Public History

@SouthAsia71: Live-tweeting Bangladesh’s road to independence


Dave Riley*

Cardiff, May 3, 2015 (Alochonaa): Like many Postgraduate researchers, when it came to writing up my thesis, I found that I had collected far more data than I could ever use. At archives in the UK and US, budgetary constraints meant that my technique of photographing as many relevant documents as possible left me with a wealth of excess material. My thesis concentrates upon the nature of the UK-US relationship, as a result, a lot of the details of the events in South Asia do not fit within the context of an 80,000 word dissertation. Much of the research carried out into the reports from UK and US officials, particularly in Dacca, may not see the light of day. I didn’t want to waste it!

The idea for South Asia 71 first came about after I watched D-Day Live, broadcast in 2013 on Channel 4 in the UK. The show’s aim was to cover the D-Day landings as if they were happening in real time over the course of two evenings. The programme invited viewers to follow a group of seven characters as they live-tweeted the day’s events.The ideas were innovative, but in a two-hour show there was often too much going on, without enough time to explain the context.

The idea of live-tweeting history appealed to me. It was clear, however that in order to be successful it must be carried out over an extended period time. I began to research other Twitter-based history projects and came across the handle @RealtimeWWII. Created by Alwyn Collinson, the project tweets news reports and photographs from the Second World War, as if it were happening today. It was the first project of its kind to attract large-scale attention; it currently has 325,000,000 followers and demonstrates that there is a sizable audience for history on Twitter. Although borrowing the concept of live-tweeting history, I wanted to provide an original spin on the genre.

I decided to have @SouthAsia71 tweet from the perspective of an anonymous journalist that has secret access to documents in the UK and US. This allows me to relay information that would not have been available at the time. I combine tweeting the documents themselves (often with passages highlighted) with infographics, photographs and the occasional YouTube video. Every tweet is an attempt to provide as much engaging information as possible. This means that every picture I use is an attempt to tell a story, usually followed up by 2-3 tweets of elaboration.

The project began on 7th December, on the eve of Pakistan’s first general election in 1971. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League (AL) was eagerly expecting a convincing majority of seats in East Pakistan, whilst Zulfikur Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) was one of many parties hoping for a solid showing in the West. The election produced a double surprise. The Awami League not only won the majority of seats in the Eastern Wing, but also had enough for an overall majority in the National Assembly. Meanwhile, an even larger shock saw Bhutto’s PPP win a majority of seats in the Western wing, providing the former foreign minister with far more leverage than many predicted.

Since December, @SouthAsia71 has followed the constitutional crisis of early 1971 that led to the military government’s brutal crackdown on the Bengali nationalist movement. The expressed desire of the British and Americans to remain aloof from the crisis has shone through. A desire for stability combined with bitter experience in dealing with past conflicts on the subcontinent had led to a Foreign Office-State Department consensus on non-involvement. There was evident sympathy for the Bengali cause, which could be contrasted with a general mistrust and disdain for Bhutto, a man described by the British Ambassador Sir Cyril Pickard as “utterly unscrupulous”. For the main part however, the Atlantic partners put their faith in Yahya Khan to bring about the desired outcome of the continued unity of Pakistan.

Talks between Yahya, Mujib and Bhutto in early 1971 went nowhere. Mujib announced a week of protests following Yahya’s decision to postpone the convening of the National Assembly from March 3rd to March 25th. It was feared the military crackdown could immediately follow a speech made by Mujib on March 7th at Dacca racecourse. In the event, Mujib avoided the unilateral declaration of independence that would have triggered a military response, but instead laid out conditions for the Awami League’s participation in the National Assembly. His demand to immediately transfer power to elected officials was particularly troublesome, since Yahya was insisting that the AL and PPP agree on a constitution before the sitting of the Assembly.

Despite reports a day earlier that an agreement was close, the Pakistani military moved in on March 25th to ruthlessly destroy the Bengali nationalist movement. @SouthAsia71 has tweeted the response of the UK and US missions in Dacca. The US consulate was particularly insistent that its government do something to bring an end to bloodshed. Signed off by US Consul General Archer Blood, a cable now known as “The Blood Telegram”, was sent March 28th. Entitled “Selective Genocide”, the message exclaims that the US Consulate were “mute and horrified witnesses” to the slaughter of AL members and the Hindu minority. Furthermore, the Consul General openly criticises the American government for “pretending to believe” the Pakistani government’s “false assertions” that it had everything under control in East Pakistan. The consulate estimated that up to 6,000 people had been murdered on the night of March 25th/26th alone.

There is an evident disconnect between the British and American officials in Dacca and their counterparts in Washington and London. The officials on the ground were focused upon preventing the chaos they were witnessing on a daily basis, whilst colleagues at home focused on colder geopolitical calculations. These are areas into which the project will move in the coming months. Despite the reports of atrocities in East Pakistan, the Nixon White House refused to interfere with Yahya’s murderous regime. The US’ rapprochement with China needed to be protected at all costs; this entailed support for a mutual ally in Pakistan.

Whilst the White House supported Yahya, the Indian government’s anxiety increased. It began to covertly support the Bengali Guerrillas (known as the Mukti Bahini) in their fight against the army, signed a treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union in August and mounted a global PR campaign aimed at pointing attention to the dire situation in East Pakistan. Following an attack on Indian airfields near the border with West Pakistan, the vastly superior Indian forces entered East Pakistan en-masse, and quickly defeated their Pakistani adversary. The project will conclude at the surrender of Pakistani forces and formal independence of Bangladesh on 16th December.

Once the live-tweeting is completed, I plan to keep the account active. Despite tweeting multiple times per day for just over a year, there will still be plenty of discussion to be had over the events of 1971. To this end I’ve also set up a website, southasia71.weebly.com. It’s primary purpose at present is to provide background information for the followers of @SouthAsia71, but I envisage its development into a comprehensive source of information on the events of 1971, with the ability to search for tweets by date, so that you can dip into any given day of 1971 with ease.

Feedback so far has been positive and engagement steadily increasing. Some have even been getting into the spirit of the project, and engaging in debate as if we were in 1971! Combining the workload with other commitments has been a challenge but a rewarding one that I’m looking forward to continuing.

*Dave Riley is a PhD candidate at Cardiff University in the UK. His research centres on the UK-US relationship in the early 1970s, using the South Asian crisis as 1971 as a focus for analysis. He Has holds a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree from the University of Leeds and loves anything to do with sport. Email: rileydd@cardiff.ac.uk Twitter: @DaveRiley2810

**Alochonaa.com is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of Alochonaa.com’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at alochonaa@gmail.com

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