The Blood Telegram
This article originally appeared in centreright.in. CRI content has now been subsumed in swarajyamag.com. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of swarajyamag.com

I started reading the Blood Telegram by Gary Bass –a book about the 1971 Bangladesh genocide started by Pakistan within its own (then) territory and how two democracies, United States and India approached it.

I mistook the title to be about the ‘bloody’ genocide (which it is) but the book is actually about Arthur Blood who was the consul general of the US Consulate in Dacca at that time and his telegrams. United States, a democracy was supporting Pakistan, a state ruled by a despot while USSR – supposedly ruled by despots stood by India, a democracy.

The book has some very interesting points at the start – which very often were not apparent to those (like me) who were not around in that era :

“In the dark annals of modern cruelty, it (the Bangladesh genocide) ranks as bloodier than Bosnia and by some accounts it is in the same rough league as Rwanda”. (Maybe worth pointing to Pakistan leaders as part of some debate in future)

“The Bengalis were mostly Muslim, but in an officially Islamic nation, there was some suspicion of the sizable Bengali Hindu minority” (Interesting, that this statement is true in most officially ‘Islamic’ lands – any minority is liable to be suspected upon just by virtue of worshipping a different god)

The fact that there was a genocide, a targeted, selective genocide aimed at Bengalis (mostly Hindus) mostly escaped the world’s attention as Pakistan clamped down on the media – barring a secret transmitter in the US embassy at Dacca – and if not for this book, perhaps it would have never come to light.

The book is the result of the US declassification of records of that time. And they do maintain painstaking records, it looks like. Gary Bass does a fantastic job of putting together an absolutely gripping, horrifying account of the genocide along with its gory details. Bass also largely shies away from political correctness while sticking to facts – without pulling any punches as he narrates the story.

Of course the author’s interest is in showing US complicity to the genocide and rightly so. But as a reader based in India, this is a story that happened at our doorstep and it does not look like we knew the entire implication of it. This was in all likelihood, worse than the partition on the western side.

The books talks of entire town blocks being wiped off, machine gun attacks on civilians, a dormitory hall of Hindus at the Dacca University that bore the brunt of attacks and of corpses littered everywhere in Dacca. Apart from this, it focuses on some brave individuals who stood up against their government (US), notably Arthur Blood and other staffers in the consulate at Dacca, brave journalists who chase down a story under extreme conditions and also a good story of how the Indian government handled the situation.

The author brings out what mostly people like us, born after 1972, would have never known. What the then Indian government did (and by and large, the entire effort on the Indian side was bipartisan), how the US government manipulated the situation to benefit Pakistan (complete with verbatim conversations) and how the other powers that be reacted (with a lovely dig at France) are well narrated.

The book is a riveting read for anybody who wants to understand either contemporary history or get a glimpse of the 1971 liberation of Bangladesh.