The Past as Present
This week, the celebration of the 42nd anniversary of Bangladesh’s liberation from Pakistan is being marred by the recent execution of Abdul Qadir Mollah, a leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami, convicted of war crimes during the struggle for independence. In most countries, ruling elites share a common understanding on the founding of the nation. In Bangladesh, the construction of such a narrative has proved elusive.
It is not just the political classes in Bangladesh that are struggling to come to terms with the meaning of 1971. India and Pakistan too are finding it hard to cope with the consequences of the creation of Bangladesh. Pakistan army’s promotion of anti-India terrorism, the militarisation of the India-Pak border and the introduction of nuclear weapons into the arsenals of the subcontinent can all be traced back to 1971.
Gen Yahya Khan’s brutal repression of East Pakistan triggered widespread international revulsion and an extraordinary mobilisation of humanitarian support from around the world by what we now call the global civil society. The passionate debates today about the international community’s “responsibility to protect” people against excessive violence from their governments, in violation of state sovereignty if necessary, was presaged in the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971.
The story of the 1971 war has been told before. Srinath Raghavan returns to the subject with one technical advantage and two important new perspectives. There is lot more archival material available today around the world that allows Raghavan to reconstruct the story in greater detail and with many fresh and valuable insights.
In bringing to bear new perspectives on the seminal developments of 1971, Raghavan overcomes an important limitation of the traditional historiography — the dominance of the nationalist perspectives in the subcontinent. He chooses instead to write what he calls a “global history of the creation of Bangladesh”
In bringing into the story the three forces that shaped the world in the late 1960s and early 1970s — the struggle for decolonisation, the Cold War rivalries among the United States, Soviet Russia and Communist China, and the new wave of globalisation — Raghavan provides a rewarding perspective of the liberation of Bangladesh. He complements the expansive perspective with granular detail of the diplomatic dynamic across the world that shaped the eventual outcomes of the 1971 war.
Finally, Raghavan’s most important contribution lies in challenging the widespread belief that Pakistan’s disintegration into two separate was inevitable given its peculiar geographic construct and the reluctance of its elite to address the legitimate demands of its Bengali population. Raghavan argues instead that “far from being a predestined event, the creation of Bangladesh was the product of conjuncture and contingency, choice and chance”.
Raghavan argues that the “breakup of Pakistan can only be understood by situating these events in a wider global context and by examining the interplay between the domestic, regional and international dimensions, for much of the contingency stressed in this account flowed from the global context of the time”.
The first three chapters of the book deal with the internal dynamic in Pakistan at the end of 1960s that set the stage for the breakdown of political order in the country and India’s reaction to the unfolding crisis next door. The next five chapters deal with the responses in Washington, Moscow and Beijing as well as that of the international community.
In the final two chapters, Raghavan returns to the subcontinent to explain how the crisis escalated into full scale war by late 1971 and how it came to an end with the surrender of the Pakistan army in Dhaka.
Raghavan’s reflections on the course of the war and its termination challenges the traditional narratives of the war and underlines the importance of the international dimension in explaining the outcomes. He brings the rich narrative with a brief reflection on an important paradox: a war that was won so decisively in such a brief period of time did not produce structural change for the better in the subcontinent. That India could neither build a lasting peace with Pakistan or deepen the partnership with Bangladesh after 1971 underlines the ambiguous consequences of the war.
Three years ago, Raghavan published a well-received volume, War and Peace in Modern India that provided a solid account of India’s conflicts in the Nehru years. 1971 is bound to reinforce Raghavan’s reputation as a leading scholar on the security politics of India and the subcontinent.
With his two volumes, Raghavan has filled a big breach in understanding the evolution of contemporary India. Historians have avoided exploring the post-1947 terrain and demonstrated little inclination to study issues of war and peace. Political scientists have, in general, tended to be ahistoric in their analyses of India’s engagement with the world.
Raghavan’s work, one hopes, will inspire a new generation of scholarship that can historicise the evolution of India’s foreign and security policies and thereby help improve the quality of the current strategic discourse in Delhi.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and a contributing editor,
The Indian Express, The Indian Express, 14 December 2013