Just how geopolitical imperatives impel, or compel a country to take stock of an international situation is amply exemplified by the United States’ policy during Bangladesh’s Liberation War. At the outset, let it be laid out that, even in this current age of globalization and the Internet, and for the foreseeable future, nation-states will look out for their own interests first and foremost, if not only, and any altruistic behaviour on their part towards other nation-states will be a function or outcome of that reality. The great powers play the game of geopolitics on a global scale, but, when necessary, in regional theatres, too. The harsh reality is that more people belonging to the countries involved in the region are physically and psychologically hurt rather than those from the powerful nations (unless they are involved in cataclysmic conflicts like World Wars I and II). In 1971, in another round of geopolitical gamesmanship, the people of Bangladesh triumphed as they gained for themselves a sovereign independent country.
Much has been written on the modalities, sacrifice and hardship endured by the people of this country during the liberation struggle, and many appropriately are human stories, bringing the reader up close to the triumph of suffering humanity. Here we will take a succinct look at the great powers’ geopolitical imperatives that had profound impact on the course of that struggle. To recount, those were the heady days of the Cold War with the United States, primarily through its West European NATO allies, sought to contain the expansion of the Soviet Union beyond its Warsaw Pact borders, and, as an offshoot, the spread of communism anywhere. George Kennan’s Containment doctrine in Europe was supplemented by the Domino theory, and the Korean and Vietnam wars were its manifestation.
Nothing is permanent in the way of global relations, another embodiment of the sovereign nation-state looking out for its self-interest first and foremost. For a good part of those Cold War days, India was allied with the USSR, even though it was not a communist state. Alliances are often and not unnaturally, a matter of convenience, and fortunately for Bangladesh, the friendly Indo-Soviet ties could not have been more opportune for its struggle. On the other side of the geopolitical divide stood the US with its ally, Pakistan. The equation was not one of your enemy is my enemy, even if some elements of it were there, but of another theatre of the Cold War with proxy protagonists of the two superpowers engaged in potential hot conflict at the very beginning of Bangladesh’s war of liberation. It helped that India and Pakistan had already fought two short, but sharp, wars, intermixed with a number of skirmishes, and that the two countries could potentially engage in armed conflict at almost the slightest excuse at that time.
And Pakistan’s onslaught against the Bengalis in East Pakistan that forced millions of refugees across the border into India, placing a big strain on its resources, was the spark that ignited the 1971 war between the two countries, with the twin outcome of the emergence of Bangladesh as a sovereign independent country, and a decisive victory for India over its arch-enemy. Taking into account the proxy analogy, the Soviet Union put one over the United States.
So why did the US side with Pakistan, even though its Consul General in Dhaka at that time, Archer K Blood, had informed Washington that West Pakistan was conducting “a selective genocide” in East Pakistan? In fact, for his troubles, Blood was punished by President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger by being recalled from his diplomatic assignment in Dhaka to being shoved to the less glamorous Personnel Office of the State Department. Kissinger, an ardent practitioner of Realpolitick, was an immigrant from Germany (not that it has any necessary link), whose Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was one of its most skilful and renowned exponents, having been instrumental through its use in bringing about the unification of Germany in the late nineteenth century.
Kissinger employed the principles and instruments of Realpolitick in trying to put one over the USSR for his adopted country. These days, with the ideological Cold War long over, but new alignments forming primarily around the United States and Russia, we find India having at least as good as, if not better, relations with Washington as with Moscow. No surprise here. To reprise, the sovereign nation-state is just looking out for its own interests first and foremost. In 1971, the Soviet-India close ties were considered in dim light by Nixon and Kissinger for them to adopt a pro-Pakistan policy in the process, totally ignoring the plight and aspirations of the Bengali people. Furthermore, pursuing détente with the USSR, as well as being concerned with the expansion of Soviet influence in South Asia, Kissinger was looking for a chance of rapport with China, then relatively isolationist and more of an adversary to the USSR (your enemy is my enemy analogy), but, since the two countries had no formal diplomatic ties, looked to Pakistan (a staunch Chinese ally) to facilitate a secret trip by him to Beijing. And it was duly accomplished.
Cynical? Most certainly. Perceived US interest in rapprochement or a tacit understanding with China to gang up on the USSR was far more important than the genocide of a people. Ironic, that Kissinger had fled Nazi Germany primarily because of genocide committed upon his co-religionists by Hitler and his cronies! The USSR (as Russia, a long-time player of the “Great Game” in Central Asia between itself and the imperial great power Great Britain), with India as a critical ally, took up the challenge and put one over Washington. Leonid Brezhnev’s calculating ploys, his steadfast support with vital advanced weaponry and crucial military advisory support to New Delhi, coupled with a truly brave Indian prime minister in Indira Gandhi, with unflinching support for the Bangladesh cause, prevailed over American Realpolitick. Of course, it was to India’s advantage that Pakistan was cut down in size and now posed a one-front challenge to it, but it sacrificed a lot in fallen and wounded soldiers, carrying a huge burden of sheltering refugees for nine months, and skilfully conducting diplomatic forays in different forums to bring the world’s sympathetic attention to Bangladesh’s plight and ardent hope. That hope was happily realized after nine months of struggle and privation as the United States’ geopolitical strategy in this regard faltered and, eventually, failed.
An actor and Professor, Media and Communication department, IUB