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DANGERS OF BURIED STORIES

- Forgetting history may harm India’s insight into the present

The extent to which India as a nation lacks a sense of history was driven home to me recently by an account of the Bangladesh government’s commemoration of the liberation war of 1971.

Anxious to honour those Indians who had contributed to the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent nation four decades ago, the Bangladesh prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, organized a series of events in Dhaka over the past two years. Since most of those who contributed, either publicly or under a cover of anonymity, to the liberation struggle had died, Bangladesh graciously invited their family members to accept the awards on their behalf. Predictably, since most of the non-Bangladeshis who played a role in ensuring the defeat of the brutal Pakistani regime between March and December of 1971 were Indians, the authorities in Dhaka were compelled to seek the assistance of the government of India to locate the individuals or their families.

According to the officials in Bangladesh handling the commemoration, there was a distinct lack of enthusiasm in Delhi over Wajed’s gracious gesture. In particular, Bangladeshi officials were stumped over the complete blank that greeted their inquiries of two individuals. One was an Indian Foreign Service officer managing the Pakistan desk in South Block, the only non-military Indian official present at the surrender of the Pakistan army in Dacca; and the other was a more shadowy figure, the right-hand man of Research and Analysis Wing chief, R.N. Kao, operating from Calcutta. Inquiries about the first gentleman produced no results from the ministry of external affairs and the intelligence community in Delhi were unaware of the existence of one of the early stalwarts of R&AW.

At one level, the entire episode reeked of official indifference to anything that was not in the normal line of duty. Far more important, it seems to me, was the confirmation of a huge lacuna in ‘official’ India: the complete absence of institutional memory. The collapse of East Pakistan and the formation of Bangladesh was one of the most important chapters of India’s post-Independence history. It continues to define Pakistan’s attitude towards India and, as such, has a direct contemporary bearing. Yet, it is astonishing that absolutely no organized attempt is made to disseminate the history of that crisis to a new generation of diplomats who will be managing India’s relations with its neighbours in the future. This wilful disregard of history can be contrasted to the exacting importance the Pakistan foreign service and, for that matter, the Pakistani military establishment, attaches to learning the lessons of its greatest national humiliation.

The publication of Gary J. Bass’s eminently readable The Blood Telegram: India’s Secret War in East Pakistan is as good an occasion as any to revisit the events of 1971. Based almost entirely on official government documents of the United States of America, the White House tapes pertaining to the presidency of Richard Nixon and the papers of Indira Gandhi’s principal secretary, P.N. Haksar, and the then foreign secretary, T.N. Kaul, the book provides a gripping insight into the calculations of policy makers in Washington D.C, New Delhi and Islamabad. Although much of the narrative now belongs to the realms of history, there are important strands that have a direct bearing on the contemporary relations between India and Pakistan.

Bass’s most crucial revelation is one that was well known in official circles in India but was quite consciously hidden from public view and, consequently, is insufficiently factored in contemporary Indian assessments of Pakistan. The Pakistan army’s crackdown in erstwhile East Pakistan began as an offensive against Bangladeshi nationalism and the Awami League. This involved murderous action against students, political activists and the paramilitary forces staffed by Bengali speakers. However, once the Pakistan army entrenched itself in the towns it initiated a parallel campaign of ethnic cleansing of the minority Hindu population. So much so that by the time the Indian army began its military offensive against Pakistan in December 1971, nearly 80 per cent of the 8.5 million refugees who were camped in India were Hindus.

This attempt to ‘purify’ Pakistan of non-Muslims was well known to both India and the West, particularly the US. On July 19, 1971, Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon’s amoral secretary of state, had remarked that the then president of Pakistan, Yahya Khan, had loved the cloak-and-dagger arrangements surrounding his ‘secret’ visit to China, adding: “Yahya hasn’t had such fun since the last Hindu massacre.”

The remark may have been characteristically tasteless — and the White House tapes resonate with Nixon and Kissinger outdoing each other in showering profanities on Indians and Bengalis — but it indicates that the viciously sectarian character of the Pakistan military regime was well known. It is a different matter that India deliberately underplayed the denominational details of the refugee problem to avoid any diversion from the fact that the crisis had stemmed from a Bengali uprising against Pakistani domination. However, in allowing the real story to remain buried for more than 40 years, India lost sight of a larger reality. It also glossed over the fact that Pakistan was not normal. A State that couldn’t countenance any deviation from its Islamic identity and, in fact, was fanatical enough to lose more than half the country on this count, cannot be judged by the accepted standards of international statecraft.

What emerges from the Nixon-Kissinger private exchanges is that Pakistan’s foremost ally was clear in its mind that Yahya had embarked on a path of self-destruction. Pakistan, they knew, couldn’t win a war against India in the East. At various points they even tried telling this to the “big, honourable, stupid man” that was the Pakistani president. However, as Kissinger was to confess later, Yahya “was oblivious to his perils and unprepared to face necessities. He and his colleagues did not feel India was planning war; if so, they were convinced that they would win. When I asked tactfully as I could about the Indian advantage in numbers and equipment, Yahya and his colleagues answered with bravado about the historic superiority of Moslem fighters”.

Ayub Khan too had believed that one Pakistani soldier was equal in worth to 20 Hindu fighters. This was the basis of his war to occupy Kashmir and even reach Delhi in 1965. In both 1965 and 1971, Pakistan failed to live up to its exalted self-esteem. Yet the belief in its superior national character has never waned. There is a big section of the Pakistan establishment that believes that the country was “betrayed” in all its wars against India. Consequently, the belief that unflinching Islamic nationalism is the only way to realize Pakistan’s manifest destiny (in Kashmir or elsewhere) is deep-rooted and widespread.

For India this implies permanent danger on the frontiers. The threat is doubled by Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine that is premised on the understanding that the adversary in India is somehow a sub-human whose elimination is also a religious duty.

Beginning with Indira Gandhi and P.N. Haksar who felt that Pakistan must be allowed to recover from Dacca debacle with an iota of self-respect, to the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, whose perception of the Pakistani national character is coloured by pre-Partition nostalgia, India has tried its best to couch neighbourly relations with civility and the lure of good economics. After each disappointment, India has tried to begin afresh, believing that pragmatism will mark every new generation in Pakistan. Each time history has hit back.

In dealing with Pakistan, India cannot eschew institutional memory. We may have changed, become more cosmopolitan, more global and more post-national. Across the Radcliffe Line, however, the mindset of 1971 is alive and dreaming of revenge.