Indira Gandhi, Nixon and a Forgotten Genocide

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The late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with US President Richard Nixon at the White House in 1971.
The late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with US President Richard Nixon at the White House in 1971.

A new book by Garry Bass, The Blood Telegram, Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide (Alfred Knopf), provides some fascinating insights into the last tumultuous year of Pakistan’s existence as a united country and the vicious military crackdown in East Pakistan that led to the country’s breakup

DR SYED AMIR

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]oday, most people are too young to remember that for a brief period in 1971and 1972, the US enjoyed great popularity in Pakistan, and was credited with saving it from destruction by Indian forces in the wake of Pakistani army’s surrender in East Pakistan on December 16, 1971. A new book by Garry Bass, The Blood Telegram, Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide (2013; Alfred Knopf), provides some fascinating insights into the last tumultuous year of Pakistan’s existence as a united country and the vicious military crackdown in East Pakistan that led to the country’s breakup.

Although a number of books and scholarly disquisitions have analyzed Pakistan’s civil war, the Bass’ book is unique in that it highlights the role of President Nixon and Dr Kissinger, the National Security Advisor, in the crisis, their unreserved support of Pakistan in suppression of Bengali nationalism and war with India. The book draws upon some highly classified information not available previously. Although Nixon had a penchant for secrecy, he had installed a clandestine recording system in the White House that recorded all conversations between him and others. The recorded and transcribed materials from the White House tapes, more than four-decades-old, are now being gradually declassified and made available to the public.

Blood Telegram

The author, a professor of politics at Princeton, listened to hours of recorded conversation between Nixon and Kissinger as the East Pakistan crisis was unfolding. He also studied numerous recently declassified documents, interviewed the former White House staff and talked to a number of Indian military and civilian leaders. The book is a powerful indictment of Nixon and Kissinger for their failure to pressure the Pakistani generals in 1971 from planning and executing a policy of what the author terms genocide of Bengalis, especially of the Hindus.

On March 25, 1971, as talks between Pakistan’s military ruler Yahya Khan and the Awami League leader, Mujib–ur-Rehman, to reach a political settlement broke down; Yahya flew off to Karachi and ordered a military crackdown. According to conservative estimates, some two-hundred thousand people died in the military action. In addition, an estimated ten millions Bengalis fled and became refugees in India, eighty to ninety percent of them Hindus.

The US administration meanwhile had been kept informed of the carnage and bloodshed occurring in East Pakistan, most prominently by its own Consul General posted in Dacca. Archer Blood had been sending detailed account of the situation in his telegrams to the State Department. He was most unhappy about the use of US-supplied arms deployed in the massacre of Bengalis, predicting a breakup of Pakistan.

Yet, Kissinger and Nixon dismissed his missives, characterizing them as product of an overreaction. According to the author, Nixon had a great personal fondness for Pakistan’s military ruler. “He’s a decent man”, Nixon repeatedly exclaimed. Both Nixon and Kissinger had a visceral hatred of India and its prime minister, Indira Gandhi, whom they derisively referred to as “the old b****.”

The title of the book, The Blood Telegram, is drawn from the telegrams sent by diplomat Blood. He was finally removed from his vantage point in Dacca, and assigned to a desk job at the State Department at Washington. Aside from their hostility to India, Nixon and Kissinger had another reason to be especially friendly to Yahya Khan. The US president was trying to extricate American forces from Vietnam and was seeking an opening to China to enlist that country’s help in doing so. Yahya was more than willing to serve as an enabler of this mission. In July 1971, Kissinger, a consummate practitioner of Realpolitick, went on a secret diplomatic mission to Beijing, where he met with Premier Zhou Enlai; his visit paved the way for Nixon’s historic visit to China the following year.

In November 1971, as the situation deteriorated in East Pakistan, Gandhi set out on a tour of world capitals to explain Indian support of the insurgent forces, and India’s growing refugee problems. The book provides a gripping account of her meeting with President Nixon in the White House. Neither had relished the prospect of the encounter.

Just before the meeting, Kissinger found Nixon fuming in the Oval Office, his dislike of Gandhi on full display. “The US has given more relief aid to India than the rest of the world combined, why don’t they give us any credit for that,” he demanded. Kissinger replied, “Because these bastards have played an absolutely brutal game with us.” The Oval Office meeting between the two leaders was brutal, “angry and protracted.” “Nixon thought she was a warmonger; she thought he was helping along genocide.” The meeting failed to achieve any agreement.

India had entered into a defense treaty with the Soviet Union and Nixon warned the prime minister that “a war might not be limited to only India and Pakistan,” hinting the possibility of China entering the fray. The next day, alone in the Oval Office, Nixon and Kissinger expressed themselves freely. Nixon remarked, “It is just the point when she is a b****.” Kissinger could not agree more, adding that “well, the Indians are b*******, anyway.”

As the Pakistani forces in East Pakistan were collapsing, Kissinger became worried that, based on some unconfirmed reports, India intended the dismemberment of West Pakistan as well. The CIA had concluded that if India attacked, there was no chance that China, concerned about Soviet reaction, would bail out Pakistan. On December 3, Pakistan in a desperate attempt to turn the tide launched a massive air strike against Indian airfields, but with little effect.

Kissinger, emotionally fraught and anxious to save West Pakistan, warned Nixon that Pakistan’s defenses could not last two weeks. He pressured him to arrange transfer of F104 fighter planes from Jordan, Iran and Turkey to Pakistan, even though doing so constituted a clear violation of the existing US laws. On December 12, Nixon and Kissinger warned the Soviet Union to restrain India by noon that day, or they would “initiate unspecified unilateral measures.”

In addition, Nixon ordered the nuclear aircraft carrier Enterprise to sail fast forward to the Bay of Bengal in a show of force and to threaten India. Finally, these measures worked. By the noon deadline, the Soviet Union informed the US that they had received assurance from India that “it had no intention of taking any military action against West Pakistan.” A unilateral ceasefire was declared by India on December 17, 1971, the day after East Pakistan’s surrender.

Today, more than four decades later, with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to recognize that the union of the East and West Pakistan was inherently untenable. Geography, language, cultural, socio-economic factors were all against it. However, it is tempting to contemplate that, had Nixon and Kissinger been less supportive of the Pakistani military leadership and insisted that they reach a political settlement with the Awami League, maybe, the breakup of Pakistan would not have been so traumatic and a dark chapter in the country’s history would have remained unwritten..

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