HISTORY has its forgotten tragedies, tired little episodes played out against a backdrop of inexorable forces and collective consciousness. That so little changes with the passing of time, that the script for genocide can find an author as easily today as in the era of Genghis Khan, suggests that certain vignettes of history are not just forgotten too soon, but told to the terminally deaf ears of apathetic listeners.
Among these is the tragedy of Bangladesh, a nation which ten years ago this winter gained its independence at an incredible cost. Most reports estimated at least one million killed: some tripled that number. This slaughtering of Bengalis by Pakistani forces between March and December 1971 probably has no parallel in modern history except the Nazi effort to exterminate the Jews. Under the pretext of putting down a threat to the unity of the nation of Pakistan, the genocide proceeded with a brutal and purposeful efficiency. Beginning in March with a raid by the Pakistani army on the capital city of Dacca, it fanned out rapidly to the countryside, destroying the villages and terrorizing smaller cities.
"What happened in Dacca was no football match," Yah Yah Khan, the Pakistani leader, is reported to have said at the time. And indeed it wasn't. The drive into Fast Bengal had been calculated with excruciating directness to erect a new social order there, a political unit that would continue the support of West Pakistan's dominance over the economic and political life of the nation. With the March pogrom designed to wipe out an of rusive Hindu minority and seed a loyal Moslem middle class, the military leaders hoped they could create a province loyal to be whims of the western, almost entirely Moslem, portion of the nation. In democratic elections held the previous December the people of East Pakistan had cast ballots over whelmingly in favor of a regional parts. Shark Mupbar Rahman's Awami league, which promised to demand what amounted to home rule.
The dream of an independent Bangladesh, though was alive long before the outbreak of the civil war. Dating back to the 1940s and the creation of a Moslem state from the eastern and western wings of British India, the dream had grown under the systematic exploitation of the eastern region by the West. Bengali chauvinism and pride in a distinct cultural heritage sharpened the hostility, especially when the West Pakistani declared Urdu--a Western dialect--the country's official language. East Bengal saw its natural resources, jute and burlap, siphoned off to the factories of West Pakistan, and its educated population largely blocked from the nation's industrial and military establishment. Meanwhile, investments and other aid from the United States abetted the uneven development, supporting a military government that had abandoned even the formal habits of democracy.
And as refugees by the millions fled the Ganges plain of East Bengal, it was to the military government of West Pakistan that the United States lent its support, refusing to condemn its ally even as reports of the carnage mounted and the number of refugees in Indian camp across the border ballooned to more than nine million. The atrocities became more apparent, but the U.S. administration turned a blind eye, continuing even arms shipments to the military regime. Evidently, friendship with Yah Yah was a necessary step toward Nixon and Kissinger's goal that year, diplomatic recognition of the People's Republic of China. It stuck to its Pakistani policy despite heated criticisms from Democratic congressmen, including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who toured a refugee camp near Calcutta.
India's liberating victory in the two-week border war ended the armed struggle. Certainly, Indhira Gandhi could describe the intervention as humanitarian, but her country had plenty of its own interest to serve by expelling the Pakistani army from Bengal and sending burdensome refugees back to their homes. It must have been this self-interest that piqued the Nixon administration, for the State Department pronouncement on the matter blamed India alone for the situation on the subcontinent. George Bush, then ambassador to the United Nations, labeled India's action "aggression"--a judgement that drew heavy criticism at home. As John P. Lewis, then dean of Princeton's school of public affairs, wrote in an op-ed piece for The New York Times, "We have managed to align ourselves with the wrong side of about as big and simple a moral issue as the world has seen lately."
TEN YEARS LATER, after a couple of internal military coups have turned the freedom granted to Bangladesh to ashes, the lineup of sides has lost its meaning. India's strong-willed prime minister, for all her apparent heroism in 1971, can hardly claim that the intervening decade has shown her in flattering light. This time ten years ago, the streets of Dacca resounded with exultant chants of Joi Bangla (Victory to Bengal) and the nation welcomed back its imprisoned leader, Sheik Mujib. Today, even in Dacca, it is unlikely that people bother to remember the hope that was in the air as refugees returned and the world cast its attention on the fledgling nation. Instead the country struggles as a population of 92 million, likely to double by the turn of the century, labors under what is said to be the second worst case of poverty in the world, squeezing out the food from a land increasingly barren. Only the most cool-headed of agriculture and population policies, along with massive doses of foreign aid, can avert the starvation of millions.
What remains important, as we remember the genocide of a decade ago, is the questions it forces. Why did it have to happen? Why with our government's support? The Nixon-Kissinger sideshow has achieved its aim--camaraderie with China and her people, cultural and scientific exchanges, and the opportunity to arm her to threaten the Soviet Union. A significant gain, perhaps, and cheap at the price of watching as many as three million people dye. Who wouldn't want to forget?