HISTORY is revealed quite slowly in the US. This is particularly true of its presidential history. Long, painstakingly compiled records of telephone calls, conversations, memos, and everything else imaginable from each and every president are kept. As the years pass, and if court requests are filed, these materials, which are usually kept in presidential libraries, are unclassified and released to whoever requests them. More often than not, the information is only the sort that would interest historians: details of a conversation, menus of state dinners for visiting leaders, and so on.
Last week, statements of a more controversial sort came to light. Historian Gary J. Bass, the author of The Blood Telegram, which deals with the creation of Bangladesh and the mass atrocities that accompanied the event, revealed some surprising information. In 2012, Bass had requested details of conversations and other materials from Richard Nixon’s presidency. It took until May 2018, and all the way until this past May, for the material (with many parts redacted) to fall into Bass’s hands.
The surprise is not so much a matter of diplomatic controversy as it is an illustration of endemic racism. In one conversation that took place in the Oval Office in June 1971, President Nixon says, “Undoubtedly the most unattractive women in the world are Indian women.” Continuing, he adds, “The most sexless nothing, these people. I mean, people say, what about the Black Africans? Well, you can see something, the vitality there, I mean they have a little animal like a charm, but God, those Indians, ack, pathetic. Uch.”
Nor is that all of it. In a tape from Nov 4, 1971, during a break from a tense meeting with Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, president Nixon rants at his national security adviser Henry Kissinger once again about the unattractiveness of Indian women. In fact, Nixon confessed, “They turn me off, they are repulsive and it’s easy to be tough on them.”
The surprise is not so much a matter of diplomatic controversy as it is an illustration of endemic racism.
On Nov 12, he again rants at Kissinger, “I don’t know how they reproduce!” Nixon’s statements held diplomatic weight. At the time, he was in discussions with prime minister Gandhi over the possibility of imminent war with Pakistan. Earlier in June, blaming the Indians for the flow of refugees caused by the conflict, he described them as “a scavenging people”.
Pakistanis, programmed as we are to celebrate any criticisms of Indians, particularly those that resonate with already familiar racist critiques, should hold themselves back. This is a good time to remind themselves that, for racist white people like Nixon, no actual difference exists between the origins of Indians and Pakistanis. They may apply different sorts of racist stereotypes to each, but the fact of their racism remains. No fanciful theories identifying Pakistanis or Indians as ‘Aryans’ can change their minds.
The real problem is the mindset that certain races or skin colors have certain characteristics. We all know where that argument ends up: white people are forever judged superior and attractive and intelligent, while all others are inferior versions of white-skinned greatness. Nixon’s words reveal this, but so do those of his interlocutor, the much-celebrated statesman Henry Kissinger.
“They [Indians] are superb flatterers, Mr. President,” Kissinger tells his boss, “They are masters at flattery. They are masters at subtle flattery. That’s how they survived for 600 years. They suck up — their great skill is to suck up to people in key positions.” Kissinger was not about to spare Pakistanis. In the same conversation, he says, “I tell you, the Pakistanis are fine people, but they are primitive in their mental structure. They just don’t have the subtlety of Indians.”
The entire regurgitated mess of these racist comments should (but likely will not) teach Pakistanis and Indians a lesson. When a large number of white people continue to be raised up as mediators to settle the squabbles of the ‘primitive brained’ and ‘repulsive’, then all their racist beliefs about white supremacy are affirmed. So many in the Western world do not walk away with the belief that one or another band of brown people are better, more deserving of their support and most crucially their equals. They walk away with an unearned sense of superiority in an affirmation of their own repulsive and racist beliefs.
It is not, of course, the fault of brown people that Nixon and Kissinger are racist. That two well-educated men could think in this way and share their views with each other without any hesitation at all reveals that white supremacist beliefs and racism have not only riven America internally but also seeped deep into its foreign policy. It is also a cautionary tale of how childish similar attacks are, even when lobbed by Indians against Pakistanis and vice versa. The means to defeat this sort of racism against brown people is not to abuse each other in the same way but, rather, to realize that the world has several white racist regimes and only unity against them can dismantle these vestiges of colonial pasts.
There has not been any kind of official response from India or Pakistan to the revelations in the newly released material. What wars and the anguish of their people have prevented, instances of white racism even of this flagrant sort are unlikely to accomplish. However, since hope reigns supreme, this could be a moment in which both countries — one maligned for being obsequious, the other for having primitive brains — can come together and issue a single statement. How powerful it would be if the foreign offices of India and Pakistan were to issue a historic joint statement denouncing the venomous racism and misogyny of the remarks of an American president and his right-hand man.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, September 9th, 2020