Thursday, January 16, 2014

Book review: Raghavan on the birth of Bangladesh

Srinath Raghavan, 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh.  Harvard University Press, 2013.  358 pp.

The crisis that led to the creation of Bangladesh was a major episode in the history of South Asia and had implications that reached beyond the subcontinent.  It raised issues that would recur frequently in subsequent decades, as humanitarian catastrophes increasingly took place in the context of civil wars and/or secession.  The creation of Bangladesh also had lasting geopolitical consequences: Srinath Raghavan writes in 1971 that it “was the most significant geopolitical event in the subcontinent since its partition in 1947” (4).  

Raghavan’s book is marked by narrative detail and backed by extensive research: among other things, he has gone into various archives (though Pakistan’s archives on the episode remain closed), read many memoirs and other sources, and also made use of the substantial amount of recent work on the international history of the 1960s and 1970s.  He maintains that the birth of Bangladesh was not inevitable but the product of “choice and chance” (8) and should be viewed in light of “the interplay between the domestic, regional, and international dimensions” (9).  Raghavan deals with the stances of many countries during the crisis and also pays attention to actors such as the press, celebrity musicians, NGOs, and the UN. However, the classic figures of diplomats, soldiers, and heads of state occupy center stage in his account.

This post focuses on what 1971 says about the roles in the crisis of the Soviet Union and the United States, and how these roles were complexly entangled with those of some of the other main players, notably China.  As will be seen, Raghavan is highly critical of Nixon and Kissinger, particularly the latter’s overemphasis on U.S. ‘credibility’ and his tendency to see linkages everywhere.

One general impression that emerges from this history is that none of the main actors wanted the crisis to escalate into a direct great-power military confrontation.  The dominant, though certainly not exclusive, diplomatic-strategic note was one of caution.  This impulse toward restraint, however, also meant that no decisive action was taken to stop the Pakistani army’s rampage in East Pakistan until India went beyond supplying aid to the indigenous independence forces and eventually intervened with its own soldiers (and Raghavan thinks India should have intervened earlier).       

The Nine-Month Crisis

Raghavan’s account starts with the fall of Pakistan’s ruler Ayub Khan in early 1969 and his replacement by a military regime led by Gen. Yahya Khan.  The catalyst for Ayub’s departure was student-led protests, part of the global wave of protests in 1968.  The protests “not only deposed Ayub Khan but also radicalized the movement for autonomy” in East Pakistan (266).  In December 1970, Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League, running on an autonomy platform, won a majority in parliamentary elections, including all but two seats in the East. 

Negotiations on forming a new government ensued between the Awami League and Yahya Khan.  When the negotiations broke down despite the League’s willingness to be flexible on some key points, the Pakistani army launched its crackdown in East Pakistan on March 25, 1971.  A description of the initial assault, written by a UN Development Program official in Dacca (the capital of E. Pakistan), referred to “Army trucks loaded with the dead bodies of civilians” (quoted, 148).  The army shot students in the halls at the university in Dacca (now Dhaka) and also hit Old Dacca (52).  Estimates of the dead from the initial attack varied from 5,000 to 25,000 (149).  Subsequent continued brutality by the Pakistani army led millions of Bengalis to flee into India.

Had India decided quickly to intervene militarily, the crisis would not have lasted long.  However, for reasons Raghavan details in chapter 3 India did not intervene early, and the episode unfolded over a period of nine months: April-December 1971.  When India did decide to launch full-scale operations, the war was short: it “formally began” (234) in the early hours of December 4 (though Pakistan launched a preemptive air strike in the west on Dec. 3), and it ended when the Pakistani army in the east surrendered on Dec. 16. 

Maneuvering in the Whirlwind

The birth of Bangladesh, as this book makes clear, occurred at a turbulent time in world politics.  The intense Cold War crises of the early 1960s – the Berlin crisis and the Cuban missile crisis – were in the past, but parts of the Third World (as it was then called) had become an arena in the superpower contest.  The U.S. was still mired in the Vietnam War (and had expanded its operations into Cambodia), while the Soviet Union and China had barely been on speaking terms since 1961 and had come to blows on the Ussuri River in 1969.  China was reeling internally from the effects of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the Prague Spring had been suppressed by the Soviets, and, particularly in the West, non-state actors and the emergence of human rights as an international-political issue both were having an increasing if uneven impact on the conduct of foreign policy.  At the same time the relatively new postcolonial states generally opposed secessionist movements wherever they occurred.        

The Sino-Soviet split and the U.S. determination to capitalize on it by a rapprochement with China provide the backdrop for much of the diplomatic maneuvering that surrounded the East Pakistan crisis.  The superpowers, Raghavan writes, took fundamentally different approaches to it: Nixon and Kissinger viewed the events through the lens of their grand geopolitical plans, whereas the USSR’s perspective was primarily regional (115). 

The Soviets, having mediated in Tashkent the settlement that restored the status quo after the 1965 Pakistan/India war over Kashmir, saw themselves as peacemakers on the subcontinent (and for a brief period they sold arms to Pakistan and India at the same time).  Premier Alexei Kosygin, for example, favored a “‘trade and transit agreement’ between India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan which would be ‘beneficial for the whole region’” (114).  In line with this approach the Soviets, at least through most of the crisis, sought to discourage Indian military intervention in East Pakistan and to push Yahya Khan “toward a peaceful, political resolution of the problem” (116).  It was only toward the end of the crisis that the Soviets gave up hope that Yahya might release Mujibur Rahman from jail and negotiate a resolution with him (see below).         

The USSR and India signed a “friendship and cooperation” treaty on August 9, 1971.  According to Raghavan, it was a statement by Kissinger that finally pushed India to sign the treaty.  Having returned from his secret trip to China (see below), Kissinger informed the Indian ambassador to the U.S. on July 17 “that if China intervened in an India-Pakistan war, the United States would be unable to help India”; this led Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, who had been hesitating, to move to finalize the treaty with the USSR (127).  The treaty’s key provision, Art. IX, called for “mutual consultations” between the parties with a view to “remov[ing]” any threat of an attack on either one; it also, in effect, ruled out Soviet assistance to Pakistan if India-Pakistan hostilities broke out.

However, a gap remained between the USSR and India on the proper approach to the crisis, since the Soviets for some time thought that the refugee issue could be resolved separately from the political issue of East Pakistan’s future (124) and were reluctant to give even conditional approval for Indian military action or to confer about “contingencies.”  The day after the treaty was signed, Soviet foreign minister Gromyko urged Mrs. Gandhi to view “the situation in a cold blooded way…The heart should be warm but the mind should be cool as we say” (quoted, 130).  It was only later, specifically in late September, that the Soviet leadership, having concluded that Yahya Khan “was unwilling to work toward any reasonable solution,…decided to throw its weight behind India” (226).  By late October, the Indian foreign minister was able to tell a parliamentary committee “that India could count on ‘total support’ from the Soviet Union” (226).  To the end, however, the Soviets remained determined not to become directly involved militarily in the crisis and worried about the possibilities of an escalation that would drag them into a great-power confrontation.                   

Tilting at Windmills

Now to the matter of the U.S. stance.  Although “Nixon wheeled with him to office a trolley of biases against India and in favor of Pakistan” (82), Raghavan contends that it was not these prejudices, for the most part, but rather the planned opening to China, and Pakistan’s role in it, that dominated Nixon’s and Kissinger’s calculations.  As the crisis erupted, Nixon ordered his people not to “squeeze” Yahya Khan (81).  The Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai, had suggested that Yahya Khan’s good offices could be used to facilitate the China opening, and “[i]n this context, Nixon and Kissinger’s desire to refrain from squeezing Yahya…was understandable” (92), at least until after Kissinger’s secret trip to China in early July.  Incidentally, contrary to Kissinger’s claim in his memoir White House Years that “Pakistan’s leaders…never sought any reciprocity” (quoted, 87) for their role as conduit to China, Pakistan pressed for a resumption of arms sales, which the U.S. did resume on a one-time basis in October 1970 (84, 87).   

Nixon and Kissinger’s refusal to pressure Yahya Khan elicited a strong protest from the U.S. consul in Dhaka, Archer Blood, who sent cables in late March and early April 1971 “detailing the terror being unleashed on the populace by the Pakistani army” (89).  Nixon and Kissinger were unmoved, and the U.S. ambassador in Islamabad chimed in, deprecating “righteous indignation” (quoted, 89) as a basis for policy.  Raghavan suggests that, however “understandable” was the U.S. softness toward Yahya because of his role as channel to China, the U.S. could have  exercised economic leverage on Pakistan, which was “facing a major liquidity crisis” (94), without undermining the China opening.  Raghavan thinks it “highly probable” that U.S. pressure of this sort "in late April to early May" would have forced Yahya to grant the Awami League’s autonomy demands (266).  (This must remain somewhat conjectural, of course, since the leverage was not exercised.)

After Kissinger’s secret trip to China (July 9th-11th), U.S. policy, Raghavan notes, “began shifting from a disinclination to squeeze Yahya to an active tilt in favor of Pakistan” (105).  (Among major powers, the U.S. was mostly alone in this; Edward Heath’s government in Britain, for example, took a quite different tack; see 162-69.  For the positions of Australia, Canada, France, Germany, and others, see chapter 7.)    

Why the tilt?  “After all, following Kissinger’s trip to Beijing, Pakistan was no longer important as a diplomatic conduit to China” (106).  The answer, according to Raghavan, boils down to Kissinger’s and Nixon’s “excessive concern with reputation” (198) – their belief that if they failed to tilt toward Pakistan and thereby failed to stand with an ally, the nascent U.S.-China connection would be damaged. 

During Kissinger’s July trip he and Zhou Enlai had discussed the crisis, and in their last conversation before Kissinger left, “Zhou asked Kissinger to ‘please tell President Yahya Khan that if India commits aggression, we will support Pakistan’” (106).  This statement was vague – “we will support Pakistan” could mean a range of different things.  But Kissinger interpreted it as a Chinese test of U.S. commitment to Pakistan, such that if the U.S., in Raghavan’s words, “stood aside and allowed Pakistan to be humiliated by India, [U.S.] credibility in the eyes of Beijing would suffer -- resulting in deep, possibly irreparable harm to the budding relationship with the People’s Republic” (106; cf. 198, 247). 

Thus when the crisis reached its climax in December, Nixon and Kissinger sent a U.S. naval task force steaming from the coast of South Vietnam toward the Bay of Bengal, told the Soviets that the situation on the subcontinent jeopardized U.S.-Soviet détente, and urged – unavailingly – the Chinese to move soldiers to the border with India (Nixon to Kissinger: “I tell you a movement of even some Chinese toward that border could scare those goddamn Indians to death” [quoted, 247].)  Kissinger’s remarks to Nixon at this point are laced with urgency: e.g., “the world’s psychological balance of power” is at stake (quoted, 248); and “at least we’re coming off like men” (quoted, 256).   

Nixon and Kissinger claimed credit in their memoirs for saving West Pakistan from Indian aggression, although the only concrete evidence of Indian intentions in that respect that they had was a single-sourced CIA report of early December (244).  Raghavan argues that an attack on West Pakistan was never India’s aim. He writes: “Nixon and Kissinger overplayed the importance of an intelligence source, mainly because it helped them rationalize their desire to demonstrate resolve to China and the Soviet Union…. The only practical consequence of the aggressive U.S. posturing was to spur the Indians to capture Dhaka and seal their victory – objectives that had not been on their strategic horizons when the war began.  This was Nixon and Kissinger’s war of illusions. In retrospect, they come across not as tough statesmen tilting toward their ally but as a picaresque pair tilting at windmills” (262-63).


A few concluding remarks.  1971 covers a lot of ground, and I’ve left out much in this post.  For instance I’ve mostly passed over Raghavan’s discussion of how trends in the global normative/political environment of the time affected the crisis and the reactions to it (see chapter 6), a topic which could occupy a post by itself (and which, from my standpoint, would involve taking issue with one or two of the author’s interpretations, albeit on somewhat tangential points).  The book’s wide scope coupled with attention to detail will make it valuable to historians, IR scholars, and others.  Finally, a minor point: 1971 has a full scholarly apparatus and two maps, but in addition a timeline/chronology would have been helpful.


hank_F_M said...


Nice review

LFC said...

Thanks, Hank.

ronan said...

Yeah very nice review lfc. I'm travelling last few days so can't respond properly yet, but just wanted to say that

LFC said...

Thanks, Ronan.

I might as well use this comment thread to say some additional things. First, I had originally intended to discuss the extent to which the Indian intervention was a case, legally speaking, of 'humanitarian intervention'. But since other writers have dealt with this, and it would have required a fair amt of research on my part, and since Raghavan doesn't dwell on it, I decided to skip it.

The nub of it, though, is that India at first claimed humanitarian intervention as its legal rationale for its military action -- its UN ambassador used the traditional language of intervening to stop something that "shocked the conscience of mankind" -- but when this line got very little support or traction India dropped it and relied on a claim of self-defense, basically arguing that the millions of refugees that had been driven into India constituted, along w Pakistan's actions in the East, a threat to its security. Of course, this was long before the formal development of R2P and all that, but it's still interesting that the hum. int. line didn't fly at the UN. I may have a bit more to say on this later.

Second, one of the aspects of the bk I didn't really cover in the post is what it says about domestic politics in India and esp. Pakistan at the time. In particular Zulfikar Ali Bhutto comes off v. badly, as a rank opportunist (virtually everyone was an opportunist but Bhutto comes off as pretty much worse than everyone else, except for Yahya Khan himself). Of course Raghavan is Indian (his previous book was War and Peace in Modern India: a strategic history of the Nehru years) so he must have certain biases, as every writer does.

The other thing I was going to add pertains to the Khilnani review in New Republic but I first have to read it more closely, so I will save that for later.

Ronan said...

2 quick things on topics you touched on in the review:

(1) how was the chapter on the international trends/normative political enviornment? does he trace it from the 68 revolutions (? not sure if they were revolutions neccessarily) ? is it convincing (how much weight does he give international over domestic factors..?)
(2) are his views on Nixon and K as negative as a lot of the reviews (of gary bass book any way) make out ? does he see a different (dem ?) admin having a different approach (or room for one)

LFC said...

Very good questions, thanks.
I will respond a bit later on. Just got in, somewhat occupied at the moment.
Btw why did CT take down that "stopcreation" post? My working hypothesis is that it was maybe intended as a parody but people incl me took it seriously. I think the author was given as "Shia LaBeouf" who I realized afterward is a movie actor -- unlikely to be the author's real name.

Ronan said...

They didnt say why it was taken down. I didnt get the chance to read it though. I have to admit I guessed from the 'Shia LaBeouf' that it wasnt going to be serious: )

LFC said...

It was one of these things that was easy to take as serious -- basically it was an argument that literature shd open itself to 'copying' and even plagiarism in the way that certain forms of contemp. art (Warhol, Koons, whatever) allegedly have. And the author purported to teach a course at U. Penn called "uncreative writing". But the more I think about it the more I am convinced it was intended as a parody.

Shia LaBeouf struck me as a familiar name but I didn't place him as the actor until later. I've seen in him in one (less-than-terrific) movie. Anyway this is all rather trivial but it may be a lesson that you shdn't try to put up a long parody when people have spent their last several online hours getting all hot and bothered about NSA, Wilentz, Snowden, Manning, Greenwald, 9/11, etc. The cognitive switch from SERIOUS to FUNNY is not one that can always be flipped so quickly... at least not at my age ;) I guess...

LFC said...

"I've seen him in one (less-than-terrific) movie."

LFC said...

ok, let me tackle the first of your questions. The second one I want to put off until tomorrow.

Chapter 6 is where Raghavan deals with global transnational forces like the press, the Concert for Bangladesh, the role of the UN (which turned out to be ineffectual, for various reasons). The framework he sets up is basically the emergence of "a new form of humanitarianism that was self-consciously transnational" (133) versus the trends unleashed by decolonization which strengthened the principle of sovereignty. He refers to this counter-trend as "the reification of sovereignty and derogation of human rights in international politics, flowing from the authoritarian turn in the postcolonial world" (138).

I think the basic point is probably correct inasmuch as the forces shaping the crisis were concerned, but, to make what could be a long point as short as I can, what I don't like about his treatment is that he takes the postcolonial states' emphasis on economic and social rights, as opposed to civil and political rights, as evidence that the new states didn't care about human rights period. True, a lot of them didn't -- but social and economic rights can also be viewed as individual rights and thus as an aspect of human rights, and he misses this point. (This is actually too tangled, I think, to be adequately dealt with in a comment box so I'll leave it there.) But there is a historiography here which he may be drawing on somewhat selectively, I mean more selectively than is optimal.

Re the '68 'revolution' -- he emphasizes this in connection w helping to bring down Ayub Khan in '69, and also as contributing to the general ethos of the era. That ethos is connected to the success of the Concert for Bangladesh, which he discusses here, but '68 per se doesn't get a lot of attention in chapter 6.

The whole book, to be honest, could have used another editorial passthrough to smooth out some of the prose, which is often good but often uneven, eliminate typos (of which there are some), and strengthen chapter 6 in particular. That chap. could have used perhaps a bit of rethinking and some beefing up, I think. There is a feeling in the chapter of let-me-just-get-through-this-so-I-can-get-back-to-the-really-important-stuff, or at least that was my sense. But the publisher may have been rushing to bring out the bk simultaneously w the Bass book and that may have contributed to some of this, along w a general decline in copyediting and editorial standards everywhere. (I'm speculating.)

LFC said...

P.s. Re international vs. domestic factors -- one of the strong aspects of the book is that while he is very interested in the intl maneuvering, he doesn't neglect the domestic politics in India and W. Pakistan and E. Pakistan. As I say, I think this a strength of the book, the fact that he pays attention to both, and I neglected the domestic in the post b.c it gets into the weeds of parties and factions and personalities that wd have required way too much detail and have been rather hard to summarize. (And some things, like '68, are both intl and domestic at once.)

LFC said...

Final p.s. on yr 1st question: human rts v. sovereignty makes sense as a frame for R. given the sit. he's writing about, but it's not the only way to think about the relation btw these 2 notions. (I'm thinking part. of an article from the late '90s which told the story differently.)

Ronan said...

Thanks for the responses. Theres a book out by Christian Reus Smith which might also be relevant to parts of this thatbu might be interested in(individual rights and the making of the international system) and an article in International Org that it was built from (if you have access) I havent read the book yet, but remember the article as quite good from a few years ago.(2011)

nothing more to add at the minute but want to read the relies again closer

LFC said...

I remember that Christian Reus-Smit Intl. Org. article, though I only skimmed it. However, I don't think I knew about his recent book or if I did I'd forgotten, so thanks for pointing it out.

There has been a near-avalanche of work
recently on the history of human rights, and Raghavan cites one book in particular that I hadn't heard of: Roland Burke, Decolonization and the Evolution of International Human Rights (2010). He also cites a 2008 article by Burke in Journal of World History v.19 n.3-- "From Individual Rights
to National Development: The First UN International Conference on Human Rights, Tehran 1968."
But I think the conclusions Raghavan draws from Burke are perhaps a bit too sweeping and miss some nuances, as I mentioned cryptically above. The problem I see is that R. conflates the collective 'right to development' with economic/social rights period. However, it's a side issue as far as the main concerns of the book go.

p.s. Haven't forgotten about your Nixon/Kissinger question. Will have something, albeit probably brief, to say on it in the next day or two. (Have some other things on the plate. Plus a snowstorm here.)

Anonymous said...

Thanks - great and helpful post, LFC.

In appreciation,


LFC said...

Thanks, glad you liked it. You might also be interested in Sunil Khilnani's double-review of the Raghavan book and Gary Bass's book The Blood Telegram. (I'll put a link to the Khilnani review in the next comment, to be posted later today.)

LFC said...

I've now finally read properly Khilnani's review. I've decided to put my reaction up in a post rather than bury it down here in the comment thread.

On Ronan's Nixon/Kissinger question: Raghavan is quite critical, as I mentioned, of Nixon & Kissinger but he doesn't explicitly address whether a different administraton wd have acted differently. However I think it's reasonable to suppose that a different natl security advisor, in particular, wd have taken a somewhat different approach. The China opening is a sufficiently large part of the story that the counterfactual I suppose becomes "No Nixon/Kissinger -> no China opening -> no need for the Pakistani conduit -> no need to coddle Yahya." Plus N&K, despite some glimmers of moral awareness on at least N's part, just didn't really care that much about the scale of the immediate human suffering and trying to stop it. Would Humphrey, had he won in '68 and become president, have acted differently? I certainly would like to think so.