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Final voyage begins to bury the ghost that stalked Bay of Bengal

New Delhi, May 5: When the history of Hillary Clinton’s visit to Calcutta and Dhaka is written for posterity, academics among future generations may be tempted to draw a comparison between her meetings with Sheikh Hasina and Mamata Banerjee now and Richard Nixon’s first handshake with Mao Zedong which changed the course of world events in our time.

Not that there will be any handshakes of Nixonian proportions between Hillary and her hosts either in Calcutta or in Dhaka. In fact, handshakes on the Bengal leg of her trip may be few since Hillary is quite comfortable with the South Asian custom of greeting people with folded hands, a throwback to her days as a senator from New York with its large Indian and Bangladeshi immigrant community.

But the historic parallel between a US secretary of state’s first-ever journey to Calcutta and the first- ever visit by a US President to communist China is in the symbolism of both leaders burying the past in America’s dealings with their two distinctively different host peoples.

Hillary’s visit to Calcutta and Dhaka coincides with the final voyage of US naval ship Enterprise: this aircraft carrier represents the lowest point in America’s engagement of Bengali nationalism.

The USS Enterprise evokes bad and bitter memories in the generation that now rules both India and Bangladesh, but the ship has a radically different image in the US. Unlike in Calcutta and Dhaka, where the USS Enterprise represents the worst in Uncle Sam, this vessel, which has eight active nuclear reactors, is the star of the US navy.

When Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger decided that the USS Enterprise should be sent to the Bay of Bengal in 1971, America’s aim clearly was to intimidate India and to try to scuttle the birth of Bangladesh.

Five years ago, when the office of the historian of the US state department released voluminous documents with the title, South Asia crisis — 1971, a complete picture of the lowest point in America’s encounter with Bengali nationalism finally received official imprimatur in Washington.

These documents reconfirmed that Kissinger used expletives against Indians in general and with reference to Indira Gandhi in particular. Kissinger has since apologised for the improper words of his choice then.

Brisk preparations are now being made in Norfolk, a sprawling US naval base in Virginia, to deactivate and decommission the USS Enterprise prior to the aircraft carrier being towed to Washington state to be broken up into scrap.

These preparations will, of course, have no direct bearing on anything Hillary achieves either in Calcutta or in Dhaka.

But it will remain one of those ironies of history that this naval ship which was the cause of so much bad blood in relations between Bengalis and America should be finally sailing into the sunset just as the very office-bearers in Washington once responsible for the nadir in those relations are seeking a new beginning with the twin halves of Bengal.

The USS Enterprise set sail from Norfolk in March on its final voyage to join ships from the American navy’s fifth and sixth fleet that are currently monitoring the trouble spots of Syria and Iran.

After several more months of its last stretch of active duty for the navy, the ship will end that voyage back in Norfolk by the end of this year before being towed to a scrapyard.

It may yet come as a surprise to Bengalis who associate this aircraft carrier solely with notoriety that America’s military blogosphere is replete with pleas and petitions to name another of the US navy’s strategically important vessels as Enterprise to carry forward what they regard as this ship’s legacy.

It is not only among Bengalis that the name USS Enterprise evokes bad memories because of previous deployments, some of them decidedly worse than the one in the Bay of Bengal 40 years ago. Months after this aircraft carrier joined the US navy in 1962, its very first task was to enforce a blockade of Fidel Castro’s new, revolutionary Cuba, a blockade that continues to be controversial to this day.

Its brief foray into the Bay of Bengal caused damage that was more psychological and emotional to Bengalis and people elsewhere in India. But the damage that the USS Enterprise inflicted in the 1960s and 1970s on what was then North Vietnam was a trail of death and destruction.

Hillary, of course, had no part in the navy’s decision to send the USS Enterprise to the scrapyard, but it is often a quirk of fate in public life that political leaders who are not party to decisions become beneficiaries of those decisions. Burying the past in America’s relations with Bengali nationalism in tandem with her visits to Calcutta and Dhaka is one such quirk of fate.

According to the ship’s spokeswoman, Ensign Brynn Olson, there have been demands that the USS Enterprise should be preserved as a museum, but they were deemed impractical because of the daunting task of dealing with its nuclear reactors for preservation as a museum. She said the proposal was considered uneconomical.

Many South Asians who endured the ship’s psychological aggression in the Bay of Bengal may be unaware that 15 years after that deployment, the USS Enterprise played a part when Tom Cruise brought fame to naval aviators with the film Top Gun.

The USS Enterprise, which was sent to the Bay of Bengal in 1971 in what was seen as Nixon’s attempt to intimidate India and to try to scuttle the birth of Bangladesh. The feared aircraft carrier later made a benign appearance in Top Gun, the movie starring Tom Cruise. AP picture shows the USS Enterprise near Athens in March this year.