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Monday, June 5, 2023

United for humanity: The 1971 Concert for Bangladesh

The famous Bharatiya Sitar player Pandit Ravi Shankar, in 1971, asked his long-time friend George Harrison, the former guitarist for the famous band Beatles, if he’d like to lend a hand for the benefit of the refugees from East Pakistan. Around 10 million Bengali refugees, mainly Hindus, had fled the Pakistani Army’s genocidal campaign launched on March 26, 1971 to cleanse East Pakistan of ‘Hindu influence’, and sought refuge in Bharat.

Together, they planned out and performed the historical and legendary Concert for Bangladesh, which was performed on 1 August 1971 at Madison Square Garden in New York, becoming the first-ever benefit of such scale attended by over 40,000 people and raising around $250,000, which was administered by UNICEF. 

The concert featured George Harrison along with many other performers like Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Leon Russell, and the band Badfinger who performed their famous hits. In addition, Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan – both having ancestral roots in Bangladesh – performed an opening set of Bharatiya classical music. This concert became an inspiration for many such projects, for raising awareness about humanitarian crises around the globe. 

Image Source: Wikipedia

This concert showed that celebrities could tap into their fan base to make Western audiences more attentive to geographically distant issues. After the concert, the performances were made into a live album, and a concert documentary under Apple films, which raised an additional $12 million that was sent to Bangladesh by 1985.

According to Pandit Ravi Shankar, “In one day, the whole world knew the name of Bangladesh. It was a fantastic occasion.”

The Bangladesh Liberation Movement

East Pakistan had been discriminated against by West Pakistan ever since Pakistan was formed in 1947. Despite persecuting their Hindu minority through regular pogroms and driving millions into Bharat, the Bengali Muslims of East Pakistan were regarded as inferior by the ‘pure-blooded’ Punjabi & Pashtun Muslims of West Pakistan and their Urdu-speaking Bihari collaborators.

Hence, even though the Bengalis of East Pakistan outnumbered the Pakistanis in the west, political and economic power was centered in West Pakistan. East Pakistan was already reeling from the devastating Bhola cyclone of 1970, when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League, a party centered in East Pakistan, won Pakistan’s first democratic election later that year.

The stunned West Pakistani leadership under General Yahya Khan refused to transfer power and launched Operation Searchlight on 26 March 1971 to wipe out the East Pakistani leadership and intelligentsia, and in particular eliminate the Bengalis Hindus who were believed to be keeping Bengalis from becoming ‘true Muslims’. Sk. Rahman declared Bangladesh as an independent nation on the same day.

General Tikka Khan, the architect of Operation Searchlight earned the sobriquet ‘Butcher of Bengal’. He launched a genocidal campaign as part of a ‘final solution’ to the Bengal problem, and ordered his mean to use rape as a tool of war.

Around 3 million Bengalis were killed in that genocide, 2.4 million of them Hindus. Around 2-4 lakh women, against mostly Hindu, were raped and many were kept as sex slaves in Pakistani Army cantonments. Some Muslim women were raped because they wore saris and bindi and were abused as ‘Hindu spies’.

As this study paper says,

This episode of mass rapes was part of a campaign to populate Bangladesh with a new race of ‘Pure Muslims’ and to dilute, weaken and destroy Bengali nationalism. The violation of women’s bodies and wombs was justified by the Pakistani Army by the notion of maal-e-ghanimat (booty of war). During the war, military, political and religious leaders openly supported the rape of Bengali women by declaring that Bengali freedom fighters were ‘Hindus’, hence their women could be preyed upon and taken as a booty of war.

Around 10 million refugees poured into Bharat to escape the brutality of the Pakistani Army and their Razakar militias. The fleeing refugees who had survived the violence in their homeland were now threatened by starvation, lack of sanitation, cholera, and other deadly illnesses.

Bharat’s government estimated the cost of caring for the refugees at $1 million a day. Foreign aid provided only a fraction of that. It was in this context that Pandit Ravi Shankar first pitched the idea of a fundraiser concert to George Harrison when they were working together on the soundtrack of the film ‘Raga’. George Harrison and their fellow musicians decided to rally worldwide support for relief efforts in Bangladesh.

With the initial idea being of a small event, Goerge Harrison’s connections in the Western music industry made it a star-studded event that raised ten times of the $25,000 Shankar had wished to raise. 

Image Source: Wikipedia

George Harrison wrote an original song- ‘Bangla Desh’ with co-producer Phil Spector. The song’s opening verse documents Shankar’s plea to Harrison for assistance. The lyrics contain emotional statements like

My friend came to me with sadness in his eyes / Told me that he wanted help before his country dies

Pandit Ravi Shankar also produced a benefit record, an EP, titled ‘Joi Bangla’ which featured works from famous sarod player Ali Akbar Khan and tabla player Alla Rakha. This record was produced by Harrison. A George Harrison–Ravi Shankar Special Emergency Relief Fund was established under UNICEF, which would distribute all the profits from the recordings and the concert. 

Reception by the Public

The afternoon show began with Shankar explaining the reason for the concert, followed by a performance of ‘Bangla Dhun’ by the Bharatiya artists; the audience remained respectful of the rendition and their goodwill was evident. During the intermission, a Dutch TV film was shown displaying footage of the atrocities and natural tragedies taking place in former East Pakistan. The performance by the Western artists undoubtedly received a more energetic response from the public and ended in thunderous applause.

According to Phil Spector, “It was magical. That’s the only way to describe it, because nobody had ever seen anything like that before, that amount of star power … all in two hours onstage at one time.” The evening show received a greater turnout.

This concert diverted global attention to the plight of Bangladesh. UNICEF witnessed a sharp increase in the numbers of volunteers and offers of assistance. The Concert for Bangladesh is most often seen as an inspiration for many such fundraiser events by popular artists. A similar concert titled “Goodbye to summer- a rock concert in aid of famine relief of Bangladesh” happened in the United Kingdom on 18 September.

This joint effort of popular artists from the East and the West resulted in some relief for the millions who suffered from this genocide.

However, the United Nations and the governments of the most powerful nations in the world like USA and UK failed miserably in their duty. Pakistan was and still is an ally of these Anglo powers. Not once did US President Richard Nixon or UK PM Edward Heath castigate Pakistan to stop its genocidal actions. Nixon ignored the pleas of the US Consul General in Dhaka, Archer Blood, to intervene, and instead he and his national security advisor Henry Kissinger passed crass racist remarks against Bhartiyas while the crisis was ongoing.

Today, 50 years after Bangladesh was formed, Hindus are still being persecuted in Bangladesh as part of a gradual genocide, and experts estimate that the minority Hindu population of Bangladesh will completely disappear by 2050. Will the world act this time around?

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