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Accelerated Media and the 1971 Civil War in Bangladesh

Author(s): Naeem Mohaiemen

Source: Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 43, No. 4 (Jan. 26 - Feb. 1, 2008), pp. 36-40
Published by: Economic and Political Weekly
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Accelerated Media and the
world imagination. Already incensed by the
Vietnam war, the global peace movement
was able to mobilise in support of this new
1971 Civil War in Bangladesh cause. Bill Moyers and his men led a media-
savvy blockade of us shipments to Pakistan.
Joan Baez andi George Harrison both had
number one singles titled "Bangla Desh".
Then, as now, a us president continued
Itwas technological
at transforma-
the time
to support a corrupt Pakistani military re-

civil tion
war is altering the way media gime because of strategic considerations.
in Bang
covers conflict zones facing civil Like Rumsfeld, Kissinger became increas-
television began
war, ethnic warfare or genocide. Reporters ingly isolated, escalating into Rasputin-
"rules" of
have always played a pivotal conflic
role in shap- like secrecy and paranoia. And like
- a ing the outcomes of major conflicts, reach- Howard Dean, (pre-Chappaquidick)
complex situa presi-
dential hopeful Ted Kennedy used the
ing back to the Congo crisis of the 1800s causes
multiple a
and beyond. The 1971 genocide in Bangla- genocide as a tactical weapon against
to colonial structures was
desh was a key marker in this media influ- Nixon. Kennedy seized on the Bengal crisis
flattened into a "good versus ence. Although the technology of media as the latest evidence of the Nixonian
evil" narrative. The civil war was changing rapidly through the 1950s tradition of supporting non-democratic,
was a marker of the trend in tv and 1960s, the 1971 conflict ushered in a ruthless military regimes. In Europe,
full spectrum use of media technology. Andre Malraux threatened to parachute into
coverage of conflict zones, the Pakistan to fight with the Bengali guerrilla
first victim being the news cycle The Made for TV War army. From London's Trafalgar Square
- the focus is always on the "hot to the Paris Arondissements, protesters
Significant to a discussion of race and
mounted street theatre and loud protests.
technology, the genocide was played out on
news" which becomes "cold" very
western television sets. The victims and The Nixon White House kept up a spirited
quickly, shifting the spotlight on defence, but the mediagenic protesters had
protagonists were often absent as story-
to the next "hot spot". tellers. The British Broadcasting Corpo-
the upper hand. A bill was pushed through
the Senate banning us arms sales to Paki-
ration (bbc) and the Columbia Broadcasting
System (cbs) camera persons were in the stan. The us Seventh Fleet sailed into the
Bay of Bengal and faced an equally deter-
region, capturing scenes of the tragedy. Tel-
evision had already embraced a primary mined Russian fleet. The world was, as in
Cuba, on the brink of nuclear confron-
role in war reportage in Vietnam. With cbs
tation over a tiny country. Pakistani postu- *
broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite inside
war zones, and nightly news stories of ring
gi at the un continued, while a bored
ambassador George Bush looked on. But all
death tolls, this was the first television war.
this diplomatic sound and fury could not
But even within that tableau, the iconic sto-
ries of Vietnam were broken in print: the
stop the inevitable birth of a free republic.
The world saw in the defeat of Pakistan a
My Lai massacre, the battle of Dien Bien
direct humiliation of the us, and a vindica-
Phu, the Napalm burnt girl, the burning
monk, and the point-blank execution. tion of Vietnam-era protest politics.
* When the Bangladesh civil war began,
'Missionary Complex'
television cameras pushed into refugee
camps, documentary film-makers follo- If you can write a nation's stories, you needn't
worry about who makes its laws.
wed senator Edward Kennedy on his fact-
- George Gerbner1
finding mission, guerilla activists pulled
George Washington Williams, a freed
media stunts targeting the 9 o'clock news,
American slave, was the first investigator
and George Harrison's Concert for Bangla-
desh became the blueprint for future
to expose king Leopold's Congo misrule.
Williams' Open Letter was the first
mega-events like Live Aid. Harrison's
comprehensive, documented charge that
Concert was not the only outpouring of
Naeem Mohaiemen (naeem.Tnohaiemen@gmail. the Belgian colonial regime was engaged
support for besieged Bengalis. The conflict,
com) is an artist based in Dhaka and New York,
in wholesale slavery. His charges included
with its images of random massacre, and
working in video and archives.
shadows of ethnic cleansing, captured
torture, forced slavery, cruelty, kidnapping

36 January 26, 2008 Economic & Political weekly

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- -

and for Rich

for "Y
are a
tail. It buys
was of
us British
in th
when newsp
ran paign,
the w
to L
were In
white an
dale" of pre
found is
Williams co
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it secr
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A Crusad
decade af
a ten
employee of
ing the leav
mechanics c
quiet came
burst int
every w
wrote about the amo
massive affair based on secret
the memos. Anderson publicly blasted Nixon Si
Congo of
the over his handling of the Bangladesh
and Szulc
crisis: "Now you don't like to say (N
exported the presi-

the lied, but there is no
Bel word for it.
one ton
for The President lied. It was an outrageous lie.
on It was Nixo
conclusion deliberate and it was in violationth of
the us constitution".6
king Leopold
thousan Yo
Through this very public battle between
to Nixon and the Fourth Estate, we saw the
extract r
nation, alre
emergence of the whi
crusading American jour-
world that and hero figure. There were many
engagedIndian journalists covering
in the same story,
followedof whom received the same attention.
On the
discovery, Pakistani side, reporter Anthony
was Mascarenhas
as if, was the first person to in
began nounce
to the Dece
discovery of ethnic cleansing.
the The word "genocide" was first in print
Jews ha in In
his front-page article
quarters peri of
for the London t
Morel Sunday
connectwas Times. Speaking of how Asian a
from journalists
William were frozen out of the inner cir-

thy of cles,
cember Mascarenhas commented: "I had been
white 6
too long a journalist not to know that a
debunked. M
planned 'outsider' such as and
I was, even with t
Butthe biggest story
newspapers. acco in the world, could be
he quitindefinitely
Anderso in knocking on the doors of19
Henry Street."7 In spite
The of his authoritative K

editingrole, and personal

the connection to the con-
flict, Mascarenhas was soon eclipsed in theK
his own nam
for nation
larger narrative of 1971. Instead, it
identity anwas
every half
went Jack Anderson,
not being along with
to peace activists w
ments such
of as Bill Moyer who emerged
in as the
tw f

Economic & Political weekly January 26, 2008 37

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"pre-technology" Somali mob, using the lynchinto this, taking tangible differences and o
mob tools of the American south, came as apushing them to unintentional caricature: T
were rendered
shock to the American body politic. s
In West Pakistan, nature has fostered energetic,
crisis of
These simplifying their
structures were used aggressive people - hardy hill men and tribal ow
to paint an easy-to- digest narrative of the farmers who have constantly to strive for a live-
1971 conflict and mobilise international lihood in relatively harsh conditions. They are
Oh those a world apart from the gentle, dignified Benga-
support for the victims. Lost in this pro-
are the envious lis who are accustomed to the easy abundance
cess were the complexities of the struggle, of their delta homeland in the east.12
Tutsis, not to me
especially the conflicting political strands
Consider how m
within the Bengali liberation movement.
cultures about Salman Rushdie replayed these con- w
cently engaged
The movement for greater structs in his novel Shame, representing
autonomy, as it i
knew little,
erupted in Pakistan but
in the 1960s, had twothe Pakistani attitude towards Bengalis
clear, despairing,
as, "Savages, breeding endlessly, jungle-
important aspects. First, there was the
- Jean Seaton
strongly class antagonistic workers vs
bunnies good for nothing but growing jute
As television has come to dominate news re- and rice, knifing each other, cultivating
business overtone of the struggle. Second,
there was the potential for the movement
porting, this hyper visual media has changed traitors in their paddies." And later, "... the
the rules of conflict journalism. Complex situ-to become a pan-Pakistan movement, asappalling notion of surrendering the
ations, with multiple causes, linkages to co-the West Pakistani students and unions government to a party of swamp aboriines,
lonial structures and hazy outcomes arewere equally dissatisfied with the newly
little dark men with their unpronouncea-
ble language of distorted vowels and
industrialising economy. These trajectories
flattened to "good vs evil" narratives, or as
David Keen describes it, "Who's it Between?"9were challenged by the rise of the Awamislurred consonants; perhaps not foreig-
There is a desire to reduce all conflicts be-League (al) as the key political movement
ners exactly, but aliens without a doubt".13
in East Pakistan. The al was led by a newly All the hosannas about "gentle" people
tween ethnic groups to "ancient barba-
rism", or the infamous "from time imme- came in spite of a long history of revolu-
powerful Bengali middle class and business
morial" explanation for the Bosnian con- elite. This leadership considered the Marx-tionary movements in Bengal. This includ-
ist rhetoric of the students and unions to
flict. This is explained by a theory of pri- ed the 1930 Chittagong armory raid (in-
mordialism, as reflected in British cover-be a direct threat to their own power. spired by the Dublin Easter Uprising),
age of the Bosnian conflict: "They were When the 1971 civil war broke out, these which was one of the first rejections of the
tensions manifested themselves overtly, es-
driven by that atavistic fury that goes back Congress Party's non-violent movement
pecially as the Bengali guerilla army set up against British rule. An even more serious
to the times when human beings moved in
packs and ate raw meat".10 headquarters in India. The Indian govern- challenge to Gandhian non-violence came
This theory of primordialism plays outment had two concerns as they actively as- from guerilla leader Subhas Bose and his
sisted in setting up the rebel command in anti-British Indian National Army. In fact,
strongly in media coverage of African con-
exile. First, there was the opportunity, to the technology-rejecting programme :of
flicts, infected by a streak of what we can
call "afro -pessimism" - where Africa is
split up Pakistan, reducing the military and Gandhi offered comfort to the British, while
always a savage land that descends to bes-strategic might of its closest rival besides Bose, who believed in fighting the British
tiality at the slightest provocation, with noChina. Second, there was a focus on the with modern weapons, was a far more un-
agency assigned to its colonial history.
militantly leftist tendencies within the Ben- settling sight. Remarking on the allure of
gali movement, with the intention of derail- Gandhi, Orwell said: "The things that one
African political cliques also play into this,
ing these strands and preventing linkages
because a theory of prime bestiality allows associated with him - home-spun cloth,
them to escape censure and legal action.
with the underground Maoist party (the 'soul forces' and vegetarianism - were un-
The Rwandan conflict is a recent exampleNaxalites) in India. Both the Indian admin- appealing, and his medievalist programme
istration, and the al leadership actively was obviously not viable in a backward,
where a complex political process laid the
groundwork for ethnic cleansing. But all
persecuted the leftists within the Bengali starving, over-populated country".14
guerilla army. These unresolved tensions
this was deleted in favour of the story of During the anti-British movement, a
"ancient hatred" between Tutus and Hutsis. exploded after independence, when the segment of the Bengali intelligentsia
Much was also made of the use of machetes new Bangladesh government engaged in a rejected the back-to-nature and non-vio-
to accomplish the genocide, playing into
"dirty war" against leftist parties. lence programme of Gandhi. They pre-
the notion of a pre-technology people: "Al- ferred to arm themselves with western
though the killing was low tech - performed of Gentle Bengalis weapons and carry out militant struggle.
But in the media treatment of 1971, all
largely by machete - it was carried out at But the Bengalis in the 1971 conflict were
these complexities were erased. In its portrayed as helpless victims with no re-
dazzling speed: of an original population of
place, a more palatable story of simple, course to modern weaponry. The iconic
about seven and a half million, at least eight
hundred thousand people were killed in justgentle Bengali people, persecuted by more image in the western media was of a Bengali
a hundred days".11 This is precisely why the militant and more Islamic villager defending his mud shack with
killing of well-armed gis at the hands of Pakistan.
a Anthony Masceranhas played bamboo sticks, while on the other side the

3° January 26, 2008 Economic & Political weekly

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Pakistani army came armed with modern

of the anti-Vietnam war movement. They
In an image-driven era, the protesters
weapons. Although the Bengalis werehowever, that the mainstream
were highly aware of their own visual im-
clearly outgunned by a wet-armed
had become blase to anti-war pro-
pact. Almost all the activists of feb were
stani army, the portrait ^dt "gentle,
tests. In this environment, a group of white.
rice- ac- Bengali activists were on the side-
eating people" obscures darker complexi- lines, partially due to the dominance of
tivists called Friends of East Bengal (feb)
ties. Later, when they came to power, Ben-
hit on white activists, and also out of fear of re-
the idea of creating events or "street
galis showed the same penchant for using to grab the television cameras.
prisals against their families in Pakistan.
Led by a media-savvy Bill Moyer, feb The
brute force for cruelty and domination. de- one exception seemed to be Sultana
Krippendorf, who was married to an
cided to mount blockades of ships carry-
For the purposes of a television-friendly
story, the narrative structure had to be American and therefore presumably had
us arms to Pakistan, using little boats
down to striking visual images. The and canoes.
photo some immunity. Richard Taylor was the
of "Like civil rights sit-ins, it was
a half-naked Bengali woman being dramatic,
carried direct and non-violent".16 unofficial biographer of the blockade
by her husband, and the crippled refugee
Starting in July 1971, this team began a
movement, and in his descriptions we see
came campaign of tracking down a
hobbling through mud towards India high awareness of race-coded visual
impact. In his text, he almost seemed at
Pakistani ships Padma, AlAhmadi, Al Has-
to represent the Bengali masses. Increasing-
ly lighter camera technology made it pains to delineate the "all-American"
and Rangamati. As each of these ships
to go to remote zones to capture these makeup of the participants. The lack of
try to dock at Philadelphia or Balti-
more, the
ages. Film-maker Lear Levin was able to take feb would head out to the faces
dock of colour in the movement went un-
a full camera crew to follow a Bengali their flotilla of small boats to block
sing- remarked. In Taylor's iconography Alex
ing troupe that was raising funds entry.
for the Cox
The focus was always the media - was a "red haired Texan", Jack
guerilla army.15 This new technologyno Patterson a "tall, slim, mustached, 32 year-
trip was taken without first contacting
the capture of verite moments, which radio and newspapers and ensuring
old", and Wayne Lauser was "tall, with a
have been unthinkable a few years timely arrival. The results werehead
theirago. al- band", On the other side, patrolman
ways measured by whether newspaper Walter
Levin's images of refugee camps, starving re- Roberts, who showed sympathy to
children and valiant Bengali freedomports the demonstrators, was described as "friend-
carried photos, and more importantly,
whether the tv news carried film of ly,
ers were tailor-made for the new television theopen face, with hazel eyes and close
era. These images inspired Americans event. to cropped blond hair".
In this period, Bill Moyer emerged
with a
carry out a paternalistic "crusade" on behalfrelentless focus on tv news, often
Although there were few Bengalis in
ofthe Bengali movement. It was also visible positions within the movement,
neces-actions until reporters arrived.
they were fetishised as "foreign objects"
As the action grew in scale and spread
sary to have the victims be a pre-technology
out across
people. The Bengali peasant, shirtless and weeks, a cat and mouse game by the media. Monayem éhowdhury, the
starving to death, was a comforting ensued Bengali male in the group was inevitably
between the shipping lines and pro-
image in
the west. The middle class, guerilla fight- described as "short, soft-spoken, Gandhi-
Increasingly the ships would change
er, using Chinese bombs to attack inter- and not arrive. Soon, the like" and Sultana Krippendorf was in
national hotels in occupied Dhaka was "flowing sari, petite figure, long black
getting orders not to reveal docking
a less
comforting image. hair, lovely dark skin, and large brown
information. A Philadelphia Maritime Ex-
eyes"- elsewhere she was a "lovely wom-
change officer confessed to one of the activ-
Shock Value and Media Stunts ists: "We've been instructed not to make
an with foreign accent". Television chan-
A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths nels, newly confident and self-aware, ac-
public any information on ships tc; Pakistan.
is a statistic.
We're not supposed to put them on the tively
big picked up on these visual cues. Be-
- Joseph Stalin
cause tv carried nightly broadcasts of the
board or to list them in the Journal of Com-
merce." The pursuit of the ships became blockade
By 1970, a proliferation of tv channels, the action and its "colourful" pro-
competing broadcasts and industry news item itself. Each time the blockade
tagonists, newspapers also followed,
afraid of being left behind by the newer
would show up at a dock and not find the
pressure led to the acute "9 o'clock syn-
media. The power dynamic had shifted -
ship, the news media would be told the
drome". This was the pursuit of news that
was calibrated to appeal to a mass audi- television was where the action was, and
ships were afraid to dock. In these matters,
ence tuning in for event viewing - that is protesters showed themselves very the protesters now calibrated their activi-
the 9 0' clock news. In order to appealadept
to ties based on which images were ideal for
at managing the media. The chang-
moving film. Reflecting the new reality,
ing dynamic of direct action was reflected
an increasingly mechanised news gather-
Bill Moyer told a planning meeting:
in one confrontation: "One reporter angrily
ing process, it was necessary to pursue
shock value and media stunts. confronted Bill Moyer: You got us here on Ia can talk every night for one hundred years
wild goose chase. The boat's not here.' Billto audiences of one hundred people, and still
Another development of this time was
not reach nearly as many people as I get on
the media's need for stunts or "events" which
smiled: 'I guess you don't know a successful
cbs evening news just one time. I can pass
would be worthy of inclusion in headline blockade when you see one. The ship is out hundreds of thousands of leaflets and
afraid to come in. We're claiming success
news. Many American activists had taken still not reach anything like the audience
and we're going to continue.'"
on the Bengali cause as the logical successor Walter Cronkite reaches every night.

Economic & Political weekly January 26, 2008 39

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PERSPECTIVE =z=====r======r===rir=^^

It was the full realisation of the conflicts involving the developing world as crusaders for truth, at other times they
television war. to stay on western television screens. are angels of mercy.
In the rush to move on to the next war Second, new media necessitates flat-
Fast Media and 'Hot News' Cycles
zone, the media missed most of the major tened narratives, which lead to obscured
developments inside Bangladesh between complexities and cartoonish good vs evil
As technology brings breath-taking chang-
1971 and 1979, all of which can help explain sides. This need is combined with a theory
es to news media, the two largest impacts
are in portability of media tools and
the the
current situation. Out of media sight, of primordial behaviour among develop-
Bangladesh's first years were plagued by all ing nations. Following this line, conflicts
compression of the news cycle. One reporter
can have a full news production kit, the unresolved tensions of the 1971 civil war are the natural result of savagery lurking
ding video camera, editing laptop and manifesting
satel- themselves through instability, below the surface, and tensions that go
lite phone in one briefcase. As tools get palace intrigue and death. Although back to the "beginning of time".
smaller and faster, the cycle of reporters
news like Jack Anderson made their Third, the proliferation of visual news
by investigating Kissinger's double- has led to an overemphasis on the use of
-gathering is getting faster. Going back
the Congo genocide, the gap between the in 1971, by 1975 no western media shocking statistics to jolt the viewer. This
ofteninterested in pursuing the rumours can often lead to a race to inflate death
news-gathering and broadcast was seemed
months. George Washington Williams' the cia station chief in Dhaka had, at the tolls and casualty rates, in order to gain
let-known about the coup in advance. The space on tv screens. This is coupled with
letter to king Leopold, subsequent open
ter to the us president, publication as a years set a familiar pattern of inst- the need for events and media stunts to
ability and turbulence. None of this seemed gain attention. The inevitable result is that
pamphlet, citation in the New York Herald,
translation in the French press and of much interest to any media anywhere. conflicts without a media-friendly visual
tual rebuttal - each of these milestones The hot zone had moved elsewhere. image are neglected by the world stage.
occurred with gaps of several months. Bet- Today the genocide and eventual libera- Finally, accelerated media news cycle
ween Williams' initial report, and E D Morel's tion of Bangladesh is often rewritten in means that "hot news" becomes cold very
next investigation, there is a gap of ten years. media reports as the "Third India-Pakistan quickly. Conflicts that last for longer period
In totality the media coverage of the Congo war". What was a conflict between the are simply left behind by the news cycle.
crisis extended over many decades. Bengalis of East Pakistan and West PakistanAccelerated development of the related
Today there \s incredible velocity in media is now a footnote in the story of "enduring has come at a high price.
Highly evolved technologies have led to
mechanisms. The speed of media change enmity over Kashmir". Over the last three
dehumanisation of the news cycle. It is
can be shown through a simple comparison decades, the Kashmir conflict has mounted
crucial to find ways to use advanced tech-
between two years. In 1994, when an earth- steadily, sending India and Pakistan to the
quake hit Los Angeles, it took 40 minutes for brink of nuclear war. Both sides now find
nologies in media work without losing our
original humanity and complexity.
the news to reach president Clinton, via de- it strategic to describe the 1971 war as a di-
partment of housing and urban developmentrect conflict, deleting the Bengalis from the
secretary Henry Cisneros who was sitting in equation. There is a "since time immemorial"

cbs television studios. In contrast, a year subplot, but the Bengalis themselves do not 1 George Gerbner, appearing on Bill Moyers'
Journal: TV or not TV, April 23, 1979.
later, when the Kobe earthquake happened, have space within this narrative. 2 Quoted in Adam Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost,
university students - the earliest users with Mariner Books, 1998, p 111.
Conclusions 3 Hoschchild, p 177.
access to internet networks - started spread-
4 Vinod Gupta, Anderson Papers: A Study of Nixon's
ing word of the earthquake before the trem- The Bangladesh gçnocide is both repre-
Blackmail of India, ISSD Publications, 1972.

ors had even faded. "The ground was still sentative and atypical of media-led 5glo-
Memo to assistant secretary of defence (December
3, 1971), quoted by Gupta, p 97.
shaking when university students began balised conflicts. It is representative be-
6 Anderson, speaking to Inland Daily Press Associa-
tion Convention, February 29, 1972, quoted by
firing up their computers to spread word cause many of the issues regarding elimi-
Gupta, p 44.
of the disaster".17 nation of complexity, racial coding, news
7 Mascarenhas, p iv.
As speedy media takes over, the first cycle and the narrator played out8 Jean
in a Seaton, The New Ethnic Wars and the
Media', The Media of Conflict, Tim Allen and Jean
victim is the news cycle. In conflict zones, fashion similar to other conflicts. It is atypi-
Seaton (eds), Zed Books, 1999.
9 David Keen, 'Who's It Between? Ethnic War and
the focus is now always on "hot news". To- cal because certain factors converged to
Rational Violence', The Media of Conflict, Tim Allen
day a conflict in Sudan can only hold at- make electronic media the deciding factor
and Jean Seaton (eds), Zed Books, 1999.

tention for a few months before the press in the mobilisation of world attention 10
this April 25, 1998.
11 Philip Gourevitch, We Wish To Inform You That
is sent on the next hot spot. This pattern of conflict. Several key trends emergedTomorrow
in We Will Be Killed With Our Families,
Picador, 1998.
rapid media exhaustion seems to have al- coverage of the Bangladesh civil war that
12 Mascarenhas, p 10.
ready been established in 1971. It has oftenwere seen in other conflict zones as well.
13 Salman Rushdie, Shame, Jonathan Cape, 1983, P 195.
remarked that the Indians intervened in 14 George Orwell, Reflections On Gandhi, A Collection
First, the ubiquitous role of the narrator,
of Essays, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1953, p 172.
December 1971 because they correctly cal- especially a white journalist or protagonist.
15 Documented by Catherine and Tareque Masud,
culated that waiting any longer wouldIn various conflicts, they play the decisive Song of Freedom.

cause the world media to move on. Nine 16 Richard Taylor, Blockade, Orbis Books, p 7.
role of storytelling and building the defining 17 John M Moran, 'Internet Becomes Quake-Net',
months seems to be the optimal time for history. In many cases, they are fashioned
Hartford Courant (January 20, 1995), Ai.

40 January 26, 2008 Economic & Political weekly

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