My friend came to me
With sadness in his eyes
He told me that he wanted help
Before his country dies
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The Manoharpur area of Bangladesh
Of all the Beatles, George Harrison was the most spiritual. While he was lead guitarist for the Beatles, he adopted Indian mysticism as his religion. Most of the psychedelic sound and Eastern philosophy in the Beatles was due to George's influence, which became more of a drive in the later Beatles. It was his idea for the Fab Four to meet and meditate with that Hare Krishna Swami, after all.
George was also the most compassionate soul of the group. His post-Beatle years were filled doing charity work, raising awareness for various causes and issues, and, perhaps most telling, gardening. His autobiography carried the dedication "to gardeners everywhere," and through maintaining his Friar Park estate, he came to consider himself a gardener first and a musician second.
So we come to his song "Bangla Desh," released in 1971 as a charity single to aid former East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. Bangladesh was still reeling from the aftermath of the 1970 Bhola cyclone, when the various human rights violations and atrocities surrounding the events of the Bangladesh War of Independence began. Estimates range up to three million people killed in various confrontations with the Pakistani Army, but the count remains forever in question, as mass graves are still being discovered even today.
At the center of the troubles in Bangladesh were a horror known forever as "Operation Searchlight." This was an attempt by the Pakistani government to put down the Bengali nationalist movement. This operation involved mass genocide, the raping of women, keeping women for sex slavery, and the specific singling out and killing of intellectual members of society including teachers, journalists, professors, artists, engineers, and writers. New documentation of what exactly happened here continues to come to light even today. Also, the part about raping women wasn't just limited to one incident in a village; we're talking 200,000 women here, in a systematic effort to overwhelm the opposition with gross force and suffering.
In short, this was no small cause that George Harrison was pleading help for. The song "Bangla Desh" sounds exactly like what its subject must have felt: crying, wailing, and agonized. Harrison and his long-time friend (and frequent collaborator) Ravi Shankar put on The Concert For Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden in New York City to a sell-out crowd of 40,000 people. The concert included stars such as Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Leon Russell, and fellow Beatle Ringo Starr.
The concert was mainly intended to provide financial aid to refugees from the area, who were fleeing by the thousands. In total, the concert and other efforts stemming from it raised over $240,000 for UNICEF, with additional money still going to them through later film revenue.
While the song does peg the events of that time in Bangladesh, it doesn't do much justice to it as a place in this day and age. Since its restoration and stability as of 1991, Bangladesh today is a lush, vibrant piece of South Asian and Hindi culture. It has enjoyed a couple of decades of economic progress and healing, although the scars are still fresh.
Nevertheless, this song stands today as a testament to what can happen right under our noses, without it even making the evening news. It is particularly noteworthy that then-president Nixon swept the incident under the rug, even though his administration was revealed to be partially involved. No one should be so smug as to think that it couldn't happen in their own home country.
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