An Internal Matter: The US, Grassroots Activism, and the Creation of Bangladesh

23 February 2022
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Book Review 

Samuel Jaffe, An Internal Matter: The US, Grassroots Activism, and the Creation of Bangladesh. Dhaka: University Press Limited, 2021

From historical and geopolitical standpoints, the United States government's position during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971 is well-documented. Behind the move to use Pakistan as a diplomatic conduit to China and contain the influence of communism, the Nixon administration, led by Henry Kissinger, actively supported the West Pakistan military regime, with hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of military and economic aid, while brushing aside the atrocities occurring in what was then East Pakistan (Bangladesh) as merely an ‘internal matter.’ What is less well known, however, is despite the Nixon administration's pro-Pakistan stance, ordinary Americans and later Congress were outraged by the US support for the Yahya Khan regime and the widespread injustice perpetrated by the military. 

Many Americans raised their voices and campaigned alongside the disaffected Bengali (East Pakistani) diaspora in the US to raise awareness about the ongoing bloodshed in Bangladesh, which some of them witnessed first-hand while living in Dhaka. They raised funds to help the people of Bangladesh and actively lobbied Congress (both House and Senate) to end US economic and military aid to West Pakistan. 

On the night of ‘Operation Searchlight’ (25-26 March 1971) in Dhaka, an American doctor (who later provided shelter to Professor Rehman Sobhan and 26 others during the military crackdown) and activist, John Rhodes, recalled in an interview, "We can hear planes take off for bombing sorties, and shrink with shame and anger, knowing our country is the major supplier of arms for the Pakistan Army." Like him, many other Dhaka-based Americans felt compelled to share the horrors they witnessed being committed in Bangladesh following their evacuation from the US Embassy, which would prove crucial in the later stages of the grassroots campaign in Bangladesh as they rushed to reveal the truth to the American public and Congress.

An Internal Matter: The US, Grassroots Activism, and the Creation of Bangladesh by Samuel Jaffe recounts the pro-Bangladesh campaign in the United States, from Operation Searchlight to the country's recognition of an independent Bangladesh on 4 April 1972, through the eyes of the formers activists themselves. The book is one of the first to provide a comprehensive description of pro-Bangladesh grassroots activism in the United States during 1971. Seven chapters explore how Americans and the Bengali diaspora reacted to the crisis in East Pakistan, how they worked and campaigned side-by-side for Bangladesh and how successful they were in influencing the perceptions of the American public, media and foreign policy, and raising funds for relief.

The author expertly weaves the recollections of around 70 former pro-Bangladesh activists, with historical anecdotes, into a compelling chronological narrative, with the developments of the Liberation War as the backdrop. The chapter exploring the reactions of the Americans being evacuated from Dhaka during and after ‘Operation Searchlight’ was especially poignant in capturing the feeling of hopelessness, fear, anger and uncertainty associated with the tragedy. 

There were many interesting facets of the pro-Bangladesh campaign in the United States which are little known that the book extensively narrates; for instance, the lobbying of both the Senate and House members by campaigners to pass an amendment to end economic and military aid to Pakistan, or the naval canoe blockade of Pakistani ships (Al Ahmadi and Padma) on their way to collect weapons from the United States carried out by radical pacifists to raise awareness about the genocide in Bangladesh. 

Similarly, many are unaware of how challenging it was for aid and food relief to reach the Bangladeshis trapped in the conflict, despite the presence of the United Nations East Pakistan Relief Operation (UNEPRO), which relied on the Pakistani military to distribute aid but were often engaged in discrimination and misappropriation, something which the grassroots activists ardently tried to raise awareness about in the United States. Moreover, it was also quite insightful to see how the grassroots activists dealt with the many obstacles to their campaign, like disinformation, spread by the Pakistani embassy, the indifference of the US State Department to the realities in East Pakistan and the initial lack of proper awareness about the conflict among the American public and policymakers, with few exceptions.  

Finally, it was also fascinating to learn how the ad hoc and informal structure of the pro-Bangladesh campaign, comprising of students, defecting diplomats, grassroots activists, academics and professionals, were all able to come together in different ways to support the overarching goal of Bangladesh's independence, despite the differences in objectives of the supporting groups like the Bangladesh League of America (BLA), Bangladesh Defense League (BDL), Bangladesh Information Centre (BIC), Friends of East Bengal (FEB), the Movement for a New Society, etc. In fact, in the book, referring to his American supporters, the first Ambassador to the US and Mexico of the Bangladesh Government in exile, Mustafizur Rahman Siddiqi said, "[they] did more for Bangladesh than even we have been able to".

However, despite the rich trove of information, the book can feel pedantic and drawn-out at times due to its scholarly nature, which may cause casual readers to stay clear. The book covers an important yet niche aspect of the history of Bangladesh's independence, which may not appeal to readers who are not interested in history. Nonetheless, if anyone is interested in Bangladeshi history and how the struggle for the independence of Bangladesh evolved overseas - in the most powerful country in the world - through shifting perspectives, this 300-page book is worth the read. It is a story about those who raised their voices against the injustice happening towards the Bangladeshi people in 1971, despite the stance of the Nixon administration.

Shadman Saquib Rahman: University of Dhaka, Bangladesh