The bloody massacre in Bangladesh quickly covered over the memory of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, the assassination of Allende drowned out the groans of Bangladesh, the war in the Sinai Desert made people forget Allende, the Cambodian massacre made people forget Sinai, and so on and so forth until ultimately everyone lets everything be forgotten.
– Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.
This is the quote with which Gary J Bass begins his book The Blood Telegram: India’s Secret War in East Pakistan, written more than 40 years after the Liberation of Bangladesh. Now, with the events of 1971 distant enough to be revised or ignored, these lines from Kundera are apt in introducing its horrors.
There is an internet adage called Godwin’s Law (or Godwin’s Rule of Nazi Analogies). The rule states that the longer an online discussion gets, the more likely that a comparison will be made with Hitler or the Nazis. This is not only true of the Westerners but also true for the brown people of Southasia, where the Bangladesh genocide of 1971 happened. The failure to imagine one’s own tragedies as a benchmark for human tragedies stems from a peculiar estrangement from one’s past and surroundings. But something else is also at work here: it is the process by which some experiences are made more human (typically experiences of white humans) and some experiences are made mere statistics (typically those of non-white humans).
It is this alienating worldview that the global North passes on to deracinated elites of the South. This disconnection from their home-societies always makes them more predisposed to valuing certain kinds of intellectual imports over others. It is interesting that, unlike Godwin’s Law, nothing from the global South is ever an analogy that comes up to represent the universally reprehensible – this in a world where the primary victims of mass violence have predominantly been from the global South. The 1971 genocide in Bangladesh, given the shorter time span in which it occurred, had a bigger impact than the one that has become the template for genocide: Bangladesh, within ten months, saw nearly half the number of death that occurred in the Holocaust during the entire Second World War. There is also enough proof that the self-proclaimed leader of the ‘free’ world supplied arms to the genocidal war machine in 1971, and these were actually used on the unarmed population of Bangladesh (then East Pakistan).
White House tapes
This book by Bass, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, is a very important document. Most of the work available on the events of 1971 are in Bengali and are based on field reports and personal accounts. However, what happened in 1971 was not fully determined in Bangladesh. Bass brings forth the not-so-small role of the US – what it could have done and what it did not. This, in spite of a public and even governmental-bureaucratic effort to stop activities that essentially assisted in the genocide.
By undertaking a painstaking review of the US White House audio-tape records, of discussions between then US president Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, among other sources, Bass reconstructs the priorities that drove the US policy on Pakistan (West and East). It is a study in the insignificance of the value of the lives of little dark people when big white boys play for ‘big’ stakes in global realpolitik. A survey of history and the present will show the apathy and even complicity of big powers in the death of hundreds of thousands of human beings. But this is not something limited to the Cold War context; or restricted to a violent past from which the world has been purportedly delivered, first by the end of the Second World War and then by the fall of the Soviet Union.
What emerges from the account, beyond the foul-mouthedness (important to remember as the Subcontinent’s ‘cultured’ elite express disgust at the language of their leaders and wish for a more American-style ‘civilised’ discourse), prejudice and malevolence of Nixon and Kissinger is the bigger picture. Nixon nurtured an animus towards India and its then prime minister Indira Gandhi. He considered ‘softness’ towards things Indian as a ‘liberal’ trait to be associated with the Democratic Party in the US. Nixon’s hate for India and Indira Gandhi did not have much to do with major human-rights abuses that occurred under New Delhi’s watch. It appears that India’s ‘non-alignedness’ was widely seen (and probably correctly so) as a mark of closeness to the Soviet Union.
In the ‘bigger’ calculation of Cold War era equations, a Sino-Soviet split (ostensibly along ‘ideological’ lines, with China representing the ‘radical’ camp of world communist forces) opened possible alternatives for the US to delimit tthe USSR. The US and China used private communication channels to reach out to each other, and finally ended hostilities in the summit meeting between Nixon and Mao in 1972. Yahya Khan, Pakistan’s incumbent military dictator, was the crucial go-between in the communications between the two countries leading up to the summit. To Nixon, Yahya was a “man’s man” and “not some woman running a country” (the reference to Indira Gandhi cannot be missed). Due to the ‘world historical importance’ of the coming US-China strategic adjustment, Nixon and Kissinger were ready to go against the bulk of the American public opinion and the feedback it was receiving from its consulate about the ongoing brutalities in Dhaka. Further, given Yahya’s pivotal role, at no cost was Nixon ready to let him down.
Theatre of death
The actual cost of prioritising high politics over the lives of faceless brown people was the direct death of at least three lakh (300,000) people (the Bangladesh government claims a figure of 30 lakhs), one crore refugees (who mostly moved from East Bengal to West Bengal in India), and at least thousands being raped systematically, and often under long-term detention, amounting to horrific sexual slavery. Bass argues, that the principal religious minority community of East Bengal/East Pakistan, the Hindus, were disproportionately victimised in all these crimes. That their special suffering during liberation has not resulted in equal citizenship and safety in liberated Bangladesh is another story.
Bass takes us through the day-to-day consultations and brainstorming sessions at the White House and, as such, gives a valuable view of decision-making. The book connects the killing fields of Bangladesh to the idyllic setting of the White House and presents the strongest link between them in public till now. The Nixon tapes show that, in power politics, even genocide is not reason enough to change course. It’s a close view into the inner-mind of power.
The other stage, and the most obvious one in this tragic theatre, is of course at Dhaka. Here, Archer Blood, the principled US diplomat posted at Dhaka, assisted by his junior staff, cables back truths about the ground situation to Washington. Blood had ambitions to become an ambassador, as any officer of the diplomatic corps does. But with this act of ‘defiance’, he consciously undercut those possibilities. These telegrams, also accessible by some other members of the US diplomatic corps, spread across the world and created stirrings. Unfortunately, these stirrings were too little too late for the situation unfolding in East Bengal. However, some arms consignments to Pakistan were blocked by an embargo imposed by USA – something that infuriated Nixon. Blood and his colleagues at the Dhaka consulate are among the few Americans in the plot who chose humanity instead of realpolitik. These were the good Yankees.
‘India’s Secret War in East Pakistan’ is a misleading subtitle for the book. India’s own machinations are hardly surveyed in much detail. It is undeniable that the effect of a long-drawn secular Bengali nationalist movement for liberation on India’s own Bengali majority and politically volatile state of West Bengal was part of New Delhi’s calculus. It wanted a swift end to the war with no vagueness about the territorial limits of the Bengali independence spirit.
India’s actions were driven by its own interest, which, among many others, was an apprehension about the kinds of forces that an unassisted Liberation of Bangladesh or a simmering Bengali nationalist independence movement would unleash within its own Bengali-majority areas, West Bengal in particular. This was especially relevant given the strong anti-communal message from the major constituents of the Liberation War forces, including Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who in his momentous speech on 7 March 1971 said:
Ei banglay Hindu-Musolman, Bangali-Obangali, jara ase, tara amader bhai. Tader rokkhar daityo apnader upore. Amader jeno bodnam na hoy
In Bengal, Hindu-Muslim, Bengali-Non-Bengali, whoever is there, they are our brothers. You are responsible for their safety and security. There shouldn’t be any taint to our honour.
The various readings of this reassuring statement (which wasn’t upheld in some cases) and the possible social life of this message could have had unexpected resonances. The significance of such statements has to be looked at in the backdrop of the political turbulence existing in the two Bengals at the time. Some Marxist guerrillas of East Bengal clearly claim inspiration from the Naxalite uprising in West Bengal. A number of these groups also shared the Communist Party of India (Marxist Leninist)’s assessment that India’s role in East Bengal was part of its regional hegemonic plans. Some in the East not only saw the Liberation War as a first step towards establishing their kind of regime, but also expected the urban insurrection in West Bengal to take similar hues.
Regional hegemony of the Indian state and its imperialist tendencies was severely opposed by both sides. Thus slogans like ‘Epar Bangla opar Bangla, Joy Bangla, Joy Bangla’ (Bengal on this side, Bengal on that side, Victory to Bengal, Victory to Bengal) and ‘Dui Banglar Checkpost, Uriye Dao’ (The checkposts between the two Bengals – destroy them) started making some rounds, mostly in opar, in the West, where India moved quickly, to nip certain ideas in the bud.
The ominous import of these tendencies vis-à-vis the Indian Union is hard to miss. These slogans of Naxalites and armed groups of the radical left that were active in East Bengal could have been pregnant with more than symbolic possibilities. Especially if the Indian intervention in favour of Bangladesh had been dithering and the guerrilla movement dragged on for a little longer, or had post-liberation Bangladesh continued for a longer time as a secular democracy (though this last scenario is outside the timeframe covered in the book).
The story of Blood Telegram is incomplete as we still await substantive documents from Pakistan, India, China and Russia. Among these, Pakistan and India are key. However, these two entities are not exactly paragons of openness when it comes to public disclosure of governmental information. So the understanding of the multiple dimensions of 1971 will remain an evolving thing.
While the courage of Blood and his associates at the Dhaka consulate are not to be diminished and are extremely commendable (especially the audacity of telling Washington undiplomatically about Bangladesh’s reality and the role of US policy in creating that reality, hence putting their careers on the line), it is important that the stories of fortitude and dignity shown by lakhs of people of East Bengal come to greater light. It may be unavoidable that in accounts that look so thoroughly into US diplomatic and presidential information, the role of certain white men may be magnified, in both good and bad ways. In such portrayals of Bangladesh and 1971, the difference between some whites and some browns, in courage as well as criminality, invariably feels smaller. That’s a feeling one has to fight constantly against when reading any account of 1971 Liberation of Bangladesh. Especially in an increasingly Anglophone world, where coloured people’s narratives are increasingly mediated by native gatekeepers or those with contacts in the primarily-white global North.
~Garga Chatterjee is a commentator on the culture and politics of Southasia. He holds a PhD from Harvard. A collection of his writings can be found at www.hajarduari.wordpress.com. You can follow him on Twitter @gargac.