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'US okayed Pakistani repression in Bangladesh in 1971'
Dharam Shourie in New York | December 19, 2002 05:40 IST
Despite assurance by the then American president Richard Nixon to the Congress that the United States does not "support or condone" Pakistan's military repression in the then East Pakistan [Bangladesh] in 1971, Washington did nothing to stop genocide, according to a summary of declassified documents.
Instead, by using what Nixon and former secretary of state Henry Kissinger called quiet diplomacy, the US administration gave a green light of sorts to the Pakistanis, says Sajit Gandhi analysing the documents posted on a web site.
Gandhi is a research associate with the South Asia Documents at the National Security Archives in Washington.
In one instance, Nixon said to a Pakistani delegation that President Yahya (Khan) was a good friend. Instead of expressing concern over the ongoing brutal military repression, Nixon explained he "understands the anguish of the decisions which [Yahya] had to make", Gandhi quotes from a document.
Due to Yahya's importance to the China initiative and his friendship with Nixon and Kissinger, Nixon declared that the US "would not do anything to complicate the situation for President Yahya or to embarrass him. "Much like the present situation post 9/11, Washington was hesitant to criticise Pakistan publicly out of fear that such a tactic might weaken the dictator's support for American interests," Gandhi said.
The cable traffic from the US consulate in Dhaka reveals the brutal details of the genocide conducted in Bangladesh by the West Pakistani Martial Law Administration.
In the infamous Blood telegram, the consulate in Dhaka condemns the US for failing "to denounce the suppression of democracy," for failing "to denounce atrocities," and for "bending over backwards to placate the West Pakistan-dominated government and to lessen any deservedly negative international public relations impact against them."
The documents show Kissinger had some doubts about the policy but could not take on Nixon.
For, in a Memorandum of Conservation, Kissinger indicates to its ambassador that "the President has a special feeling for President Yahya. One cannot make policy on that basis, but it is a fact of life."
The documents show that while the United States tried to ease the humanitarian crisis in East Pakistan, it did not strongly endorse to Yahya the need for a political solution, which would have allowed peaceful and safe return of refugees.
While some historians believe the roots of the 1971 war were sown following the 1965 India-Pakistan war, Gandhi says the declassified documents show that the 1971 war had its own specific causes: a tremendous refugee flow [approximately 10 million people], Indian support to the Mukti Bahini [freedom fighters of Bangladesh] and continued military repression in East Pakistan.
All these causes were exacerbated by the lack of public White House criticism for the root cause of the South Asian crisis, the abrogation of the December 1970 election results, and the refugee crisis that broke out following the genocide, Gandhi says.
As the conflict in the subcontinent began to grow, so did criticism of American policy leanings towards Pakistan. The US administration denied any specific anti-India policy was being followed.
Declassified documents show that in addition to tilting towards Pakistan in its public statements, the US also followed a pro-Pakistan line in the United Nations, in discussions with China and on the battlefield as well, Gandhi writes.
US publicly pronounced India as the aggressor in the war. It also sent the nuclear submarine, USS Enterprise, to the Bay of Bengal, and authorised the transfer of US military supplies to Pakistan, despite the apparent illegality of doing so.
American military assistance was formally cut off to both India and Pakistan.
A combination of Nixon's emotional attachment to General Yahya and his dislike for the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, West Pakistan's integral involvement with the China initiative and Kissinger's predilection for power politics greatly influenced American policy decision-making during this conflict, Gandhi says.
The fact that the conflict occurred over 30 years ago makes it possible now to look at US actions and policy through documents released at the National Archives under the US government's declassification programme.
The record, Gandhi says, is far from complete: numerous materials remain classified both by the state department, the Central Intelligence Agency and other agencies as well as the Nixon Presidential Materials Project.
Nevertheless, the available documents offer many useful insights into how and why Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger made important decisions during the 1971 Bangladesh crisis.