14-20 March 2014 #698

A forgotten genocide

In his new book, The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide, Gary J. Bass, recounts an incident where former secretary of state Henry Kissinger is correcting US President Richard Nixon as he repeatedly refers to the then East Pakistani leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as Mujo, not Mujib. Many Nepalis may find this anecdote hilarious if not for  the deadly atrocities that were being committed in present-day Bangladesh with tacit approval of two of the most powerful men.  

While the Watergate revelations have caught the global public’s imagination for decades, Nixon and Kissinger’s support of West Pakistan’s military dictatorship in East Pakistan and subsequent brutalities are not as well-known. Bass effectively mines the heretofore unexploited portions of the Oval Office tapes that Nixon secretly recorded in 1971, to divulge the dirty secrets of Bangladesh’s liberation war.

The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide

By Gary J Bass 

Knopf 2013

Price $30 (hardcover)

528 pages

Nixon and Kissinger were told in no uncertain terms by their diplomats (chiefly Archer Blood in Dhaka, hence the title Blood Telegram) of a potential genocide by Pakistani military rulers at that time. But the president and his right hand man obviously chose to ignore these warnings. In fact the tapes make it clear that they stood staunchly behind Pakistani President General Yahya Khan and his men. 

Nixon was genuinely fond of Khan and harboured a deep seated antipathy towards Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, who was behind Bangladesh’s struggle for independence. This, however, was only part of the reason for America’s support. International geopolitics also played a decisive role.

Kissinger and Nixon were secretly trying to establish a historic meeting of US and China, which would bolster Nixon’s approval rating. The go-between man who would help arrange this meeting was none other than General Khan. Anything else that came in the way (like East Pakistan’s seething discontent after the army quashed the results of the historic 1970 elections) had to be shoved aside for a greater cause. 

Amazingly, Nixon and Kissinger also secretly encouraged China to amass troops on the Indian border to scare the Gandhi government and illegally (the US government had voted against this) supplied weapons to the Pakistani military. When the tragic slaughter of Hindu Bengalis took place in East Pakistan, it was clearly with the help of America’s devastating firepower.  

As a result of this genocide (a tragedy apparently bloodier than Bosnia), about 10 million refugees poured into the Indian state of West Bengal. The Indian government was at its wits end trying to control the unfolding calamity. Much to India’s credit, it did not close its borders to the Bengali Hindus who were fleeing their own country from the marauding Pakistani soldiers. Finally with the intervention of the Indian army and the Bangladeshi liberation fighters (at times the latter group sought their own cruel justice against the Pakistani soldiers), Dhaka fell in the winter of 1971 and a new country was born. 

What comes across very strongly time and again in The Blood Telegram is that Nixon and Kissinger were driven to do what they did not just by Cold War realpolitik, but a bitter personal dislike for Indira Gandhi and India. And not unsurprisingly both men gloss over this important  ‘game- changing’ tragedy in South Asia in the several books that they would go on to pen.   

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