The Righteous Republic

The Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India

Scholars that have plumbed the traditions of Indian intellectual history appear to be driven by a tendency to rely greatly on western traditions of political thought and concepts, explicating their resonance in India through a process of institutional transplantation. But what of India’s own ideational and moral (Indic) traditions that extend back millennia? Are they important or redundant? Can we, plainly, attribute the endurance of India’s democracy to the capability of the nation’s founding figures to deftly read, interpret and deploy these texts to assist in the founding and governance of the republic? Ananya Vajpeyi argues that we can. Her recent book, The Righteous Republic, is an ode to the significance of Indic traditions of thought dating back to the likes of Buddha, Kabir, Asoka, Kautilya and the Gita; by examining these philological texts, Vajpeyi contends that five seminal founding figures of India – Gandhi, Nehru, Tagores (Rabindranathan and Abanindranath) and Ambedkar, drew from them to define the notion of India’s selfhood (swa in swaraj) or the understandings of what an independent India would be and how it would exist. Portions of these historical tracts were instrumental in determining how these thinkers hoped and wished of India once it became a sovereign entity. To do so, Vajpeyi delineates five different political concepts, tethered to these founding figures and their interpretation of various Indic traditions – Ahimsa or the self’s orientation (Gandhi), Viraha or the self’s longing (Rabindranath), Samvega or self’s shock (Abanindranath), Dharma and Artha or self’s norm and purpose (Nehru) and Duhka or self’s suffering (Ambedkar).

By conducting this inquiry, Vajpeyi seeks to add nuance to the notions of the ‘Idea of India’ popularized around the seminal work of Sunil Khilnani in his seminal study of the Indian political experiment in 1997. What Khilnani and other accounts that tread close to his emphasize is how India’s nationalist leaders sought to embark on an unprecedented political journey through the institution of a nation that was embedded under the shackles of oppressive religious and social traditions. To do so, they drew heavily from western concepts of liberty, democracy and equality, that were hitherto foreign to India’s political terrain, or the story goes. Vajpeyi rejects this notion and argues that there existed a rather robust and deep ‘Indian’ political ethos that extends back centuries, which were utilized at various points of India’s founding to institutionalize political practices and traditions, contributing to the definition of India as a sovereign state with a ‘self.’ Through these leading founding figures, Vajepyi goes on to show that the idea(s) of India, indeed, predated the birth of India, which made them rather useful once autonomy was acquired.

As an intellectual exercise, Vajpeyi’s work is noteworthy in underscoring that scholars must not desist from considering and exploring whether (and how) Indic traditions served as key intellectual guides leading to the creation of India and thereafter. One of Vajpeyi’s laments, which is detailed early on, is the notable lack of understanding of Muslim intellectual traditions in pre-Independent India and the intellectual influences of leaders like Jinnah and Maulana Azad as they worked with and against Congress leaders like Nehru and Patel and Gandhi himself. Though admirable, shifting the emphasis towards domestically oriented and homegrown traditions must not arrive at the expense of dispensing with western ideas, which many nationalist leaders not only imbibed but also applied as they sought to create a republic. Or in other words, what is important is to understand how these literary traditions clashed with each other through the politics of the moment, leading to different political choices. Disentangling one from the other does a major disservice since the origins of India and the nationalist movement were far from ‘national’; they were clear international origins to the nationalist surge in India and it is critical to intellectually fuse these different traditions to gauge their importance and eventual influence. On this count, Vajpeyi arguably errs given her approach is grounded on unearthing valid Indic traditions and delineating their influence rather exclusively.


Internationalist India

Mark Mazower – No Enchanted Palace: The Ideological Origins of the United Nations

Manu Bhagavan – India and the Quest for One World: The Peacemakers

Srinath Raghavan – War and Peace in Modern India

A recent Foreign Policy article in 2012 decried that of all the emerging powers, India was the bane of America’s efforts to integrate rising powers into the global order such that they can be relied upon to assist the hegemon  shoulder extant global responsibilities. This order is being ostensibly buffeted by an array of different collective action challenges from climate change to vicious epidemics and burgeoning energy and water deficits. India, as the article claimed exhibited a disturbing disinterest to function as a key global stakeholder, contributing to the global public goods. Troublingly as the article claimed, India was the country that voted against the United States the most in the UN General Assembly, becoming the US’s biggest ‘headache’; it has also become the country that has largely stymied progress within the global trade and climate regimes.

But this has not always been the case. As the UN came into existence, India was at the forefront of this nascent global governance milieu, working assiduously to advance and institutionalise norms within various processes. Several Indian leaders served in high capacities across the UN establishment with considerable esteem, including the first female president of UN General Assembly, Vijayalakshmi Pandit. And Nehru himself bestrode global diplomatic circles as a colossus. Two recent books shed light on this exemplary global leadership from India and another expounds on how India, chiefly Nehru, balanced this idealism with a heavy dose of realism as he managed a string of regional crises where force was strategically deployed. What emerges from these three books is an India that is capable of global leadership, though albeit under different circumstances, an exploration of the conditions that facilitate and curb that impulse and the regional obstacles that cause India to square that idealism with realist tendencies.

Was the UN (pre) destined to fail? Are debates and conversations on reforming the organization redundant or – futile? Should we spend our time zeroing in on managerial and efficiency issues when the problem, at the core, is structural and historic? Mark Mazower argues so. No Enchanted Palace is a history of the origins of the UN, bringing into light, the contextual and ideological underpinnings of the covenant that birthed the world organization. Any discussion surrounding the organization’s current and future, he argues, must pay a nod to its past, which was born in the crucible of war and empire. The covenant forged in 1945, Mazower states, was never designed to lead to a global forum that respected the rights and place of countries emerging from decolonization. Instead, Mazower contends modern global governance that rose in the form of the UN was solely a creation to perpetuate and extend imperial rule; it was a project designed to embed imperialism into a nascent internationalism.

To make his case, Mazower challenges two fundamental and long-standing axioms of the post-war global consensus that led to the ensuing institutional surge, including the creation UN and the Bretton Woods duopoly. First was the notion that the UN rose of the ashes of the war and the legacies wrought by the destruction. And second, that post-war institutional accord was an all-American affair, as commonly understood. Instead, Mazower connects the lineage of the UN to the doomed League of Nations and the range of ideas that shepherded its rise, embedding it under an imperial tableau. British imperial ideas and exigencies formed the edifice surrounding the creation of the UN and post-war multilateralism. Questions of empire and its extension were of principal importance to the architects of the League and subsequently, the UN, as they debated the nature and orientation of the post-war world. As Mazower argues, ‘the UN was the product of evolution, not revolution, and it grew out of existing ideas and institutions, their successes and failures as revealed by the challenges of the war itself.’ Thus, any analysis of the organizations relevance and salience must historically trace its origins not to the 1940s but to the incipient debates of order, security and nationhood that took place earlier under the auspices of the British Empire. Mazower frames his narrative surrounding four thinkers and practitioners – Jan Smuts, Alfred Zimmern, Joseph Schectman and Jawaharlal Nehru.

At the outset, the efforts and ideas of Jan Smuts is presented as the founding credo of post-war internationalism. It is rather disconcerting to note, in retrospect, that an individual, who held rather reprehensible views of racial equality was one of the pre-eminent progenitors of the League of Nations and through that the UN. A fervent proponent of racial superiority, Smuts held that internationalism must be grounded on the pillars of imperialism to extend white domination of the world. And he vigorously sought to secure American backing for this project given his clear-eyed understanding of the geopolitical shifts on the horizon. The League was designed to be and function as an eminently ‘Victorian institution’ with an onus towards safeguarding and buttressing imperial colonies under an international framework until they were capable of self-governance. Under this framework and the watchful eye of imperial masters, colonies and their ‘inferior races’ could be civilized, bespeaking an order that was rather heavy in moralising and infirm in terms of rights and accountability.

Alfred Zimmern, educator, political theorist, and one of the first Trans-Atlantic interlocutors, was one of the initial drafters of the League at Whitehall and served as a key source of advice and counsel for Washington as it prepared for an era of international leadership. Zimmern placed considerable faith in values of British Liberalism, imploring the United States to deploy the incipient organization to act as a beacon of global freedom. Zimmern’s ideas were firmly couched under a moral idiom, which he used as frames of reference when penning the core templates of the League. Once the war ended, he focused his attempts to create a series of think tanks and intellectual networks that would knit the United States and Great Britain, in their joint effort as stewards of moral leadership in the world. At the core, he sought to create the intellectual foundation for a global liberal order that under Anglo-American leadership was consonant with empire and its extension. For Zimmern, this project could not be branded as an imperial one since at its very core, it had a moral basis, that of advancing the cause of liberty and freedom to regions and populations that had not experienced it; this was an act of altruism, not driven by self-interest or rapaciousness. Indeed, many in Washington, unknowingly, seek to channel Zimmern’s exhortations to export freedom and democracy for a world that is still fraught with tensions and challenges. The emergence of the neo-conservative cabal is the perhaps, apogee, of this impulse, captured by their desire to export democracy through the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, following 9/11.

As a stinging rejoinder to these strands of universalism that hinged on false notions of empire twinned on the hip of internationalism, came India and Jawaharlal Nehru. The most arresting part of Mazower’s narrative is the efforts of India (pre-independence) in opening the pandora’s box of anticolonial sentiment, which had triggered myriad frictions within the new organization. As the UN was pulled into adjudicating imperial disputes, it exposed itself to being appropriated by the simmering discontent against imperial rule. Having commenced as an institution intent on restoring imperial fortunes, it quickly transformed into a hotspot and battleground of anti-imperial sentiment. Much credit to this belongs to India and Jawaharlal Nehru. Two issues were responsible – the annexation of South-West Africa by South Africa and the racial discrimination being subjected to Indians in South Africa. The Indian delegation seized on these matters to bring to bear the rights and the independence of colonies and its citizens, who continue to fall victim to the capricious conduct of imperial powers. As Mazower demonstrates, Delhi’s views toward these overtures were an affront to the hard peace gained after the war. Prejudice, in other words, endangered peace. To Nehru, the evils of fascism and imperialism were rather indistinct and needed to be countered with full force. International cooperation that, fostered and extended, imperial fiat were not to be countenanced. Together with his formidable sister, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Nehru and Gandhi sought to wage a battle for the soul of the UN, forcing it to confront and exorcise its foundational flaws to be considered legitimate. With considerable rhetoric, they used the UN General Assembly in 1946 to make their case for a ‘world cause’ that concerned the rights of publics across the global south, from Africa to Asia, who were struggling for ‘equality of opportunity for all races.’ Racial politics, in Nehru’s words, should not be condoned; human rights and civil rights mattered and the new forum should be used to highlight their importance, despite concerns of domestic jurisdiction and sovereignty. The Indians eventually prevailed as their motion was voted through the General Assembly. The triumph was, however, double edged. Though the GA found its voice and accrued more power in due course by upbraiding colonial actions, it also engendered regional blocs, especially in Asia, that quickly fragmented, further abetted by the convulsions of the cold war. As decolonization hastened, western norms of sovereignty and statehood also travelled, eventually generating an excessive deference towards sovereignty coupled with the inability to act against the whims of states when they contravened international law, one of the reasons underpinning the UN in 1946. When analysing or making judgments of the conduct of the UN, one must do so in the context of these historical legacies given their critical role in the foundation of the organization. It was not, simply put, designed to challenge or subvert great power politics but to sublimate it.

This internationalist thread is given a nationalist frame by Manu Bhagavan in The Peacemakers, a narrative history of India’s robust multilateral leadership leading to the emergence of the United Nations and notably, the UN Declaration of Human Rights, forged through the work of an important commission that was headed by a Gujarati Indian feminist, Hansa Mehta. But the key cast of Bhagavan’s story are Gandhi, Nehru and his eminently resourceful sister – Nan Pandit, endowed with considerable intellect, vigour and oratory which was in full display at various critical junctures in the UN’s genesis. This surprising and hitherto untold narrative is centered on a pivotal conjuncture (end of the war and the demise of colonial rule) that culminated in a unique and rather propitious moment for the creation of a global covenant that could secure and advance the peace of all humanity. Decolonization coupled with the rise of new great powers generated an opening where conceptions of human rights were advanced with emergent ideas of citizenship, nationality and the nation-state that were all embedded under a broader global framework headed by a ‘meta-authority’ clothed in the form of the UN. To facilitate and realise this rather radical desire on the global stage where in simultaneity, fissures in global politics were emerging, Indian leaders were front stage and centre.

Working with the concept of ‘One World,’ Nehru and her sister Nan Pandit, under the tutelage and counsel of the Mahatma, sought to forge a new agenda on the global stage that focused on the (human) rights of citizens across the world. And they seized the remit of the emergent global organization to make their case. Working from Republican presidential candidate Wendell Wilkie’s book ‘One World,’ they called for a new grand global alliance that would facilitate the cause of a durable world peace. Nehru and Gandhi drew from Wilkie’s idea to give succour to the notion of a world federation consisting of nation states working together in unison to engender peace and prosperity; nothing short of a global body would be enough to rid the world of colonialism, they argued, that continued to threaten nations being forged in the crucible of the war’s demise. Some of these globally oriented ideas, as Bhagavan describes, also emanates from India’s own move to independence, which allowed leading thinkers and leaders like Nehru to ruminate on what role an independent India would play in a world being fundamentally reconfigured, providing a space for normative leadership.

And this leadership manifested in several ways through the agency of several key Indian leaders, including Gandhi, Nehru, Hansa Mehta and VK Krishna Menon, though not always constructively in the latter’s case. But there was no doubt that the flagship bearer of this ‘ideational’ India was Vijayalakshmi Pandit, who emerges as the key actor behind the scenes in Bhagavan’s narrative. The tasks and responsibilities given to her provided ample scope to display her multifaceted personality – resoluteness, fearlessness, intelligence, exceptional oratory skills, unabashed critic of colonial rule and an unstinting advocate of the disenfranchised across the world. She cut as both inspirational and intimidating figure to those that crossed her path. Bhagavan presents few encounters where Nan Pandit’s skills were deployed to destroy many a competitor, including the eminent South African leader Jan Smuts in the lead up to the important minority rights resolution that India advocated and persistently drove in the General Assembly against South Africa. Her future diplomatic appointments are a testament to the trust reposed by Nehru and the senior Indian leadership as well as to her redoubtable qualities, which served India with aplomb.

Some of Bhagavan’s most interesting passages deal with the drive to develop a binding, globally relevant and agreed upon human rights regime for all citizens across the world. Though India’s political standing and capital were high, this was no small task. Hansa Mehta’s advocacy at the working group on implementation of the Human Rights Commission bequeathed her considerable scope to adumbrate how human rights were to be implemented and defended. Her efforts resulted in the GA assuming the responsibility when confronted with egregious human rights violations despite the body’s reservations vis-à-vis domestic considerations and sovereignty. Eventually, the working group approved a watered down resolution that was predicated on the notion of ‘justiceable rights’ that secured the imprimatur of many leading powers within the UNO eventually culminating in a universal declaration on Human Rights that had moral force. Another strand that Bhagavan explores, though sparingly, is how Nehru’s efforts to mould a constitutional nation state in India meshed and got entangled with ongoing efforts to institutionalise a nascent UN. Nehru, masterfully exploited developments in the international sphere to goad domestic actors, especially princely states that were on the cusp of accession, to reach a consensus. The idea of India that Nehru was advocating for and forging also had international origins.

Bhagavan’s book also presents us with several puzzles for future scholars. How could a country just entering its birth serve as the exemplar and moral force behind arguably the world’s most important humanitarian document – UN Human Rights Declaration? What drove leaders like Nehru and Gandhi to speak out for the rights of citizens across the world? How did a nation steeped in idealpolitik effectively turn its back on its founding legacies and ideas? These are critically important questions as India, after decades of barren growth and insular politics, must consider if it can renew its trysts with its guiding normative legacies that served humanity writ large through the UN.

Srinath Raghavan’s War and Peace in Modern India is a rather striking and note-worthy riposte to Bhagavan’s narrative, showing a Nehru who was as cautious as he was idealistic and not shy to deploy force to gain leverage once a crisis descended. Force, as Raghavan expounds, was regarded by Nehru as the ‘lesser of two evils,’ that could be used to extract concessions and acquire advantage with the adversary. Drawing from the conceptual toolkit of strategy, Raghavan infers that Nehru’s approach during successive foreign crises conforms to coercive, rather than controlling strategic approach; or in other words, an approach where coercion or different types of force is used to influence and delimit the choices available to the opponent. By so doing, the coercive actor is able to harness the situation to their benefit given that the opponent will find it hard pressed to commensurately retaliate having ceded the first-movers advantage, which either deters them from undertaking undesirable actions or compels them to concede. Utilizing this frame, Raghavan analyses various different foreign crises – Junagadh, Kashmir, Pakistan and China, that Nehru encountered, tazing out his strategic approach as he sought to educe the most amenable outcome for India.

Raghavan contends that Nehru’s foreign policy doctrine (if it can be called) comports with liberal realism or at the juncture of the liberal and realist traditions of thought. Fundamentally a liberal at the core, experiences at the hands of colonial rule and through it reinforced the brutality and violence that was endemic to human civilization, forcing him to calibrate his internal compass as India entered the world stage as a nation-state. As a result, the use of force was a necessary option for statesman as they navigated the treacherous waters of international politics; Nehru succumbed to this reality. But as Raghavan observes, Nehru was also equally circumspect of the use of force and power more broadly, being fully aware of its potentialities, having witnessed the horrors of the war and more closely, partition. Nehru endeavoured to tread this fine line as he attempted to grapple with a series of crises throughout the rest of his career; a mix of liberal and realist impulses characterised Nehru’s foreign policy leadership. Indeed, looking at the cases where he relied on force to secure leverage, it was characterised by limited interventions that ‘demonstrated resolve, not recklessness’ coupled with diplomatic moves intended to pressurize the opponent to cave and seek resolution. Coercion was applied, when necessary, to deter and compel the opponent to strike a diplomatic accord.

Taking the reader through a list of early crises that populated Nehru’s tenure, Raghavan effectively demonstrates how Nehru effectively balanced his ideals with the use of force. Perhaps, the most searing experience was China, where his faith and arguably his failure to effectively read China’s moves and motives led him astray. The war with China ranks as the single blight in an unblemished career marked by great professional highs; it was the nadir. Though the crisis was marked by severe deficits on the Indian side, especially on the strategic and infrastructural side, poor leadership was also a key determinant. The liberal-realist approach which proved effective in some of the early crises crumbled when confronted with an opponent that was far superior and better prepared, armed, and led. Also undressed during the crisis were India’s strategic capabilities or the lack thereof, heavily relying on Nehru’s leadership and approach, Delhi’s strategic plans were found to be in disarray.

One rather striking aspect to Nehru’s high-minded idealism (Bhagavan) and grounded realism (Raghavan) was how domestic politics intervened at various junctures to influence India’s foreign policy. A clear divergence can be traced. During the China war, it became clear how Nehru’s options and strategies were far more susceptible to domestic resistance and public opinion, which at times, grew problematic. Delhi found itself either leading without due cause or lagging behind as the chorus surrounding Beijing’s military overtures became more shrill. And in Bhagavan’s case, we can see how Nehru exploited India’s domestic experiences shedding colonial rule to exhort the global body to cater to the masses of citizens across the global south emerging from the yoke of imperialism. And as mentioned, Nehru also used international developments to goad recalcitrant domestic actors, namely princely states, to accede to the Indian union employing a similar idiom, that of rights and self-determination. Needless to say, the boundaries between domestic and international politics in India were less rigid than generally considered to be.

TPP – On Deck

One of my recent posts explored the ongoing negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a mega trade pact between countries covering Asia and the Pacific, including behemoths like the US, Korea (still unsure), Canada, Australia and Japan. Following unsuccessful negotiations in Singapore this past week, the stage is now set for a potential breakthrough in April before Obama’s next tour to Asia. Though significant obstacles remain around market access and issues like agriculture and services, there is hope that an agreement will be on the table in the next few months. 

Paul Krugman is not very enthusiastic on the proposed accord and is surprised why it has received so much attention, almost undeserving of its potential. Two issues strike his criticism as eminently warranted. Since existing barriers between the nations negotiating are already so low in many areas, it is unclear how much of a difference the TPP will make or the range of net gains that stand to be accrued by acceding. The existence of other agreements between member nations involved here including NAFTA and the ongoing bilateral negotiations between some adds to this conundrum. Will the TPP be a game-changer? Largely unlikely. Second, the exclusion of China, perhaps consciously, does not bode well for the future of Asia-Pacific regionalism or East Asian trade. Removing the largest market, the largest labour force, largest manufacturing sector and the most capital intensive Asian economy from the picture is not a positive sign. Indeed, the negation of China detracts the pact’s potential writ large; Chinese exclusion may have unintended geopolitical ramifications for the entire Asian region. And finally, the spectre of domestic politics might rear and scuttle progress at any moment. In the United States, Congress continues to dangle ‘trade promotion authority’ for Obama, which is critical given its fast-track features. Looking at Japan, one can expect more domestic resistance as Abe continues to ram through necessary multi-track reforms, including TPP and other structural reforms, which are twinned to a certain extent.

Better to be cautious and humble as Krugman suggests than the obverse at this juncture and tread judiciously until breakthroughs are secured.

Book lists of the Year – 2013

Its my favourite time of the year again – time of best book lists of the year. Good time to check and see how what I’ve been reading ranks with the top of what this year has produced. Here are some of the lists below:

NY Times Top Ten of 2013  – Read a couple of them, including Sonali Deraniyagala’s hauntingly poignant memoir of her unfathomable loss – Wave and Days of Fire by Peter Baker, master tour de-force through W’s presidency, including some effective myth busting. Need to catch up on Blinder’s take on the financial crisis and Christopher Clarks masterful Sleepwalkers

New Republic’s Top Books of 2013  – Some notable books here, though different from the ones of the NYT countdown. Managed to read George Packer’s The Unwinding and Gary Bass’s The Blood Telegram, both extremely deft at their respective narratives with Packer plumbing the depths of America’s domestic malaise through individual vignettes and Bass providing a pulsating account of U.S.’s Pakistan policy in the lead up to the creation of Bangladesh. Other notable additions here include the FT/Goldman Sachs Business book of the year – The Everything Store by Brad Stone and Tenth of December by George Saunders, also featured in the NYT’s top ten.

Guardians’s Top Books of the year – Great choices by a wide ranging group of authors including Mohsin Hamid, Hilary Mantel, Malcolm Gladwell, Jonathan Franzen, Eleanor Catton, Richard Frankel and Richard Ford.

Bill Gates’s Top Books of 2013  – An avid reader, Gates puts forward his picks for 2013. Choices here include few on development issues, climate change, infrastructure, culture and higher education in America – all issues that Gates has exhibited an interest to fund.

Wash Post Fix’s Top Political Books of 2013 – My favourite kind of book, managed to read quite a few of the picks here including some of the presidential treatises on Wilson, Taft and TR, Bush and Cheney and Obama. Great list.

Bloomberg’s Top Books of 2013 –  Interestingly, after reading this book, I realised that the genre of book I prefer reading the most is Economics/Development/Business. Unsurprisingly, some good selections here that I have also managed to read this year, probably the most of any of the lists above, including Austerity, The Battle of Bretton Woods, The Alchemists, The Quest, An Uncertain Glory, Big Data, Worldly Philosopher. 

All in all, a great year for books!

Emergent Intervention – Rise of Bangladesh and Humanitarian Intervention in Retrospect

The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide – Gary Bass 

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

Two recent books shed new light on the crisis that led to the dismemberment of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh, situating in historical perspective, the rise of a new state through a case of successful and swift humanitarian intervention. In the wake of Syria and, before then, Libya, revisiting this particular crisis beckons us to consider the thorny vexing questions that need to be considered before intervening, the interests and motivations that underpin, and at times, stymie that motivation, and the risks that stand to be incurred whilst doing so. If anything, both books painstakingly illustrate the complex deck of cards that confront countries contemplating intervention on humanitarian grounds.  Despite their common thread, both books, however, choose different approaches to present their narrative, with one (Gary Bass – The Blood Telegram) embedding it largely within Washington under the capricious eyes of two policymakers steeped in realpolitik (Nixon and Kissinger) and the other (Srinath Raghavan – 1971: A Global history of the creation of Bangladesh) opting to paint a much broader global picture surrounding the events that precipitated the birth of Bangladesh.

Gary Bass’s book attributes considerable agency to its leading protagonists, Nixon and Kissinger, who as we horrifyingly witness, were complicit in the atrocities perpetrated by the Yahya Khan regime. Acting as chief patrons for the odious regime in Pakistan on frivolous (Nixon’s personal affinity toward Yahya) and larger strategic grounds, both Nixon and Kissinger wantonly ignored the Pakistani army’s foray into its Eastern wing to institute order following the constitutional impasse, which gave the Awami league a numerical advantage in setting up the government following national elections. Once the army intervened, the

United States chose to plead ignorance by turning a blind eye to its activities in the interest of lending support to Yahya, who as we later come to know is furtively courting the Chinese on behalf of his patrons in the United States. As the army ploughed through Dacca, members of the US Consul General sought to, under extremely difficult conditions, beseech their superiors at the State Department and the White House to change tack by applying pressure on the Yahya regime to desist from militarily resolving their political deadlock. Their exhortations, however, fell on deaf ears; as Archer Blood, the author of the eponymous dissent missive that forms the title of Bass’s book describes “the silence from Washington was deafening.” Penned by Blood and few junior consulate officers, the telegram that now ranks as one of the most devastating ripostes ever despatched back to central command, effectively denunciated American policy towards Pakistan by proclaiming “with the conviction that U.S. policy related to recent developments in East Pakistan serves neither our moral interests broadly defined nor our national security interests narrowly defined, numerous officers in American Consulate General Dacca consider it their duty to register strong dissent with fundamental aspects of this policy.”

Some of the strongest parts of Bass’s book deal with recurring conversations between Nixon and Kissinger that largely frame the context around which the crisis unfolds, leading to intervention and eventually secession. Of most importance to the U.S. Pakistan policy was the secret opening being engineered by Yahya personally to China (interestingly Romania was another viable option as a bridge but not used given its communist status). This not only bought Yahya ammunition and time to cow the eastern province to his whims but also the tacit consent to expand whatever measures maybe necessary to manage an ‘internal problem.’ And Yahya milked it. The opening to China was deemed critical to tilt the global balance of power in favour of Washington once Moscow found itself cornered across multiple directions, but this only served to bring major powers on the brink of another major conflagration at the precipice of a regional crisis that could have been defused rather expediently. To Yahya’s credit, his triumphant brokering augmented China’s support to his regime’s actions which further emboldened Washington’s resolve to strengthen their support given their desire to not diminish their status in Beijing’s eyes. As Raghavan elaborately expounds in his book, the confluence of major power interests and machinations only complicated the ‘internal’ problem, furthering the prospects of a regional clash.

Another interesting angle to the crisis from an American perspective, hitherto untold, is how the genocide got injected into American politics. Bass devotes an entire chapter to Ted Kennedy’s involvement in the crisis, which included a foreign trip to visit East Pakistan and India, with rather assiduous support from the Indian government. As one former Indian diplomat noted, Kennedy “should be given fullest possible view of refugee problem, enabled to see as many camps as he wishes and to meet and talk to a wide cross section of refugees so that they may form a proper first hand idea of the tragedy and terror perpetrated in East Bengal.” Though largely inconsequential in terms of inducing a policy shift, Kennedy’s visit only served to stoke Nixon’s anxieties that further stiffened his position vis-a-vis India and the Democrats, who he loathed alongside the State Department for nurturing a positive regard towards India at the expense of Pakistan. Forged during his frequent visits as Vice-President, Nixon’s affinity to Pakistan was deep but as was his leverage as President, which he chose not to exercise as the slaughter continued unabated. Unlike these days, Washington, by virtue of its, deep military and political support to successive Pakistani governments had considerable pull over Islamabad given the army’s centrality over politics.

Raghavan’s 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh expands the canvas surrounding the creation of Bangladesh; Raghavan contends that by no means was the birth foretold or inevitable. It was the product of “conjunctures and contingencies, choice and chance.” Seeking to challenge prevailing notions that Bangladesh was foreordained to emerge as a sovereign state, Raghavan situates the crisis within the subcontinent, connecting it to broader global historical forces that wreak havoc, engendering a violent civil war with genocidal tendencies, another military conflict between two sparring neighbours, the dismemberment of a state founded not on blood or history but an ‘idea’, and in due course, the nuclearization of the subcontinent and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. In some ways, 1971 was the key progenitor of the problems currently plaguing South Asia. The crisis also entangled existing major powers, whose moves against one other severely impeded the quest for a quick resolution, providing a fillip for the Pakistani army to further the bloodshed.

In Raghavan’s orbit, the interests and inclinations of other middle powers are also examined in great detail, including the likes of West Germany, Britain, France, Canada, Australia. Raghavan also considers the role of international organizations, chiefly the UN and how they handled the crisis. The World Bank gets its due given the economic difficulties plaguing Pakistan and how material challenges impinged on its military policies (not much). But in Raghavan’s cast of characters, the major powers are the undoubted leads – India, China, Russia and the United States reign. India’s role is heavily dissected. Raghavan labours to debunk the commonly held myth of India’s ‘activist’ desire to carve Bangladesh out a ‘moth-eaten’ Pakistan; instead, as he demonstrates, New Delhi was rather cagey, holding its cards close to its chest, simultaneously engaging both superpowers and other middle powers to goad the Yahya regime to abjure violence whilst mobilizing for an intervention should that scenario arrive. Of principal importance to Delhi was the views of its sparring neighbours to the north – China and the Soviet Union. Despite inking a timely amenable friendship treaty with Moscow, the Soviets, to the chagrin of their Indian counterparts, proved rather fickle. Never willing to explicitly commit militarily, Moscow intensified Indian anxieties at various critical junctures. Beijing’s perceptions were intensively inferred upon. Given that Indian scars following 1962 drubbing were yet to heal, Chinese involvement in a potential regional war involving its neighbours on both sides of the border would have been insuperable for India to overcome. Given Beijing’s close dealings with Pakistan, this possibility was not all that impossible. India’s mobilization plans also accounted for the Chinese factor, Manekshaw advised Indira Gandhi that plans to intervene must be postponed until the winter sets, so as to negate as much as possible, Beijing’s capacity to intervene. However, as Raghavan delineates, China never seriously contemplated intervention given their fears of the Soviet Union and also due to the Lin Biao episode that effectively negated the possibility of a military advance from the north given the PLA’s precarious state.

Once India intervened, developments in Washington escalated. Spurned and humiliated by India’s intransigence in their eyes, Nixon and Kissinger raised the ante. Levels of vitriol hurled at the Indians grew. Indira Gandhi became enemy number one, hell-bent on roiling the carefully devised plans that Kissinger helped coordinate with Yahya, including efforts to stem the crackdown and renewed attempts at power sharing. However, as both books document, Washington (sans Edward Kennedy) failed from adequately understanding the gravity of the East Pakistani exodus into India and the troubles it caused for the Indian government. Viewing the problem strategically, both Nixon and Kissinger failed to grasp the economic and political burdens the mass movement of refugees imposed on India. Indeed, as Bass identifies, what was an internal problem for Pakistan had become an internal problem for India, thereby necessitating intervention. But this decision was far more strategic and calculated than initially deemed. Raghavan contends that India ceded considerable space and time by delaying and should have pressed the green light much earlier, as the doyen of Indian strategic thought, K Subramanyam advocated.

Furthermore, the misconceptions emanating from Washington that India, on the back of a resolute victory in liberating East Pakistan would follow-up and repeat the cause across the west, proved a sheer folly. Nary a thought was given to this possibility. Yet, Kissinger and Nixon, blindly following poor intelligence averred to impose their might on an issue that had been approaching its denouement. The despatching of the USS enterprise to the Bay of Bengal, cancellation of development assistance and the lambasting of India across the international milieu, including the UN which condemned New Delhi, appeared as desperate face saving measures by a Washington in despair. Expecting the Chinese to intervene and ‘teach the Indians a lesson,’ Kissinger and Nixon pulled out all the stops after almost a year of feckless diplomacy to no avail. Despite barren support from their non-alignment partners, India was able to withstand the opposition and secure peace for a state that had been completely ravaged.

In the end, the surrender of the Pakistani army and the creation of Bangladesh exemplified that norms do matter in international politics and when backed by sufficient power, there is considerable space and agency to prevent the occurrence of hostilities undertaken by a state on its own citizens. However, India’s actions must also be placed in context. Given the scale of refugees flowing in across the eastern borders, Delhi’s options were from the outset, limited. Intervention was possible but not always feasible. The spectre of major power involvement, always imminent, could have engendered unintended consequences and effectively regionalized the internal conflict, severely asphyxiating India in the process. If anything, the creation of Bangladesh signifies that humanitarian interventions involve considerations where interests and ideals are rather closely entwined and a sober consideration of both is required for success.