Uncovering the truth about the Bangladesh war
Professor Gary Bass of Princeton University has written The Blood Telegram: India's Secret War in East Pakistan.
Professor Gary Bass of Princeton University has written The Blood Telegram: India's Secret War in East Pakistan, tapping into newly declassified resources, including hours of White House tapes. The book makes no bones about the fact that the massive refugee crisis in the run-up to the 1971 war could have been avoided, the war itself wasn't a foregone conclusion...if not for the bad blood and vibes, between the key players in world history. From Henry Kissinger, to Richard Nixon, to Yayhya Khan and Indira Gandhi, and India's supposed plans for the neighbourhood, the soon-to-be formed Bangladesh was at the receiving end of tragic and bloody Cold War Politics... with CHINA the real end-game for the US.
With the war crimes tribunal still making headlines in present-day Bangladesh, there is no question of simply glossing over history.
Here's an email interview with Professor Bass and Amrita Tripathi.
What really comes through in the book is that the horrific situation in what was then East Pakistan -- with the targeted killing of ethnic Bengalis by Yahya Khan's troops -- was made inifinitely worse, by countries playing politics, Cold War politics and completely external factors. Is that something you would conclude with your research? How do you read this period in US, even Russian history?
In many parts of the world, Cold War rivalries added fuel to the fire. But the crisis in Pakistan really started out as a Pakistani affair. Its roots are in the exploitation of East Pakistan, military rule, a bold experiment with democracy in the 1970 elections--followed by that terrible military crackdown. That stuff wasn't the fault of the United States, even though Nixon and Kissinger missed important chances to press Pakistan's military rulers to avoid violence.
Is it the case that the war could have been avoided, if only...
There are several such moments that you seem to document... though history might be full of such "paths not taken", that could have saved lives?
This isn't a story of historical inevitability. There could maybe have been a constitutional arrangement among the Awami League, the PPP, the military, and other actors that wouldn't have been perfect but would have been less bloody than what actually happened: crackdown, civil war, secession. What if Nixon and Kissinger had urged Yahya not to start shooting at the Bengalis? What if they had warned Yahya that it would be a disaster for a united Pakistan, and that it would hurt his relationship with the United States?
Nixon and Kissinger seemed to have very visceral dislike of India, indeed of Indira Gandhi. How big of a factor was this in how events played out in 1971?
Which is to say, how much of this was personal? If you could include some of what your research has revealed, (for those who haven't yet read Blood Telegram)?
Nixon and Kissinger want to be remembered as cool, calculated statesmen. But listening to them in their unguarded moments on the White House tapes, they're often filled with rage against India. When Nixon says that the Indians need a "mass famine," and Kissinger says, "They're such bastards," that is not the voice of dispassionate realpolitik.
Could you let us know some of the material you yourself were excited to uncover -- the recently de-classified White House tapes and others?
There are thousands and thousands of pages of fascinating declassified documents in U.S. archives and in Indian archives. Indian archives are still much less open than U.S. archives, but there's extraordinary stuff in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library as well as the National Archives of India. I was lucky to be able to interview many of the participants, which helps to tell all sides of the story. But the most amazing stuff is the White House tapes, where you can hear Nixon and Kissinger talking openly. Yes, of course, sometimes they use bad language, but what's really startling is the content of what they say about foreign policy.
And finally - do you feel that India too has a habit of glossing over its own strategy, its own realities... for example, like denying support to the Mukhti Bahini in '71, would there be present day instances where the govt line is at odds with ground realities? (Say even with ceasefire violations along the Line Of Control)
Yes, I'm sorry to say. Most countries prefer not to look too hard at their own histories, and it's always easier to enjoy glorious national myths. That's true about the United States and it's true about India. Narendra Modi wants his Hindu nationalist myth, not historical reality. In 1971, Indian officials publicly denied supporting the Mukti Bahini, and there are still people who make that claim, but historically it's just not true. Indian archives make that abundantly clear.