In 1971, south Asia was in turmoil. The liberation movement in East Pakistan was gaining momentum and simultaneously, brutal suppression by the West Pakistani regime was leading to a human catastrophe. 

In November, 1970, East Pakistan had been devastated by the Bhola cyclone. The official relief efforts were intentionally muted. Some estimates claimed more than a half a million perished in the cyclone. 

In March, 1971, the administration launched Operation Searchlight – a literal state sponsored pogrom to quell the liberation movement. It sparked mass refugee movement to adjacent India. 

Even as a tragedy of gargantuan proportions unrolled, the world by and large remained unaware of it. One man who was deeply troubled and anguished was Indian Sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar. 

At a dinner in early 1971, Shankar spoke about it to his close friend, the ex-Beatle, George Harrison. During this time, Shankar and Harrison were working on the film Raga and Shankar kept sharing news articles and magazine cuttings about the horrors unfolding in East Pakistan with his friend. 

By the end of June, 1971, Harrison was full time working on organizing a music concert to raise awareness and funds for the East Pakistan crisis. The event was to be organized at New York’s iconic Madison Square Garden and thanks to Harrison, a star studded crew was set to perform. 

Although both Shankar and Harrison repeatedly stressed that their venture did not have any political connotations, politics did rear its ugly head. West Pakistani officials were less than thrilled about these efforts. 

US President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were also miffed and at one point, a furious Nixon had apparently expressed misgivings in a private conversation at funds being handed over to “goddamn Indians!”

On 1st August, 1971, two concerts were held – at 230 PM and 8 PM – at Madison Square Garden. A star studded cast included Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Alla Rakha and Kamla Chakravarthy (Indian section) and Harrison, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Billy Preston, Leon Russell and the band Badfinger (Western section).

The concert was attended by more than 40,000 and raised an initial gate of close to $250,000 USD. The concert was followed by a live album and a concert documentary by Apple Films. 

The entire proceeds of the concert was handed over to UNICEF for aiding relief efforts in East Pakistan. By 1985, more than $12 million USD had been sent to Bangladesh – money raised from the album and film that followed the concert. 

Apart from the funds raised, the Concert for Bangladesh became a huge eye opener for the entire world regarding the atrocities unfolding in East Pakistan. It led to a spurt in international volunteering at UNICEF as well as a sharp rise in private aid and donations for the cause. 

The crisis became an international issue and also revealed President Nixon’s support to the West Pakistani regime which was responsible for the brutal crackdown on East Pakistan’s Bengali majority. 

In 1972, the UN honored Ravi Shankar, George Harrison and Harrison’s manager Allen Klein with the “Child is the Father of Man” for their pioneering effort. The Concert for Bangladesh set the blueprint for star studded musical events for the cause of humanity in years to come.  

Even more than half a century later, the Concert for Bangladesh serves as a shining reminder of the difference that can be made by a few persons with the right intentions.


The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide, Gary J. Bass