Book review | All India Radio and the birth of a nation
It seems unimaginable now with the cacophony of TV stations scrambling for attention and the proliferation of social media, but there was a time when All India Radio ruled the news space. People got the news of the day not only from the newspapers, but also from AIR’s prime-time radio show at 9 a.m. Listening to the news on the radio was a must for most people. AIR news was the only way for the government to communicate with citizens living in remote corners of the country.
Like many other institutions in India, AIR was established during the British Raj. The external division began as early as 1939, with a program in Pashto for listeners in the North West Frontier Province. After independence, AIR’s Outreach Division was India’s voice for the neighborhood. It broadcast to people in neighboring countries in their own language, and helped promote Indian goodwill and interests among them.
During the 1971 Bangladesh War, AIR played an important role in informing the people of East Bengal (then East Pakistan) of everything that was happening across the country. In East Pakistan, the news was heavily falsified in favor of the Pakistani military. The real picture was broadcast from India. AIR’s external affairs division introduced a special Bengali service on April 26, 1971, following the Bangladesh liberation movement.
To mark Bangladesh’s 50th anniversary, the World Council of India has released a new book titled . It includes AIR broadcasts and commentary by the late UL Baruah when he was director of the AIR field service during the Bangladesh War of Independence. The book gives readers a glimpse not only of what happened in 1971, but also of the background and developments that led to the military crackdown by the Pakistani military. The bloodbath, including the murder of intellectuals, was recorded, and the commentary set the context for the genocide as it unfolded.
Baruah provides insight not only into what was happening in East Pakistan, but also how the international (Western) press projected it. Although Richard Nixon supported Pakistan and most of America’s allies remained silent, the Western press reported the horrors of the carnage. AIR translated these reports and broadcast them to Bengali listeners. Baruah also quotes Pakistani journalists who interviewed the military junta as well as politicians like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
AIR broadcasts go far beyond reporting daily events. They provide an overview of the debate in Pakistan after Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s victory in the 1970 parliamentary elections; quotes from the Pakistani press to show the country’s internal divisions; manipulation by the army under Yahya Khan; the role played by ambitious political leaders like Bhutto, which has been used by military leaders to demand the postponement of the National Assembly; and all the machinations that ultimately led to the break-up of Pakistan.
Here is an example of Baruah’s incisive commentary in a lecture on the Pakistan Defense Day celebrations on September 6, 1971. Taking this as a fixed point, Baruah analyzes the role of the military in Pakistan: “While the soldiers Pakistanis are undoubtedly good fighters, unfortunately they got involved in Pakistani politics in a way that posed a serious threat to the rebirth of democracy in Pakistan. The power structure is such that the vested interests of the military-bureaucratic elite, supported by the newly wealthy industrial tycoons, would make any real transfer of power to the people, increasingly difficult over time.
In a special commentary on November 19, 1971, weeks before India and Pakistan went to war over Bangladesh, Baruah noted:? Muslim women have been raped, Muslim homes have been set on fire in Dhaka and other towns and villages in East Bengal. Murders of civilians have taken place even in this month of Ramzan. “
The Bangladesh Commentaries are divided into four neat chapters. The first is on “Declaring genocide”. The second deals with “Opinions in West Pakistan”. The next one is “The Debate in Pakistan after the Birth of Bangladesh”, and the last is “The Rise of Bangladesh”. The four chapters give a vivid picture of the times, including the national questions that arose in Pakistan after the humiliating defeat of the military, and recreates the world as it was in the 1970s, placing the birth of the Bangladesh in historical context.