Two storms and a nation’s birth
The Vortex: A True Story of History's Deadliest Storm, an Unspeakable War, and Liberation (Harper and Collins, 2022), co-authored by American scholars and freelance journalists Scott Carney and Jason Miklian, is a story of two storms: a massive cyclone that struck the southern coastal belt of then East Pakistan in November 1970, killing close to half a million inhabitants and causing massive destruction, and a far more consequential storm that followed four months later, changing the political landscape of South Asia forever. The narrative explicitly underscores how the first cyclone impacted the second. The book is a product of painstaking and meticulous research by the authors. It is a collage of selfless acts of dedicated and patriotic individuals in responding to the Bhola cyclone and to the events surrounding the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971.
The book reaffirms the fact how a perpetually inebriated Pakistani general and a wily politician from Sindh conspired to deepen the fault lines that existed at Pakistan's very birth and eventually lead the country to its inevitable disintegration. The end result was the painful birth of Bangladesh, a nation that prides itself in its distinct national identity.
The authors talk in detail about the untiring efforts of individuals like Candy Rohde, her husband Jon, Marty Chen and Runi Khan, among others, in launching the Hatiya Emergency Lifesaving Emergency project, or HELP, and then frantically gathering food, money and clothing, and whatever else, for the survivors of the deadly cyclone in Bhola, and of the extent of death and destruction in Manpura and Hatiya. The criminal callousness of the Pakistani leadership in responding to the catastrophe is first exposed in the book when the group is denied the service of the lone military helicopter in Dhaka to deliver basic relief materials to the victims because "it was for use of Very, Very Important Persons." The life of the ordinary Bangalee meant nothing to them.
The book expands how the depth of anger of the Bangalees at all this found its most graphic manifestation in the general elections that followed, where the Awami League, under its charismatic leader Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, won a thumping majority, securing 162 seats in the 300-member Pakistan Parliament, earning the legitimate right to govern the country. The authors quote Mohammad Hai, a cyclone survivor and subsequently a freedom fighter, who says with his fury and thunder at Pakistan's dismissive response to the deaths and destruction from the cyclone, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman rose from being a mass agitator to a great leader. His historic speech of March 7, 1971 was further affirmation of that.
Carney and Miklian charts how geopolitics, with all its unethical contents, played a major part in the Nixon-Kissinger game plan. For them, the silk road to Beijing ran through Islamabad, and beefing up Pakistan's military was part of that chilling plan.
The Vortex details how Candy Rohde did not confine her work to providing relief for the cyclone victims of 1970, but went far beyond for the cause of Bangladesh in 1971. It was she who, through her tireless efforts and perseverance, brought to the attention of the leadership and policymakers in Washington of the brutality unleashed by the Pakistani military all over Bangladesh since the launch of the deadly Operation Searchlight on March 25, 1971. Candy succeeded in getting a bipartisan bill passed in the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee in June 1971 prohibiting arms supply to Pakistan. Sadly, the bill could not be passed into law despite all the furore raised by Senator Kennedy and others because of the complex nature of legislation in the US Congress.
Carney and Miklian charts how geopolitics, with all its unethical contents, played a major part in the Nixon-Kissinger game plan. For them, the silk road to Beijing ran through Islamabad, and beefing up Pakistan's military was part of that chilling plan. From pages 272 to 280, the authors catalogue the details of Henry Kissinger's secret trip to Beijing in July 1971, with direct involvement of Yahya Khan, and how the general, who might not have cared much for the dead in southern Bangladesh from the cyclone, but later found it a useful tool to earn enough sympathy from China's leadership to agree to Kissinger's secret visit, a mission that eventually paved the way for normalisation of relations between Washington and Beijing. Thus in 1971, like the Roman Emperor Nero centuries before them, Yahya, Nixon and Kissinger fiddled while Bangladesh burnt.
The Vortex is about history in its content, but stylistically different in its form. It is this that makes the book a gripping read. It is a must-read for students of history and for the post-1971 generation of Bangladeshis, not least because of the vivid portrayal of the acts of dedicated individuals who, against all odds, stood by the people of Bangladesh, both on and off the battlefront. In the Afterword, though, the authors underline that their efforts were aimed at citing a historical event to highlight the dangerous effect climate change can cause to fragile societies and flawed political systems. The Bhola cyclone of 1970 had a far-reaching domino effect that ended with the bloody birth of a nation. Carney and Miklian believe that more such climate-driven catastrophes in other parts of the planet has the potential to create a surge in climate refugees who would not want to recognise international frontiers. Perhaps it is already happening.
Shamsher M Chowdhury, Bir Bikram, is a former foreign secretary of Bangladesh.