Colombo Telegraph

Beatles, Bangladesh And The Sitar Maestro Ravi Shankar

By R Hariharan

Col. (retd) R.Hariharan

Even as the nation mourned Sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar’s death, and the Indian army observed  ‘Vijay Divas’ on December 16 – the day of victory in Bangladesh, many may not be aware of the maestro’s contribution the cause of Bangladesh freedom struggle in 1971.

Although the Awami League led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman won 167-seat majority in the 313-member house in 1970 Pakistan elections, President General Yahya Khan was reluctant to allow him to become the Prime Minister for his views on autonomy for the eastern wing. When the political deadlock continued, Mujib decided to take the issue to the people.

On March 7, 1971 Mujib at a public meeting in Dacca called for an independence struggle. His memorable words “The struggle now is the struggle for our emancipation; the struggle now is the struggle for our independence. Joy Bangla!..” triggered a massive disobedience movement in the East.

Yahya Khan declared Martial Law, banned the Awami League and arrested hundreds of protest. On the night of March 25, 1971 Mujib was arrested and air lifted to West Pakistan. Awami League’s key leaders fled to exile in India. The army started disarming Bengali troops and paramilitary forces stationed. However, Major Ziaur Rahman belonging to East Bengal Regiment in Chittagong took over the battalion and declared independence of Bangladesh on behalf of Mujib. Other East Bengal regiments and paramilitary forces also rebelled and the troops fled to India to swell the ranks of the Mukti Bahini (Liberation Force) being formed by the Awami League leaders in exile.

I remember, on a pleasant March morning debriefing Zia’s Punjabi commanding officer who had crossed the border at Agartala to seek our protection! Even under such adverse circumstances, he had only contempt for ‘low grade’ Bengali troops. This reflected the superior attitude of the Punjabi-dominated army elite generally had towards Bengali which failed to gauge the real power of Bengali nationalism that led to the creation of Bangladesh.

It was the darkest chapter in Pakistan army’s history when under General Tikka Khan’s leadership army committed terrible atrocities. Hussain Haqqani in his book ‘Pakistan between the mosque and the army’ has described the scene in the words of General Niazi (who succeeded Tikka Khan):  “On the night between 25/26 March 1971 General Tikka struck. Peaceful night was turned into a time of wailing, crying and burning. General Tikka let loose everything at his disposal as if raiding an enemy, not dealing with his own misguided and misled people. The military action was a display of stark cruelty more merciless than the massacres at Bukhara and Baghdad by Chengiz Khan and Halaku Khan… His orders to his troops were: ‘I want the land and not the people…”

The army was assisted by Razakars, a right wing Islamist militia formed targeting Bengali professionals and Hindus in particular. Millions of people mostly Hindus and the Awami League followers fled the country to seek refuge in Indian border states. When their number swelled to ten million it became a huge burden on India.  However, the U.S. conditioned by Cold War perceptions supported the Pak military crackdown. Western powers and media also took little notice of refugees’ plight. Indian Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi’s plea for help was in vain.

Pandit Ravi Shankar, a friend of George Harrison of Beatles fame since 1966, was moved by the suffering of millions of refugees. At his request George Harrison organised a charity Concert for Bangladesh in August 1971 in which Ravi Shankar also participated. The concert album became one of the best sellers, and figured in the top-10 in the U.K and three other European countries.  And it won Ravi Shankar his second Grammy Award.

George Harrison’s lyric opens with a reference to Ravi Shankar’s request to him for support:

My friend came to me with sadness in his eyes

Told me that he wanted help before his country dies

Although I couldn’t feel the pain, I knew I had to try

Now I’m asking all of you to help us save some lives.

The lyrics further made ‘Bangla Desh’ a household one in the West. It went like this:

Bangla Desh, Bangla Desh

Where so many people are dying fast

And it sure looks like a mess

I’ve never seen such distress

Now won’t you lend your had, try to understand

Relieve the people of Bangla Desh

Its closing part brought the humanitarian plight nearer home to the Western audience:

Bangla Desh, Bangla Desh

Now, it may seem so far from where we all are

It’s something we can’t reject

That suffering, I can’t neglect

Now won’t you give some bread to get the starving fed

We’ve got to relieve Bangla Desh

Relieve the people of Bangla Desh.

To many of us who fought in Bangladesh appalled by the Western indifference, George Harrison’s Bangladesh was refreshing.  Did the song have any political impact? I got my answer on the Christmas night in 1971 when I shared eggnog with the U.S. consul who lived next door in Dhanmondi in Dacca. He spoke how he was personally moved by George Harrison’s lyrics. He also added  the U.S embassy in Dacca had repeatedly requested for U.S. action against the genocide.

*Colonel R. Hariharan a retired Military Intelligence officer, had taken part in the Indo-Pakistan War 1971 that created Bangladesh. E-mail colhari@yahoo.com

Back to Home page