Books reviewed - Deb Mukharji: 1971, Bangladesh and the Blood Telegram

1971:A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh
by Srinath Raghavan

The Blood Telegram: India’s Secret War in East Pakistan
by Gary J Bass

Reviewed by Deb Mukharji (Biblio, February 2014)
On the night of March 25, 1971, the Pakistan army commenced  its undeclared and savage war against its own citizens in East Pakistan. Over the next nine months, uncounted hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, would be killed and uncounted women violated. Where entire villages are eliminated, it is difficult to arrive at neat statistics of the number of victims, but the genocide was one of the bloodiest of the 20th century. Ten million refugees took shelter in India. Bengali members of the East Pakistan Rifles and the police, peasants, university students and professionals formed the mukti bahini to fight the Pakistan army and gain independence for Bangladesh. Trained and armed in India, over the months the mukti bahini inflicted losses on the occupation forces and severed communications, eliminated collaborators, their daring raids infusing fear and uncertainty in the army of occupation and hope among a people besieged and tormented in their own land. After war broke out between India and Pakistan on December 4, the demoralized Pakistan army in East Pakistan surrendered on December 16, 1971, to the combined forces of India and Bangladesh.

A comprehensive account of what happened in 1971 was not convenient for  many. Many books have appeared in Bangladesh, from participants in the War of Liberation, or those who survived the tortures, to tell future generations of what happened in those nine months. But in the consciousness of the world at large, this is a forgotten chapter. Some considered it forgettable. Pakistan remains largely in a state of denial, anguished only at the memory of its humiliation. Indians recall 1971 as the great victory of its arms over Pakistan. In the United States facts have been air-brushed to exonerate two key figures at the time, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, for their complicity in genocide.  In Bangladesh itself, scars of 1971 remained raw as the political kaleidoscope provided immunity to many who had committed heinous crimes in 1971.

In recent times there appeared a concerted move to downplay, if not distort, the depth and extent of the genocide in 1971, Sarmila Bose’s “Dead Reckoning:Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War” (Hachette, 2011) being a prime example. It is fortuitous that at this moment, even as Bangladesh attempts a process of closure and healing with the International Crimes Tribunal, the two remarkable books on 1971 by Srinath Raghavan and Gary Bass should have appeared. They are similar in the depth of scholarship and the terrain covered, even though the approaches differ. While not omitting the details, Raghavan takes a wide angle view of political and diplomatic developments of the time. Gary Bass is more focused on establishing the complicity of Nixon and Kissinger in the genocide in 1971, anchoring his work on the remarkable telegram of dissent sent by the US Consul General in Dhaka, Archer Blood, and his men.

Archer Kent Blood was the US Consul General in Dhaka when the military crackdown commenced on the night of March 25. Within a day he reported the systematic elimination of Awami Leaguers, intellectuals and Hindus by the Pak army and its collaborators. His cables continued to stream into Washington, eliciting no response. As they saw US supplied planes and tanks being used against the populace, Blood and 20 of his colleagues sent a ‘dissent’ telegram charging the government with moral bankruptcy in its support to the military government, disregarding the atrocities and assault on democratic values. Blood was withdrawn and US policy of support to Yahya Khan continued with increasing vigour till the very end.

Raghavan details that while the ‘tilt’ towards Pakistan vis a vis India was to come at a much later date when the die had been cast, what was more significant was the US refusal to advise Yahya when this could have made a difference. As early as February, the National Security Council had advised that though army action was unlikely, if it happened, “then the US had an interest both in avoiding violence and in checking its escalation”. This is supported by Bass who demonstrates that, despite the consistent Kissinger line that the US should not intervene in an internal affair of Pakistan, the “White House was actively and knowingly supporting a murderous regime at many of the most crucial moments. There was no question of whether the US should intervene. It was already intervening on behalf of a military regime decimating its own people”.

Raghavan and Bass have different interpretations of Indian intentions. Raghavan describes as ‘received wisdom’ the ‘tenacious of all myths’ about Indira Gandhi’s desire to go early to war, based on the army chief Maneckshaw’s much publicized account of a cabinet meeting. The general’s memory was clearly embellished. As Raghavan points out, there was an ‘impressive increase in Pakistan’s armed might since her confrontation with India in 1965’. Besides, hostile international reactions had to be considered and the possibility of Chinese intervention in the summer  months. Bass subjects himself to the ‘received wisdom’ and posits that  India intended to go to war from the beginning and hence made the fullest preparations. He does not consider that any government in that situation would need to make necessary preparations for any eventuality.and that preparations do not necessarily imply intent.

There are two aspects to 1971 which may have merited greater attention in Raghavan’s  admirable account. One is that there may not have been unanimity in India about any advantage resulting from the emergence of an independent Bangladesh. Not everyone believed, as Raghavan assumes, that a Bangladesh would undercut the two-nation theory. After all, the very first clause of the contentious Six Points of the Awami League had called for a federation based on the Lahore Resolution, the so-called Pakistan resolution, which had called for one or more Muslim majority states.

The other issue is with regard to West Pakistani attitude to separation. The increasing tempo of resentment at economic disparity, starkly reflected in the Six Point programme, made it clear that exploitation of East Pakistan was no longer feasible. The draft Five Year Plan of 1969 had envisaged a substantial net resource transfer from west to the east, to the dismay of Punjab. The results of the 1970 elections underlined the demographic advantage of the east and, hence, the shift of power in any democratic system. In mid-March 1971 the editor of Bhutto’s (PPP) mouthpiece had plaintively told me that India should take over these pestilential Bengalis and rid Pakistan of them. An East Pakistan with a separate identity was, therefore, to the advantage of both commercial interests as well as political aspirations in the West. However, instead of seeking accommodation through a federation, Bhutto and Yahya decided that a whiff of grapeshot would take care of the Bengalis and the old order would continue.

Raghavan posits that the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971 was not inevitable, but the result of multiple internal and exterrnal factors. This is a truism, for, obviously, if the Pakistan ruling elite had acceded to the legitimate demands of the East, there would have been no separation. Or, indeed, if the international community, notably the US, restrained Pakistan in the early stages. At least, the separation would not have occurred in 1971. If India had not extended support and had absorbed the refugees, the separation would have been delayed. Where Raghavan seeks, perhaps, to find facts to justify his thesis is about the global explosion of students’ unrest influencing developments in Pakistan. This was not the age of twitter and facebook, and the developments in Pakistan, particularly in the East, had entirely indigenous motivation, roots and history.

Known, but India cautiously avoiding the issue in 1971, was the focus of the genocide on the hindus of East Pakistan. This is brought out starkly by the authors, by Bass in particular. Eventually, some four fifths of the ten million refugees would be  Hindu. Bass details the concerns of Blood, and the assessments of US agencies, that Pakistan was trying to eliminate all Hindus in East Pakistan as they could not be trusted, and a Hindu-less East Pakistan may be more amenable. One must wonder if this fact may not have contributed to some extent to the Western indifference on the issue, assuming that the Hindus could & would be eventually assimilated in India and the bonds of Islam would reunite the two wings. Raghavan refers to a resolution which Canada considered, but did not table at the UN, suggesting that the world community should “assist India to integrate those refugees as productive members of the community”. This provides an interesting, and possibly significant, window into western thinking.. It may be noted in parenthesis that except for a Hindu member (Dhirendranath Datta, then eighty five, tortured and killed by the Pak army in 1971) standing up for the Bengali language in the Pakistan National Assembly in 1948, the leading figures and martyrs in East Pakistan’s struggle in the 50s and the 60s were almost all Muslims, as were the freedom fighters.

Raghavan provides details of the dilemmas faced by India as the carnage started. Support to the Bangladesh freedom fighters was halting in the beginning, picking up only in July, when initial concerns about the resistance being taken over by leftist elements were overcome. There were internal wrinkles within the Bangladesh government in exile which needed to be addressed. The US effort to wean away a part of the Bangladesh leadership had to be thwarted.  India’s efforts to persuade governments to leash the Pak military met with little success, but the conscience of the people in the west was stirred by the atrocities and the plight of refugees. Public opinion – and the State Department – checked to some extent the support that Nixon and Kissinger wished to provide Pakistan.

An Indo-Soviet treaty had been in the coming for two years. When finally concluded on August 9, it enhanced Indian confidence in facing up to the nexus between Pakistan, the US and China. Contrary to the fulminations in the White House, the Soviet Union consistently urged restraint on IndiaThe major justification for the  blinkered US attitude to the 1971 genocide was the need to preserve Yahya Khan as the conduit preferred by Beijing. As Chinese documents are not available, it is not possible to judge if they may not have accepted another, if the US had so suggested. 

What emerges from the accounts of Bass and Srinivasan is the almost craven attitude of Washington, continuing its support to Pakistan, even when it ceased to be an intermediary, on the plea that Beijing would look out for American reliability. A low point in American diplomacy and statecraft was surely reached when, meeting in secrecy after the war had started, Kissinger pleaded with the Chinese ambassador for a show of military strength to frighten India. On their part, while willing to be abusive of the Indians in their discussions with the US, and indicating general support to Yahya, the Chinese did not respond positively to American pleas for any military engagement. Zhou had advised Yahya in the early days of the crackdown that ‘the question of East Pakistan should be settled according to the wishes of the people of East Pakistan’.

Much has been made by Kissinger about India’s plan to split up Pakistan, and success in preventing this a prime success of US policies. After his visit to Delhi in July he had reported that the Indians expected Pakistan to disintegrate after the separation of East Pakistan. By December he had decided that the Indian objective was assault and destruction of Pakistan by military means. ‘You see those people welcoming the Indian troops when they come in…why then Henry, are we going through all this agony?’ asks Nixon. Kissinger replies, ‘ We’re going through this agony to prevent the West Pakistan army from being destroyed. Secondly, to maintain our Chinese arm. Thirdly to prevent a complete collapse of the world’s psychological balance’ which would follow if the Soviets and their client state destroy a country. This exposition must rank high as an exercise in sophistry. As Raghavan comments, ‘This was Nixon and Kissinger’s war of illusions. In retrospect they come across not as tough statesmen tilting towards their ally, but as a picaresque pair tilting at windmills’.

The two books complement each other. Bass’s passion is moderated by the clinical scholarship of Raghavan. Bass wants to restore history mauled by Kissinger as Srinath uses facts without judgement. They both establish that it may well have been possible for Nixon and Kissinger to rein in the murderous Pakistan army. They both place before the reader the deep racial prejudices that motivated the US leadership. Bass becomes exposed to criticism from Kissinger acolytes because of his focus on exposing Kissinger’s fraudulent reputation and the flaws in his self justification. Raghavan compels the reader to arrive at the same conclusions, but his detached recounting and analysis of facts leave no such room.

Robert Blackwill, former US ambassador to India and presently Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has defended Kissinger’s actions in 1971 and questioned Gary Bass for placing “human rights concerns at the pinnacle of U.S foreign policy, at  least in this crisis”. Blackwill is dismissive of the abusive gutter language consistently used by Nixon and Kissinger in their references to India, recalling Eisenhower’s comments on the Soviet Union. But this sophistry cannot airbrush the intense distaste, if not hatred, for India, Indians and, above all, Indira Gandhi, that permeates all conversations between the two. The racism is palpable and the Indians were clearly children of lesser gods. Blackwill crowns his arguments with the self serving myth of US having “successfully deterred a major Indian campaign against West Pakistan”.

The United States did not initiate the conflict in Pakistan. But a  series of actions and abstention from action, from failing to caution Yahya before the crackdown, when its own agencies reported what the army intended, to its eventual pleading with China to threaten the Indians as the noose tightened, made it complicit in the genocide that intervened. It could be argued from a counter perspective, that Nixon and Kissinger were acting in the best interests of the United States as they saw it, that what they did – or, more aptly, did not – is what any powerful nation might, secure in the cynicism of its supremacy. 

The criticism of the two may therefore arise not from objective analysis, but what some Americans, and other nations, expect from a nation with its self-proclaimed adherence to democratic values, liberty etc etc.  Thus seen, the Statue of Liberty may hide feet of clay, and that Nixon and Kissinger merely acted with the same disregard for international norms or human values as US establishments have on many stages from Vietnam to Chile to Iraq.

If Nixon and Kissinger stand brutally exposed by Raghavan and Bass, their nervousness and prevarication revealed, the patience and steely resolve of Indira Gandhi is a study in contrast. Gandhi charted a course through perilous waters with little support from the international community and defied a super power with aplomb. Days after her frosty November visit to Washington, Nixon was to wail to Kissinger they had been ‘suckered’. And as Pakistan unraveled and Kissinger went into depression, Nixon wondered if “Henry required psychiatric care”. Indira Gandhi had won on more than one front.

 Deb Mukharji was a member of the Indian Foreign Service (1964-2001). He served in Islamabad (1968-1971) and Dhaka (1977-1980 and 1995-2000)

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