‘Repulsive’ and ‘primitive’


Diplomatic weight: At the time Nixon made his ‘repulsive’ statements, he was in discussions with India’s prime minister Indira Gandhi over the possibility of imminent war with Pakistan.

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, 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.”

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 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.”

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 colours 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.

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