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NARROW FOCUS

The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide By Gary J. Bass, Random House, Rs 599

The 14-day Indo-Pakistan war of December 1971 was in essence a regional conflict, but Cold War superpower rivals, the United States of America and the Soviet Union, were drawn in diplomatically by the vortex, as was China. The crisis was seeded in a devastating cyclone in East Pakistan in December 1970, which claimed a million lives; it was followed by a general election in January 1971 — the first in Pakistan’s history — that saw Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s East Pakistan Awami League surge to victory with 167 seats of the 169 contested, while in West Pakistan the People’s Progressive Party, led by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, also won a landslide victory. The country’s military regime, as the adjudicating authority, was visibly tardy in accepting the verdict in East Pakistan, where the Awami League had been long suspected by the army, working cheek by jowl with Bhutto’s party, of harbouring secessionist ambitions. The flashpoint came in March 1971, with the Pakistan military crackdown in the Dacca and other towns and cities in the east and their rural surrounds, to counter the swelling people’s movement articulating Bengali political and economic aspirations, including devolved power for the province. The deepening repression turned into a proper genocide. A refugee tidal bore cresting at 10 million men, women and children — 90 per cent of them Hindu — swarmed across the border for sanctuary in the Indian states of West Bengal, Tripura and Assam, stretching the nation’s resources to breaking point. It was a humanitarian catastrophe, reported the US consul general in Dacca, Archer Blood, and his staff, in a telegram to his superiors in Washington. There were complementary representations from the US ambassador to India, Kenneth Keating, both diplomats alarmed at the Biblical Hindu exodus, also their ethnic cleansing from an ancestral homeland. Such concerns cut no ice with President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger. Nixon accused Keating of special pleading on India’s behalf, of having “gone native”, while Kissinger dismissed Blood as “a maniac” for exceeding his brief.

All the world being a stage, Nixon and Kissinger were intoxicated by the prospect of a grand entrance with their Chinese Communist partners, Chairman Mao Dzedong and Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, in the diplomatic quadrille they were about to spring upon an unsuspecting world through the discreet good offices of Pakistan’s military ruler, Yahya Khan. The lucid and arresting script written by the reporter, Gary Bass, in the congenial bowers of Princeton University, has the feel of a one act play rather than a full length drama. His meticulous researched material includes the prized White House tapes. The result is a telling account of a mid-20th century tragedy relegated to the margins by the public’s memory loss and popular preoccupations with other disfiguring horrors. That Nixon and Kissinger were driven by a visceral dislike and hatred of India has been revealed before by other hands, but the ritual abuse of the purest blue repeated ad nauseam in the sanctum sanctorum of the president’s Oval Office might prove somewhat unsettling for unaccustomed ears. Indira Gandhi was “that bitch” for both men, with “Indians are bastards” in interchangeable order. The excoriations were occasionally sexed up with the F-word, as the duo waited for Godot — the looming Indo-Pakistan war — to break out and scupper their dreams of a redemptive Pax Americana, with a Chinese partner as enforcer. For Kissinger, the Pakistani dictator Yahya Khan’s resolve amidst mounting odds bore a likeness to an embattled Abe Lincoln at Gettysburg. Kissinger, much given to unrefined political science-speak realpolitik, Clio’s bastard offspring, perceived in Zhou Enlai a kindred soul whose India phobia exceeded his own in its virulence. Based on this common weal, Kissinger and Nixon sought to forge an understanding which would guarantee the arrival of China’s battalions on the High Himalayas in a bid to rescue their beleaguered Pakistani client. With a million Soviet troops massed on China’s borders and Soviet nuclear-armed submarines shadowing the US Seventh Fleet Taskforce as it ploughed the waters to the Bay of Bengal, it was checkmate for the Nixon-Kissinger duo.

The multi-dimensional historical roots of the crisis have not found a place in the narrowly focused Bass record; the source of Pakistan’s inner demons and their present convolutions remain unexplored. Way back in 1947, Mohammed Ali Jinnah told Life magazine’s Margaret Bourke-White: “America needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs America.” More regally, that “Pakistan is the pivot of the world, the frontier on which the future position of the world revolves.” Unimpressed, she detected the “bankruptcy of ideas… a nation drawing its spurious warmth from the embers of an antique religious fanaticism, fanned into blaze.” Direct Action on the Calcutta streets by his Muslim League mobs sired the “Land of the Pure,” with the constitutional mechanism certifying the Caesarian birth. The Quaid-e-Azam’s Independence Day catechism enjoining the citizens of the new state to reserve religious faith for the private sphere fell on stony ground. Addressing Dacca University students and teachers in February, the governor general recommended that Urdu, with its purer Islamic pedigree, replace Bengali as the language of East Pakistan. Having sown the wind, Jinnah left it to his successors to reap the whirlwind of secession some two decades later. Jinnah could only address his Muslim crowds in English, with an interpreter at his side. He struck a dormant jihadi chord with his audiences, which the inclusive Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad, with his encyclopaedic learning in Arabic, Persian and Urdu, signally failed to do.

On another tier, Jawaharlal Nehru’s visit to the US in 1949, like that of his daughter, Indira Gandhi, in 1971, yielded only dialogues of the deaf. A state department desk officer in 1949 sensed “national traits which in time, if not controlled, could make India Japan’s successor in Asiatic imperialism… a strong Muslim bloc under the leadership of Pakistan and friendly to the US might afford a desirable balance of power in South Asia.” The circle was squared by the populist Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s call for a 1,000-year jihad against India, resonating with Hitler’s 1,000-year Reich. “And,” proclaimed Bhutto triumphantly,” we have ruled them for eight centuries.” The inebriating millennium of martial endeavour dissolved in the nightmare of a full fortnight, with a humbled Pakistani military and a chastened US and China picking up the pieces of their best laid plans that had gone so badly awry.

V.S. Naipaul sums up the Pakistani dilemma. “It was Muslim insecurity that led to the call for the creation of Pakistan. It went at the same time with the idea of the old glory, of the invaders sweeping down from the north-west… the fantasy lives and for the Muslim converts of the subcontinent it is a sort of neurosis, because in this fantasy the convert forgets who or what he is and becomes the violator. It is though — switching continents — the indigenous peoples of Mexico and Peru were to side with Corte’s and Pizzaro and the Spaniards as the bringers of the true faith.” Hopefully Gary Bass will, one day, draw these disparate themes into a fuller, overarching text. The ground realities multiply by the hour and day.