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How the AIR commentaries shaped public opinion during the Bangladesh War of Independence

The late former director general UL Baruah’s long-forgotten All India Radio despatches, written 50 years ago, reappears in a new book, 'A Bangladesh War Commentary: 1971 Radio Dispatches: Vol 1'

Written by Syed Akbaruddin |
Updated: August 29, 2021 9:24:22 am
Sunday eye, eye 2021A Bangladesh War Commentary: 1971 Radio Dispatches: Volume 1; By UL Baruah; Indian Council of World Affairs; Macmillan Education; 148 pages; Rs 1,650

Visualising journalism as a vocation in India today brings forth images of newspapers, magazines, television, and now, the omniscient social media and digital apps. Rarely does radio figure in that list, except as an afterthought. We live in times when capsules of news within a sequence of musical records form the staple of most radio broadcasts. A lack of awareness that radio journalism, too, once thrived may well be forgiven.

The art of “writing for the ear” is different. It requires skills of a higher order than the investigative and literary abilities of a good journalist. Listeners seldom give radio their undivided attention. Building a narrative, when words are evanescent and those who utter them invisible, is no simple matter. When narratives are in competition as was in South Asia in 1971, the challenge becomes stiffer. Reading UL Baruah’s A Bangladesh War Commentary brought back childhood memories of when All India Radio (AIR) bulletins were the only source of “breaking news” for ordinary Indians. In hindsight, such AIR commentaries can be termed as a form of “public diplomacy” as they were competing for mind space and seeking to mould national opinion in India and beyond. In the “technology-deficient” environment of India of the early-1970s, AIR helped Indians make sense of “current events” and shaped incipient world views of many, like me.

Across terrains, war despatches are popular. The narratives of World War II about the heroics of the Allied Forces were crucial to the golden age of radio in the West. Baruah, who was a broadcaster during World War II before going on to become the director general of AIR towards the end of his career, appears to have understood that well. The manuscripts of his radio despatches of 1971, which were retrieved from oblivion through the assiduous efforts of his journalist son, Amit Baruah, are in the same vein. The news stories are told in a conversational way that ordinary people can easily comprehend. The subject matter reflects an archetypal Indian viewpoint.

Writing of the emergence of Bangladesh, Baruah puts it pithily, “The house that Jinnah built has collapsed. Political philosophers, who stressed the subjective element in the making of a nation, have been proved wrong… Appeals in the name of Islam and Pakistani ideology ceased to have any meaning for the Bengalis.”

Baruah follows an interesting approach. He consistently draws from Pakistani sources to embellish his commentaries while pointing out the fault lines in their society. Of particular interest is his depiction of the story relating to the until-then-favoured “establishment” journalist Anthony Mascarenhas, covering the events in East Pakistan for the Karachi newspaper, The Morning News. It was Mascarenhas who, in an article in Sunday Times on June 13, 1971, unveiled the genocidal intentions of the regime, told to him repeatedly by Pakistani officers. The horrific nature of the details shared by Mascarenhas and related by Baruah included the willingness to kill two million people, elimination of the intelligentsia, resettlement of non-Bengalis and redistribution of Hindu property. Baruah also generously uses Western correspondents’ assessments of the situation in both wings of Pakistan. Perhaps, this was to appeal to the audiences in Pakistan, as his commentaries were also broadcast in Punjabi, Pashto, Sindhi and Urdu as part of AIR’s outreach efforts.

The surge of social media now means the medium of messaging has changed. Internet has made radio broadcasters audio-content creators in a multi-platform world. All this is reinvigorating the notion of “writing for the ear”. The reappearance of Baruah’s long-forgotten radio despatches, written 50 years ago, takes us back to what may seem as a quaint era, when measurement of audio success was not tracked by electronic audience measurement but by working for a larger common cause. It is a pity that only the manuscripts survive and the audio broadcasts are no longer available in the AIR archives. They would have made for a compelling auditory companion volume. After all, the attractiveness of radio is in the tone, pace and manner of delivery. Alas, that part of Baruah’s magic, and our heritage, seems lost forever!

(The writer, a former diplomat, is dean, Kautilya School of Public Policy, Hyderabad)

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