Christopher Hitchens is not a household name in India. The limited familiarity with it is likely to be coloured by his intemperate condemnation of Mother Teresa as “a fanatic, a fundamentalist and a fraud”. MT was a bit of a fanatic and a bit of a fundamentalist, but she was no fraud. And there can be no justification for Hitchens' statement that many people were poor and sick because of the life of MT.
But then, strong and confrontational opinions were the stuff that made Christopher Hitchens the great public intellectual that he became. He was at war with a series of enemies, ranging from George Bush to God. Actually, his views on religion were commonsensical. The real axis of evil, he said, was Christianity, Judaism and Islam. That did not mean that he approved of other faiths like Hinduism. He believed that organised religion was “the main source of hatred in the world”, a view that would be echoed by many who are dismayed by the violence that religion inspires.
The distinguishing feature of the Hitchens persona, next to his intellectual vigour, was his courage. He denounced the then all-powerful Ayatullah culture of Iran for the death sentence on Salman Rushdie. He condemned Zionism as “ an injustice against the Palestinians”. Naturally he made many enemies. But when he fell victim to cancer last week, even enemies rose to salute his wit, his punditic sensibilities and the integrity of his erudition.
His polemical prose was particularly devastating in his book The Trial of Henry Kissinger. It was less than 150 pages, but it marshalled facts, figures and arguments that lent powerful support to his theory that the international face of the criminally inclined Nixon Presidency was himself a war criminal.
Pointing out that Kissinger's overall record was “morally repulsive”, Hitchens confines his case to those offences that constitute a basis for legal prosecution for war crimes. These include “the deliberate mass killing of civilian populations in Indochina, deliberate collusion in mass murder, and later in assassination, in Bangladesh, the personal suborning and planning of murder, of a senior constitutional officer in a democratic nation – Chile – with which the US was not at war, and the personal involvement in a plan to murder the head of state in the democratic nation of Cyprus”. What a record!
Cambodia was bombed in secrecy. Kissinger lied to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when he said that areas in Cambodia selected for bombing were “unpopulated”. Actually “350,000 civilians in Laos and 600,000 in Cambodia lost their lives. In addition, the widespread use of toxic chemical defoliants created a massive health crisis which persists to this day” with children still being born with disabilities.
In Bangladesh, 20 members of the US diplomatic team, joined later by nine senior officers of the South Asia division at the State Department in Washington, strongly protested in writing against American complicity in the Pakistani genocide of Bangladeshis. Kissinger's response was to transfer them to other posts, and to send a message to Yahya Khan thanking him for his “delicacy and tact”. Hitchens argues that Kissinger was gratifying Nixon's dislike of Indira Gandhi which originated with his loathing for Jawaharlal Nehru. He also describes how, within weeks of an eight-hour Kissinger visit to Bangladesh in 1974, “a faction at the US Embassy in Dacca began covertly meeting with a group of Bangladeshi officers”. In a few months Mujibur Rahman and 40 members of his family were murdered.
The murder of Chile's democratically elected President Salvador Allende followed a similar trajectory. A famous Kissinger statement summed it all up. A country should not be allowed to go Marxist, he said, merely because “its people are irresponsible”. The Nixon-Kissinger syndication was the most lethal in contemporary power politics, its path strewn with massacres and assassinations. The ultimate injustice is that Kissinger, the Mephistopheles of his generation, is beyond the reach of a war crimes tribunal.