A peep into dissent against U.S. policy voiced by its Dacca consul-general during the liberation of Bangladesh
In a brave and desperate telegram to the White House on April 6, 1971, Archer Blood, the US Consul General in Dacca, the capital of erstwhile East Pakistan, reported the beginning of a genocide against the majority Bengali population of East Pakistan unleashed by the military dictator of Pakistan, Gen Yahya Khan. The telegram with the heading ‘Dissent from US policy towards East Pakistan’ said it all. Signed by twenty officials from the consulate and other US development agencies, the telegram highlighted ‘the suppression of democracy,’ ‘bending over backwards to accommodate the West Pak dominated government,’ and ‘our dissent with current policy and fervently hope that our true and lasting interests here can be defined and our policies redirected in order to salvage our nation’s position as a moral leader of the free world.’
A brave and committed diplomat with years of experience in the sub-continent, no westerner had a better ringside view of the traumatic events of 1971 that led to the birth of Bangladesh. Always at odds with the powerful and mercurial National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, and President Richard Nixon over the indifference of the US toward human right violations in East Pakistan, Blood and his team at the US consulate displayed rare courage and empathy in pressing for US intervention before the situation got out of hand.
In a scathing indictment of the opportunistic appeasement of Pakistan’s military regime of Yahya Khan in the early 1970s by Nixon, Prof Gary J. Bass of Princeton University dismantles the smug aura of success that has generally been attached to the Kissinger-Nixon era of US foreign policy in his well-researched book, The Blood Telegram: India’s Secret War in East Pakistan. Digging deep into recently declassified official documents and oral transcripts from Delhi, Dacca and Washington, Bass is unsparing of the apathy of the White House towards the unfolding genocide unleashed on millions of Bengalis by Maj Gen Tikka Khan, later known as the Butcher of Bangladesh. The prime driver of US policy towards East Pakistan and ignoring the horrors of the genocide was Nixon’s obsession with creating history by restoring languishing ties with China – Pakistan was an important conduit in this endeavour as Kissinger used Yahya Khan and Bhutto as his sounding board to lay the ground with the Chinese for what ultimately turned out to be a path-breaking visit by Nixon to China in 1972. As the crisis spiralled out of control, the decisive humanitarian and military intervention by India in December 1971 did not change the duo’s approach towards India and recognise its predominant status in the region despite advice from stalwarts such as Kenneth Keating, the US ambassador in Delhi, and Edward Kennedy, the influential Democrat from Massachusetts. Instead, Kissinger and Nixon attempted all along to crudely convince the Indians not to intervene through back channel meetings and enticements of increased aid.
Helpless during massacre
Beginning with the crackdown and massacre of Bengali intellectuals and academics at the University of Dacca on March 26, 1971, Blood looked on helplessly as US equipment including Chaffee tanks and Sabre jets were used against civilians. The most he could do along with his staff was to shield many Bengali families for days together from marauding Pakistani troops and Razakar mobs. Bass writes objectively on India’s growing concern over the influx of millions of refugees into north-east India and the nation-wide outcry of public and political opinion against the genocide. He suggests that India could have militarily intervened in East Pakistan as early as April-May 1971. Seeing an opportunity to cut Pakistan to size and genuinely concerned with the plight of the oppressed Bengali population of East Pakistan, Indira Gandhi was keen to launch a military action into East Pakistan immediately. However, a cautious and conservative Gen Manekshaw, the Chief of Army Staff, was not comfortable with sustaining a two-front operation during the summer and monsoon months, rightly preferring a campaign in the cooler winter months. It was this decision that led to the growth of the Mukti Bahini as a potent guerrilla force and the face of Bengali resistance till India finally intervened with its lightning campaign to liberate East Pakistan in December 1971.
Extracts from various declassified White House conversations with Kissinger reveal Nixon as a self-serving President with little interest or empathy for the developing world in general, and South Asia in particular. Kissinger, on the other hand comes, across as a brilliant, hard-driving and mercurial czar of US diplomacy – he understood the crisis, but chose to go along with Nixon on the path to restoring relations with China as that is where he felt lay the most tangible gains for US foreign policy. As the crisis unfolded and the India-Pak war ended in a decisive victory for India, both Nixon and Kissinger were clearly rattled by Indira Gandhi’s assertiveness and refusal to cower before US hegemony in the region.
Doing the right thing
Bass is reluctant to lavish praise on India for its strategic decisiveness and willingness to train the Mukti Bahini guerrilla fighters despite knowing that it risked a two-front war with Pakistan. However, he does admit that despite its fractured polity, for once India was united across party lines as its leadership combined ‘realpolitik’ with genuine empathy for victims of the genocide. Though Indira Gandhi initially thought that given the training and significant material assistance being given to the Mukti Bahini, it would be able to defeat the Pak Army in East Pak, she had not reckoned with the increasing brutality of the Pak Army and the spiralling refugee crisis. With over 10 million refugees streaming into India by November, 1971, there was no alternative but war on the eastern front. Luckily for India, Pakistan struck first on the western front on December 3, 1971 and allowed India to occupy the moral high ground in the ensuing 14-day conflict. Bass rightly spends little time on the war as enough has already been written about ‘India’s finest hour.’ Sydney Schanberg of the New York Times emerges in the book as journalism’s knight in shining armour as he courageously reported on the genocide and the conflict; he turned out to be Blood’s comrade-in-arms as between the two of them, they attempted to appeal to the conscience of the world’s most powerful nation, and failed. The book is also an endorsement of courageous diplomacy and the belief that ‘doing the right thing’ is as important as ‘hard-ball realpolitik’. The book combines a racy narrative with meticulous research and excellent academic rigour. Overall, Bass offers a fresh perspective to a much written about period of modern South Asian history.
Blood Telegram — India’s Secret War in East Pakistan by Gary J.Bass, Random House Publishers, Rs. 599