Fatima Mata National College in Kollam, Kerala, worked for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab for close to a quarter century, during which time he worked on no less than six deep space missions, including the prestigious Mars Odyssey Project and the Mars Reconnaissance Mission. I thought it would be interesting to quiz Dr. Varghese about his achievements at NASA and his views on India’s Mars mission, for the benefit of Winnowed’s readers. Dr. Varghese very kindly agreed to answer all my questions not because he is now retired and has some free time on his hands (he is actually busier than ever) but because he happens to be my maternal uncle.
Winnowed: Dr. Varghese, what made you move to the US in the first place?
Dr. Varghese: I was working as a Physics lecturer at the Fatima Mata National College in Kerala when I applied for and received the Fulbright Fellowship. In those days, research opportunities within India were few and far in between and my primary objective was to do cutting edge research and work with the best in the field of physics. With my scholarship, I spent 6 years at the University of Oregon doing my Ph.D. program in physics. After I got my doctorate, I started to work for a privately owned company (Telos Corporation) in the computer systems field.
Winnowed: How was life at Telos? What exactly did you do there?
Dr. Varghese: At Telos, I was involved in developing software-intensive computer systems for earth-orbiting satellite systems, mainly for communications satellites. I managed the development of ground systems and then moved onto becoming business acquisition manager. In 1989, when the Division of the company I worked for moved to Washington D.C., I transferred to another Division within Telos that was supporting the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). JPL is a Federally Funded Research & Development Center (FFRDC) of NASA and is managed by California Institute of Technology (Caltech). It is the world leader in developing and conducting deep space missions. So this became a great opportunity for me to work in deep space exploration.
Winnowed: So Telos was your stepping stone to NASA? When exactly did you join NASA?
Dr. Varghese: In January 1989, . I started my career at JPL as a contract employee working on the Mars Observer mission, the first of the Observer series of planetary missions, designed to study the geoscience and climate of Mars. I started my association with the Mars Observer project as a systems engineer for the development of its missions operations system. Mars Observer spacecraft was launched on 25 September 1992. Just before the launch, in August 1992, I joined JPL as a full time employee and was assigned to the Mars Observer project as the Assistant Flight Engineering Office Manager. Unfortunately, the Mars Observer mission ended abruptly when contact with the spacecraft was lost on 21 August 1993, three days before the scheduled insertion into the Mars orbit. It was a very big disappointment to me personally, since this was my first deep space mission. JPL had to reassign a large number of personnel from the project to other jobs and I became a Group Supervisor in the Engineering & Science Directorate, a position I continued for 2 years. After a few other assignments, I joined the 2001 Mars Odyssey Project as its Project Manager. Odyssey is a Mars orbiting mission. In June 2010, I took over as Project Manager of the Mars Reconnaissance Mission, another Mars orbiting mission. During my tenure as the Project Manager for these two Mars missions, I also supported the on-going twin Mars Exploration Rover missions and the Mars Curiosity Rovermission which has been roaming Mars for more than a year now. I retired from JPL in February 2013 and ended a career that spanned 24 years and working on at least half a dozen deep space missions.
Winnowed: Wow! And has JPL been a good employer? Do you feel your efforts and hard work have been recognized?
Dr. Varghese: JPL is a great place to work and grow your talents. It is quick to recognize good work and leadership capabilities. I received promotions rapidly and received much recognition for meritorious performance. This year, JPL selected me for the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal for my leadership of the Mars Reconnaissance Mission. This is the second time I was bestowed with this very prestigious award. The previous Outstanding Leadership Medal was for my work on the Deep Space One mission as its Mission Operations Manager.
Winnowed: Could you describe a typical day for me, say when you worked on the Mars Odyssey Project or the Mars Reconnaissance Mission?
Dr. Varghese: Interplanetary mission operations require round-the-clock attention and, although my workday started at 6:30 AM and ended at 4:00 PM, (that is being in the office) I was, for all practical purposes 24/7 all the time. . But we found ways to reduce the load on each individual, by sharing responsibilities and trusting the people who were in charge while I was not physically present at the Lab. My job required a lot of coordination among various support organizations at JPL (e.g., the Deep Space Network, our telemetry & tracking stations) as well as within the MRO team. There were a lot of meetings everyday, discussing various aspects of the mission and deciding courses of action. We plan our operations on a 2-week cycle and design and implement the spacecraft & science instrument activities to accomplish that plan. It requires very intensive work involving several dozen engineers and scientists, and careful integration of the activities to not violate any spacecraft & instrument operational restrictions. A serious error could lead to potential harm to the flight system and even to end of mission. It is pretty stressful!
Winnowed: What was your happiest day at JPL?
Dr. Varghese: There are several: The day we launched the Mars Observer spacecraft. The day we successfully started the Ion Propulsion System on the Deep Space 1 mission. The day we recovered the Odyssey mission from a mission-ending catastrophe. The day the Odyssey mission received signals from the twin Mars Exploration Rovers indicating they landed on Mars successfully and the Mars Reconnaissance Mission received signals from the Mars Curiosity Rover indicating it landed on Mars successfully.
Winnowed: And your saddest?
Dr. Varghese: It was the day we lost the Mars Observer spacecraft. It happened all of a sudden. The spacecraft was about to begin pressurizing its fuel tanks in preparation for the Mars orbit-insertion maneuver when contact with the spacecraft was lost. We never heard from it again and we never found out definitively why we lost contact with the spacecraft. A lot of us put a lot of effort (Herculean, you may say!) to do that mission. It would have been the finest mission if it hadn’t failed.
Winnowed: Tell me Dr. Varghese, why do Mars missions? Do you think it’s worth it for the taxpayer, considering the expenses involved?
Dr. Varghese: Mars has been the object of human fascination for a very long time. With the invention and development of the telescope during the 1600s, increasingly detailed views of Mars from Earth became possible. These early observations revealed color changes on the surface of Mars that were erroneously attributed to seasonal vegetation.These observations also indicated some apparent linear surface features and these were attributed to intelligent design, leading to the belief, right or wrong, that there must be life on Mars.Further telescopic observations led to the discovery of the two moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos, the polar ice caps, and the feature now known as Olympus Mons, the solar system's tallest mountain.
Recent interest to explore Mars is rooted in human curiosity to understand what happened to Mars over the years.We now know that Mars is a rocky planet, like Earth. It was formed around the same time, yet with only half the diameter of Earth.It has a far thinner atmosphere and it has a cold and desert-like surface. It is believed that a few billions of years ago, Mars probably looked more like Earth does now. The present-day atmosphere of Mars, composed mostly of carbon dioxide, is extremely thin, with atmospheric pressure at the surface just 0.6% of the Earth's surface pressure.Today, Mars is quiescent geologically, but its atmosphere breathes and changes from year to year, interacting in complex ways with the water sequestered in Mars' ice caps and permafrost. One of the goals of current Mars exploration missions is to learn how the modern Mars works– how the geological processes of Mars created its unique composition. Comparing the same geological processes of Mars and Earth should help us to understand how Mars’ history has influenced its present state, leading us topredict what to expect on Earth in the future.
Since 1996, Mars exploration has undergone a Renaissance, with data from multiple Mars orbiters and landed missions providing a revolutionary new view of Mars as an Earth-like planet with a complex geologic history. We now know Mars better than any planet in the solar system other than our own, yet we have more questions than ever.
Evidence suggests that Mars once had a much denser atmosphere.The Martian landscape retains channels that were evidently cut by abundant, flowing water - proof that the planet had a much denser atmosphere in the past.The planet was likely shrouded in a thick blanket of gases that supported the presence of liquid water at its surface. Today, the air pressure is so low that free water would instantly boil away. The most likely explanation for the loss in Mars atmosphere is that the solar wind - the great outflow of energetic particles from the Sun - has simply eroded it through time. This has been possible because, unlike Earth, Mars lacks a protective global magnetic field, which is capable of deflecting the energetic particles from the Sun.
We know that water does not flow on Mars today, but it evidently has in the past. So one of the most important questions behind Mars exploration is: has there ever been the right combination of liquid water, available energy, and time to permit life to begin on Mars?
Winnowed: And for a country like India, which faces a number of other challenges, such as the need to uplift a large percentage of its population from poverty, do you think it makes sense to invest in a Mars mission?
Dr. Varghese: Of course it does. Any scientific and engineering endeavor like the Mars mission adds not only to the prestige of the country, but also to the development of technologies for progress.
Winnowed: What are the main challenges in doing Mars missions?
Dr. Varghese: In general, engineering interplanetary missions is very difficult and complicated.Mars has historically been unfriendly to human attempts to explore it. Although more missions have been attempted to Mars than to any other place in the Solar System except the Moon, nearly two-thirds of all Marsexploration attempts have failed before completing their missions.Phrases like "Mars Curse" or "Martian Curse" were introduced to explain away the high failure rate. Fictitious space monsters, such as "Galactic Ghoul" or "Great Galactic Ghoul", that eat away Mars probes, were invented to "explain" the recurring difficulties.
Winnowed: What advice would you give a youngster who wants to become a rocket scientist? What’s the best way to go about it?
Dr. Varghese: Do good school work. Have a great ambition and aspiration. Concentrate on engineering and science studies. Have a great attitude to conquer new areas of human development.
Winnowed: Would you have any advice for Indian policy makers?
Dr. Varghese: India has done exceedingly well in developing a smart space program. It must continue to invest in this endeavor. There has been a greater emphasis, it appears, on the military aspects of its space program. Civilian space applications should be given equal priority. Policy makers should do all they can do to retain the talent in India and they should channel enough resources into R&D. India should do more to strengthen fundamental scientific research at the grassroots level, I mean in colleges across the country.
Thursday, 28 November 2013
Sunday, 17 November 2013
M. G. Sanchez’s writing harks back to an era when writers (I am reminded of Thomas Hardy) wrote stories about real people who could have existed, for people who had the time, patience and leisure to read lengthy tales and the good taste to not expect a thrilling end. If you have read Sanchez before, you would know that he attaches no small measure of importance to his (and his characters) Gibraltarian identity, the “Britishness” of Gibraltarians and how a Gibraltarian is not, by any stretch of imagination, a Spaniard.
However, The Escape Artist: A Gibraltarian Novel, is not really about Gibraltar even though approximately half of it is set on the Rock. Rather, it is the story of a unique relationship between two young men from disparate backgrounds. Brian Manrique is a home-sick, working class Gibraltarian, plodding his way through Cambridge on a scholarship when he espies a fellow Gibraltarian, Henry Portas, amongst those hallowed portals. Henry Portas is very rich and very savvy, as different from Brian as chalk is from cheese. The resulting friendship between the two young men is one that’s meant for analysis by behavioural scientists. Even though The Escape Artist is a “realistic” novel, Sanchez does stretch his writer’s licence to the outer limits as he spins a yarn about the growing friendship between Henry and Brian and their various escapades.
Amongst the tussle between two diverse personalities of the same age, Sanchez’s angst about Gibraltar, its place in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and its relations with Spain, constantly shines through. The border between Spain and Gibraltar, a little longer than a kilometre, is open for crossings these days, but it wasn’t so in the 1970s, the period in which The Escape Artist is set. When, towards the end of the novel, Brian needs to make a trip to Spain, he is forced to take a ferry to Tangiers in Morocco to get to Algeciras in Spain, a journey of many hours, which could have been accomplished in minutes if the border weren’t closed. Incidentally, the Spanish-Gibraltarian border crossing is in the news these days.
One of the best things about The Escape Artist is Sanchez’s portrayal of life in the 1970s in the UK in general and Gibraltar in particular. Brian Manrique might have acquired a Cambridge degree (in Modern Languages), but has very few career options at the end of it all, largely on account of his working class, Gibraltarian background. He returns to Gibraltar, to live with his mother and sister in their council flat, and embarks on a job-hunt which appears to be hopeless until he is interviewed for an assistant’s position in a library and the chief interviewer turns out to be a distant relative. Brian’s teenage sister does something which I assume was not very uncommon in Gibraltar in those days – to the consternation of her mother and brother, she dates a British soldier posted on the Rock and gets pregnant. Since we are in the 1970s, she does eventually marry her man and follow him around the world on his postings. On the other hand, the rich folks, even in Gibraltar, seem to lead very comfortable lives.
Sanchez’s writing is more functional and simple than flowery or ornate. At times I did wish that it was a little bit more of the latter – a literary work of this magnitude would not be badly served with a few dollops of literary flourishes, but on the whole, The Escape Artist reads well and gets you to the meat of the story in a direct fashion. The ending, when you get there, is unexpected, but realistic to the core. Sanchez does not pander to the galleys when he drops the curtains on yet another excellent book from his writing desk.
The Escape Artist: A Gibraltarian Novel is available on Kindle.
Thursday, 14 November 2013
My friend Sayed Ahmed Raza is a founding partner at Ahmed & Farooq LP, a leading law firm in Bangladesh. Raza, as we called him at the National Law School of India University, was a couple of years my junior and graduated from NLSIU in the year 2000. I haven’t seen Raza since 1998, the year I graduated, but we’ve always managed to keep in touch, thanks to emails, facebook and skype. Recently Raza conveyed some sound bytes to be posted on Winnowed.
Winnowed: Career-wise, what have you done since your graduation from NLSIU in 2000?
Raza: Immediately after I came back, I worked as the co-ordinator for a project run by the Bangladesh Bar Council called “Human Rights Lawyering for Young Lawyers.” It involved coordinating the activities of 78 local Bar Associations and travelling to all parts of my country. I thoroughly enjoyed the job, which lasted for a year. I then started practising in Dakha and did a mix of criminal and civil litigation. More of the former than the latter. In 2002, I went to Khartoum in Sudan to work for the United Nations Development Programme for Refugees. I was there for two and a half years, helping Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees who had escaped to Sudan to escape the turmoil in their own countries. On my return, I resumed my litigation practice. I co-founded Ahmed & Farooq LP in the year 2007. These days, I do some non-litigation work – drafting agreements etc., but my mainstay is still litigation and arbitration.
Winnowed: Can you please cite an interesting case you have been involved in?
Raza: Recently our Supreme Court awarded the death sentence to one Abdul Quader Molla for his role in the 1971 genocide. Prior to his conviction, Molla had filed a defamation claim against certain politicians for the statements they made against him. I defended two of those politicians, namely Ms. Syeda Sajeda Choudhury, the Deputy Leader of Parliament and Ms. Motia Chowdhury, a Minister, against those defamation claims.
Winnowed: What made you choose NLSIU?
Raza: I come from a family of lawyers. Both my grandfathers were lawyers and my father is a leading Senior Counsel in Dhaka as well as President of the Bongabandhu Angibi Parishad. NLSIU is rather well-known among the legal fraternity in Bangladesh – even in 1995 when it was relatively new and the only National Law School in India. Students from Bangladesh have traditionally gone to the UK for their legal studies. I decided to give NLSIU a shot, just to do something different.
Winnowed: Did you consider taking up a job in India after graduation?
Raza: No. I was always clear that I wanted to return to Dhaka and practice law here.
Winnowed: Was it difficult to qualify in Bangladesh with an Indian law degree?
Raza: Not for me. In Bangladesh, just as in India, only Bangladeshi citizens can become advocates. One needs to take an enrolment exam for this purpose. Actually two exams, one to qualify to practice in the lower courts and the second one, which can be taken only if an advocate has at least two years’ post qualification experience, to practice in the High Court and Supreme Court. Since I had an Indian degree, I applied to the Bar Council for my degree to be recognised, which it did without raising any issue, after which I could take the first enrolment exam. I did that immediately on my return.
Winnowed: Please name a few people who have a made a big difference to your life.
Raza: My father, Abdul Baset Majumdar has made the biggest difference to my life. He has been my role model ever since I can remember.
Winnowed: If you were to advice other Bangladeshi students who are considering an Indian law degree, what would you tell them?
Raza: I would say that a law degree from a leading National Law School in India would give every budding lawyer a head-start in terms of developing analytical skills and learning the fundamentals of law, which are common for all common-law countries.
Winnowed: What’s your happiest memory from your time in Bangalore?
Raza: I have very happy memories of my time in the Men’s Halls of Residence. Every day was a special day. I will never forget my mates from those wonderful days.
Winnowed: And your saddest or the most unhappy experience?
Raza: I don’t remember any.
Winnowed: Your family?
Raza: I have been blessed with two daughters, Rifah Shahana Majumder and Rameen Shahanna Majumder . My wife Shahana Rahmatullah Annie is very supportive.
Winnowed: What are your hobbies?
Raza: Music, movies and reading Bangla newspapers
Winnowed: One last question - What do you think can be done to improve Indo-Bangladeshi relations?
Raza: India has changed a lot since the time it helped us win independence. The middle-classes in India do not hate Bangladesh. The Indian judiciary believes in fair play. For example, in the case of The Chairman, Railway Board & Ors vs Mrs. Chandrima Das & Ors [January, 2000], the Indian Supreme Court awarded compensation to a Bangladeshi girl who was raped in the Howrah Railway station. However, we also have instances like the case of Felani Khatun where no action has been taken. One gets the feeling that the common man in India does not have much goodwill towards us. To some extent, it is the politicians’ job to educate the masses, but I also understand that it is not an easy task. In Bangladesh, there is a big split between moderates like me who want democracy and have good relations with India and the supporters of the fundamentalist Jamaat e Islami who want Shariah rule.
Wednesday, 13 November 2013
It’s been a little over two weeks since I ran the Vasai Virar Mayor’s Marathon 2013 (VVMM). Three of my toe nails are still bluish-black (I think I will lose them) and my hopes of running a sub-five marathon lie shattered. This was my second full-marathon – I had taken 5:24 hrs to complete the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon 2012 (SCMM) and I thought I would easily do the VVMM in under 5 hours. I had trained reasonably well and everything was fine for the first half. The crowds were lovely and lined the entire road from Virar till Vasai. There were school kids out with banners, dressed in their school uniforms, most definitely instructed to turn up by their schools, there were housewives in their night gowns, men with stubbles, rubbing off the sleep from their eyes and even a few groups of ethnically dressed performers, dancing to the beat of drums and dholaks. There were water stations every kilometre or so and at a few places they even handed out oranges and biscuits. The route was very scenic – parts of it reminded me of Kerala’s landscape. As we ran, we could hear church bells peal at a number of places as the good people of Virar and Vasai attended Sunday mass.
I crossed the half-way mark in around 2:20 hrs and then things started going downhill. Unlike the SCMM which starts at 5:45 a.m., the VVMM started at 6:45 a.m. I guess it couldn’t be helped since a large number of runners are from Mumbai and it takes a while to reach the starting point at Virar. Secondly, the SCMM is held in January, whilst the VVMM is in October, the peak of what can be called Mumbai’s second summer. It’s hot and humid and there are long stretches with no shade. The third big difference between the SCMM and the VVMM, and this is a really big one, is that for the former, the roads are closed to traffic for the entire 6 hours one is given to complete the full marathon. At the VVMM, the roads were opened to traffic barely two hours after the marathon started. By 10:30 a.m., traffic was in full flow.
I guess this happens in all tier two marathons. The second half of the run was pure hell. It was not just on account of the traffic, heavy enough at times to force me to walk rather than run, or even the weather. As I started to run back towards Virar from Vasai, the water stations started to disappear. Even the many balloon bunches that lined the route, which I relied on for directions, were taken down much before the 6-hour cut-off. I once lost my way a little bit and ran for around 200 metres in the wrong direction before someone corrected me and sent me back. At a few places, I had to stop and look for signs or ask for directions before running on. Towards the end, around one kilometre before the end, I saw a runner ahead of me fail to take a u-turn (because the signs weren’t clear and there was no one around to direct him) and run a hundred odd metres extra before he turned back. The sweeper van meant to pick up stragglers who wanted to drop out was in operation much before the 6 hour deadline. I was asked at least three times by enthusiastic young men if I wanted a ride to the finishing point, something I found to be very dispiriting to say the least. The first time I was asked was around the four hour mark, when I was going strong, at least so I felt. Once on a crowded pavement, a man asked me if I would like to sit down, rest and eat something. It took me a second to realise that I was talking to a shop-keeper and move on. These little things do matter. Marathons are not just for the elite runners. I feel that that the organisers ought to have considered the recreational runners who make up the bulk of the participants before shutting shop so early. On the positive side, there were pilots on motor-bikes who darted back and forth and supplied us with directions and water (which made up for the absence of water stations) till the end.
I thought of giving up many times, but ultimately I didn’t. For personal reasons, I won’t be able to take part in SCMM 2014 and I needed to complete the VVMM within the cut-off time to be eligible for SCMM 2015. I tried to motivate myself by imagining that I was a Viet Cong guerrilla running along the Ho Chi Minh trail, a Spetsnaz commando on a killer mission, a US Navy SEAL running stealthily behind enemy lines, an NSG Black Cat Commando on a mission to free hostages held by suicidal terrorists, a warrior in a Zulu impi marching towards Isandlwana. None of that really worked. Ultimately I finished just inside the cut-off time because I had posted details of my run on facebook and didn’t want to lose face in front of my facebook “friends”. I ran because I didn’t want to tell my office colleagues that I couldn’t last the course and had chickened out. I ran on, a week after my 39th birthday, fuelled by my ego and the painful awareness that it would cost me a lot to prepare for and run a full, timed marathon once again before registrations started for SCMM 2015.
I completed in 5:49:10 hrs, wearing bib number 205. My results, with splits etc., are available on this site. Please choose Vasai – Virar Marathon 2013 and enter my bib number 205 for my results.
I am unable to write about an event like this without a few words regarding the toilet facilities, in my opinion one of the best criteria to judge organisers of such events. I got to the starting point around fifteen minutes before kick-off and asked for the nearest toilet. I was directed to one inside the large building to my right. It looked dirty with what looked like a large piece of human dung inside. I gingerly prepared to pee and the large piece of dung moved, trying to jump out. It was a frog! To be fair to the organisers, that toilet was not meant for the participants. Enroute, I found a set of portable toilets around the fifteen kilometre mark. Neat, clean and easy to use, I never saw another set of such toilets till I finished and entered the resting place for the participants, which had a similar set of toilets. However, I didn’t need to use a toilet on the return leg since it was so very hot and humid. I wouldn’t have minded if I could have relieved myself much before the fifteenth kilometre, but the entire route was so lined with cheering people that I never found a spot where I was by myself with some cover.
Before I conclude, there’s one special request I have for the organisers. During the first half of the marathon, along with the crowds that lined the route, there were loud speakers belting out popular music. Even when the crowds weren’t there, especially as we neared the half-way mark, loud speakers played songs at full blast. I can’t say I am speaking on behalf of all runners, but for me, when I run, silence is a blessing and loud music is something I treat on par with air pollution from vehicle fumes. The loud music played from those speakers gave me a headache. Please note, I am not talking of the sounds made by those cheering kids or even the drummers. I am only talking of the large black loudspeakers which made such a racket for the entire 21 kilometre stretch during the first half. Please dispense with them for the next event, if you don’t mind.
Thursday, 7 November 2013
The 1971 Bangladesh War which led to an independent Bangladesh was post-independence India’s finest hour. Coinciding with the Vietnam War, arguably America’s worst decade since the Second World War, events in Bangladesh gave the Americans an opportunity to do the ‘right’ thing, an opportunity which Nixon’s and Kissinger’s America did not fail to miss. Gary Bass, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, has written a meticulously researched book which lays out the innards of US policy making during those tumultuous days. It is well-known that Nixon (as advised by his National Security Advisor Kissinger) viewed the conflict strictly in terms of the cold war struggle with the Soviet Union. Behind such ruthlessness and cold manipulations lay Nixon’s affection and admiration for Yahya Khan, a man he compared to Lincoln, and his contempt for India, which he thought needed a good famine. Just as Lincoln had fought to maintain the USA’s unity, Nixon expected Yahya to fight to keep East Pakistan. Asking Yahya to deal with the Awami League leaders in Calcutta was, for Nixon, akin to expecting Lincoln to deal with Jefferson Davis.
Nixon thought the Indians were as much at fault as the Pakistanis. Time and again he threatened to cut off aid to India and he actually did so once the war started. The US threat carried some weight - despite so much animosity towards India, the US was giving India more aid than the rest of the world combined. Just before the war started, the US cut off 70% of the most crucial military aid – around USD 17 million – grounding India’s C119 transport planes and stopping all ammunition. Nixon also ended funding for a food program and stopped a loan amounting to USD 100 million.
However, the USA still had a few good men who wanted to do the right thing. One such man was Archer Blood, the American consul-general in Dacca (as the city was then known). A humanist, Blood sent cable after cable to his superiors pleading with them to act to restrain the Pakistani government from continuing with its suppression of democracy. He was ignored. At the cost of this career, Blood sent a “dissent cable” (permitted by law since the Vietnam War in order to encourage insiders to speak out) signed by 29 colleagues saying: “Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities. Our government has evidenced what many will consider moral bankruptcy.”
Bass, who went through many hundreds of hours of de-classified White House tapes and interviewed dozens of officials in India and the US to write the Blood Telegram, tells us that Archer Blood’s career did suffer. However, his cables were leaked to the press and did raise a hue and cry. Blood was not the only good American who helped the Bengali cause. Senator Edward Kennedy visited India, along with American experts on development and refugee relief who could attest to the malnourishment and misery underwent by the refugees. Travelling on transport provided by the Indian government (which laid out the red carpet), he visited many refugee camps. When he got back to the US, Ted Kennedy announced that he had seen the ‘the most appalling tide of human misery in modern times.' The Concert for Bangladesh organised by Ravi Shankar and George Harrison at Madison Square Garden four months before the start of the war added to the growing chorus against supporting Pakistan.
However, Nixon and Kissinger held their ground and after the war started going badly for Pakistan, resorting to extreme brinksmanship to prevent an Indian assault against West Pakistan after the surrender in the East. The US supported Pakistan not just because it felt India had strayed into the Soviet camp, but also because Nixon and Kissinger thought that Yahya Khan made the perfect courier for establishing ties with Zhou Enlai’s China. Discarding the option of using the Romanians or even the French to establish a link with Peking, Kissinger had Yahya carry messages to Peking and even spread a canard that Kissinger was laid up ill in Pakistan while on a visit so that he could fly to Peking and meet with Zhou Enlai. Kissinger was astounded by Zhou Enlai’s animosity and vituperative hatred towards India. Putting a match to such gunpowder came naturally to Kissinger. Pledging his support for Pakistan, Zhou Enlai suggested that the 1962 Chinese defeat of India could possibly be repeated. When the war finally started on 3 December 1971, the Chinese did not seriously threaten India. If they had, China would have opened itself to the possibility of attack from a million Soviet soldiers on its borders. In any event, the Indians had taken care to wait till the mountains were impassable with snow.
At the end of it all, one is left with no doubt that to the list of victims of US imperialism such as Vietam, Laos, Cambodia and Chile should be added Bangladesh. Also, that Kissinger should be tried for his role in such callous disregard of human rights, akin to any war criminal.
The Blood Telegram is interesting not only for the exposure of the politically incorrect dialogue (by today’s standards) which emerges from those White House tapes – the word ‘rape’ is used often, in the context of what India did to Pakistan, but also for snippets such as that Indian generals shared some of their Pakistani counterparts’ stereotypes about Bengali cowardice and were not very impressed with Bengali fighters. General Sam Manekshaw is quoted as saying, ‘you Bengalis run, you don’t fight.’
Despite India having excellent relations with most of the developing world, India received little or no support from countries outside the Iron Curtain. The entire Arab world, Iran and other Islamic countries sided with Pakistan, taking the line that maintaining Pakistan’s unity was of paramount importance. Yugoslavia was an exception as was (unsurprisingly) Israel, though Indian did not have diplomatic ties with Israel at that time. Iran and Jordan went to the extent of sending their US supplied fighter planes to Pakistan, on the secret understanding with Nixon-Kissinger that any loss would be replaced by the United States. Bass argues that such a move, just another example of cow-boy style behaviour from the Nixon-Kissinger duo, was in breach of US law, which forbade the US from giving military aid to Pakistan, either directly or indirectly.
When Nixon sent the USS Enterprise sailing towards the Bay of Bengal, he had no intention of ever resorting to force against India. US public opinion would not have accepted such action, Bass tells us. Unlike India’s aircraft carrier INS Vikrant which relied on a steam boiler, the USS Enterprise was nuclear powered and could sail around the world without refuelling. INS Vikrant was lucky if its boiler worked. Three months before the war, the Indian navy had declared INS Vikrant inoperable, since it had a crack in its boiler. However, the boiler was patched up and INS Vikrant took part in the blockade of Chittagong. Not only was the USS Enterprise five times the size of INS Vikrant, one of its escorts the Tripoli was bigger than INS Vikrant. Nevertheless, India did not fall for the US bluff and held its nerve.
The Soviet Union too was not very keen that India should get involved in a war with Pakistan over Bangladesh, but once the war started, it stood by India and kept vetoing Security Council resolutions calling for a ceasefire. The Indians knew that the Soviet Union would not apply its veto indefinitely. In the meantime, the General Assembly passed a resolution calling for a ceasefire. 104 countries voted in favour and only 11 voted against it. Even Yugoslavia voted for the ceasefire. Thankfully for India, General Assembly resolutions aren’t binding. Finally on 13 December, the Soviets informed India that there would be no more vetos in the Security Council. By that time, India managed to squeeze out a surrender from Lt. General Niazi
Bass notes that, unlike in the case of Vietnam, Nixon and Kissinger were able to deflect any blame for their behaviour during the Bangladesh War. Two years after the Bangladesh War, just after he became secretary of state, a Gallup Poll found that Kissinger was the most admired person in the US. Bass notes with sadness that when Mujib Ur Rehman was assassinated in August 1975 and military rule imposed in Bangladesh, India happily kept up normal ties with the new military ruler, despite having intervened in the name of democracy a few years earlier. On the whole, Bass seems to find Indians genuine and altruistic, while also scheming and manipulative, though he doesn’t say so in as many words.
Every time I read a book relating to Bangladesh, I keep asking myself a fundamental question - why aren’t India and Bangladesh better friends than they are? Why is it that within five years of the liberation of Bangladesh, in January 1976, Bangladesh re-established ties with Pakistan? Did the Pakistani army actually kill three million civilians during their crackdown on the liberation movement? To use an analogy, let’s assume that a Nazi Government had continued to be in power in defeated Germany after the Second World War. Would Israel have good relations with such a country? Why do so many Bangladeshis want to have, as good a relationship with Pakistan, as with India? Why are so many Bangladeshis friendlier towards Pakistan than towards India? Why is the Bangladesh National Party able to flourish in Bangladesh, even gaining power on a few occasions, despite being inimical towards India and friendlier towards Pakistan and despite being allied with the Jamaat-e-Islami which had collaborated with West Pakistan and opposed Bangladeshi independence? All these questions I had raised in this post dated March 2009.
The Blood telegram provides one important clue to the answers I’ve been looking for though it does not go out of the way to comment on the actual number of deaths which took place, other than saying that in June 1971, the USS State Department estimated that around two hundred thousand people had been killed. According to Bass, most of the victims of the Pakistani army were Hindus. Eighty or ninety percentage of the refugees were Hindus and the Pakistani army did everything possible to encourage the exodus. As Kenneth Keating, the US Ambassador to India explained to President Nixon, who couldn’t care less, the reason the refugees kept coming at the rate of 150,000 a day was ‘because they were killing the Hindus.’ According to Keating, at first the killings had been indiscriminate. After the Pakistani army got control of the large centres, the Pakistani army carried out a specific genocide against the Hindus. There was widespread rape, which again specifically targeted the Hindus. Hindu houses were marked with yellow H signs, in a manner eerily reminiscent of Nazi victimisation of the Jews.
The answer I have been looking for could be this. If Pakistani forces had indiscriminately killed Muslims and Hindus, Bangladesh’s collective consciousness would not permit good relations with Pakistan. However, except for the murder of some Muslim intellectuals, most of the victims of the Pakistani army were Hindus. Most of the relatives of those victims no longer live in Bangladesh (since they fled to India as refugees and never returned) and thus it is relatively easy for the current population of Bangladesh to accept Pakistan as just another fellow Islamic country.
On the question of whether three million Bengalis actually died at the hands of troops from West Pakistan, Sarmila Bose’s Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War seeks to provide some answers.