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Updated: December 9, 2013 21:33 IST

Global politics and the birth of Bangladesh

Manoj Joshi
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1971 — A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh: Srinath Raghavan; Permanent Black, 'Himalayana,' Mall Road, Ranikhet Cantt, Ranikhet-263645. Rs. 795.
1971 — A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh: Srinath Raghavan; Permanent Black, 'Himalayana,' Mall Road, Ranikhet Cantt, Ranikhet-263645. Rs. 795.

In modern times, winning a war is often more about diplomacy, than simple combat power. World War II is an example where the Allied powers — a democracy, a dictatorship, and an empire — successfully forged an alliance to defeat two difficult adversaries. Germany and Japan did have the Axis alliance, but through the war, there was little coordination between them, in contrast to that effected by the Allies, the U.S., Soviet Union and the U.K. Crucially, for example, Japan’s decision not to attack the Soviet Union, when it was on the ropes, enabled Stalin to shift forces from the east to defend Moscow.

Raghavan’s book on the Bangladesh War of 1971 underscores the point that the famous Indian victory was as much a feat of Indian arms as that of a favourable global conjuncture that had been created through diplomacy, as well as the contemporary great power dynamics involving the U.S., USSR, China and India, along with the usual dash of contingent developments that often shape historical events.

When we look back at such events there is often a tendency to assume a certain sense of inevitability to an outcome. But Raghavan argues here that the breakdown of the political order in Pakistan between 1969 and 1971 did not quite imply the break-up of the country. In any case, he says, both these phenomena can only be understood “by situating these events in a wider global context and examining the interplay between domestic, regional, and international dimensions” because many of the key drivers that eventually led to the creation of Bangladesh out of the erstwhile East Pakistan “flowed from the global context of the time.”

It is not surprising, then, that the book marks the beginnings of the events that eventually culminated in the creation of Bangladesh to the students’ upsurge that marked the year 1968. Across the world, that year, there were protests that today demarcate a watershed in the world political culture. This had a lot to do with demographics as well as the Vietnam war, which was an important trigger. However, when the protests took root, they turned out to represent a deeper resentment of authority in Europe, U.S. and Asia. In Pakistan, they eventually led to the overthrow of Ayub Khan and the fateful election of December 1970, which resulted in a sweeping victory of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s Awami League.

From the point of view of the Indian approach to the crisis, Raghavan breaks new ground by the use of archival material made available only recently, such as the papers of the Ministry of External Affairs at the National Archives, or the papers of policy makers such as P.N. Haksar, R.K. Nehru, T.N. Kaul, T.T. Krishnamachari and Jayaprakash Narayan at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. Of course, given his emphasis on describing the global dimensions of the Bangladesh event, Raghavan has made full use of the archives of the erstwhile German Democratic Republic, of Russia, U.K., Canada, and papers of leaders such as Richard Nixon or organisations like Oxfam, World Bank and the United Nations.

The result is that he is able to put to rest some of the abiding myths surrounding the intervention. For one, he finds little truth in the contention retailed by Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had wanted to intervene early, but was dissuaded by the Field Marshal who said that he wanted time to get the army ready. Raghavan says that it was really K. Subrahmanyam, then the influential director of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, who argued for an early intervention on what eventually turned out to be quite sound grounds. But the PM went by the advice of her more cautious advisers such as D.P. Dhar.

In his Epilogue, Raghavan reveals himself to be on the side of Subrahmanyam when he says that the Indian intervention taking place when it did was “not only the moment of India’s greatest military triumph but also a grievous strategic error.” Had India intervened early and decisively, it would have prevented the humanitarian tragedy that visited Bangladesh from March to December 1971 and the conditions that eventually led to the collapse of democracy in the country in 1975.

While the role of the United States towards the crisis, and in particular, President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger has been the subject to a number of studies, lesser known is that of the erstwhile Soviet Union which played such an important role in the eventual Indian calculation to intervene. An abiding myth has been that Cold War equations led to the Soviet alliance with India. However, as Raghavan shows, the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation did not have an easy birth. It was initially proposed by the Russians in 1969 in a bid to shore up their position vis-à-vis the Chinese. India had expressed interest because it wanted to prevent a Soviet entente with Pakistan and because of the inclination of Mrs. Gandhi’s pro-Soviet advisers such as P.N. Haksar and D.P. Dhar. At this point, Mrs. Gandhi was cautious, fearing adverse fallout with domestic political opinion, as well as in the global community.

However, when discussions were revived in 1971, both sides were somewhat hesitant, though for different reasons. The Soviets did not want to encourage an Indian military response, and, Prime Minister Gandhi remained somewhat sceptical, though Dhar and Haksar pressed her. Eventually, the Americans helped push New Delhi when, in a bid to pressure India, Kissinger warned Indian Ambassador L.K. Jha that if the Chinese intervened in an India-Pakistan war, the United States would not be able to help India. Though he has not accessed Chinese archival sources, Raghavan busts yet another myth when he shows that the Chinese were not inclined to intervene in the crisis anyway. A major reason for this was the power struggle that was being played out through most of 1970 that resulted in the flight and death of Mao’s heir apparent Lin Biao in September 1971, leading to a major purge within the PLA.

1971 — A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh: Srinath Raghavan; Permanent Black, 'Himalayana,' Mall Road, Ranikhet Cantt, Ranikhet-263645. Rs. 795.

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