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Why the US should recognise Pakistan’s Bangladesh genocide – for its own complicity

Proposed US legislation to recognise the genocide against Bengalis and Hindus leading to the birth of Bangladesh in 1971 is in the right direction; just make sure it doesn’t ‘forget’ the key role Washington played in enabling it to happen

America is obsessed with other people’s genocides, even some that might not qualify as such. It seems to think that such public discourse among its citizens is salutary; perhaps that would be more so if they had paid more attention to the genocides committed in their own national history.

As US historian Peter Novick wrote in his 1999 book, The Holocaust and Collective Memory, “Fifty years after the fact and thousands of miles from its side, the Holocaust has come to loom so large in our culture.” He asks “whether the prominent role the Holocaust has come to play in both American Jewish and general American discourse is as desirable a development as most people seem to think it is”.

The same scepticism can be said about America’s more recent obsession with the Armenian genocide. California recently declared that Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day – observed annually on April 24 as a public holiday in Armenia – would become a statewide holiday to be known as Genocide Awareness Day.

In 2019, the United States first formally recognised the Armenian genocide committed by the Ottoman Turks.

Bangladeshi social activists perform a street play during a rally in remembrance of those who were killed in 1971 ahead of the country’s declaration of independence from Pakistan, in Dhaka, Bangladesh. [AP]

US politicians always seem to hunger for more. Last month, a new resolution was introduced in the House of Representatives to recognise Pakistan’s genocide against Bengalis and Hindus leading to the birth of Bangladesh in 1971.

The proposed legislation “condemns the atrocities committed by the Armed Forces of Pakistan against the people of Bangladesh from March to December 1971; recognises that such atrocities against ethnic Bengalis and Hindus constitute crime against humanity, war crimes and genocide”.

As it is, I think it’s a very good idea, except for one big missing detail: the US role as an enabler of the Pakistani generals in committing the genocide. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, anyone? Let’s not forget what they did.

A sordid and sorry history

Many Hong Kong people harbour a highly romantic and unrealistic fantasy about the glory of British colonialism. But a confluence of factors contributed to its relatively successful transition to Chinese rule.

Bangladesh’s Jamaat-e-Islami party activists set vehicles on fire during their clashes with police in Dhaka in 2013 as supporters of Islamist leader Abdul Quader Mollah vented their fury at his execution for war crimes committed during the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan. Photo: Reuters

Generally, the process of British decolonisation around the world had been a long series of blood-soaked affairs, whose terrible impacts are still being felt around the world today.

From the time India achieved independence, blood started to flow. Somehow, the departing British thought it was a good idea to lop off the eastern and western flanks of India for the majority Muslims, to form Pakistan, with two parts of the new country separated by more than 1,600km.

That partition alone caused an orgy of mass murders and expulsions resulting in more than a million dead.

The Punjabi elites in the west enjoyed mostly the wealth and power; the Bengalis in the east (then East Bengal, subsequently East Pakistan before winning independence and becoming present-day Bangladesh) were neglected and discriminated against. In 1971, when the East tried to declare autonomy following an election, but not independence, Pakistan’s generals launched a genocidal campaign code-named Operation Searchlight to stop it.

Bangladesh Nationalist Party senior leader Salauddin Quader Chowdhury waves to media just before a tribunal ruled he should be put to death for his involvement in the killing of hundreds of people during the independence fight against Pakistan. [AP]

With democratic-electoral legitimacy and a moderate demand for autonomy, not to say being the victims of an orgy of killings, you would expect noble America to have supported the Bengalis in the east. No, Nixon was a good friend and admirer of Pakistan’s dictator General Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan.

Kissinger was busy talking secretly with Zhou Enlai to prepare for rapprochement with China; and Yahya made himself useful, even indispensable, as a messenger between the two sides. America funded and armed Yahya’s army.

Nixon even felt sorry for Yahya for having to carry out the killings, which would number between 200,000 (estimated by the US government) and 3 million (by the Bangladeshi government).

Nixon told Yahya: “I understand the anguish you must have felt in making the difficult decisions you have faced.”

US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger with China’s Zhou Enlai in 1971. [AFP]

This quote is taken from an official letter from Nixon to Yahya, then Pakistani president, dated May 7, 1971. It’s available on the website of the [US] Office of the Historian and is worth quoting at some length as it shows America’s full duplicity and complicity in the genocide.

“Dear Mr. President [Yahya]:

“I have given most serious thought to your message on the tragic situation which has developed in East Pakistan in the past few weeks. This situation has been of great concern to me.

“Having laboured so hard to carry out free national elections and to achieve an early and orderly transition, you must also be deeply disappointed not to have been able to transfer power to a civilian government according to the plan you had adopted and which you explained to me during your visit here last autumn.

A Bangladeshi boy shouts slogans as he joins a rally with activists demanding maximum penalty for Bangladeshis accused of committing crimes against humanity during the independence war against Pakistan in 1971. [AP]

“First, I should like to emphasise the sympathy which we in the United States feel for all the people of Pakistan who have been affected by these events and our concern over the loss of life and human suffering. I understand the anguish you must have felt in making the difficult decisions you have faced.”

Nixon and Kissinger would also risk internationalising the conflict, though Nixon claimed he wanted to avoid it. In the same letter, he would continue:

“It is to no oneʼs advantage to permit the situation in East Pakistan to lead to an internationalisation of the situation. Foreign involvement could create new problems and compound the difficulty of securing an ultimate settlement.

“We have been in touch with the Government of India and have discussed the implications of the present situation. We have stressed the need for restraint.”

By this time, India was flooded with refugees as a result of Operation Searchlight. Indira Gandhi – whom Nixon referred to as “the old bitch” in private conversations with Kissinger – realised the only way to stop the flow was to end the killings.

A fight then started between India and West Pakistan, with the US firmly supporting the latter. In fact, the Nixon White House moved a whole naval fleet into the Bay of Bengal and tried to encourage the Chinese to challenge India and possibly provoke Soviet Russia.

In the event, the Indians, the Soviets and the Chinese saw through the whole silly if cynical scheme of the White House. The Indian army trounced the Pakistanis.

Yahya was out of power before 1971 was out. Bangladesh achieved independence.

And Nixon and Kissinger were getting what they wanted in China, the horrors in Bangladesh a small or at least necessary price to pay.

US recognition of the Bangladesh genocide?

My guess is that the proposed resolution or legislation by US Congressmen Steve Chabot and Ro Khanna won’t get anywhere and will die a quiet legislative death. Washington insiders will have to remind the pair about America’s dirty laundry in the whole genocide, which almost provoked an international incident.

If the US wants to feel the full force of righteous indignation at other people’s genocides, better stick to the ones in which it has taken no part.


(c) South China Morning Post 2022


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