Thursday, 7 November 2013

Book Review: The Blood Telegram – India’s Secret War in East Pakistan, by Gary J. Bass

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.

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