Believing in one’s own propaganda: Newspapers of Dhaka and the war of 1971

Published: December 14, 2015

Dated: December 15, 1971 Indian army soldiers attacking Naya Chor, Sindh in support of Bengali rebels of the liberation army. PHOTO: AFP

During a recent visit to Dhaka, I had the opportunity to do research in the National Archives of Bangladesh and the Library of Dhaka University. Although the creation of Bangladesh was not the focus of my research, I was anxious to learn more about the tragic events resulting in the death of countless civilians and the dismemberment of Pakistan.

For this purpose, I picked up the files of two English newspapers, Morning News and Pakistan Observer, published from Dhaka and examined their contents for the months of November and December. I looked at the headlines, feature articles and advertisements printed in these newspapers between November 23, 1971 and December 30, 1971. It was during this period that emergency was declared in Pakistan, war broke out with India and the independent State of Bangladesh came into existence.

It did not come as a surprise to me that newspapers in East Pakistan were under strict State control and used for propaganda purposes. Anyone who tried to report accurately was snubbed and declared an enemy of Pakistan. General Niazi, the commander of Pakistan’s forces in East Pakistan, described BBC as “Brahman Broadcast” and refused to take its reports seriously. He was more content with the reports appearing in Morning News and Pakistan Observer. During the period of active combat starting from late November, these newspapers projected an image of Pakistan as being in complete control of the situation. Both newspapers, till the very end of the war, kept on reporting on the advance of Pakistan’s military and the huge losses incurred by the Indian military.

The idea was to keep the people (especially of West Pakistan) in the dark about the atrocities being committed in East Pakistan and the rapid military advancements made by Indian troops to exploit Pakistan’s precarious internal situation. But it seems that it was not just the people of Pakistan, but the military command itself which started believing in this propaganda. This is why the decision to surrender came as a huge shock to many of the military men as well.

A cursory glance at these newspapers of the last few weeks of united Pakistan should serve as an eye-opener for those who believe that censoring media and suppressing voices of dissent are justified under the larger banner of serving the ‘national interests’ of Pakistan. A time comes when those trying to control the thoughts of masses through repressive means start believing in their own deceits and distortions. This happened in Pakistan during 1971 and it continues to be the case when it comes to media’s coverage of Balochistan and tribal areas. These areas are generally off-limits to independent media and one simply has to rely on information funneled through the tweets of ISPR’s spokesperson.

Just because the media is not allowed to report on the missing persons of Balochistan, large-scale displacement of population from tribal areas and collateral damage of military operation, it does not mean that there is no political turmoil or unrest in these regions. Nor does it mean that a media blackout will help to control or resolve the situation amicably. Among the most important lessons to be learnt from 1971 is the failure of such policies.

Proclamation of Emergency

The news of the victory of Pakistani forces over India and occupation of its areas were repeated on almost daily basis till December 16.

In order to give a semblance of the situation under control while the war was ravaging major parts of East Pakistan, Morning News published a feature on the popularity of miniskirts

Headline of Morning News on December 11, 1971 when the war was at its peak on both fronts

Recruitment ads were still being printed as war had broken out on the Eastern Front with the overwhelming number of Bengalis opposed to the Pakistani military

Making people believe in the myth of Pakistani military’s victory over India during the war of 1965 and expecting a repetition of the same in 1971

Headline of Pakistan Observer just three days before surrender

Pakistan Observer becomes Observer as East Pakistan becomes Bangladesh

An ad published in Morning News on December 27, 1971 in which the name Pakistan has been crossed out

All photos: Ali Usman Qasmi

Ali Usman Qasmi

Ali Usman Qasmi

The author is an Assistant Professor of History in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). He tweets as @AU_Qasmi (twitter.com/AU_Qasmi)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Gangadas

    Truth is the first casualty of war!Recommend

  • Rahil Sarwar

    Our inner ignorant self will never let us accept that the
    tragic loss of East Pakistan was due to our own mistakes. Rather we chose to close
    our eyes to the truth in the name of “Patriotism”.Recommend

  • Nomad1412

    It wasn’t just in East Pakistan in 1971 that propaganda masqueraded as news. It has been happening for a long time in West Pakistan. Following from Dawn’s archives, though the one article I was looking for eludes me:

    http://www.dawn.com/news/1203411
    http://www.dawn.com/news/1151200Recommend

  • Manjit Singh

    very well written with teaching that lesson can be learnt from past for not repeating the mistake.Recommend

  • Animal Farm

    I would recommend you to read George Orwell’s 1984….

    His depictions mirror certain countries so well Recommend

  • azam

    Great introspective writing (y)Recommend

  • Eqbal Khan

    Ali Qasmi, good article. What needs to done is few PhD thesis on this subject but by students that are totally objective. There is three way propaganda 1) Mukthi Bahni, 2) India and 3) Pakistan. Yours is just a ed-op, there is need for deep research.Recommend

  • Ily Khan

    You need to broaden your research and read the newspapers of England published during the second world war especially from 1940 -1942, when the war was going badly for England. Recommend

  • whatever

    you can see by these newspapers how much propaganda are fed to pakistanis. more amusement is that still Pakistanis think their press is freer than foreign counterparts and they keep failing to propaganda again and again.Recommend

  • Jayanat

    How many more years will the 1971 dead horse be flogged ? Fact of the matter is Bangladesh i a country and may i add a good one at that !Recommend

  • SuperNeo™

    Ali Usman Qasmi,
    Very impressive. Research. One i want to add situtation is no different right now either. Whats going in balochistan and pakhtoon areas no one knows.
    Still most of the things are controlled generals what print in media or telecast tv are in same hand like 71. Recommend

  • Justice Hunter

    We never learn, what a shame. These machooo-men are repeating the same in Baluchistan? I think Hamood-ur-Rehman report should be a compulsory subject in their academies.Recommend

  • Rehan Ali

    They are not taught to learn at PMA rather obey and repeat. periodRecommend

  • Vap

    Its not limited to Pakistanis. The propaganda is common is all over the world. Its tool of war.Recommend

  • wb

    Humudoor Rehman report itself is a piece of propaganda. It’s ridden with tiny half truths to conceal massive lies.

    It puts the total number of dead by military action in East Pakistan at 37000 and it says that even this number is exaggerated.

    However, most neutral international observes have put the number anywhere between 200,000 and 500,000. Although Indian and Bengali claim of 2 million might be slightly exaggerated, it cannot be completely ruled out.

    Even Pakistan’s favorite author Sharmila Bose puts the number much higher than 37,000.Recommend

  • Bana Post

    Good article But most of Pakis not able digest 1971 in 2015Recommend

  • Bana Post

    Pakistanis dont know objectivity let be in historiography or in journalismRecommend

  • http://solomon2.blogspot.com/ Solomon2

    It’s not world-wide; such propaganda varies with a country’s ruling regime. But the widespread acceptance of making excuses for a regime’s propaganda, years after the regime’s passing, is an indication of deep moral corruption in its people.Recommend

  • cautious

    Things haven’t changed that much. Newspapers were told to “step in line” on a variety of issues including Balochistan, OBL, Salala incident and even Raymond Davis. Nobody raises an eyebrow how OBL could hide outside the gates of the Pakistan Military Academy or why the Abbottabad report was never released. Nobody questions the military explanation the says that the USA attack troops at Salala because they woke up angry/frustrated at Afghanistan loses and decided to kill Pakistani troops – really? And nobody has ever bother to contact Raymond Davis (a private citizen) to ask him the real story behind what happened.Recommend

  • Sridhar Kaushik

    During war, facts are needed for decision making. If Pakistan Army brass itself on the Western wing was believing it was winning the war while sustaining heavy losses, it shows propaganda is immensely harmful.
    Another eg would be the Nazi propaganda during the last stages of War. They let the Berliners believe they could still win the war while young boys were recruited to fight!Recommend

  • Sridhar Kaushik

    There was no propaganda during the WWII. Britain knew exactly what they were in for. Daily air raids meant living underground, going for air covers etc. Real data is needed. You can’t tell the population Britain was winning while London was being bombed on a daily basis!Recommend

  • sterry

    You are wrong. The British public was fed a lot of misinformation in order to keep up public morale. In fact a lot of the real information about losses was only released decades later. The truth about things like the so called Miracle of Dunkirk or Hess’ visit have still not been released or are shrouded in mystery. It is well known that the Germans let hundreds of thousands of British soldiers escape back to England after the British and French were defeated in France at the start of the war.Recommend

  • Mohammed Faizan Farooq

    We tend to beat around the bush. The war in 1971 was not responsible for the independence movement in Bangladesh. Rather it was a lack of development in the region. Mujeeb had already stated that he would retain the name of East Pakistan however the eastern wing would be independent. This was before the war broke out in Dhaka. The Pakistan military was severely out manned by the Indian forces and even if fighting continued we would have benn overwhelmed although it may have been a more respectful end to the offensive. Alas Tiger Niazi had other ideas.Recommend