Unremembered backstory on a monumental disaster.
For Dylan fans it was one of his rare public appearances between the Woodstock motorcycle incident and the Rolling Thunder Revue. The Concert for Bangladesh, initiated by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, served two important functions. First, it drew attention to a major catastrophe in a remote region that few Americans were even aware of, overnight turning Bangladesh into a household name. And second, by being the first concert of its kind to bring a host of famous rock musicians together for a charitable cause. The achievements and mis-steps would help future such efforts by famous musicians to bring aid to needy causes.
My aim in this blog post is to shed a little light on what was really happening in Bangladesh in the previous ten months before the concert. If you are like me, you only seem to remember the tragic cyclone, a natural disaster of epic proportions.
There were two trigger events that led to the concert, the first a natural disaster and the second a monumental man-made disaster. I’ve just finished reading Paul Thomas Chamberlin’s The Cold War’s Killing Fields, subtitled Rethinking the Long Peace. I can’t recall when I’ve been so moved by a single book. While reading it I have mentioned to several friends that “this is the saddest book I’ve read in my life.” The underreported human suffering that has been perpetrated in the course of our lifetimes since World War II is nothing short of shocking when you lay it all out in one book. What Chamberlin does, probably unique, is to show how a single thread actually connects all these disparate atrocities, that thread being the cold war and corresponding fears of the major superpowers.
So much of what has happened these past 70 years was delivered through the media piecemeal so that Americans not only were left in the dark much of the time, the general impression has been that Americans have always been the good guys, the white horse heroes. The tragedy of Bangladesh was two-fold. The first was a destructive cyclone of historic proportions that devastated the country and left as many as 500,000 dead in its wake. Because East Pakistan was located 1000 miles from Pakistan there was a move for liberation which led to a military incursion by the Pakistan army that resulted in the deaths of a quarter million civilians and seven million refugees fleeing to India. This latter had been building for years and did not occur overnight, but the timing of its escalation couldn’t have been worse.
The Chamberlin book outlines how WW2 changed the face of the world’s power game. We tend to forget that before the World Wars European powers were colonialists whom for hundreds of years had their fingers in every corner of the known world. Suddenly this all changed. The aftermath of WW2 resulted in a variety of complicated conflicts as groups within various regions struggled for freedom and autonomy. Looking back, we’ve forgotten the relationship between the collapse of Colonialism and the various mini-wars in all corners of the world.
The subsequent power struggles occurred against a new backdrop, the Cold War. The big players in this new game interpreted events through their own lenses. Pakistan was an ally of the U.S. so when it began committing horrors against its own people, President Nixon and his advisors chose to support Pakistan with arms and did nothing to restrain the genocidal horror under the pretext that we need an ally like Pakistan in this part of the world. China was breaking with Moscow, and we wanted to be tightly embedded in the region.
After the cyclone the United States initially wanted to help alleviate suffering, but then National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger weighed in, indicating it would make Pakistan look bad in the world’s eyes if we did more than they did for their own people. After West Pakistan’s bungling relief efforts, a December election showed how divided East Pakistan sentiments were from West Pakistan. In their divine wisdom the West Pakistani leaders decided in March that instead of meeting needs they would invade and slaughter, using American made M-24 tank units. Within a few days there were radio reports of three hundred thousand killed.
Reports like this were easily dismissed as Bengali exaggerations, but when Nixon’s own foreign office reported how brutal the atrocities were Nixon and Kissinger applauded the success of the Pakistan army in crushing the “uprising.”
I don’t need to repeat all the details, only that U.S representatives in Pakistan wrote a scathing indictment of our leaders that begins with this: “Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy.” The London Times reported “This is genocide, conducted with amazing casualness.” Millions of refugees fled to India. Cholera and smallpox began breaking out, taking even more lives.
You can be sure that all these horrors weighed heavily on Ravi Shankar, the Bengali musician who taught George Harrison how to play the sitar which is featured on “Within You, Without You,” the opening track on side two of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album. Ravi Shankar, who had remained a friend of Harrison since that time, had relations in East Pakistan and he (Shankar) was well aware of the trauma there.
The Concert for Bangladesh took place at the beginning of August 1971 featuring “a supergroup of performers that included Harrison, fellow ex-Beatle Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Leon Russell and the band Badfinger. In addition, Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan — both of whom had ancestral roots in Bangladesh — performed an opening set of Indian classical music. Decades later, Shankar would say of the overwhelming success of the event: ‘In one day, the whole world knew the name of Bangladesh. It was a fantastic occasion.’”*
The account here is much abbreviated from that which is in The Cold War Killing Fields. When I think back on that period in my life I can’t recall a single word about the atrocities that took place after the initial devastation of the cyclone. The war in Viet Nam was the focus of our media and the complexities surrounding the political struggles of these various nations made it easy to not really hear much. Americans were too distracted by other things to really try to figure out what was happening here or what happened in Indonesia where in 1965–66 500,000 to a million civilians were similarly slaughtered by their own government for reasons of their own while the U.S. simply stood by and watched.
All this to say that it was a beautiful thing what these performer did. But it makes me sad to reflect on how little I knew about the world we’ve lived in all the years. And this is but one chapter.