I go regularly to Bangladesh, but I struggle to understand the country. One thing I’ve learnt is that the 1971 War of Liberation, as the Bangladeshis call it, is still hugely important. So reading The Blood Telegram by Gary J Bass has helped my understanding greatly. It’s primarily a book about the global diplomacy and double dealing that surrounded the conflict. An extremely well written book, it’s full of insights.
The war was precipitated by the Awami League, the main Bangladeshi party, winning almost every seat in what was then East Pakistan in a Pakistan general election in December 1970. As the population of East Pakistan was bigger than that of West Pakistan the Awami League should have formed the government of the whole country, but this was completely unacceptable to Yayha Khan, the president of Pakistan. Those in West Pakistan, Urdu speakers, looked down on the Bengalis of East Pakistan.
Months of negotiation followed, but in March 1971 a brutal crackdown began. Sheik Mujib-ur-Rahman, the leader of the Awami League, was imprisoned, and the Pakistan army began killing Bengalis. They killed all the intellectuals they could find, and they singled out Hindus. But hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, were killed, including women and children. The Pakistani army also used systematic rape as a weapon of war. Over the next nine months as many as 10 million people fled East Pakistan for India, putting huge strain on refugee camps in West Bengal. This was genocide.
From the moment the killing began Archer Blood, the US consul in Dacca (as it was then), and his team sent back to the US detailed accounts of the killing. They expected that the US, the champions of democracy, would speak out against the killing. The opposite happened.
Richard Nixon was president of the US at the time, and Henry Kissinger his adviser was exercising huge power. Nixon, who was a foul mouthed brute and who liked few people, liked Yayha, whom Bass argues was little more than a moron—and an alcoholic. Nixon also disliked the Indians, strong supporters of the Bengalis of East Pakistan. He also hated (not too strong a word) Indira Gandhi (“That bitch”), the Indian prime minister. She felt the same about him.
Kissinger, who knew more about Metternich’s 19th century Europe than he did about South Asia, felt the same as Nixon but less passionately. Kissinger’s main concern was that Pakistan was the US’s main route to opening up China, his and Nixon’s coup that the world remembers when those in the US and Europe have largely forgotten the genocide in Bangladesh.
Nixon and Kissinger were not willing to sacrifice their chance of reaching China for the sake of Bengalis, and they saw the whole conflict through the prism of the Cold War: India, the leader of the Non-Aligned Nations, they saw as pro-Russian, whereas Pakistan was on the side of the Americans.
So not only did Nixon and Kissinger turn a blind eye to what their own diplomats were telling them, they actively and illegally armed Pakistan. American arms were used to kill Bengalis. And when Blood and his staff in Dacca sent a telegram (the telegram of the title of the book) saying what was going on and opposing US policy they were not only ignored but punished. Blood was removed from Dacca in March, and his career faltered never to recover.
The Indian government, parliament, media, and people were united in being appalled by what was happening in East Bengal, and Pakistan was anyway a longstanding enemy. Almost from the beginning they recognised the need for an invasion to support the East Bengalis, but they need to wait until at least November to prepare, avoid the monsoon, and be sure that the Himalayas were blocked with snow to stop the Chinese becoming involved. But they did support the Mukti Bahinin, the freedom fighters as they are now known. While doing this the Indians denied it.
On December 3, presumably knowing that the Indians planned to attack on December4, the Pakistanis struck at Indian airbases and started shelling the Indian lines. The war began, and the Indians supported by the Mukti Bahini raced towards Dacca, knowing that once they controlled it they controlled East Pakistan. The United Nations condemned the Indians, but the Russians used their veto in the Security Council to stop a call for a ceasefire. Nixon and Kissinger illegally supplied weapons to the Pakistanis through Jordan and Syria, tried to get the Chinese to move troops to the Indian border, and sent the world’s largest and nuclear powered aircraft carrier to the Bay of Bengal, something that left a deep scar in India. As well as the war in the East there were battles on the Western border between India and Pakistan, with some thinking that the Indians wanted to wipe Pakistan off the map but the Indians denying it.
On December 16 the Pakistanis surrendered, and Bangladesh was born. It began in a state of chaos with millions refugees in India, most of its intellectuals killed, and much of its infrastructure destroyed. Bangladesh has since made remarkable progress in education and health, but politics remain unstable with the country now being effectively a one party police state. The war still looms large.
Bass argues that Pakistan was deeply traumatised by the loss of East Pakistan, with an overfunded army, nuclear weapons, and political instability being consequences. Indira Gandhi was hugely popular after the victory in Bangladesh, perhaps giving her the hubris to later take emergency powers. The war probably also contributed to Indian’s decision to develop nuclear weapons.
In other words, the 1971 war, although largely forgotten in the US and Europe, remains fundamental in understanding South Asia.