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15 October 2013, Gateway House

Book review: A riveting retelling of a tragedy

In ‘The Blood Telegram’ Gary Bass jolts us into recalling one of the most horrific genocides of the last century that occurred during the creation of Bangladesh

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One of the many adverse consequences of the disdain toward Bangladesh felt by both the late U.S. President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger is that one of the greatest genocides of the last century has been allowed to recede into oblivion.

Gary Bass’ book enters our horizon to jolt our collective conscience. It brings back the memory of the horror that was unleashed when the West Pakistan-dominated government refused to recognise the results of the December 1970 election which declared Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman, an East Pakistani, the unqualified winner.

For those familiar with the events of 1971, which created a new nation, Bass identifies no new villains, but he throws up a few new heroes. Archer Blood, consular officer in Dacca, had the moral strength to send Washington a “furious cable with a jolting subject line: Selective Genocide” and later sign the famous “Blood telegram” in which he and his staff warn their superiors of the carnage being unleashed by Pakistan’s army.

The astoundingly bold telegram reads: “Our government has evidenced what many will consider moral bankruptcy… We as professional public servants express 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.”

Blood was aware that he would pay dearly for this act of daring, a gesture that awes the reader for its sense of moral outrage and courage. These same qualities were demonstrated in full measure by the then U.S. Ambassador to India, Kenneth Keating as well, whose leaks to The New York Times’ Sydney Schanberg helped turn the tide of public opinion in the U.S.

If Nixon and Kissinger were deaf to the pleas of their own State Department officials, it was in equal measure because of a bitter dislike of the “arrogant” Indians and because Kissinger and Nixon had their eye on a much bigger notional prize – normalising relations with China. Their link to China was General Yahya Khan (President of Pakistan from 1969-71), so presumably nothing could be done – neither a reprimand nor a cessation of arms supplies – to slow the momentum of what Nixon and Kissinger considered the biggest thing to happen “since World War II.”

Bass’ portrayal of events as they unfold is kaleidoscopic.  He allows the reader a glimpse into the inner workings of the Nixon White House besotted with the prospect of opening the doors to China; the sordid realities of the Pakistan Army as it singled out Hindus in particular and unleashed the terror that led to about 10 million refugees flooding into neighbouring India; the “cloak and dagger exercise in Pakistan arranging the trip (to China)” which prompted Kissinger to say, “Yahya hasn’t had such fun since the last Hindu massacre!”

At a time when the world is grappling with the unrest in the Arab world and the future of Syria, the book is a sobering reminder that regardless of the lofty principles propounded by nations, self-interest dictates action. Realpolitik always wins the day. In our times, U.S. President Barack Obama has refused to call the recent events in Egypt a coup, or stop the drone attacks, or take meaningful measures to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

Bass admires and sympathises with India’s struggle in dealing with the mass of refugees, but he hastens to remind the reader of India’s own actions in quelling insurgencies in its Northeast, a close parallel to the manner in which Pakistan attempted to retain control over East Pakistan against all odds.

He points out that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who went to war to liberate Bangladesh, wreaked havoc on her own people in the Northeastern territories and Kashmir, and brutally suppressed democracy by declaring the Emergency in 1975 under the pretext of national security. Similarly, in 1974, Mujib-ur-Rahman, who had come to power on democratic principles, gutted the edifice he had created and seized emergency powers, paying for it dearly with his own life in 1975.

Nowhere is the book more perceptive than in its analysis of the consequences of the 1971 war, which haunt the subcontinent to this day. Humiliated by the defeat, Pakistan, in a twist of irony, blamed Americans for the dismemberment of their country. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto went on to build alliances with China and, more importantly, with friendly Muslim countries, thus altering the character of his nation. The army still dominates the politics of Pakistan and a fear of India leads them to support guerrillas and terrorists in Kashmir and Afghanistan.

India, ecstatic at the success of their sponsorship of the Mukti Bahini, pushed its officials to create cracks in Balochistan, the North West Frontier Province and Sri Lanka. This came to a disastrous end when India’s sponsorship of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) eventually led to the assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Snubbed by the U.S., India also began its tilt toward the Soviet Union, which continued until the time of U.S. President Bill Clinton.

The Blood Telegram also dwells on the fierce struggle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Anxious to avoid direct confrontation, their rivalries were expressed in innumerable proxy wars around the globe. At the time of the Bangladesh war, the U.S. was desperate to extricate itself from Vietnam, and Nixon and Kissinger believed that relations with China would deliver a blow to the Soviets by exploiting their rivalry with the Chinese.

Bass has delivered an immensely readable book – incisive in its understanding of the real world of politics and insightful in its analysis of the long-term consequences of decisions made with immediate goals in mind. His delineation of the cast of characters that played a role in this tragedy confirms that events on the world stage are often dictated by personal biases and the complex realities of politics.

‘The Blood Telegram’, Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide by Gary Bass. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.

Meera Kumar is a New York-based public relations professional. She has worked with the Asian Development Bank, the State University of New York, New York University and several Fortune 20 companies. She started her career as a journalist writing for several media outlets in Southeast Asia, including the ‘Bangkok Post’ and ‘The Nation.’

This review was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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