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Srinath Raghavan, 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh.

Srinath Raghavan, 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh. Cambridge, Mass., London: Harvard University Press, 2013. 358 pages.

Few contemporary local conflicts have had such global ramifications as the Bangladeshi conflict of 1971, but South Asia historians have generally downplayed this importance by overemphasizing the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. In 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh, Srinath Raghavan argues that historians marginalize the Bangladesh crisis by conceiving it in terms of memory, violence, and identity, thereby denying its historical importance in a global context. For Bangladeshi historians, the conflict was a war of national liberation; for Pakistani historians, it was a war of secession in which India intentionally instigated the Bengalis to vivisect Pakistan; for Indian historians, it was the third India-Pakistan war in which India emerged victorious. Raghavan condemns the existent historiography concerning the creation of Bangladesh on grounds of both insularity and determinism, contending that histories written from the individual nationalistic standpoints overlook many significant facets.

Raghavan particularly rejects the historical determinism that conceives the breakup of Pakistan and creation of Bangladesh as inevitable. He denies the conventional wisdom that the distance separating the two parts of Pakistan, the Bengali language movement of 1950s, and the economic repression of West Pakistan made the separation unavoidable. Far from being a predestined event, according to Raghavan, the creation of Bangladesh was the product of conjuncture and contingency, choice and chance (8). He argues that if Pakistan's Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1928-79) had not worked with the Pakistani military to thwart the Awame League's ascent to power, a united Pakistan could have been preserved, albeit as a looser federation. Likewise, if the Nixon administration had used its economic leverage on Pakistan in late April and early May of 1971 to warn the Pakistan regime that it would be soon on the brink of pauperdom, Pakistan might have negotiated with Bangladeshi national leader Mujib (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman) (1920-75); had the Soviet Union not switched its stance in late October 1971, India would not likely have intervened and helped Bangladesh emerge; and finally, if Bhutto had not rejected Poland's UN Security Council resolution to place East Pakistan in the hands of elected leaders it would certainly have passed, and Indian forces would have had to stop short in Dhaka, checking Bangladeshi independence in the eleventh hour (266-67).

Raghavan claims that the breakdown and breakup of Pakistan can only be understood by situating these events in a wider global context and by examining the interplay between domestic, regional, and international circumstances, for much of the contingency stressed in his account is rooted in the global context of the time. He maintains that historians' simplified internationalist interpretation of the conflict--a Cold War conception that aligns the United States and China with Pakistan and the Soviet Union with India--fails to elucidate the complicated context of the period and its multifarious impact on the events of South Asia.

Raghavan delineates three global contexts of the late 1960s and early 1970s that largely shaped the origin, course, and outcome of the Bangladesh crisis: decolonization, the Cold War, and incipient globalization. The wave of decolonization in developing countries reinforced the principle of sovereignty and self-determination in the international system and catalyzed revolts not only against European colonizers but against factions that seized or inherited post-colonial states (265). Hence, Bangladesh revolted against the military rule--the shadow colonial persecution--of West Pakistan. Moreover, the Bangladesh crisis blurred the usual Cold War alignments. For example, both the Soviet Union and the United States were initially averse to the breakup of Pakistan. While the Soviet leadership viewed the crisis as regional, the United States had broader concerns, hesitating to imperil its detente with China. Apprehensive that China might side with the Soviet bloc in defense of Pakistan, the U.S. preempted the danger by siding with Pakistan itself. Equally surprising, the Western alliance split, with Britain, France, West Germany, and Japan opposing the U.S. and inclining to the Soviet's pro-Bangladeshi stance later in the crisis. Finally, globalization, with its unprecedented improvements in transportation and communications, the rise of multinational corporations, and rapid growth of transnational nongovernmental humanitarian organizations, placed the crisis of a broader footing of interest and attention. It helped disseminate news of genocide in East Pakistan and mobilize international opinion in favor of the Bangladesh cause.

Furthermore, Raghavan adroitly depicts how the Bengali nationalist movement was stimulated by global student movements. However, he misperceives underlying cultural dynamics that initially generated mass sympathy for the Bangladeshi plight and mobilized young people. While proposing the language movement of Bengal in the early 1950s as a catalyst of the Bangladeshi nationalist struggle, he fails to detect (unlike Eric Selbin) the power of cultural factors such as storytelling and the use of revolutionary symbolism. In fact, the language movement emerged as the symbolic response to all the maliciously motivated cultural, political, and economic persecution of West Pakistan by the East for more than two decades. The year 1971 saw the upshot of the language movement: the explosion of accumulated grudges against West Pakistan's fascistic treatment.

While asserting India's decisive role at a time of global uncertainty about Bangladesh's birth, the book astonishingly overlooks the Bangladeshis' global outreach. It limits the international engagement of the Bangladeshis to the activities of Tajuddin Ahmed (1925-75) and Amirul Islam (b. 1936), two Awami League leaders who crossed into India and urged Indian intervention in the crisis. Raghavan fully credits India for the rest of its activities on Bangladesh's behalf, even if he completely ignores the abandonment of their overseas missions by Pakistan's Bengali diplomats and the relentless diplomatic, political, and humanitarian efforts of individuals such as Rehman Sobhan (b. 1935), A.R. Mallick (1918-97), and Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury (Efaft (1921-87), among other individuals and organizations on both sides of the Cold War fence.

Raghavan rightly disparages India's reluctant to intervene earlier. He asserts that earlier intervention would have mitigated the brutalities visited upon Bengalis and diminished the flow of refugees. He therefore considers 1971 not only India's greatest military triumph but also a grievous strategic error (272). Further, he convincingly argues that the Bangladesh crisis challenged many dominant features of contemporary international relations such as the tension between the principle of sovereignty and human rights, competing considerations between norms and interests, and the blurring state of the East/West, North/South fault lines of world politics.

Raghavan draws on many hitherto untapped archival documents across four continents and boldly questions the predominant wisdom about the 1971 Bangladesh crisis. Undoubtedly the book is a significant contribution to understanding the complexity of South Asian historiography. Narrating the breathtaking negotiations of world leaders like Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon, Alexei Kosygin, Bhutto, Yahya Khan (1917-80), Indira Gandhi (1917-84), and others, Raghavan helps us feel the volatile nature of the situation in which Bangladesh was born.


Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Science & Technology University
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Author:Rahman, Mizanur
Publication:Southeast Review of Asian Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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