Book Review: The Blood Telegram


The Seventies decade of the Twentieth century started on a very inconsolable note especially for the South Asian countries. There were series of events & agitations in eastern Pakistan that culminated in the Indo-Pak war of 1971 eventually leading to the birth of a new nation called ‘Bangladesh’. The irony of these events is that despite being involving one of the major homicides & exodus of those times (after the infamous partition of India), these remain one of the grossly forgotten incident of world history.

Gary Bass’s The Blood Telegram attempts to relive these forgotten moments of bitter and gory incidents wrapping up the story of Bangladesh’s birth and (more importantly) it also throws light on the squalid & ignominious diplomacy of the representatives of United States of America (Richard Nixon, The President & Henry Kissinger, the National Security Advisor of US) sitting in White House, who were entrusted to be the bearers of beacon of liberty & justice but who (in actual) remained responsible for the heinous crime of slaughtering innumerable souls. It would be worthwhile to understand here, the sphere of relationship these statesmen shared with India & Pakistan. While they had a natural dislike for India and its representatives (perhaps due to India’s proximity to Soviet Union at the time when US was seeking anti-soviet allies through-out) , they always had a inclination towards Pakistan with special affection for President Gen. Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan. Their tilt towards Pakistan was primarily because they badly wanted to open negotiations with China with Yahya’s mediation. General Yahya Khan became Nixon’s secret liaison with the Chinese counterpart & helped to lay the groundwork for Chinese visit of Kissinger and Nixon. Further, Pakistan also provided base to US who in-turn provided military & financial aid to the country.

The trouble started with the end of British colonialism in the Indian subcontinent in 1947 which led to the creation of two independent nations viz. India and Pakistan. The state of Pakistan was segregated into Eastern & Western halves which were physically separated by the Indian republic spanning over the distance of over 2000 kilometers. (Even now when I look at the map of West Pakistan (Pakistan) & East Pakistan (Bangladesh) separated by over thousands of miles, I do wonder as to what those cartographers actually thought while carving out the territorial boundaries & clubbing these geographically dispersed territories as one nation). While western Pakistan (present day Pakistan) comprised mostly Urdu speaking Muslims, the eastern part (present day Bangladesh) comprised mix of Bengali speaking Muslims and Hindus – the irony being the absence of any common thing between the two regions except the religion. The Pakistanis always considered the western part as the true Pakistan despite having lower population and the eastern half was largely considered as a provincial state.

The real trouble was triggered with the announcement of national elections by Pakistani President Gen Yahya Khan, a dictator who hoped to concede the power democratically too. However, much to the dismay of Yahya, his military dictatorship actually got trounced with Awami League (founded in East Pakistan by Bengali leader Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman) winning a clear majority. The atrocious general denounced people’s verdict & launched a ferocious assault on eastern Pakistan & its people by using US supplied weapons and supplies. The ruthless brutality of killing, rapes and mayhem continued for months. Despite the fact that White House dignitaries viz. President Nixon & National Security Advisor Kissinger knew about this callous act of Pakistani army, they made no attempt to stop it & maintained silence through-out. They did not even stop military supplies to Pakistan comprising of artilleries, mortars & missiles which were meant to be used in combat against invading armed forces but were actually used to crush and kill thousands of innocent people.

During those devastating times, Archer Blood was the Consul General of United States in Dhaka – a dutiful, honest and sincere official & a wonderful human being. He was always prompt in reporting all the events & brutality being committed by Pakistani army on the people of East Pakistan. All his frequent cables, messages & reports about gory killings, bloodshed & massacres in Dhaka went without response. He also coined the term Genocide (racial extermination) to reflect the intensity of the violence committed by Pakistani army, but of no use. The term genocide is used to mean the excruciating killing of the people on the basis of ethnicity, religion etc. directed towards uprooting & demolishing the existence of particular religion or group. All these efforts, however, went in vain as the US policy makers preferred to stay mute & silent. The White House dignitaries not only refused to condemn the atrocities, but also declined to halt the artillery supplies that fueled Pakistan’s military machine’s assault on general public.

The book’s title The Blood Telegram finds its relevance in the Dissent Cable sent by Archer Blood & his team expressing the displeasure & disapproval of US government’s official policy & its stance towards violence in Bangladesh. This was one of its kind, whereby a country’s overall foreign policy was questioned & thus caused stir across US & Archer Blood was ordered to move out of Dhaka. He was one of the greatest statesmen of United States who sacrificed his career to assure that the true story of the massacre in East Pakistan was communicated to White House.

The book also draws a reference to the Indo-Pak fourteen day war of 1971 which finally led to the birth of Bangladesh. The atrocities, brutality & holocaust in Bangladesh had direct impact on India with exodus of people migrating from East Pakistan to India for shelter as refugees. The large scale migration of millions & millions of people was instant & fast and stalled the whole machinery of the country posing serious challenge to India with regard to their food, shelter & hygiene. This refugee crisis slowly drove India towards the war front and build up the political & civic situation where war became inevitable. The irony of the whole situation was that despite this, India couldn’t garner enough support or assistance from any country of the world except Soviet Union.

This book is primarily based on the conversational tapes from the White House, some archived official documents of India & some of the meticulous investigative reporting/ interviews conducted by the author in this regard. This is the most unbiased rendition of the events by a non Indian (an american) emitting from an in-depth research and analysis of the tapes & reports. The author remarkably weaves up the whole piece, building step by step account of the circumstances and diplomatic moves leading to the war & also what roles India, Pakistan & US played in the whole scheme of events. At some junctures the interpretations do appear a bit partial & subjective as it is purely based upon author’s interpretations & judgment of the facts (like comparing Bangladesh to Kashmir or terming India’s support to Bangladesh’s fighting forces, Mukti Bahini as terrorism). Nevertheless, the author’s efforts in this regard are really commendable as he dared to bring about the detailed account of the events encompassing one of the gruesome tale of trauma & horror of the people of Bangladesh. The extensive use of unedited excerpts & quoted texts of various dignitaries from conversational tapes & official documents surely adds to the overall reading experience. In fact, the voices of Nixon & Kissinger are the most shocking revelation of the book which reveals them as appallingly hateful & vulgar in their attitude towards India & Indians.

The Blood Telegram is a must read for any-one who is interested in knowing further about historical events of Indian subcontinent. As a reader one can actually feel the turmoil & agony of the victims and feels like questioning the policy makers in United States for their alleged role in the whole episode – especially in light of The Pledge of Allegiance of the United States of America advocating “liberty & justice for all”. This surely serves as an eye opener for everyone who considers them as great statesmen (considering one of them, Henry Kissinger, even won the Nobel Prize for peace!!).

Title: The Blood Telegram
Publisher/ Imprint: Random House
Pages: 368
Genre: Non Fiction / Historical
Rating: 4 of 5
Reviewed for: Publisher

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