There are few if any heroes among world leaders in the story of how the nation of Bangladesh emerged in 1971 bloodied, bruised and battered. Created by hurried British mapmakers in 1947 as the eastern wing of a bizarrely divided new nation of Muslim-majority Pakistan, Bangladesh was separated by 1,000 miles of largely Hindu India from the western wing — today’s Pakistan.
In a powerful and exhaustively researched new book, “The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide,” Gary J. Bass, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton, tells not only the sorry tale of how a vindictive, anti-Indian American policy supported brutal repression by West Pakistan’s military leaders when the ethnic Bengalis of East Pakistan voted in 1970 for autonomy, as the book’s title suggests.
The book also lays bare the devious role of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s India, which saw an opportunity to split Pakistan and shear off its eastern half. (The “blood” in “Blood Telegram” was Archer Blood, the American consul in Dhaka who sacrificed his career to oppose President Richard Nixon’s lethal backing of Pakistani generals who left several hundred dead Bengalis in their wake.)
India and its armed forces and intelligence services trained and armed thousands of East Pakistani rebels to lead the battle for independence and then finished the job with an Indian army invasion of what is now Bangladesh in late 1971, forcing a total Pakistani surrender of half of its country.
That part of the story, little known in the United States, was told to me freely by Bangladeshi participants in the Indian campaign in interviews in the years that followed, both in Bangladesh and at the United Nations. Bass details it with new documentation and insights. (Indian intelligence agencies would repeat this policy under different circumstances in Sri Lanka, training and arming Tamil rebels in South Indian camps.)
In his book, Bass also recounts in significant detail the extent to which Indira Gandhi was surrounded by strong pro-Soviet advisers and officials, who talked her into setting aside her professed nonalignment and sign — just months before the Indian army foray into Bangladesh — a treaty of friendship and cooperation with Moscow. Indian actions brought an overwhelming condemnation from the General Assembly; the Security Council could not act because of a threat of a Soviet veto.
This series of events only underlined Nixon’s crude belief — even more crudely expressed in personal vilification of Gandhi — that India had become a communist tool.There is yet another facet of this story told by Bass that should be of interest to those who follow the history of the UN during that period and its relations with India before and since. When several million Bengalis, the large majority of them Hindus, fled East Pakistan under the West Pakistani onslaught throughout 1971, a severe human crisis exploded on the Indian side of the border, mostly in Indian West Bengal. Refugees were collected in squalid, muddy, stinking feces-splattered makeshift camps where cholera claimed many lives.
India was unable to cope with this humanitarian disaster — a story memorably told by Sydney Schanberg, then a young New York Times reporter based in India. Gandhi’s government used this tragedy as a public and international pretext for its later invasion of neighboring East Pakistan, but the Indian government would never seek or indeed permit assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Indians wrote off the high commissioner at the time, Sadruddin Aga Khan of Iran, a career refugee expert, as a buddy of the Pakistani military leader, Gen. Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan, who, ironically, did allow the UN to work in East Pakistan with returning refugees and displaced people.
Indian officials, whom Bass describes as misinforming and lying to the outside world about the country’s role in the Bangladesh war, had also earlier dismissed any suggestions of UN intervention or mediation in East Pakistan as the crisis mounted. Indian leaders had come to believe that it had been a mistake to allow a UN military observer mission into the disputed territory of Kashmir in 1949.
That region is still claimed by both Pakistan and India, where on the Indian side an independence movement has waxed and waned since the end of the British Empire. The UN mission is still there — barely, and severely restricted by India on its side of the line of control separating the two Kashmirs, where several wars and continuing skirmishes have taken place.
In the decades after the crisis that created Bangladesh, India continued to resist any substantial UN High Commissioner for Refugees presence within its borders. As the Soviet Union was withdrawing from Afghanistan in 1989, UN officials acknowledged privately that they had been told not to talk about Afghans who had fled to India as refugees during the Soviet period.
After the mujahideen militias took power in Afghanistan in 1992, the Indian government agreed to give asylum to Najibullah (who used only one name), the despised and feared Afghan ruler during the last years of the Soviet occupation. He refused a UN offer of safe passage out of Afghanistan and chose to remain in a UN compound in Kabul until 1996, when he was caught and hanged from a city lamp post by the Taliban.
“The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide,” by Gary J. Bass; 0307700208.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.