BEATLES, BANGLA DESH AND A SITAR MAESTRO
Libin | 26th Dec 2012
Even as the nation mourned sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar’s death, and the Indian Army observed “Vijay Diwas” 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 a 167-seat majority in the 313-member house in the 1970 Pakistan elections, President Gen. 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, Sheikh Mujib decided to take the issue to the people.
On March 7, 1971, Mujib, at a public meeting in Dhaka, 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 what was then East Pakistan.
Yahya Khan declared Martial Law, banned the Awami League and arrested hundreds of protesters. On the night of March 25, 1971, Mujib was arrested and air lifted to West Pakistan. Awami League’s key leaders fled to India, to live in exile. The Army started disarming Bengali soldiers and paramilitary personnel. However, Maj. Ziaur Rahman, belonging to the East Bengal Regiment in Chittagong, took over the battalion and declared the 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 which was 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 the Punjabi-dominated Army elite generally had towards Bengalis and that’s why they failed to gauge the real power of Bengali nationalism that led to the creation of Bangladesh.
It was the darkest chapter in the Pakistan Army’s history when, under Gen. Tikka Khan’s leadership, the Army committed terrible atrocities. Husain Haqqani, in his book Pakistan Between the Mosque and The Army, has described the scene in the words of Gen. Niazi (who succeeded Tikka Khan): “On the night between 25/26 March 1971 Gen. Tikka struck. Peaceful night was turned into a time of wailing, crying and burning. Gen. Tikka let loose everything at his disposal as if raiding an enemy, (and) 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 to target Bengali professionals, 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 10 million it became a huge burden on India. However, the US, conditioned by Cold War perceptions, supported Pakistan’s military crackdown.
Western powers and media also took little notice of the refugees’ plight. Indian Prime Minister 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 a bestseller and figured in the top-10 in the UK 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 name in the West. They 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 hand 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 Its something we can’t neglect Its something I can’t neglect Now won’t you give some bread Get the starving fed We got to relieve Bangla Desh Relieve the people of Bangla Desh To many of us who fought in Bangladesh and were appalled by the West’s indifference, George Harrison’s Bangla Desh was refreshing. Did the song have any political impact?
I got my answer on Christmas night in 1971 when I shared eggnog with the US consul who lived next door in Dhanmondi in Dhaka. He spoke of how he was personally moved by George Harrison’s lyrics and added that the US mission in Dhaka had repeatedly requested for American action against the genocide.
The author, a retired colonel, was a military intelligence officer and had taken part in the Indo-Pakistan War 1971 that created Bangladesh. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org