Among the many bizarre White House conversations between President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger that Gary Bass cites in his devastating account of America’s role in the creation of Bangladesh, a particularly wrenching one took place in April 1971, a little over two weeks into an onslaught by the Pakistani military upon its own citizens.
Sparking the Nixon-Kissinger exchange was an indignant diplomat named Archer Blood, the U. S. consul general in Dacca, the capital of Pakistan’s eastern half. For a fortnight, Blood had been cabling Washington details, meticulously gathered by his staff, of massacres and expulsions that had left the Bengali city “a ghost town.” Kissinger had downplayed the details of these reports to the president, and made clear to his aides that they should ignore the dispatches, even as three fourths of Dacca’s population fled for their lives.
On April 6, disgusted by Washington’s silence, Blood and his staff transmitted to their superiors in Washington a collectively authored telegram registering official disagreement with American policy: the “Blood telegram” of Bass’s title. It used the word “genocide” to describe the killings in Bengal, which were targeting the Bengalis—and specifically the Hindus among them—of East Pakistan. It was, Bass writes, “as scorching a cable as could be imagined” and “probably the most blistering denunciation of U. S. foreign policy ever sent by its own diplomats.” The five-page cable catalogued the “moral bankruptcy” of America’s Pakistan policy in failing to denounce the atrocities, in condoning the suppression of democracy, and in continuing to support and to arm the fast-dissolving country’s military leader.
Less than a week later, Nixon and Kissinger met in the Oval Office to try to convince themselves of the rightness of their dedication to that military leader, General Yahya Khan. He was a Sandhurst-trained officer straight out of central casting, complete with swagger stick, strut, and slick-backed hair. Nixon admired him and considered him a friend. Kissinger privately judged him a moron, but saw in him a supremely useful instrument to pursue America’s geopolitical interests. Now, as Yahya pressed his American-equipped army into service against Pakistan’s Bengali population, he was becoming an awkward problem for his Washington backers. The contents of Blood’s denunciatory cable had spread fast, winning supporters within the State Department and reaching the press and Democratic leaders. (Blood had taken care to give the telegram a low classification—merely “Confidential.”)
Infuriated by Blood’s insubordination and anxious that his message could derail their Pakistan policy, Nixon and Kissinger stiffened their commitment to Yahya. Biafra, Nixon suggested to Kissinger, had been worse than what was happening in East Pakistan—but the United States had not intervened there. Would it not be moral hypocrisy to intervene in Bengal? Or was Biafra’s neglect justified because it had fewer people? And for that matter, Nixon mused (maybe forgetting that his adviser’s own family had fled Nazi Germany), could it be said that because “there weren’t very many Jews in Germany” perhaps it was “therefore not immoral for Hitler to kill them?”
Even the most morally impaired politicians may sometimes strain toward ethical epiphanies. Through the fog of his geopolitical ambition, Nixon could see that what was happening in East Pakistan bore comparison with Biafra and the Holocaust. Unfortunately his moment of clarity was fleeting. It is the usual, sad fate of most chroniclers of political lives to chart the downward slope from moral perspective and insight into the arid plain of expediency and “realism.” And so the Nixonian moral flicker was quickly extinguished by Kissinger, ever a scourge to inexpedient thoughts. There was no way the United States should put a squeeze on Yahya, Kissinger urged: it would result in leftist extremists coming to rule in Bengal, and weaken the fight against Soviet communism. And there were other, still secret, strategic calculations having to do with China to be factored in. Besides, he argued of intervention, “[i]t’s a disaster. No one else is doing it.” Nixon was already convinced. “I think that if we get in the middle of all this,” he said, “it’s a hell of a mistake.”
In fact, the United States had been intervening squarely in the middle of Pakistan’s affairs from the early years of that country’s inception, with Nixon himself a driver of the American policy. As Eisenhower’s vice president, he visited Pakistan in 1953 and returned convinced that Pakistan could aid America’s efforts to contain communist expansionism. “Pakistan is a country I would like to do everything for,” Nixon said on his return home. Less than six months later, the administration entered into a military pact that over the next decade delivered to Pakistan some $2 billion worth of gleaming American military equipment. Nixon would honor his commitment to Pakistan to the tawdry end of his public life.
It is customary today for Washington officials and foreign-policy experts to rue the fact that, despite many billions of military and economic aid to Pakistan, the United States can do little to shape that country’s policies. That was not the case in the Nixon years. By the time Nixon became president, in 1969, Pakistan’s dependency on American aid and military supplies was deep and appetitive. Six months before Yahya Khan ordered his military onto the streets in East Pakistan, he had visited Nixon to secure promises of more weaponry—jets and bombers, tanks and armored vehicles. “We will try to be as helpful as we can,” Nixon assured the general.
American solicitude for Pakistan’s military regime would, in 1971, culminate in the support of the most violent and disruptive year in South Asia’s history, leaving hundreds of thousands dead and some ten million displaced—an upheaval even greater than the Partition of 1947, when the British scuttled out of India. The violence of 1971 transformed and scarred the Indian subcontinent. The drawn-out bloody birth of Bangladesh decimated the country’s intellectual and institutional capital as well as its economy, and it has never fully recovered. It was India that had to intervene to secure that birth, in a war that left Pakistan defeated and traumatized. Pakistan’s leaders poured their country’s resources into a nuclear program and into the military, which thereafter turned to insurgents and terrorists to instigate proxy wars designed “to bleed India by a thousand cuts.”
Pervez Musharraf, a young officer in the Pakistani army in 1971, would later recall his tears when hearing of his country’s defeat—a humiliation that drove his subsequent career, leading him as Pakistan’s military commander to instigate in 1999 a military operation against India in the high mountains of Kargil, which nearly erupted into a nuclear crisis. For India, the glow of triumph was short-lived. It had to confront a Pakistan cut free from the moderating, syncretic religions of Bengal, and moving rapidly to Islamicize in a bid to transform itself from a South Asian country into a Middle Eastern one; and India’s relations with Bangladesh fast cooled. As for the United States, it would henceforth be mistrusted by all in the region—by India, by Bangladesh, and by Pakistan, too, which blamed its ally for the breakup of the country.
"The months of killing and fleeing were sustained by schemes radiating out from Washington."
Across South Asia, memories of 1971 remain vivid, though what happened has not received sufficient attention in the West. It was far more than merely a regional sideshow. The months of killing and fleeing were sustained by schemes radiating out from Washington, and the outcome had regional and even global effects. Yet what actually happened has remained elusive. In the subcontinent itself, the accounts of the convulsion have been partisan and heavily nationalist, fixed on the inevitability of Pakistan’s breakup or of Bangladesh’s birth. The wider story of the exigencies—at once global and personal—that engendered what Bass calls “one of the worst moments of moral blindness in U. S. foreign policy” has barely been understood or told.
America’s lack of interest in what happened, Bass argues, is a direct result of Nixon’s and Kissinger’s concentrated efforts to “whitewash” Bangladesh out of their legacy, scattering “a farrago of distortions, half-truths, and outright lies about their policy toward the Bengali atrocities.” It was part of Nixon’s post-Watergate efforts to sanitize his reputation by stressing his foreign-policy achievements. That required burying his role in the Bangladesh crisis. But now we have two excellent and uncannily complementary books about the crucible of 1971. Bass, a historian at Princeton, has written an account—learned, riveting, and eviscerating—of the delusions and the deceptions of Nixon and Kissinger. Steeped in the forensic skills of a professional academic historian, he also possesses the imaginative energies of a classical moralist, and he tells the story of the choices and the decisions that led to the slaughter in Bengal—“one of the cardinal moral challenges of recent history”—appropriately as a moral saga. Srinath Raghavan, a former Indian army officer who researches and teaches in Delhi and in London, takes a more dispassionate approach. His superb analysis of the global intricacies of 1971 uses that wider lens with great precision to explain the breakup of Pakistan more convincingly than any preceding account.
Bass and Raghavan each draw on an impressive array of far-flung and hitherto untapped sources as they investigate the strategic ambitions, the moral pressures, the judgments of risk, and the sheer brutality of that pivotal year. They show how the most powerful democracy in the world could become complicit in a mass slaughter, and how in turn India—the world’s largest democracy but also one of its poorest and militarily weakest—was pushed to intervene to stop the slaughter.
For Raghavan, the origins of the Bangladesh crisis lie in the peculiarities of Pakistan and the intricacies of its politics. It is one of Raghavan’s consistent and convincing arguments that, contrary to retrospective nationalist narratives, there was nothing inevitable about the fact that Pakistan would break violently in half less than a quarter of a century after its creation.
Certainly, from its inception there was something forced about the Pakistan idea. In Muslim Zion, a remarkable book published earlier this year, the Oxford historian Faisal Devji has persuasively interpreted Jinnah’s view of Pakistan as an anti-territorial, universalistic conception of the nation. Summoning Pakistan into existence was an act of pure will that required the rejection of history, soil, and culture—all the usual grounds on which to claim nationhood, and which for Jinnah subverted the unity he claimed for India’s Muslims. Thus to Jinnah, the founder of the Pakistani state, it mattered little that the nation he ended up with consisted of two culturally disparate territories separated by a thousand miles. It meant that, in Pakistan, as Devji puts it, the “state has from the very beginning been deeply suspicious of ‘provincialism,’ the culture and characteristics of those who actually constituted the majority of its citizens, preferring instead to unite them under Islam as a universal idea having little to do with anything given to a people either by history or geography.”
Provincialism, in the sense of regional belonging, was of course inherent in Pakistan. Its peoples were assembled from different regional cultures, even if the state and national idea could not abide that fact. Yet contrary to Jinnah’s fears, strong provincial identities might well have been accommodated within a federal and democratic frame. Pakistan’s leaders need only have looked next door to the example of India—a country whose founders on the whole saw that a nation’s internal diversity might also be its distinctive strength.
In Pakistan, however, the fear of provincialism, or of what we might more usefully call ethnic pluralism, implanted a dual resistance to federalism and to democracy, and created a fundamental oddity in the distribution of political power. Government control was in the grip of the Punjabi elite in the west, but the majority of the country’s population was in the east—one main reason for the elite’s aversion to democracy, which it managed to avoid for the first two decades of the country’s existence.
Pressures for democratic elections built during the late 1960s, stoked by the fires of student radicalism across the world. The military regime, led by General Ayub Khan, the founder of Pakistan’s dynasty of generals and a firm ally of the United States, was confronted in East Pakistan by the Awami League, a middle-class party led by the professorial-looking, pipe-smoking Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The values of the Awami League were stolid rather than radical, but the student movement in the east was pressing for greater Bengali autonomy. Amid youth protests and general strikes, Ayub Khan was replaced by Yahya Khan, who was equipped (as Raghavan has it) “with an uncluttered—some would say vacant—mind.” Yahya hoped that he could fudge military rule into a passable constitutional version, and agreed to elections for a national assembly empowered to make a new constitution for Pakistan.
Just weeks before the elections, though, one of the Bay of Bengal’s seasonal cyclones ripped across the eastern province, killing hundreds of thousands. (State Department estimates were of 500,000 dead.) The response of the Yahya government was inert. The general turned up to inspect the destruction in full military regalia, reeking of alcohol, and promptly fled back to West Pakistan, leaving it to international agencies to provide assistance. Bass quotes an American diplomat serving in Dacca at the time: “The cyclone was the real reason for the final break” between the two provinces. An exaggeration, no doubt: but when East Pakistan went to the polls three weeks later, Mujib’s Awami League was swept to an overall majority in the national parliament. The result was an unprecedented shift eastward of the balance of political power.
Yahya was stunned. Desperate to contain what he feared would be demands for independence, he turned to the victor of the elections in the west, the populist Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, intending to play him off against Mujib. Bhutto rose to the opportunity with a Jinnah-like argument: Mujib might represent the Bengali majority, but since Punjab and Sindh were “bastions of power in Pakistan,” Bhutto was himself the “sole representative of the people of West Pakistan,” and so a power-sharing deal between the two leaders would have to be struck. Mujib and his youthful enragés would have none of it.
Over the next several months, as Pakistanis struggled to figure out what democracy might mean for the habitual allocation of power in their country, the situation was fluid. As Raghavan argues, the political breakdown between Yahya and Mujib did not necessarily entail the breakup of Pakistan. For a start, the United States might have supported the democratic verdict of Pakistan’s first free elections. But it did not. Yahya delayed calling the national assembly, promising to convene it on March 25, while he and Bhutto feigned negotiations with Mujib. Washington’s regional experts warned Nixon and Kissinger that, if Yahya did not accept the electoral results and used force, violent secession in the east was likely. The cables streaming in from the Dacca consulate, meanwhile, gave early indications of a military buildup in advance of the March 25 deadline. Troops were being airlifted into Dacca on flights disguised as civilian by Pakistan International Airlines. A military crackdown, Archer Blood and his staff predicted, would end in a “bloodbath.” They urged their government to threaten a stop to economic aid. (A World Bank paper from 1971, cited by Raghavan, underlined America’s considerable economic hold over Pakistan, and the policy leverage this gave Washington.)
But Kissinger, evincing a concern for the inviolability of national sovereignty not usually associated with his policies, declared to the White House staff that it was not for the United States to tell another state how to run its business. He advised his president that “the best posture was to remain inactive and do nothing that Yahya might find objectionable.” A little firmness, the argument went, would bring the Bengalis back into line. Nixon himself believed Yahya to be a “responsible leader” and the best bet against the secession of East Pakistan. The White House refused to warn Yahya against the use of force.
Yahya, reassured, appointed as governor of East Pakistan Lieutenant General Tikka Khan, a brutal commander known as the “Butcher of Baluchistan” for his suppression of an uprising there the previous year. Toward the end of March, Yahya and Bhutto arrived in Dacca under heavy armed protection, ostensibly to negotiate with Mujib. In fact Yahya and Tikka Khan were devising a military plan against their own people. By March 25, street protests in Dacca and elsewhere were into their third week. That day Yahya departed for Karachi, leaving orders for Operation Searchlight to begin the same night, assured that he had the backing of the one power that could have stopped him.
Yahya and Tikka Khan had chosen their targets with precision. Mujib and the Awami League leadership were arrested, while troop columns led by U. S.-made M-24 tanks and armored carriers fanned out across the university area and into Dacca’s densely packed old city, where many Hindus lived. Professors, intellectuals, and students were massacred, as were thousands of middle-class and poor Hindus. Across the city, gunfire and artillery explosions were heard all that night and into the next day. Yahya went on national radio to announce the imposition of martial law. Outbound communications from the province were shut down, newspaper buildings were attacked, and foreign journalists were rounded up and expelled. The Voice of America news bulletins simply repeated Pakistani government press briefings. But real news of the killings was getting out, as it tends to do.
Blood, a conscientious career diplomat whom Bass describes as “unreservedly square,” considered it his duty to keep his superiors informed. The American consulate in Dacca possessed a secret wireless transmitter, which Blood and his staff used to send cables to the State Department. They tried to count the dead (whom they noted were mainly Hindu) on the streets; they reported evidence of bombing by the air force and of tank and artillery shelling. Neither Bass nor Raghavan dwell on the atrocities themselves, but the scale and the horror of the killings, rapes, and expulsions are unmistakable. Some in Pakistan’s military were themselves shocked by their own depravity. Lieutenant General Niazi, who succeeded Tikka Khan as military commander in East Pakistan, and would later distance himself from his military’s “scorched-earth policy,” remembered “a display of stark cruelty, more merciless than the massacres ... by [Genghis] Khan ... or at Jallianwala Bagh by the British General Dyer.” Even Nixon in his memoirs noted the “almost unbelievable cruelty” of the fighting in East Pakistan. On April 6, after witnessing it and documenting it for a fortnight, Blood and his staff sent their cable.
Meanwhile, improbably, the indian government was actively considering its options for intervention. Bass and Raghavan provide the first authoritative accounts of the debates among Indian decision-makers, as they weighed the pressures and risks of action to stop the violence. Making deft use of limited Indian sources (both draw on the papers of P. N. Haksar, a cerebral London School of Economics–trained diplomat whose calculated leftism made him Indira Gandhi’s favorite adviser), Bass and Raghavan delve into how a democratic state decides to intervene—in this case a poor and militarily weak democratic state, with little international support, having to act against a neighbor backed by the world’s most powerful state. And they come to somewhat different conclusions.
Retrospective Indian narratives have tended to overplay the clear intentions and the decisiveness of Indian policy. The commander-in-chief of the Indian army, General Sam Manekshaw, gave currency to the story that Indira Gandhi was impatient for immediate action. He recounted being summoned to a Cabinet meeting at which she demanded that the army make a move; he claimed that he had to restrain her, on grounds of military underpreparedness.
Bass, persuaded by this and other accounts, portrays Indira Gandhi as deciding early for war, following from the beginning of April a path of escalation. But Raghavan significantly complicates this view, detecting a more gradual Indian drift to intervention. According to Raghavan, Indira Gandhi invited Manekshaw to attend a Cabinet meeting not because she wanted to issue instructions for war, but so that her colleagues could hear directly from him just how far from being battle-ready the Indian military actually was. It is true that some key Indian thinkers, such as K. Subrahmanyam, a senior bureaucrat and respected military strategist (and father of the incoming Indian ambassador to Washington), argued strongly for early military action. But Gandhi relied on the more circumspect views of P. N. Haksar and of her military.
For Indira Gandhi, still finding her political stride, it was her first big international crisis. Embroiled in internal struggles for control over her own party, and facing secessionist movements in India, she was wary of being seen as interfering in the internal matters of another country, not least because the possibility of East Pakistan’s secession might encourage breakaways in India. She was skeptical as to whether other states would recognize an independent Bangladesh and felt that any armed action by India would draw international disapproval. And she and her advisers feared that involvement in the crisis would leave India vulnerable. The Indians were aware that Pakistan’s American weaponry gave it an edge over India, and that if India concentrated its forces on East Pakistan it would be dangerously exposed on the western front. There was anxiety, too, that the Chinese might use the opportunity to intervene on Pakistan’s side.
The prudential case against Indian intervention, then, was strong. Ruling out war mobilization, Gandhi preferred to give covert support for the Awami League’s guerrilla movement, the Mukti Bahini (Liberation Army). But relations between Indian military trainers and the Bengali fighters were tetchy: New Delhi doubted the competence of the Bengali forces and was uncomfortable with the Awami League’s desire for political control over recruitments.
Yet Indian political opinion and public sentiment were moving ahead of their hesitant government, stirred by reports of atrocities and by the surge of refugees into India. Already in May, Indian officials were recording daily arrivals from East Pakistan of more than 100,000 people. By July, the number was seven million, and by the end of the year the estimate was a staggering ten million. To reach India, the refugees trekked through thick forests and, as the monsoons broke, torrential rains. They ended up in squalid camps run by desperately under-resourced Indian administrators. The economic cost was considerable. Raghavan cites Indian estimates of some $576 million for maintaining eight million refugees for six months, of which only $20 million in international relief had reached India by late September. Virtually overnight, the refugee flow transformed the demography of India’s poor northeastern states. The small state of Tripura, with a population of 1.5 million, suddenly had to accommodate 900,000 refugees; and villages of five thousand grew to shanty encampments of 300,000.
Particularly alarming to Indian leaders was the realization that most of the refugees—more than 80 percent of them—were Bengali Hindus. Government leaders worked hard to suppress this fact, fearing that it would introduce an incendiary religious dimension to the crisis and spread uncontainable conflict across the subcontinent. It was also becoming apparent to the Indians that Pakistan was pursuing a policy of forced expulsions, with no intention to take back its own citizens. In mid-May, Indira Gandhi decided to tour the refugee areas to see the situation herself. One of her closest advisors, P. N. Dhar, recalled that she “was so overwhelmed by the scale of human misery that she could hardly speak.” On her return to Delhi, she had decided: “We cannot let Pakistan continue this holocaust.”
What India could do to stop the killing was doubly constrained. Its leaders were well aware of their country’s limited economic and military capabilities; what they did not know was that they were part of a geopolitical shadow play.
Nixon’s and Kissinger’s secret pursuit of détente with China had fastened on Pakistan as the channel to China, and, as Bass puts it, in that calculus “the Bengalis became collateral damage for realigning the global balance of power.” Nixon and Kissinger deemed Yahya essential for their China plans. In May, despite evidence of the continuing carnage in East Pakistan, Kissinger pressed Robert McNamara, the president of the World Bank, to provide sufficient international economic aid to Pakistan for another six months—the time he reckoned Yahya needed to be kept in place to secure Kissinger his meetings with Zhou Enlai and to steer the China policy to success. Geostrategic success in one place was to become Kissinger’s alibi for humanitarian failure in another place. But in truth the China breakthrough extenuates nothing: as Bass and Raghavan each make clear, Pakistan was not the only route available to the Americans to pursue their China goals. The United States could have restrained Pakistan’s military actions while still securing the China opening.
In July, when Kissinger made his secret trip to China, he traveled through Islamabad. On July 15, Nixon announced on national television that he would visit China. The news was heard with shock in New Delhi, where it raised the threat that China might intervene to support Pakistan. Kissinger himself entertained the possibility that the Chinese would come in—weaving what Raghavan terms “a fantastical web of strategic linkages between the South Asian crisis and America’s wider interests.” For Nixon and Kissinger, it became above all a reputational matter: they had to show the Chinese that they would support their Pakistani ally through any crisis. Kissinger, on his return from China, told Nixon: “The cloak and dagger exercise in Pakistan arranging the trip was fascinating. Yahya hasn’t had such fun since the last Hindu massacre!”
By late August, the Indians had decided to escalate their involvement, stepping up their covert support to the Mukti Bahini, the Bengali freedom fighters, thereby hoping to weaken Pakistani control of the province and to force a negotiated settlement. As a hedge against the potential fallout from such covert policy, Indira Gandhi struck a Peace and Friendship Treaty with the Soviet Union, and then embarked on a two-week international campaign to advocate India’s case in Western capitals. International public opinion had in fact rallied to the cause—most audibly through the Concert for Bangladesh held in Madison Square Garden in August, part of a “globalization of conscience” that Raghavan sees as important in shaping the crisis.
On her return from her whirlwind tour, Gandhi sanctioned orders for Indian troops to launch offensive operations inside Pakistani territory, and in the last week of November, she gave General Manekshaw the signal for a full-scale attack on Pakistan. The operation was set for December 4; but Yahya, following his own impeccable timing, had himself decided to attack on the western front. Pakistani air force strikes were launched on the night of December 3. The war that followed was swift and decisive, ending in victory for India.
Kissinger and his aides—drawing on faulty CIA intelligence—were convinced that the Indians wanted to destroy Pakistan. They therefore felt justified in expanding military support to Pakistan: illicitly supplying jet aircraft, sending the Seventh Fleet led by the USS Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal to intimidate the Indians, and passing secret messages urging the Chinese to mass troops on their Indian border. It was a view of India’s intentions that comported with Nixon’s and Kissinger’s picture of India’s leaders as cunning and ambitious adventurers who, relying on Soviet support, were bent on an all-out military campaign to dismember Pakistan, to expel the American presence from South Asia, and to sabotage U. S. interests across the world. “We can’t let these goddamn, sanctimonious Indians get away with this. They’ve pissed on us on Vietnam for five years, Henry,” Nixon told his adviser.
Even Bass argues that Gandhi and her advisers were “coldly calculating strategists,” but Raghavan stresses the tentativeness of Indian intentions and ambitions. There was no grand plan at the outset either to capture Dacca or to create an independent state. The decision for a maximal thrust in the east, to Dacca, was not taken until December 11, a few days before the war’s end. It was made against the background of proposed resolutions in the United Nations calling for a cease-fire and the threat of American naval intervention, as well as American pressure on the Soviets to restrain India.
Freedom's Battle, Gary Bass’s earlier book, traced the origins of humanitarian intervention back to the early nineteenth century, contiguous with the emergence of a sphere of national states, and showed the concern with foreign suffering to be an enduring impulse in the West’s history. In The Blood Telegram—his title, quite specific in reference, conveniently serves also as a metaphor for all the atrocity news that the world regularly sends us—Bass brings that long history into the contemporary world.
“At the advent of an Asian era in world politics,” Bass writes, “the future of human rights will increasingly depend on the ideologies, institutions, and cultures of ascendant Asian great powers like China and India.” It is a striking assertion, possibly prescient in a world where the old great powers—America, Britain, France—continue to subscribe to the banner of human rights but are increasingly unwilling to bear the economic or military costs of defending those rights. It is also not a reassuring one: in these straitened times, we may look to China to help revitalize the world economy, but on human rights, China will revitalize nothing. It is, in fact, among the most powerful enemies of the human-rights agenda in the world today.
India’s sense of its own role is ambivalent. It is commonplace in Washington and other Western capitals to lament India’s reluctance to contribute to the provision of global public goods. Yet as these two books help us to see, that is not the full story. India has long aspired to play a role in shaping international norms. Dismissed as sanctimonious by the old powers, India can also claim some efficacy. Certainly 1971 is part of a longer story of Indian interventions in international politics. From pushing the issue of South African apartheid into U. N. debates in the 1940s, to peacekeeping in the Congo in the early 1960s, to Bangladesh, India’s leaders have regularly committed the country’s limited resources to help shape international norms and rules—even as India has itself often shown what Bass calls “breathtaking hypocrisy” when it comes to the rights of many of its own citizens.
The story of 1971 is no cameo in the history of interventionism. In human scale, in its negotiation of uncertainty and risk, it ranks among the most notable humanitarian interventions in modern times. While Bass’s book is a stinging verdict on America’s role, Raghavan’s carries important warnings to Indian decision-makers about the costs of circumspection and delay. Raghavan argues that a swift and early intervention might well have been effective: helping save innumerable lives and much suffering, it would have left Bangladesh less battered and more able to rebuild as a democratic state.
South Asia’s dense cultural ecology and fragile natural habitat, and the political tensions that thereby arise from its sharp ethnic and communitarian dissonances, will long keep it a space of potential humanitarian crisis, whether natural or man-made. India will be the default steward for such crises, and a likely destination for flows of refugees. Making assessments of human catastrophes, and judgments about interventions to alleviate them, will therefore remain an important responsibility for Indian policymakers. They will need all the historical learning they can get.
In his earlier book, Bass described India’s actions in 1971 as “more or less humanitarian intervention,” and in his new book, he writes that India’s policy in 1971 “was motivated by a mix of lofty principle and brutal realpolitik.” Interventions are and always will be “more or less” and mixed in character—despite the puritanical fascination with motives and intentions that often characterizes advocates of interventionism. If humanitarian interventions are to have a future, we will need to shift from concern over the goodness of intentions to a focus on consequences: whether intervention could or would actually save lives and improve life chances, even if one allows for the inevitable unintended outcomes. This will require what Bass has wisely called a “morality of prudence.” Such an understanding will in turn need to be built on a deeper knowledge of the history of these wrenching historical circumstances, and Gary Bass and Srinath Raghavan have given us two indispensable studies of one of the most sordid and important instances of horror and help.
Sunil Khilnani is Avantha Professor and director of the India Institute at King’s College London and the author of The Idea of India(Farrar, Straus and Giroux).