Book review: Bangladesh War: Report from Ground Zero

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Author: Manash Ghosh, 2021, Niyogi Books, New Delhi
Hardcover, 209pp, $20,  ₹552.00  ISBN: 978-93-91125-37-0

By Arnold Zeitlin

Journalist Manash Ghosh’s version of the Bangladesh war of liberation is as much about his intrepid reporting as a young, cub newsman as it is about the war itself. However, his depiction of the events leading to the independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan has value as a picture of what the conflict looked like just across the border in West Bengal as well as a description of the initial confusion among Indian authorities about what precisely to do about it.

Indian Prime Minister Indra Gandhi, once she and her advisors had figured out who was who in the so-called Bangladesh government in exile, was ready to send in troops after the Pakistan bloody crackdown in March 1971 of the Awami League leadership. Her chief of army staff, Sam Manekshaw, calmed her down by suggesting they wait until after the monsoon, when muddy tracks would not mire Indian tanks. This was even before the great exodus of refugees from East Pakistan that served as an additional justification for the Indian intervention.

As Ghosh’s tale demonstrates, Indian kept the various East Pakistan Bahinis harassing Pakistan forces during the spring and summer of 1971. As soon as the weather turned in November 1971, Indian troops and tanks were on their way to trap 93,000 Pakistan troops and associated civilians and help secure Bangladesh independence.

Ghosh is at his best when he is at what he calls ground zero describing his actual witnessing fighting across the Indian border in what was still East Pakistan.

Five days after the Pakistan army’s crackdown in Dhaka and elsewhere, Ghosh and a photographer covered fighting around Jessore. Bengali soldiers had mutinied against Pakistan forces in the Jessore cantonment. He came across in a Jessore suburb civilian bodies evidently killed by retreating Pakistani soldiers and stacked “in a massive pile, resembling a pyramid,” he writes. “The bodies were mostly of women and children…Many bodies were still oozing blood.” He reports the scene was so ghastly, his photographer refused to take pictures, although he later writes in a contradiction that photos of the massacre accompanied his page one article in his Calcutta newspaper, The Statesman.

The reader gets a description of his crossing a raging Padma river under a hail storm in April 1971, and later in August, coming under Pakistan fire on the same river while accompanying a band of trained Bengali swimmers who tried to attack a police academy on the river’s bank. He notes the Pakistani fire, which helped abort the mission, was silenced by grenades from Indian Border Security Force soldiers serving as a backup to the mission. In most cases, his reporting brought him plaudits, which he enthusiastically lists.

For all his war reporting, he missed the big story, the surrender on 16 December 1971 in Dhaka of Pakistan Lt. General A.A.K. Niazi to Indian Lt. General Jagjit Singh Aurora. Ghosh was imbedded in an Indian unit in Khulna, where a Pakistani brigadier surrendered, then joined his Indian conquerors in a lunch of mutton biryani and chicken chaap. His Khulna coverage Ghosh proudly notes brought him a congratulatory note from Martin Woollacott, foreign editor for the British newspaper, The Guardian.

Ghosh spends more space in his book away from ground zero and entwined in the politics of the conflict. Readers get a description of an attempt, apparently initiated by U.S. President Richard Nixon’s national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, to broker a peace deal with Pakistan with a faction of the Bangladesh exile government headed by Khondakar Mushtaq Ahmed, then the provisional foreign minister. Involved was an American diplomat named George Griffin, whom Ghosh incorrectly identifies as the U.S. consul general in Calcutta. Although some suspected Griffin was with the CIA, he was listed at least two levels down from the top at the consulate.

Ghosh also reports an interview in late March 1971 by the American Associated Press in which General Yahya Khan, Pakistan’s ruler, said he accepted the six-point program of Bengali leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. I was AP correspondent in Pakistan at that time. It was unlikely such an interview took place. The only time I had an opportunity to question Yahya was in November 1971. Obviously tipsy, he laughed, shouted “I know you; I know you”, and walked away.

Ghosh’s sourcing seems questionable. His sources for his break through story about the approaching conflict were three minor Bengali officials he met at a motor rally on the Indian-East Pakistan border. He said he confirmed his story with a Bengali swimming champion, Brojen Das. Without a source, he claims Sheik Mujib, as part of a “master plan” well before the 1970 election in which his Awami League swept the polls, sent a Hindu confident, Chittaranjan Sutar, to Calcutta “to liaise with the government of Indira Gandhi on his behalf”, which if true seems to be contradicted by the initial Indian government confusion over what to do in East Pakistan.

The same seems to be the case with another odd claim, that U.S. marines surveilled Tajuddin Ahmed, the provisional Bangladesh prime minister from a five-star hotel across from Tajuddin’s office in Calcutta with the aim of kidnapping him.

Ghosh is better when he sticks to war reporting.