Henry Kissinger at C100 event in New York City.
Henry Kissinger at C100 event in New York City.

On Monday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted, “Glad to have met Dr Henry Kissinger. He has made pioneering contributions to international politics and diplomacy.”

On June 23, 2005, Asia Times published an article of mine under the headline “Indians are bastards anyway” that puts this week’s tweet in context. It is reproduced below.

HUA HIN, Thailand – Indians are “a slippery, treacherous people,” said president Richard Nixon. “The Indians are bastards anyway. They are the most aggressive goddamn people around,” echoed his assistant for national security affairs, Henry Kissinger. The setting: a White House meeting on July 16, 1971, during the run-up to the India-Pakistan war which ultimately led to the birth of Bangladesh, erstwhile East Pakistan.

The US State Department recently declassified some of the Nixon White House tapes and secret documents that bring to light the way in which the Nixon administration went about the Bangladesh saga, reflecting the potential of mindsets and personal equations taking precedence over ground realities in White House decision-making.

In 1971, some 3 million people are estimated to have been killed in the genocide unleashed by Pakistan’s military government on East Pakistan, leading to a rush of refugees into India, drawing India into a swift and decisive war that eventually forced Pakistan’s hand. But all along, the Nixon administration sided with the military establishment of Pakistan over democratic India because of Nixon’s “special relationship” with Pakistan’s handsome military dictator, General Yahya Khan, and his uncontrolled revulsion at the “old witch” Indira Gandhi, India’s then prime minister.

Despite the avowed goal of containing war, the US administration, in its zeal to put India in a spot, even went to the extent of pleading with the Chinese to initiate troop movements toward the Indian border in coordination with Pakistan, and assured it support in case the Soviet Union jumped into the fray. Near the end of the war, in a highly secret meeting on December 10, 1971, Kissinger pitched the idea to Chinese ambassador to the UN, Huang Ha. The declassified documents reveal that China took a couple of days to think about it and finally said it was not game, much to Kissinger’s disappointment.

The seeds of the Bangladesh war were sown in India’s freedom in 1947, which came with a bloody partition, with India keeping the Hindu-dominated areas of British India and Pakistan the Muslim-dominated ones – to the extent they were geographically divisible. The Pakistan that was born as a result had two flanks -East and West. East Pakistan comprised the Muslim-majority Bengali-speaking areas, while West Pakistan consisted of primarily Urdu-speaking Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan and North-West Frontier Province.

Separated by 1,200 miles, East and West Pakistan were hardly comfortable in the compact. Though the East was more populous, West Pakistan cornered the bulk of the Pakistani budget. The West was given more representation in the legislature than the East, and further fueling Bengali sub-nationalism, Urdu was made the official language. West Pakistan, with a 97% Muslim population, was also far less liberal than the East, where at least 15% of the population did not practice Islam. With Pakistan mostly under military rulers – all from West Pakistan – since 1958, any scope for political accommodation was limited. Successive military regimes tried to deal with the problem the only way they knew how – savage repression, adding to the spiral of hatred and tyranny.

The relationship between the two Pakistans became progressively more neo-colonial, with the protest against the West’s domination growing shriller by the day in the East. The tension reached a flashpoint when in 1970, the Awami League led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman swept the national elections, winning 167 of the 169 seats allotted for East Pakistan, giving it a majority in the 313-seat National Assembly and the right to form government at the center. Neither West Pakistani political leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto nor General Yahya Khan would accept this Bengali ascendancy in national politics, and the convention of the newly elected National Assembly was postponed indefinitely. The Awami League, now convinced that there could never be any political cohabitation between the East and the West, called for “full regional autonomy” and Mujibar Rahman announced that he was taking over the East’s administration.

The military now decided enough was enough. At a meeting of the military top brass, Yahya declared: “Kill 3 million of them and the rest will eat out of our hands.” Accordingly, on the night of March 25, 1971, the Pakistan army launched “Operation Searchlight” to “crush” Bengali resistance in which Bengali members of military services were disarmed and killed, students and the intelligentsia systematically liquidated and able-bodied Bengali males just picked up and gunned down. Death squads roamed the streets of Dacca, killing some 7,000 people in a single night. “Within a week, half the population of Dacca had fled. All over East Pakistan, people were taking flight, and it was estimated that in April, some 30 million people were wandering helplessly across East Pakistan to escape the grasp of the military,” writes Robert Payne in Massacre. Mujibur Rahman was arrested and the Awami League – which should have been ruling Pakistan – banned.

Then began the rapes. In Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, Susan Brownmiller likens it to the Japanese rapes in Nanjing and German rapes in Russia during World War II. “… 200,000, 300,000 or possibly 400,000 women (three sets of statistics have been variously quoted) were raped.” Reporter Aubrey Menen describes an incident targeting a just-married couple: “Two [Pakistani soldiers] went into the room that had been built for the bridal couple. The others stayed behind with the family, one of them covering them with his gun. They heard a barked order, and the bridegroom’s voice protesting. Then there was silence until the bride screamed. Then there was silence again, except for some muffled cries that soon subsided. In a few minutes one of the soldiers came out, his uniform in disarray. He grinned to his companions. Another soldier took his place in the room. And so on, until all the six had raped the belle of the village. Then they left. The father found his daughter lying on the string cot unconscious and bleeding. Her husband was crouched on the floor, kneeling over his vomit.” (Quoted in Brownmiller’s Against Our Will.)

Screenshot of the top of 2005 Asia Times Online article.

As East Pakistan bled, refugees began to pour into India, some 8-10 million over the period of the genocide. India repeatedly pleaded with the US administration that it could not cope with any more refugees, and appealed that it use its influence over Pakistan and rein in Yahya. But Nixon continued to condone the repression. To a Pakistani delegation to Washington, DC, he said: “Yahya is a good friend. I understand the anguish of the decisions which Yahya had to make.” Strangely, in his eyes, the military dictator was the victim – one forced so much against the wall that he had to conduct mass murders and rapes.

Even American consul general Archer Blood couldn’t take his administration’s position any more. In an act of open rebellion, he sent a telegram through the “dissent channel”, condemning his country for failing “to denounce the suppression of democracy”; “to denounce atrocities,” and for “bending over backwards to placate the West Pakistan-dominated government.” “We, as professional public servants express our dissent with current policy and fervently hope that our true and lasting interests here can be defined and our policies redirected in order to salvage our position as a moral leader of the world,” the telegram read. Nixon’s answer: “Don’t squeeze Yahya at this time.” Both the consul general and the head of the United States Information Service were subsequently transferred out for their anti-Pakistan views to prevent “any further negative reporting on the situation.”

In India, US ambassador Kenneth Keating also made it clear that “military aid to Pakistan is just out of the question now while they are still killing in East Pakistan and refugees are fleeing across the border”. He told Kissinger on June 3, 1971: “We are on the threshold of better relations with the one stable democracy in that part of the world. They are making real progress and want to be more friendly with us.” Replied Kissinger: “In all honesty, the president has special feelings for Yahya. One cannot make policy on that basis, but it is a fact of life.”

Nixon had a simple explanation for the wayward behavior of his ambassadors. At a meeting with members of the Senior Review Group in August 1971, he said: “Ambassadors who go to India fall in love with India. Some have the same experience in Pakistan, though not as many because the Pakistanis are a different breed. The Pakistanis are straightforward and sometimes extremely stupid. The Indians are more devious, sometimes so smart that we fall for their line.”

Even as the refugee situation was escalating, the Nixon administration kept playing politics. Sample this conversation at the White House a day after George Harrison and his soul mate, Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar, held the “Concert for Bangladesh” to raise money for the refugees. “So who is the Beatle giving the money to – is it the goddamn Indians?” asks Nixon. “Yes,” says Kissinger, adding that Pakistan had also been given $150,000 in food aid, but the major problem “is the goddamn distribution”. Nixon butts in: “We have to keep India away.” Agrees Kissinger: “We must defuse the refugee and famine problem in East Pakistan in order to deprive India of an excuse to start war. We have to avoid screwingPakistan that outrageously…. We should start our goddamn lecturing on political structures as much as we can, and while there will eventually be a separate East Bengal in two years, it must not happen in the next six months.”

By now India had completely given up on the US. In August 1971, it ended its non-aligned stance and signed the Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union to safeguard itself against any American intervention. At the end of October, Indira Gandhi embarked on a tour of Moscow, Washington and several Western capitals to assess the international mood. It is widely believed that she had already planned to attack East Pakistan before this public relations tour.

Nixon and Kissinger met at the Oval Office on the morning of November 5 to discuss the president’s conversation with Indira on the previous day.

Kissinger’s assessment: “While she was a bitch, we got what we wanted…. She will not be able to go home and say that the United States didn’t give her a warm reception and therefore in despair she’s got to go to war.” Replied Nixon: “We really slobbered over the old witch.” After she got home, the “old witch” wrote to Nixon: “I sincerely hope that your clear vision will guide relations between our two democracies and will help us to come closer. It will always be our effort to clear any misunderstanding and not to allow temporary differences to impede the strengthening of our friendship.”

Within a day of Gandhi’s return on November 21, Indian forces attacked East Pakistan at five key areas. Yahya’s 70,000 soldiers deployed in the East were hopelessly outnumbered against the 200,000 Indian troops and the Mukti Bahini, Bengali guerrilla freedom fighters. Within 10 days, India had completely taken over the East. On December 16, after a final genocidal burst, Pakistan surrendered unconditionally. Awami leader Sheikh Mujibar Rahman was released and returned to establish Bangladesh’s first independent parliament.

The US government supplied military equipment worth $3.8 million to the Pakistani dictatorship after the genocide started, even after telling Congress that all shipments to the regime had ceased. Throughout the war, the US government tried everything in its power to hinder India. The US policy included support of Pakistan in the United Nations, where it branded India as the aggressor, and putting pressure on the Soviets to discourage India, with the threat that the US-Soviet detente would be in jeopardy if Moscow did not play ball. When war broke out, Nixon promptly cut off economic aid to India, and at one point dispatched the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal to “intimidate” India. When nothing worked, it pleaded China to join the war to scare off India.

As millions suffered in East Pakistan, the only focus, an obsessive one, of the Nixon administration continued to be China. One of the reasons why Nixon sided with Yahya – apart from “he has been more decent to us than she [Indira] has” – was that the general was his conduit with China. In a personal letter of thanks to Yahya for his role in Sino-American rapprochement, Nixon wrote, “Those who want a more peaceful world in the generation to come will forever be in your debt.” Yes, indeed. But once the war ended, the same US policy changed overnight. It quickly spotted a regional hegemon in India, and began to respect it. Though it had made it clear before the war that it would never have anything to do with Bangladesh, ever, it advised Pakistan to accept India’s ceasefire offer, recognized the new country, and went about building bridges with India.

In that sense, this war was the turning point in Indo-US relations, triggering a slow and long process of engaging Delhi – a policy that picked up steam under Bill Clinton and accelerated further under George W Bush. Testifying before the House International Relations Subcommittee for Asia and the Pacific, Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Christina Rocca, last week said: “We are accelerating the transformation of our relationship with India, with a number of new initiatives.” With India “this is a watershed year,” she said, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh scheduled to visit the US next month and President Bush promising to go to India some time later this year.”

Seen as a possible counterweight to the same China for which it sacrificed the lives and honor of millions of Bangladeshi men and women three decades ago, the US is even said to be tilting to India as a possible permanent UN Security Council member. Even Kissinger has come out strongly in favor of a permanent seat for India. “I’m known as a strong advocate and one of the originators of close relations with China. I believe that today I am also a strong advocate of close relations with India,” he was recently quoted as saying. Bring home the bastards, such are the compulsions of geopolitics.

This is the same India whose nuclear tests a few years ago drew sanctions from the US. But as in the Bangladesh war, it has lost little time in reversing its position. Now it conducts military exercises with India and offers to make fighter jets with it. In addition to US Undersecretary for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns’ agenda when he reaches India on Friday is, curiously, a deal on civilian nuclear energy, which may be unveiled during Manmohan Singh’s trip. This serial policy infidelity has only one explanation: the US understands power, and respects power. That’s why it pounces on Iraq and engages North Korea. Manmohan Singh would do well to remember this when he embarks on his trip to the US to chase India’s UN dream. Groveling won’t help, growling might.

And yes, he might also consider coloring up his staid beard a tad lest a declassified UN document 30 years hence finds him mentioned as an “old fogey.”

Debasish Roy Chowdhury

Debasish Roy Chowdhury is an Indian journalist based in Hong Kong.

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