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.