Book Review: 1971 – A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh

This is a terrific book by all means. How an academician ends up writing a war thriller is a huge achievement. Dr Srinath Raghavan also has a unique background of serving Indian Army before dipping into academics. So, he brings the essence of war politics like few can.

This book is on how Bangladesh was created and the dynamic (and tragic) global politics around the 1971 that led to creation of the country. The book undoes many a myths in the process like Indira Gandhi wanted to control both West Pakistan and East Pakistan  (Indian polity was more bothered with the huge influx of migrants; they actually erred by not interfering in the war earlier), Nixon/Kissinger played a crucial role (the duo actually messed up the whole affair), China did not play a role due to extreme winter conditions (this was a really lame myth by all means, China did not play a role as it was worried this would antagonise Soviets with whom it fought a recent war)..and so on..

The war of 1971 was the most significant geopolitical event in the Indian subcontinent since its partition in 1947. At one swoop, it led to the creation of Bangladesh, and it tilted the balance of power between India and Pakistan steeply in favor of India. The Line of Control in Kashmir, the nuclearization of India and Pakistan, the conflicts in Siachen Glacier and Kargil, the insurgency in Kashmir, the political travails of Bangladesh–all can be traced back to the intense nine months in 1971. Against the grain of received wisdom, Srinath Raghavan contends that far from being a predestined event, the creation of Bangladesh was the product of conjuncture and contingency, choice and chance. The breakup of Pakistan and the emergence of Bangladesh can be understood only in a wider international context of the period: decolonization, the Cold War, and incipient globalization. In a narrative populated by the likes of Nixon, Kissinger, Zhou Enlai, Indira Gandhi, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Tariq Ali, George Harrison, Ravi Shankar, and Bob Dylan, Raghavan vividly portrays the stellar international cast that shaped the origins and outcome of the Bangladesh crisis. This strikingly original history uses the example of 1971 to open a window to the nature of international humanitarian crises, their management, and their unintended outcomes.

The book draws number of arguments in the book. The critical point author makes is we usually think this to be a South Asian event. Infact, it was as much a global event as any can be. The crisis was a result of many a global factors with increased globalisation itself being a crucial factor. Globalisation unleashed many a forces and the primary one being spread of cheap technology and media. People got news from oppressive regimes across the world in much quicker time leading to widespread dissent and dissatisfaction with dictatorial regimes. If we think the 2010 Arab rising was anything new, we have to go back to 1960s to see similar events being played out. Just that today’s technology is much faster but back then telegrams, telephones, television etc played a huge role as well. Those 3 Ts were the advanced technology of those times and played an equally important role as the interent plays today.

The author looks at many angles to try and convince that seperation of East and West Pakisatn was not really an inevitable event as historians suggest. Yes, there were frictions between the two areas seperated by 1000 plus miles but one could not really see it coming this soon. The way West Pakistan polity (read army incharge) botched up the whole region due to power games is quite a story. They always undermined and underestimated the eastern wing of their country. So the heat was on but there was nothing inevitable about it. The initial demands by East Pakistan leaders was to run Pakistan like a Federation with East having autonomy (and not independence) to manage its affairs. It was the reluctance of West Pakistan authorities to even give them this autonomy which led to the war and eventual independence.

The author amazingly draws several emotions and failings of people at power. This is usually the case. Each side got its estimate of the crisis wrong and resulted in a genocide. The way top leaders were playing games just to keep their power intact and keep opposition guessing is quite a tragedy really. How politics eventually turns into a game where people in power pit other people against each other is quite shameful to say the least.

Having said that, this book is an important read. As most of our Indian history teaching stops at 1947, we have very little idea of such events which continue to shape South Asian politics till date. History as this blog says again and again is not just about knowing your past, but your future as well..

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