A riveting history–the first full account–of the involvement of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in the 1971 atrocities in Bangladesh that led to war between India and Pakistan, shaped the fate of Asia, and left in its wake a host of major strategic consequences for the world today.
Synopsis from goodreads
I started reading this book in November for Non-Fiction November but it really wasn’t a book that I could read within a timeline. There’s a lot of information that I wanted to look up and overall, it was just a hard book to read. There’s nothing easy to read in a book about a genocide.
A little Background
When the British left India in 1947, it was divided up into two countries – predominantly Hindu India, and predominantly Muslim Pakistan. This wasn’t based on real borders or ethnic identities, but solely based on religion, which is why we ended up with a ludicrous border division like this.
I really don’t understand how brilliant statesmen can get away with such utter nonsense. Even a child could tell you that such a situation was just asking for trouble. And that’s exactly what happened a couple of decades later when the East Pakistanis (or present-day Bangladeshis) started feeling resentful at being treated like secondary citizens without a meaningful political representation.
And that’s how all the trouble started, and this is the book that catalogues all these events that led to the genocide, and then to the Bangladeshi war of independence in 1971.
Now with that brief geo-political background out of the way, let’s go onto the book and what it’s about.
I normally don’t notice covers all that much. But when I went online to goodreads to pick up the synopsis, I saw a cover that took me aback.
Below I put the Indian cover and the American cover of the book side by side, and it’s interesting to note how the Indian cover focuses on the Indian aspect of the book, while the American cover focuses on Nixon’s and Kissinger’s tactics.
After reading the book, it seems like the American cover more accurately reflects the book’s contents, and I suppose the Indian cover was created to arouse interest in us locals.
It’s a bit funny because Kissinger is anyway a massive selling point when it comes to books on politics. He may not be liked, but he is most definitely read.
My emotions reading this book
While reading this book, I started getting extremely angry with Kissinger and Nixon. Before reading this book, I knew very little about them. I had high impressions about Kissinger and I had heard that he was a master of foreign policy. None of that showed through in this book. Both Nixon and Kissinger’s behavior was very shocking. Some of their discussions in the White House were absolutely appalling in their racism and conceit.
They abuse and belittle everyone who doesn’t subscribe to their world-view and praise dictators like Yahya Khan of Pakistan to the skies (solely because Nixon found him likable).
Their conversations are full of frat-boy style profanity. They frequently call Indira Gandhi – the Prime Minister of India at that time that bitch and callously state that the refugee crisis in India (because of the millions of people who ran away from the slaughter in Bangladesh) could be ameliorated by a famine, or wonder why India does not shoot the refugees if they find the millions an unbearable burden.
“The old bitch,” Nixon called her. “I don’t know why the hell anybody would reproduce in that damn country but they do,” he said.
Yes, this book is quite an eye-opener indeed to how policy decisions are made. And I really understood what is meant by the term realpolitik, and the consequences of such a policy.
Another alarming thing in the book was USA cozying up to the likes of Iran, Afghanistan, and Jordan supplying arms and ammunition to bolster them on the side of Pakistan. Such decisions made in a hurry then have really come back to haunt everyone later.
One heartening aspect of the book was that I didn’t have to feel too embarrassed on India’s behalf – something I was expecting going into the book based on that sub-heading. I went in thinking that we has instigated a war there, and thankfully that wasn’t the case.
I also ended up feeling quite proud about Indira Gandhi’s toughness. It can’t have been easy going against Nixon and Kissinger, China, and Pakistan, and wresting independence for Bangladesh. I came out of that book with a profound admiration for how Gandhi addressed that situation.
My Thoughts on the Research
So how well-researched and how balanced is the book? The research is impeccable, I am amazed at the amount of work that’s gone into the writing of this book, and the amount of sources that Gary Bass has used.
I do wish though that this was a more balanced book. Gary Bass has tried to include all viewpoints – India, America – both Republicans and the Democrats, however, there is not much from Pakistan or the actual leaders behind the Bangladeshi war of independence. It’s somewhat odd that a story of the birth of a nation does not include the thoughts of either country that was directly the winner or the loser in the war.
That said, this is still a very important book that added a lot to my knowledge of that time. Our history textbooks in school had actually buried a lot of disturbing information, and so I never really knew about the genocide, and the background details of how it came to happen, and this book filled in all those gaps in my knowledge very well.
If you are interested in recent South-Asian history, I would highly recommend this book.
Huge thanks to Penguin Random House for sending me a copy of this book for review consideration.
You can also purchase a copy of this book from Amazon