21 December 2011

"Myths and Facts: Bangladesh Liberation War" by B Z Khasru

The recent declassification of US Government archives has provided a rich mine of information on US behavior during the1971 war between India and Pakistan that liberated Bangladesh.

B Z Khasru, a US based journalist, has done extensive research of this newly declassified data to bring additional information about the 1971 events.

It was Bhutto, not Mujib, who broke Pakistan, says General Yahya Khan in an affidavit issued just before his death.  All that Mujib-ur-Rahman wanted was for Bengal to have its fair share of growth, jobs, public purse and foreign aid; and the opportunity to grow through trade with India.  Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had a tacit preference to let East Pakistan secede (and leave the West to be governed by Bhutto) than be subject to a weak federation ruled by Bengalis.  Bhutto preferred power than Pakistan.

Yahya was no angel either.  His motivation to conduct elections was the probability of getting to stay in power for a long period of time since his Intelligence officers advised him that the elections might not result in a clear majority and the framing of a new constitution within 120 days after the elections is unlikely.  His allusion to Mujib as the future PM of Pakistan was more to scare the politicians in the West and the army to unite.

However, Khasru’s book is more about how US misplaced its principles and misread the tea leaves.

Nixon and Kissinger saw the entire problem through the narrow prism of securing friendship with China through the benevolence of Yahya Khan.

1.     The aspirations of 75 million people in the East and the genocide unleashed on them were not important.  When US Consul at Dacca, Archer Blood, accused the US Government of “moral bankruptcy” for its “posture of pretending to believe Pakistan Government’s false assertions”, Nixon recalled Blood and transferred him to Personnel.

2.     The focus was on keeping Yahya Khan pleased since he was the conduit to the secret parley with China.   US would continue to publicly support Yahya’s unified Pakistan; if East Pakistan requires US support, US would decline to give such a support “based on the premise that in US opinion West Pakistan would not use force to bring a solution”.

Nixon and Kissinger were amazingly consistent in “misreading” the tea leaves:

1.     Kissinger theorized that India would not want an independent Bangladesh since that would induce India’s West Bengal province to secede from India and unite with Bangladesh!

2.     Nixon preferred to support Pakistan wherever possible because “Yahya was more decent to US than Indira Gandhi was”.  Kissinger agreed, “Yahya was decent and reasonable if not politically smart”.

3.     Kissinger felt Indian occupation of Bangladesh would be even more violent and would make Pakistan’s occupation look like child play.  When Indian army entered Dacca, Nixon was surprised to see locals welcoming the liberating army and asked: “You see those people welcoming the Indian troops.  Why then are we going through this agony?” Kissinger replied:  “To prevent the West Pakistan army from being destroyed; to retain our Chinese arm; to preserve balance of power with the Soviet Union”.

Nixon had a strong bias against India.  In his private conversations with Kissinger, Indians were referred to as “cowards” and “savages”.  Nixon tried to support Pakistan in several ways:

1.     When his State department disagreed with Kissinger that US owed arms support to Pakistan (when Pakistan invoked the bilateral agreement with US and sought arms), Nixon orchestrated provision through intermediary countries.  Jordan did provide aircrafts and pilots to Pakistan.  Iran agreed to but rescinded in the last minute.  Kissinger admitted in 1972 to China that US supplied arms via third countries.  The augmentation did not have an impact.

2.     Nixon urged China to move troops to the Indian border saying “The Indians have got to get a little scared”. China did not oblige because of its concerns about Soviet intervention under the Indo Soviet treaty.

3.     Nixon moved US Seventh fleet to Bay of Bengal to increase threat perceptions though this did not have any impact on the war.

4.     Nixon warned Soviet Union that any help to India would leave a scar in US-Soviet relationship for many years after the war ended.  Nixon told a visiting Soviet minister: “The Indians are cowards.  They are raping and murdering.  They are pretty vicious”.  (Historians would consider this to be a Presidential lie).  Kissinger felt Nixon’s statement would make Soviets reduce their support to India.  They did not.

In Khasru's book, Indira Gandhi emerges as a good leader.  She worked on domestic opinion before supporting Mukti Bahini.  She worked on international opinion before invading East Pakistan.  She read the geopolitical scenario rightly and concluded a treaty with the Soviet Union to ensure China does not start any conflict to step up pressure against India.  She was firm in declining to conform to UN resolution (orchestrated by Nixon) to ceasefire and withdraw from each other’s territories (the usual end for every India Pakistan war in the past). 

In the end it came down to Nixon and Kissinger not reading an important import of that amazing document, the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America, which read: “Whenever any government becomes destructive of man’s inalienable rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, it was the right of the people to alter or abolish it”.

18 December 2011

"The last days of United Pakistan" by G W Choudhury

Pakistan started as a homeland for the Muslims of Indian subcontinent in 1947.  That credential was lost in 1971 when Bangladesh separated from Pakistan after a genocide that took 0.4 million to 3.6 million lives (depending on whose narrative you believe).

G W Choudhury provides a unique perspective of the events surrounding the birth of Bangladesh.  His perspective is unique because:  One, GWC is a scholar (he taught political science at Dacca University and later at Duke University).   Two, he is of Bengali origin and has a better understanding of the Bengali point of view.  Three, he was a Minister in General Yahya Khan’s military dictatorship and has unquestionable allegiance to the idea of Pakistan.

Why did Pakistan fail to keep all Muslims united under one flag and face secessionist pressure from a sub set of its Muslims within 24 years?  Why did the Bengali Muslim get alienated from the Pakistan idea?

GWC cites several reasons:
  1. Though religion was a unifying factor, language and culture were divisive factors.  The Bengalis in East Pakistan had greater affinity to the Hindu Bengalis of India than fellow Muslims in Pakistan.  Pakistan failed to play the unifying card and alienated Bengalis by attempting to make Urdu spoken in West Pakistan as the national language.  The alienation was so strong that in a provincial election, Muslim League, the national party won just 9 out of 304 seats! 
  2. Bengalis did not have a role in national politics despite constituting 55% of Pakistan’s population.  People from Punjab and Sindh in the western half dominated national politics.  (Pakistan’s politics did not provide a role for people in the western half either; it was ruled by military dictatorship or by a sham democracy that did not hold one general election at national level until 1970!). 
  3. Bengalis did not have a role in provincial government either.  Most of the top jobs in civil service went to people originating from West Pakistan.
  4. Bengalis had a different view on international relations.  Bengalis depended upon trade with India and nursed no animosity against India. (When Mujib was egged by GWC to accept Chinese friendship, Mujib retorted: “Friendship against whom?  I have no dispute with India.  Why should I need China’s help and assistance?”)  National leadership, dominated by the western half, nursed an animosity against India because of its stronger affinity to Kashmir.  GWC concedes in his book that “Pakistan’s hands were not clean in Kashmir or in the Mizo unrest in Assam”. 
  5. Bengalis did not enjoy a fair share of public revenue, foreign aid or government jobs.  Most of these went to West Pakistan.  (To be fair, most of the revenue/aid went to the army; not West Pakistan; however that is a technical detail for the average Bengali).
  6. The Bengalis did not have their fair share of economic growth as a result. In 1960 West’s GDP was 32% bigger than East’s.  In 1970, West’s GDP was 61% bigger than East’s.

General Yahya Khan decided to transfer power to a government elected by people.  The Eastern half (with 55% population) was fully united behind Awami League party.  The Western half was split amongst various regional factions.  In normal circumstances, Mujib-ur-Rahman, the Bengali leader would have become the Prime Minister of Pakistan.  According to GWC, the people in the western half and the army would have accepted Mujib-ur-Rahman as PM.  

But there were stumbling blocks:
  1. Politicians from West Pakistan were not willing to let power go to Bengalis. 
  2. Mujib-ur-Rahman’s intentions were not clear.  Though he proposed a six point agenda demanding provincial autonomy, and was not talking of secession there was widespread suspicion that his real intent was secession.

Yahya Khan had to make some tough choices.  Could he trust Mujib to form a government?  Could he pressure Bhutto to accept Mujib’s leadership?  Would Mujib consider the electoral results a mandate for secession and demand secession after becoming PM?  Yahya made his choices and conducted the elections in Dec 1970. 

Results were as below:




Bhutto declined to cede power to Mujib saying “majority rule does not apply in view of geographic distance between East and West Pakistan”.  Mujib was pressing for greater provincial autonomy in a set up where the federal government was virtually powerless.  GWC tried to broker peace with a half way house arrangement.  The negotiations did not yield any result.

After this, the narrative varies based on who you ask.

GWC “concedes” that Pakistan Army (on the fateful day of 25 Mar 1971) unleashed violence on its own people in the East that can never be condoned or justified; but carefully avoids the word “genocide”.  He does say that “foreign newspapers did not exaggerate and in fact people’s agony, suffering and humiliation had not been fully exposed”.  (Neutral observers estimate the number of dead to be around 3.6 million and the number of refugees into India to be 10 million).  Pakistan army brought the peace of the graveyard to the Eastern half.

Burdened by the inflow of refugees, India started providing tacit assistance to Mukti Bahini (the freedom fighters of Bangladesh).  Pakistan started air action against India at the Western border (based on the premise that this would keep Indian army busy and deter any intrusion in the Eastern border; and China/US would prevent escalation).  GWC concedes this strategy was not fruitful.  India invaded East Pakistan and liberated Bangladesh.  The war that Bhutto vowed would last a thousand years lasted just 14 days resulting in decimation of Pakistan army in the East and capture of 93,000 prisoners of war (who were later sent to Pakistan under Simla Accord).

However, GWC’s analysis is not sufficient:

1.     GWC carefully avoids discussion of the loss of 3.6 million lives in East Pakistan under a genocide orchestrated by Pakistan army. 
2.     GWC ignores the fact that Pakistan started the war at the Western front for which India responded by invading East Pakistan.
3.     GWC says India’s victory “with little cost” was due to the full backing (ie moral support) of Russia while US/China did not provide military support (though they provided moral support) to Pakistan.  He misses the asymmetry of his analogy.  He also misses the power of a million aspirations.
4.     GWC laments for Pakistan army’s defeat without air support and “surrounded by a hostile population”.  Very funny.

Anyone interested in the story of Bangladesh should read this book for the insight; but should read at least one more book to get a better perspective of the price paid for “Amar Sona Bangla”.

11 December 2011

"The Remains of the day" by James Ivory & Ismail Merchant

Yaghan language (spoken in Tierra del Fuego - the archipelago off the southern tip of South America) has  a word that is considered to be the most succinct (and most difficult to translate to English):  "mamihlapinatapai".  It means the look shared by two people, each hoping that the other will initiate something that both desire but neither is willing to initiate.  Whew.

This 1993 Merchant Ivory movie (of course scripted by Ruth Jhabvala) is an excellent epitome of the "mamihlapinatapai" feeling.  The movie is based on Kazuo Ishiguro's book about the ambiguous relationship between a stoic perfectionist English butler (Anthony Hopkins) and a warm housekeeper (Emma Thompson).  One can sense the love between them; their reluctance to express it first; and their keen desire that the other should express first.  The housekeeper leaves to marry someone else.  Fortune offers another chance twenty years later only to be lost again.  

Anthony Hopkins' Mr Stevens is the perfect butler a master could hope for.  He runs the house with dedication and commitment; is laconic and polite with his master and with his staff.  He manages everything for his master and yet "vanishes into the wall paper" even as leaders of the era visit his master's house to  architect a European unity between the first and the second world war.  He sees nothing; hears nothing and talks nothing and offers no opinion even when the house guests seek his opinion on worldly issues.  Quite a contrast to Isaac Asimov's Henry (the butler serving the Black Widowers) who "engages" with impressive intelligence in the affairs of his guests.    

Emma Thompson's Miss Kenton is a polite and proper lady.  She is slightly warmer than Stevens; slightly less repressed and very subtle in expressing her emotions (be it love or be it anger).  She lets her emotions get through on two occasions: one, when she teases Stevens by enquiring whether he is reading a scandalous book that could hurt her character; another when she cries in her room after announcing her decision to marry Tom.  On both occasions, Stevens "misses the bus" in understanding and reciprocating the feelings.

You feel like intervening into the movie to break the ice.  That is the feeling Kazuo Ishiguro, Ruth Jhabvala, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory wanted you to be left with.

I would rather regret doing something than regret not having done something.  Excellent movie.