Book: The Blood Telegram
Author:l Gary J.Bass
Price: Rs 599
Archer Blood was the American consul general in Dhaka (then Dacca) in 1971-72. He not only witnessed the slaughter of thousands of civilians by the Pakistani Army and dutifully reported on the genocide to his government but also, when the US continued to support Yahya Khan's Pakistan, he sent a telegram of dissent signed by most of the American consular staff and other US government officials in the city. Gary J. Bass, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton, a scholar who has studied the role of human rights in making foreign policy — among his earlier books are Origins of Humanitarian Intervention and Politics of War Crimes Tribunals — has made Blood's telegram and the horrific events of the 1971 war the focus of this book. Interestingly, the subtitle of the US edition is 'Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide' while the Indian edition is subtitled 'India's Secret War in East Pakistan'.
The logic behind this difference lies in the substance of the narrative, the reaction of two democracies, India and the US, to the slaughter in East Pakistan, which Bass equates with "the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda". (Just by the way, little is said of the failure of other democracies, then mainly in the West, to condemn the incident or to do anything concrete for the victims.) He is vitriolic in his criticism of the US reaction, shaped, it would appear, almost entirely by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. He is only slightly less critical of the Indian response led, according to him, by Indira Gandhi and P.N. Haksar, then her principal secretary. Perhaps India comes out in a somewhat better light. Bass sees certain commonalities between the two — public opinion was outraged by the reports of the massacres in both countries as were the legislatures. But to be accurate, in the US, it was the Democrats led by Ted Kennedy who were vocal, and the press in both countries minutely followed the events and reported on the killings with horror and empathy. Bass even finds a similarity in the ruthless personalities of Nixon and Gandhi and parallels in their geopolitical responses to a humanitarian crisis. But there the similarity ends.
Indo-US relations had reached a nadir at this time and the distrust between the two countries ran deep. The degree of loathing for Gandhi, India and Indians entertained at the highest levels of Nixon's administration, expressed in coarse, almost racist if graphic language, is not as surprising as the political risks both Nixon and Kissinger were willing to take in supporting Pakistan. These included the transfer of arms to Pakistan, which were on occasion used to butcher the people of East Pakistan, the flouting of US law by arranging to clandestinely transfer airplanes to Pakistan through Iran and Jordan during the war, and, most terrifyingly, urging China to open a front against India when it seemed that the latter was about to win in the east. This was with full awareness that the USSR might get involved against China, causing a larger conflagration with the US weighing in on the side of the Chinese. These actions were not only reckless and unsupported by any direct threat to US security, but carried potentially devastating nuclear risks. Of course, this was in the middle of the Vietnam War and at the height of the Cold War — the utility of Pakistan as a facilitator of the opening to China overwhelmed any compunctions about the slaughter of Pakistani Bengalis. Yet even after direct links were established with the Chinese, the support for Yahya and his government did not waver — partly, according to Bass, because of the personal chemistry between Nixon and the General, partly not to appear weak before their newfound Chinese friends , but mainly because of his and Kissinger's visceral dislike of India.
Bass has relied on audiotapes of Nixon-Kissinger talks from the Nixon Presidential Library for his damning descriptions. On the Indian side, he has used the Haksar and T.N. Kaul papers, and papers from the Ministry of External Affairs and the Prime Minister's secretariat available at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library and the National Archives. The Indian narrative is more straightforward and fairly well-known to concerned Indians, and almost despite himself, Bass seems to understand, if not approve, of India's actions up to the ceasefire, though he does say that India was "motivated by a mix of lofty principle and brutal realpolitik". He emphasises the huge burden of millions of refugees on a poor country and the inevitability of the "secret war" — the training and arming of the Mukti Bahini and the ultimate provocation of the Pakistani attack leading to war. His use of adjectives conveys his disapproval rather than his relation of the events: he writes of India's "flawed" democracy, her "creaky" diplomacy and her "ragtag" navy, its "rickety" aircraft carrier INS Vikrant facing the might of the USS Enterprise and of India's "isolation" in the UN and the lack of support from the non-aligned nations.
More interesting is his identification of Haksar (and D.P. Dhar) as pushing Indira Gandhi towards the Soviets — which appears to have paid off when the USS Enterprise was tailed by Soviet ships into
the Bay of Bengal. Despite the brinkmanship and posturing of the US, India won the war, and by any account, her actions and behaviour were by the book.
This is an immensely absorbing book for those interested in not just Indo-US relations but the making of foreign policy in democracies as a whole. Despite having played a minor role in the events narrated in the book and having been quoted in it, since both the role and quotes are marginal to the substance of the argument, the reviewer hopes that objectivity has been maintained in the review.
In 1971, former diplomat Arundhati Ghose liaised with the Bangladesh government in exile in India