The Blood Telegram, India’s Secret War with Pakistan (Book review)

The Blood Telegram by Gary J. Bass is insightful, reflective and thoroughly well researched; the book offers a new perspective on the frequently chronicled 1971 India-Pakistan War, which led to the creation of Bangladesh. Outlining the turn of events in the leadup to the 14-day War in 1971, Bass also offers a scathing criticism of American Foreign policy and the motivations that ultimately influenced the outcome.  

The book provides a strong contextualisation to the conflict, describing in thorough detail the genocide of Hindus in East Pakistan, by West Pakistan, who since independence had appeared to be irreconcilable entities, separated not just by cultural dissimilarities but by a vast geographical distance too. With tensions mounting within Pakistan, Yahya Khan’s (the president of Pakistan during the time) leadership did little to ameliorate the situation; the American government, however, remained insistent on the fact that Yahya was a skilful and capable leader. 

The conflict within Pakistan only took a turn for the worse when national elections were conducted in March 1971. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman for the first time won the national elections and declared the need for an autonomous East Pakistan. Contradicting the Pakistani People’s Party and Yahya Khan’s government, his party was one that supported the idea of a 6-point program granting all power to the state legislature apart from the nation’s defence and foreign affairs. This victory, for the first time, also allowed the Sheikh to formally form a government. However, the leader of the opposing Pakistan People’s Party, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, did not allow the Sheikh to become the Prime Minister despite an obvious majority, only infuriating the East Pakistanis further and leading to the onslaught of violence. 

With this disturbing conflict in the background, the book highlights Yahya Khan’s repeated insistence on the fact that the conflict with East Pakistan was an internal matter, but with thousands of Bengalis flooding into an already impoverished India for refuge by the day, Indira Gandhi’s administration was under severe pressure to put an end to the conflict soon. 

Bass alludes to India’s mixed motives for intervening in the conflict, going so far as to state Gandhi’s motives were by no means solely prompted by humanitarian concern for the Bengali people. She had numerous political viewpoints to tend to and a conflict with Pakistan was the only way to satisfy each of these. To begin with, Gandhi had to satisfy the popular will of the voters who strongly resonated with East Pakistan (the partition still fresh in every Indian’s memory); according to Bass, it was also a “prime opportunity to humiliate and rip apart India’s hated enemy”. 

Lastly and most significantly, the book posits that Indira Gandhi had on her hands an unstable border situation, with nearly 10 million refugees occupying refugee camps in the area, by late 1971. With international sentiment largely dismissive of the crisis, political parties even within India demanded a better response to the issue, and Yahya’s unwillingness to make any concessions towards the Awami League (Sheikh Mujib’s party), war became all but inevitable. 

The book shockingly reveals America’s passive support towards Pakistan during the crisis. Providing significant arms shipments to Yahya’s government despite being aware of the extent of the genocide, Bass reveals the multilayered motives of the Nixon administration in doing so. The Pakistanis, particularly, had opened a backchannel between America and China, being the mediator and bridging ties between Nixon and Zhou Enlai during the time. Strengthening these ties with China, Bass argues, was to help “end the Vietnam War”, that was going on during the time, which Nixon had been drawing severe criticism for. Furthermore, America’s awareness of passive Soviet Support for India only gave them greater incentive to back Pakistan and Khan’s government.  Unfortunately, however, this support came at the cost of nearly 3 million lives and a war. 

Lastly, the book also clearly dispels any notion that America lacked an understanding of what was going on the ground. Amidst several consulate generals and American representatives on the ground was a particularly notable man, Archer Blood. The book outlines his infamous “Blood Telegram” (also signed by 29 generals), informing none other than Nixon and Kissinger of the brutal realities in Dacca with astonishing bluntness. The telegram was purported to have sent shock waves through the White House. It read “Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities. Our government has evidenced what many will consider moral bankruptcy.”  Centring much of this book around this scathing indictment, Bass offers a view into what was a shameful moment in America’s foreign policy.