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1971: A global history of the creation of Bangladesh By Srinath Raghavan, Permanent Black, Rs 795

Salman Rushdie, in his novel, Shame, famously described Pakistan, before the birth of Bangladesh, as “that fantastic bird of a place, two Wings without a body, sundered by the land-mass of its greatest foe, joined by nothing but God.’’ This description has implicit in it the notion that there was something untenable in the existence of Pakistan as it was originally born in August 1947. It was not only geographical distance but culture, language and economics that separated West and East Pakistan. The differences between the two wings were too fundamental for Pakistan to remain united. The split in that sense was inevitable. It was waiting to happen. What is important for the historian to understand is the timing and the process of the separation and India’s role in what transpired.

Srinath Raghavan, arguably the foremost historian of India after 1947, would disagree with the above analysis. He writes, “Against the grain of received wisdom, this book contends that there was nothing inevitable about the emergence of an independent Bangladesh in 1971. Far from being a predestined event, the creation of Bangladesh was the product of conjuncture and contingency, choice and chance.’’ For him, it is not necessary to go back to the creation of Pakistan to understand what happened in 1971. According to Raghavan, “To understand why united Pakistan ceased to remain a viable political entity, we need to focus on a much shorter period starting in the late 1960s. It was then that the politics of Pakistan took a turn that made regional autonomy a non-negotiable demand of the Bengali political leadership. The military regime’s unwillingness to countenance this set the stage for a rupture in March 1971.’’

Raghavan not only foreshortens the context but argues that the military regime’s obduracy did not necessarily mean the breakup of Pakistan. The eventual outcome was the product “of narrow squeaks and unanticipated twists.’’ While on one side, Raghavan makes the context more immediate, on the other, he makes it broader. One of the arguments of this book is that “the breakdown and breakup of Pakistan can only be understood by situating these events in a wider global context and by examining the interplay between the domestic, regional and international dimensions, for much of the contingency… flowed from the global context of the time.’’

One major axes of the global context was the Cold War, which had undergone a radical transformation by the mid 1960s. For one thing, its theatre had shifted from Europe to the Third World. The nature of alliances had also altered. The economic success of some of the countries of Western Europe and Japan had made them less dependent on the United States of America. China and the Soviet Union had drifted apart and there were voices of dissent in countries like Czechoslovakia against Soviet domination. This emerging international situation had an obvious bearing on what happened in 1971.

The crisis in the Pakistani political order originated with the fall of Ayub Khan in early 1969. In the next year Mujibur Rahaman’s Awami League won a massive victory in the elections. The military brass of Yahya Khan refused to countenance the legitimate demands of the Awami League to form a government, and perpetrated a regime of oppression on the Bengalis. This began the flow of refugees from East Pakistan to India and this provided India with grounds to intervene in what was happening in Bangladesh.

Confronted with the growing crisis in South Asia, Richard Nixon and his principle adviser, Henry Kissinger, chose to support Yahya Khan “Don’t squeeze Yahya at this time’’, wrote Nixon, underlining the don’t thrice. Raghavan adds that this choice “was rather more consequential than its willingness to tilt’’. Nixon and Kissinger, according to Raghavan, “needed just enough time to ensure the success of their opening to China.’’ The implication seems to be that if opening to China had not acquired such a towering priority in US foreign policy at that point of time, Nixon could have remained neutral and thus forced Yahya to look for a more realistic political settlement.

This is one example of what Raghavan means by contingency and the changed Cold War context having a bearing on what happened in 1971. However, enriching such a perspective is, it hinges on a counter factual. If the US had remained neutral, Yahya Khan would have been more realistic. Interesting speculation, but is it the stuff of history?

There is another dimension that Raghavan rather underplays in his attempt to write a revisionist account. Bengali nationalism had been on the rise in East Pakistan since the late 1950s, and India was not only conscious of this but eager to use it to its own advantage. A fact that Raghavan neglects (possibly because it may not be in the records) is that at Indira Gandhi’s behest, P.N. Banerjee, joint secretary of the Cabinet Secretariat (read RAW) met Mujib in London 1968. There is no reason to believe that this was an innocent courtesy call. What did they talk about? Banerjee was, in fact, to play a crucial role in the operations that led to the formation of Bangladesh. I have the information about the London meeting from Banerjee’s son, Saumitra (Bobby), a senior journalist with The Telegraph and an old friend. Raghavan’s book in part depends on interviews and oral history so it was not impossible for him to find this out. But his overall analytical framework — that the creation of Bangladesh was based on conjuncture and contingency — precludes this kind of evidence. Indeed, it is possible to argue that India planned the liberation of Bangladesh and thus saw it as the triumph of its foreign policy and intelligence agencies.

These differences with the author’s approach should not take away from the value of this book. It is immensely rich in the evidence it unearths and the many dimensions that it opens up. This achievement makes a debate with him possible.