Dhaka, Bangladesh, obviously caused the astonishment.

When I saw Anthony Mascarenhas’ book “Bangladesh: A Legacy of Blood” at the Dhaka airport, I didn’t think twice before picking it up.

Unexpectedly, though, it didn’t end up in my large collection of unread books. You can blame that on the topic, on how little is known about it in Goa itself, or on the style in which the book is written. Or all three.

Mascarenhas was a journalist of Goan origin. In 1971, like many other Karachi Goans, he had been brought up and was based in what was then British India. He studied probably in Belgaum or Bombay or Karachi, though his son Allan Mascarenhas wasn’t quite sure. He was married in Bombay and went to Karachi after Partition. As it happened, he went on a tour of East Pakistan with the Pakistani military and was shocked by what was going in that distant part of the country.

In a matter of weeks, he whisked off his family to the UK, wrote for some major papers there, and told the world the story of what was going on in then East Pakistan. ‘Genocide in Pakistan’ was the title of his story. By some accounts he was “the” journalist who broke the story about the genocide in East Pakistan. On June 13, 1971, The Sunday Times of London carried a screaming eight-column front-paged article with a one-word all-caps headline: GENOCIDE.

In 2011, BBC called it “The article that changed history”.

There are differing perspectives of how many people were killed in the civil war that led to the breakup of Pakistan and the formation of Bangladesh.

There was a slaughter of East Pakistani intellectuals just before the Pakistani army moved out of that country.

This book moves ahead of that story though. It is about how, after the break-up from Pakistan, the Bangladeshis ruined things for themselves. It promises to reveal issues like who killed Mujib who was responsible for the jail killings, and how General Zia was assassinated.

It is a shocking story of how Bangladesh went in for so many coups in such a short period, the elected rulers ruined things and betrayed aspirations, and how military men went in for coup after coup.

This book (Hodder and Stoughton, UKP 4.95 net in the UK, ISBN 0-340-39420-X, pp 186, first published in 1986) is a follow-up to his ‘The Rape of Bangladesh’, which I’m still waiting to read.

Says the cover: “Anthony Mascarenhas, a veteran journalist, has been closely associated with Bangladesh from the start of its freedom struggle. In 1971, he left Pakistan to expose in The Sunday Times the atrocities committed by the Pakistani army in the province which is now Bangladesh. That article, and his subsequent book, The Rape of Bangladesh, created a worldwide sensation. In 1972 he won Granada’s Gerald Barry Award, and the International Publishing company’s Special Award for reporting the genocide in Bangladesh. After serving 14 years on The Sunday Times, he is now a freelance writer.” That was then.

Mascarenhas’ work about Bangladesh is linked to quite a few pages in cyberspace.

Mascarenhas writes in his preface to his book: “This is a true story; in many ways a textbook of Third World disenchantment. On December 16, 1971, the state of Bangladesh (population 70,000,000) was born at the end of a nine-month liberation struggle in which more than a million Bengalis of erstwhile East Pakistan died at the hands of the Pakistan army. But one of the 20th century’s great man-made disasters is also among the greatest of its human triumphs in terms of a people’s will for self-determination.”

This is how the book starts, in the first chapter titled ‘Mujib and the Majors’: “Not one of the hundred or so guests at the Dhaka Golf Club on the evening of 12 August 1975, is ever likely to forget the third wedding anniversary party given by the Acting Commandant of the Bengal Lancers, Major Farook Rahman, and his lovely young wife Farida.”

Mascarenhas goes to tell the story with amazing detail, and an almost I-was-there tone.

One story, in particular, is about how they gambled together with three Indonesian journalists. Mujib changed their luck from continually losing, after asking for a new pack of cards, on the same trip. 

More significantly, Mascarenhas tells the story that only tangentially deals with a people who “had been betrayed by the corrupt, small-minded and power-hungry men who had been swept into office by the tidal wave of the freedom movement. As disillusionment and discontent developed, so did violence.  Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Founding Father of Bangladesh, was murdered by a group of angry young Majors. Khandaker Moshtaque, who succeeded Mujib as President, initiated the ‘Jail Killings’ and became a by-word for treachery.  General Zia, the next leader, became the target of twenty mutinies and coup attempts.  The twenty-first killed him.  This book is the unvarnished, sad history of the first ten years of Bangladesh and a textbook of Third World disenchantment.”

And, we’re told: “It is based on my close personal knowledge of the main protagonists;… The dialogue, whenever used, is a faithful reproduction of the words which my informants said they actually used during the events in which they were involved.”

There’s fascinating detail here. One learns a great deal about the plotters, the people, the killers, and the killed.

But, as I finished the last pages of this book, a thought struck me: we know so much about what happened. We know very little about why it happened.

This is not intended to question Mascarenhas’ impressive work. He has indeed done a fascinating job in narrating history. So, with a tinge of pride, I passed on a hurried history-in-a-capsule account to Chat Ramilo, telling her about the Portuguese colonial link, Goan migration, Karachi, and the like in a few hurried sentences. That was in May 2006.

Last week, while Goa forgot Mascarenhas, the media recalled his role. Mark Tully wrote in “Then a bombshell hit the Pakistan army’s public relations effort, a bombshell the army never recovered from. It was an extensive eyewitness expose of the brutality of the Pakistan army’s crackdown. The report was written by Anthony Mascarenhas, a Karachi journalist…”

So as we struggle to understand tiny Goa’s role in world history, let us not overlook those who opted for the road less taken.  And made the difference.