The 1971 Bangladesh genocide is little remembered, although it was almost as bad as Rwanda. It turned the Cold War story of freedom-loving US versus the oppressive Soviet Union on its head. The land of the free was in a shameful alliance with the killers, while the evil empire was on the side of the angels.
Yet this ‘good versus bad’ battle was very sharply etched. In 1970 the Avami League, dominated by the Bengalis of East Pakistan, won the country’s first truly democratic election. The outraged Punjabis of West Pakistan, who had ruled the country since its birth in 1947, unleashed a brutal crackdown killing a quarter of a million Bengalis, possibly a million, with ten million refugees fleeing to neighbouring India. Thousands of women were raped and there was also a ferocious ethnic cleansing of the minority Hindu population. The Pakistani military went round forcing men to lift their lungis, the cloth that men in that part of the world drape round their waist, aware that Hindus, unlike Muslims, were not circumcised. And, like Jews in Nazi Germany, some Hindus were forced to wear a cloth to identify themselves. This was much worse than the trauma of Partition, with Archer Blood, the US consul general in Dhaka, in a graphic telegram to the State Department, calling it ‘Selective Genocide’. This telegram gives the book its title.
Blood sent many chilling reports documenting the genocide but Richard Nixon dismissed him as another wretched liberal and humanitarian relief came low down Nixon’s priorities. Keen to pursue his opening to Mao’s China, he was using Yahya Khan, the Pakistani military dictator, to send messages to the Chinese and readily accepted Yahya’s view that there was no genocide, just an Indian plot to destroy Pakistan.
India was not unhappy at breaking up Pakistan but the opportunity was presented by Yahya and for the world’s greatest democracy not to side with India, the world’s largest democracy, on this great moral issue remains the most astonishing story of the Cold War.
Gary Bass, a reporter turned academic, displays great forensic skill, using secret White House tapes to show how Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, covered up their responsibility for the slaughter, a cover-up with more lethal consequences than the Watergate cover-up. Even now, much material remains a secret.
Nixon, who told the British Foreign Secretary that, ‘the British got out too soon’ from India, never had much time for Indians or Indian democracy. Indians, he told Kissinger, were ‘devious’ and ‘a slippery, treacherous people’, unlike the ‘straightforward Pakistanis’. Partly this was prompted by India’s non-aligned policy, whereas Pakistan was an ally. But there was also a personal factor. Nixon loathed the Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, calling her ‘the old bitch’, while Yahya was a ‘thoroughly decent and reasonable man’. Kissinger, who called Indians ‘those sons of bitches’, admired Yahya’s Sandhurst training and likened him to Abraham Lincoln.
To help the Pakistani Lincoln, Nixon broke his own government’s embargo on arms sales by supplying weapons through Jordan and Iran. Kissinger even shared secret US intelligence with the Chinese, hoping China would amass troops on its Indian border and force the Indians to abandon plans to stop the slaughter by invading East Pakistan.
The Soviets, presented with an opportunity to become fighters for oppressed people, could hardly miss and promptly signed a defence treaty with India, a crucial reassurance for the Indians that, should China attack, the Soviets would come to their rescue. In December 1971 the Indian army went into East Pakistan. But before the Indians could reach Dhaka, Nixon went to the Security Council of the United Nations and India required a Soviet veto to prevent a UN call for withdrawal of Indian troops. The US did get the resolution through the General Assembly, with 104 nations supporting it and India getting only 11 votes, ten of them from the Soviet bloc. But that vote had no legal sanction. Even then Nixon would not give up and as Indian troops neared Dhaka he sent the Seventh Fleet to the Bay of Bengal.
In the end, like the Pakistan army, Nixon accepted defeat. But his failure to restrain his ‘decent’ friend Yahya Khan still haunts Bangladesh.