In the cool interior of a mental ward in Karachi, a short, powerfully built man with a flowing snow-white beard and penetrating dark-brown eyes is standing at the bedside of a distraught young woman. She has covered her head with a sheet and is pleading for news of the two children her husband took from her.
“I know you are suffering terribly, but this is no way to bring back your children,” says the man with stern compassion. “You have a college degree. You can do many things to help the other patients.”
In this lovely interview, Salima Hashmi, who has played such a vital role in promoting Pakistani art, talks about her father Faiz Ahmad Faiz. About writing poetry under military rule, about his meeting with Pablo Neruda and his feelings about the birth of Bangladesh.
Recorded at the Bellagio Centre in Italy in 2013.
Memory, Justice, Healing evening at Making Democracy Real 2014 with Salman Rashid, Rajmohan Gandhi, Archana Rao and Rahul Bose
A week earlier, he had received a letter from his youngest sister Tahira. Having completed her higher secondary school exams, she was visiting with her older sister Zubaida whose husband was then a surveyor with the Survey of India and posted at Solan midway between Kalka and Simla. Tahira had written that Solan was rife with communal tension and that she wanted to be with the parents in Jalandhar. She asked her brother if he could come for her to take her home. Continue reading “Memory, Justice, Healing”
In the 40-odd years that America and the Soviet Union faced off in the cold war, the people who presumed to run the world started with the knowledge that it was too dangerous, and possibly even suicidal, to attack one another. But the struggle was fierce, and what that meant in practice was that the competition played out in impoverished places like Cuba and Angola, where the great statesmen vied, eyed and subverted one another, and sometimes loosed their local proxies, all in the name of maintaining the slippery but all-important concept known as the balance of power.
The peace held, of course — that is, the larger peace. The United States and the Soviet Union never came to blows, and the nuclear-tipped missiles never left their silos. For the third world, where the competition unfolded, it was another matter entirely. The wreckage spread far and wide, in toppled governments, loathsome dictators, squalid little wars and, here and there, massacres so immense that entire populations were nearly destroyed.
In “The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide,” Gary J. Bass, a professor of politics at Princeton, has revived the terrible and little-known story of the birth of Bangladesh in 1971, and of the sordid and disgraceful White House diplomacy that attended it. This is a dark and amazing tale, an essential reminder of the devastation wrought by the hardhearted policy and outright bigotry that typified much of the diplomacy of the cold war. It is not a tale without heroes, though; a number of American diplomats — most especially a man named Archer Blood — risked and even sacrificed their careers by refusing to knuckle under to the White House and telling the truth about what was happening on the ground.
The story begins, as do so many in our modern world, with the end of the British Empire. In 1947, when the British quit India, they lopped off its majority Muslim flanks in the east and west. At the time, the partition unfolded in a frenzy of murder and expulsion, leaving a million people dead. Pakistan emerged as one of the largest countries in the world, but improbably divided into two parts by more than a thousand miles of Indian territory. When you look at a map from that time, you have to wonder what on earth the cartographers were thinking.
Pakistan carried on for 23 years like that, with the more numerous Bengalis in the east feeling increasingly neglected by their Punjabi brethren in the west, where the capital was. Things came to a head in December 1970, when Sheik Mujib-ur-Rahman, a pipe-smoking Bengali leader, and his party, the Awami League, won the elections on the promise of autonomy for East Pakistan. (Whatever he wanted privately, he did not call for independence.) Rahman never got a chance to form a government. Gen. Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan, egged on by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the second-place finisher, arrested Rahman and ordered the army to crush the Bengalis. Dominated by Punjabis, the army moved brutally, shooting and detaining Bengali leaders, intellectuals and anyone who opposed them.
Enter the United States. At the time of the elections, Pakistan, though ruled by a military dictator, was an American ally with an American-equipped military; India, the giant democracy, considered itself nonaligned — a neutral player in the Soviet-American standoff. Given what was happening on the ground — the Pakistani Army acting wantonly, ignoring the results of an election — you might expect the White House to restrain the Pakistani generals. So one arrives at the devastating heart of Bass’s book. (Note: I have interviewed Bass and met him socially a couple of times.)
At the time of the crackdown in East Pakistan, President Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, were trying to establish relations with the People’s Republic of China, which was only then emerging from the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. Nixon wanted desperately to extract the United States from Vietnam in something less than a catastrophic way and, as focused as ever on the Soviet Union, he and Kissinger believed that opening a channel to China could help them with the war while, at the same time, delivering a blow to the Soviets by exploiting their rivalry with the Chinese. Pakistan and, in particular, Yahya, its military leader, became Nixon’s secret liaison with the Chinese leader Zhou Enlai. Yahya helped lay the groundwork for the visits to China by Kissinger and then Nixon. It’s hard to overstate just how earth-changing Nixon and Kissinger regarded their trips to China — and how important they thought they were for bringing them about.
In practice, this meant that Yahya — a vain, shallow mediocrity — was suddenly considered indispensable, free to do whatever he wished in East Pakistan. With the White House averting its eyes, the largely Muslim Pakistani Army killed at least 300,000 Bengalis, most of them Hindus, and forced 10 million to flee to India. Bass lays out his indictment of the White House: Nixon and Kissinger spurned the cables, written by their own diplomats in Dacca (the capital of East Pakistan), that said West Pakistan was guilty of carrying out widespread massacres. Archer Blood, the counsel general in Dacca, sent an angry cable that detailed the atrocities and used the word “genocide.” The men in the White House, however, not only refused to condemn Yahya — in public or private — but they also declined to withhold American arms, ammunition and spare parts that kept Pakistan’s military machine humming. Indeed, Nixon regarded the dictator with genuine affection. “I understand the anguish you must have felt in making the difficult decisions you have faced,” he told Yahya.
The voices of Kissinger and Nixon are the book’s most shocking aspects. Bass has unearthed a series of conversations, most of them from the White House’s secret tapes, that reveal Nixon and Kissinger as breathtakingly vulgar and hateful, especially in their attitudes toward the Indians, whom they regarded as repulsive, shifty and, anyway, pro-Soviet — and especially in their opinion of Indira Gandhi. “The old bitch,” Nixon called her. “I don’t know why the hell anybody would reproduce in that damn country but they do,” he said.
These sorts of statements will probably not surprise the experts, but what is most telling is what they reveal about Nixon’s and Kissinger’s strategic intelligence. At every step of the crisis, the two men appear to have been driven as much by their loathing of India — West Pakistan’s rival — as by any cool calculations of power. By failing to restrain West Pakistan, they allowed a blood bath to unfold, and then a regional war, which began when Gandhi finally decided that the only way to stop the tide of refugees was to stop the killing across the border. That, in turn, prompted West Pakistan to attack India.
At this point, the recklessness of Nixon and Kissinger only got worse. They dispatched ships from the Seventh Fleet into the Bay of Bengal, and even encouraged China to move troops to the Indian border, possibly for an attack — a maneuver that could have provoked the Soviet Union. Fortunately, the leaders of the two Communist countries proved more sober than those in the White House. The war ended quickly, when India crushed the Pakistani Army and East Pakistan declared independence.
Nixon and Kissinger spent the decades after leaving office burnishing their images as great statesmen. This book goes a long way in showing just how undeserved those reputations are.
Dexter Filkins, a staff writer for The New Yorker, was formerly a correspondent in South Asia for The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times.
UNTIL 1971 Pakistan was made up of two parts: west and east. Both Muslim-dominated territories were born out of India’s bloody partition 24 years earlier, though they existed awkwardly 1,600km apart, divided by hostile Indian territory. Relations between the two halves were always poor. The west dominated: it had the capital, Islamabad, and greater political, economic and military clout. Its more warlike Pashtuns and prosperous Punjabis, among others, looked down on Bengali easterners as passive and backward.
The split into Pakistan and Bangladesh was perhaps inevitable. It began in late 1970, after Pakistan’s first national elections. To the shock of West Pakistanis, an easterner, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, won a sweeping victory, and was poised to lead the country. His Awami League wanted greater rights for Bengalis. But the army chiefs and politicians in Islamabad would not countenance his taking office. They arrested him and the army began repressing eastern protesters.
Bengalis flocked to join the rebel forces who were fighting for independence. West Pakistani soldiers stationed in the east, plus a few local supporters, began targeting students, writers, politicians; especially the Hindu minority. Soldiers massacred civilians, burned villages and sent millions fleeing to India. Eventually some 10m became refugees, mostly Hindus. At least 300,000 people were killed; some say the death toll was over 1m.
Seen from America, where Richard Nixon was president, the war was a domestic Pakistani affair. India’s leader, Indira Gandhi, claimed otherwise. She called the floods of refugees a humanitarian disaster that threatened regional stability. She wanted international action, demanding that America tell Pakistan’s leaders to stop the killing. Nixon, urged by his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, refused.
In “The Blood Telegram” Gary Bass, a Princeton academic (who once wrote for The Economist), sets out to assess America’s handling of the war. He argues that the killings amounted to a genocide: Hindus, as a distinct minority, were chosen for annihilation and expulsion. He asks why Nixon continued actively to support the Pakistani leaders who were behind it.
At the behest of Mr Kissinger, Nixon sent military planes and other materiel to Pakistan, even though he knew this broke American law. He deployed an American naval task force to the Bay of Bengal to intimidate India, which had begun helping rebels in East Pakistan. Most extreme, he secretly asked China to send troops to India’s borders. He did so accepting a risk of Soviet retaliation, even that nuclear bombs might be “lobbed” around in response.
Nixon and Mr Kissinger stood with Pakistan, even as they knew of the extent of the slaughter. Their own diplomats told them about it. The centrepiece of Mr Bass’s gripping and well-researched book is the story of how America’s most senior diplomat in East Pakistan, Archer Blood, the consul-general in Dhaka, sent regular, detailed and accurate reports of the bloodshed. Early on he stated that a “selective genocide” was under way.
Blood and his colleagues protested that America should not support Pakistan’s rulers. Then, 20 of them sent a dissenting telegram (the “Blood telegram” of the book’s title) condemning America’s policy. It was an extreme and idealistic step for a diplomat, whose career was soon cut short. Though the telegram did not change American policy, it rates as an historic document. Such open dissent is extremely rare.
Mr Bass does a good job of explaining Nixon’s wilful support of Pakistan. Using newly released recordings of White House conversations between the president and Mr Kissinger, he sets out with admirable clarity what else was at stake. In part it was personal. Nixon, a man of few friends, was notably fond of Pakistan’s military ruler, Yahya Khan, a gruff, dim-witted, whisky-drinking general. Nixon compared the Pakistani favourably to Abraham Lincoln. By contrast he despised India’s wheedling civilian politicians, reserving a particular dislike for Gandhi, whom in private he frequently called a “bitch” and “witch”.
More important, Pakistan was a loyal cold-war ally, whereas India was seen as leaning towards the Soviet Union. Crucially, Mr Kissinger early in 1971 was using Pakistan as an essential secret conduit to China. He flew via Islamabad to Beijing to arrange for Nixon to make his own trip to see Mao Zedong. Better relations with China would allow America to wind down the war in Vietnam.
Ultimately, Mr Kissinger did much to set America’s course. He argued that America should pay no heed to domestic horrors in Pakistan, saying “you can’t go to war over refugees”, and warned that India was a greater threat to international order. Indian “bastards”, he agreed with Nixon, needed a “mass famine” to cut them down to size.
Mr Bass depicts Mr Kissinger as increasingly erratic, perhaps overworked, as East Pakistan’s secession became inevitable. He is quoted calling the conflict “our Rhineland” (in reference to the start of the second world war) and warning that India would “rape Pakistan”.
Mr Kissinger adopts a magisterial tone in the one chapter he devoted to the India-Pakistan crisis in his 1979 work, “The White House Years”. He refused to speak to Mr Bass for this book, and glosses over the Blood telegram in his memoirs, never explaining why he ignored the entreaties of the diplomats on the ground. That is a pity, because America’s response to the war has reverberated over the years.
The 1971 war poisoned regional affairs for decades. It ended when India’s army intervened, having supported East Pakistan’s rebels for months, and crushed the Pakistani forces within days. Pakistan was humiliated, yet no Pakistani soldier has been held to account for the mass slaughter that provoked the war. Pakistanis by and large prefer not to discuss it. The war did convince them that India might next try to break up the remaining western rump of their country, perhaps by supporting Baluchi separatists on the border with Afghanistan. A sharp mutual suspicion still lingers between the neighbours, helping ensure that Pakistan’s army dominates—and damages—the country still.
Nor did the war do much for India. Eventually the refugees went home, but relations with Bangladesh soon soured. At home Gandhi became suddenly more popular. But she then descended into authoritarianism, even suspending democracy. Inside Bangladesh the war remains a live political issue as alleged collaborators in the conflict (all opposition leaders) are being tried by a flawed, local war-crimes tribunal. This week, one defendant was sentenced to death by the Supreme Court.
Could things have been different if America, having listened to Blood, had pressed Pakistan not to slaughter its own people in 1971? Mr Bass does not speculate directly. Yet if a peaceful secession of Bangladesh had been possible, many lives would have been saved and a source of deep division in a troubled region would have been removed.
The writer is a lawyer and partner at Ijaz and Ijaz Co in Lahore saroop.ijaz@ tribune.com.pk
The passing of the first death anniversary of Neil Armstrong last week is an opportunity to reflect on our own connection (admittedly flimsy) with the first man on the moon. Two years before Armstrong landed on the moon, Ghulam Abbas wrote Dhanak, one of the best satirical short stories (The short story has been ably adapted by Shahid Nadeem into a play named Hotel Mohenjodaro) of all times, and unnervingly prescient. Written in 1967, the story begins with the first man landing on moon, not Armstrong, but a Pakistani PAF Captain, Adam Khan. Local and international dignitaries gather on the rooftop garden of the 71-storied Hotel Mohenjodaro in Karachi to listen to Adam Khan’s message from the moon. His brief message is, “I am Captain Adam Khan. I come from the district of Jhang in Punjab … I have landed safely. All praise to Allah … Pakistan Zindabad.”
Pakistan is congratulated all over the world and celebrations begin all around the country. However, like most good things, the triumph is short-lived. In a small town, outside of Karachi, a local imam terms the journey to the moon un-Islamic and satanic. The call of jihadtravels from one mosque to another and in a jiffy, the whole country is engaged in the holy battle, chanting for Adam Khan’s death for trespassing into the forbidden domain. Briefly, the government loses the fight and an Amirul Momineen takes over. Sharia is imposed. Foreigners are driven out. All languages other than Arabic are banned. Beards are mandatory. Women are forbidden to leave the house. All technology and ‘Western’ medicine is declared haram. The construction of any building higher than the Jamia Mosque is unlawful. This descent into piety happens in just one month from the sanctimonious landing on moon.
All is not well, still. The initially overlooked question of which sect’s Sharia would be implemented rather violently rises up. Blood runs in mosques. Muslims kill Muslims, both sides fighting in the name of faith. Medievalism descends into chaos. The story ends with foreign aircraft bombing Karachi to rubble.
The date of writing is worth mentioning again — 1967. There might be very few writings in all of world literature that get the trajectory of the future so spectacularly, accurately right. Hotel Mohenjodaro, despite being on a par with anything that Orwell or Huxley have ever written on the subject, is not taught in curriculum in Pakistan. That is unlikely to change in the near future, very particularly in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P). The K-P government has decided to reintroduce the verses mandating jihad into the syllabus. The K-P government is also firmly against the Muslims fighting Muslims business, even if the other side of the Muslims has no such qualms about blowing up schools and buses filled with schoolchildren, etc. Women were not allowed to vote in many constituencies in K-P and Punjab. Agents of Western medicine, polio workers are still attacked on a regular basis. Adam Khan’s Jhang is not known today for producing top rate astronauts or PAF officers.
Till present, Mian Sahib has not made a serious effort to be appointed Amirul Momineen. However, in Mian Sahib’s Punjab, the Al-Bakistan licence plates are all the jazz. What we lack in the fight against the Taliban is made up by increasing the intensity in the war on technology. The reports on what the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) seeks to ban are contradictory and murky. However, one thing remains clear — that the PTA is extremely concerned about our morality and decency. The Supreme Court has also, in the past, expressed grave apprehension on the issue of late night telephone call packages, no doubt the evil at the centre of all our ills. Websites are blocked to protect us from sin and being led astray. Prime television programmes discuss jinns at length. Economists argue for the virtues and efficiency of ‘bonded labour’. The one point solution that solves our economic problems is to get rid of ‘Riba’, don’t ask how, and just have faith.
The closest thing that we have ever come to landing on the moon is Dr Abdus Salam winning the Nobel Prize. Like, Adam Khan, Dr Salam lost, and the small time, violent Moulvi won. In a country of water kits, the grave of Dr Salam stands vandalised. Ahmadis are being told to leave ‘Muslim’ areas, and the tricky bit here is that all areas are Muslim areas.
Krishn Nagar in Lahore is now renamed Islampura, Dharampura is Mustafabad. Bhagat Singh’s birth and death anniversaries pass unnoticed, while Ghazi Ilm Din is remembered. To use ‘Hindu’ while intending ‘Indian’ is acceptable practice, even in ‘educated and polite’ society. Using condescending terms and tones while referring to ‘minorities’ is not frowned upon. After an attack on ‘minorities’, the educated and liberal feel ‘ashamed’ at not being able to protect ‘them’, noble sentiments, however blatantly exclusionary. Not outraged, like when ‘we’ are attacked.
Dr Aafia Siddiqui is one of ‘us’ never mind the US citizenship and conviction on terror charges. Aasia Bibi is someone that some of us feel sorry about to discharge our civic responsibilities, of course when she is uncomfortably and occasionally brought up. What is happening to Aasia Bibi is at best (or is it worst?) a ‘shame’, whereas Dr Aafia Siddiqui is when our blood really boils, in ‘how dare they’ tones.
We already live in Ghulam Abbas’s, “Hotel Mohenjodaro”, yet worse, the landing on the moon never happened neither the rooftop garden on the 71st floor. We nosedived even before take-off. No high point, not even for false nostalgia.
What is the point of all this, we already know that? Yes, we do. However, the lesson of “Hotel Mohenjodaro” is that not only can it get worse, but it will get worse; inertia. Once the almost twin Buddhas of Bamiyan were destroyed, it was only a matter of time before other twin structures were hit. What the PTI and Mian Sahib need to wake up to is that appeasement and surrender does not work with those who ask for the entire world, perhaps ponder over Ghulam Abbas’s warning, cities and countries are sometimes reduced to rubble.
P.S.: As August comes to an end and the mighty seek to restrict freedom of expression, while at the same time fumbling with their own speech, WH Auden’s “August 1968” predicting the Prague Spring because of the inability of those in power to speak to the people bears rereading. “The Ogre does what ogres can, Deeds quite impossible for Man, But one Prize is beyond his reach, The Ogre cannot master Speech, About a subjugated plain, Among its desperate and slain, The Ogre stalks with hands on hips, While drivel gushes form his lips.”
Published in The Express Tribune, September 1st, 2013.
Note from Shreela Ghosh.?Director Arts, Wider South Asia, British Council
The British Council is expanding its Arts Team across the South Asia region ? we are looking for new people in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka with arts expertise.
Partnerships are very important to the British Council (BC) so it is vital that the person has excellent communication skills and an entrepreneurial outlook.
Experience shows us that working for a large international organisation like the BC (operating in 110 countries) can be demanding for those from the South Asian creative sector as most people are likely to be working in small to medium sized companies ? I am afraid the bureaucracy is just a part of life ? so we need to recruit people with the right aptitude who can rise to the challenge even if they haven?t worked for a large organisation like ours, before.
I am attaching the Role Profile for the Head of Arts (Bangladesh) and hope that you will circulate this widely through your networks. The deadline is 7 April, so candidates will need to complete the application this week. My colleague Nahin and I will be happy to speak to anyone who wants more information about the role so please ask them to contact us.
Over the past 18 months we have created a strategy for increasing the impact of our Arts work across the region but this will only be possible with the right team in place. You are all very well connected within the creative networks in Bangladesh so I am asking you to help us identify the right person for this post.
Below you?ll find a link to our website where there?s also information about a more junior role ? yes, we need more than one person to run the arts programme as the BC?s profile continues to grow ? and people can also download the application forms by following the link.
Finally, some of you may already know of Culture 360 (based in Singapore) ? they want to do a mapping study of Bangladesh. This would be a very useful resource I think and benefit us all so if you know anyone who might be interested in doing this research please pass on the information to them.
Many thanks for your help ? Shreela
Shreela Ghosh, Director Arts, Wider South Asia, British Council, 5 Fuller Road, Dhaka 1000 mobile + 88 017300 92487