Written in January 2020
August 1st, 1971 represents a turning point in the history of Progressive Humanitarianism. For the first time name and fame were harnessed for the direct benefit of the nameless and forgotten. This was the Concert for Bangladesh and it was the first major benefit concert in history.
Former Beatles George Harrison and Ringo Starr along with Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Leon Russell and the band Badfinger along with Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Alla Rakha Qureshi and Kamala Chakravarty gathered together on behalf of the suffering people of Bangladesh. Working with United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) the effort raised millions of dollars on behalf of the refugees of the 1971 Bangladesh war and famine.
It was a truly historic moment that has been recognized as “a brief incandescent revival of all that was best about the Sixties” Rolling Stone Magazine. Billboard magazine, “no politics involved. What is involved is starving children and for once, relief through 35 musicians who should represent the feeling of anyone who loves their music.”
Bangladeshi historian Farida Majid,”the “warmth, care and goodwill” of the August 1971 concerts “echoed all over the world.” Many were inspired to volunteer with UNICEF while others offered private donations to the Bangladesh disaster fund.
In June 1972 UNICEF honored George Harrison and Ravi Shankar with the “Child Is the Father of the Man” award for their ‘pioneering’ fundraising efforts for the refugees of Bangladesh. Bob Geldof also publicly acknowledged The Concert for Bangladesh as the inspiration for his 1985 Live Aid event recently highlighted in the film Bohemian Rhapsody.
In the aftermath of the Concert for Bangladesh, however, politics and the US government reared their ugly heads. Thus a majority of the charitable funds were held up in an IRS escrow account for 10 years before being released to the refugees of Bangladesh. Now on Feb 3rd, this coming Monday, the City of Seattle may add its dose of cold cynical dehumanizing politics to the lives of these very same refugees.
Read on to connect the dots.
Despite the efforts of George Harrison and company, the suffering and trauma has not ended for the victims of the Bangladesh crisis. 49 years later, thousands of Bangladeshi Refugees have remained Stateless. The Indian Government and the world’s various Human Rights organizations seemed powerless to help.
As an avid Beatle’s fan, amateur historian, community organizer and cultural activist I was keen to investigate the conditions of the people Harrison was so moved to help. Beyond sitting comfortable in Seattle, scanning Wikipedia for information, I personally went to Kolkata and West Bengal, India. Travelling the Indo-Bangladeshi border regions i met these people face to face. I saw the ground reality and put the faces of real human beings to the reports and statistics.
During my 3 weeks there, I met hundreds of Hindu refugees living in squalor. With no land of their own, to this day they live in ramshackle structures hanging shelf-like above sewage clogged streams and river canals. I interviewed many victims of ethnic cleansing, rape and genocide. Heartbreaking scenes of helpless people holding pictures of murdered loved ones, copies of police and news reports confirming their accounts of violence, rape, land-loss, ethnic cleansing and mass murder. I was ashamed to the point of helplessness.
As a White American they assumed help was finally on its way for undoubtedly I could share their reports with the US President. I cried with them as they cried helplessly. Through the interpreter I had to gently reveal my inability to do anything beyond record their information and hopefully get the attention of others capable of helping to take note of their plight.
This was nearly 8 years ago. Beyond uploading their interviews to Youtube, I have been unable to help them.
Last December the Indian Government passed the CAA or Citizen Amendment Act. Finally the Indian Government was giving them full citizenship! My heart jumped for joy. Finally these suffering people for whom a Beatle appealed and the world soon forgot not only have a chance to live but can now thrive in their adopted homes.
Yet the world being what it is, and Indian politics, perhaps the world’s most tumultuous and chaotic, began to convulse. The Indian Government for its part clumsily enacted the bill ignoring the bad optics of the easily misconstrued Religious identity clause. Yet despite this, in the end, for all intents and purposes, the bill directly and positively impacts the lives of the Bangladeshi Refugees.
While the Muslim Bangladeshis gained an entire new country, The People’s Republic of Bangladesh, the worlds 8th most populated country, it is overwhelmingly Muslim and is politically and socially Islamic. It is in fact the site of the 2nd largest Islamic religious gathering in the world. Obviously Bangladeshi Muslims have a safe place to call home.
Meanwhile the non-Muslim minorities that fled Bangladesh remained stateless. This CAA bill once and for all finally addresses this disparity.
Despite the great strides made by the Bangladeshi Government, Bangladeshi minorities continue to flee to India. There is obviously no safe space for them thus they flee.
Even today as the world rallies to the support of the Rohingya Muslims, Burmese Rohingya Hindus are denied help in Bangladeshi refugee camps for they rank lowest on the social totem pole. And in India thousands upon thousands of Bangladeshi Hindus remained Stateless, landless, forgotten living in squalid refugee camps. Finally more than 49 years after the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh, this CAA bill represents the first glimmer of hope in their lives.
Thus for me, having actually met these people, having seen their plight and knowing their suffering first hand, I can accurately recognize this as a true fulfillment of the Humanitarian promise initiated by George Harrison’s concern made real by his Concert for Bangladesh.
In the 1970s and 1980s the US Government and IRS cold-heartedly withheld millions of dollars of Bangladeshi refugee funds. Now once again a branch of the US government is set to proclaim to the entire world and to these very same suffering Refugees that they do not count. In fact, in the words of the refugees, they see it as ethnic and ideologically based hatred coming from the USA. Good going Seattle!
How is this happening?! A resolution to be voted on Feb 3rd by the Seattle City Council is the culprit. Council member Kshama Sawant’s cold hearted politically calculated bill, while speaking high sounding words of concern and humanitarianism is in fact a cynical weaponized tool that dehumanizes an entire people. Beyond that it enables mass rape, ethnic cleansing and genocide for it attacks the final positive resolution that has finally brought hope into the lives of the victims involved.
By totally ignoring the Bangladeshi Refugees, Sawant’s resolution dehumanizes them for it loudly proclaims that their concerns are irrelevant and their suffering unworthy of mention what to speak of mitigation.
While the Indian Government was admittedly clumsy in its presentation of the CAA bill, if Progressive Seattle wants to respond, it can and must do better.
As the largest US city named after an Indigenous personality, Chief Se’ahl, Seattle is currently a leader in promoting equality and justice for all and in the recognition of the tragedies experienced by indigenous people. And these Bangladeshi Refugees are as indigenous as one can get.
Will Seattle now be at the forefront of condemning a living Indigenous community to irrelevance? Will the City of Seattle put the knife in their hearts by condemning their chance for a life of dignity by officially censuring the CAA as an act of hatred? Will the City of Seattle allow itself to be abused as a weapon in the ideological rivalries of chaotic and traumatised South Asian politics? Is the City of Seattle about to enact its own form of official dehumanization exemplified by the US Federal governments seizure of Bangladeshi charitable funds for these very same refugees?
It is a fact that strong emotions can cloud the mind and hijack reason. This resolution presented by Kshama Sawant appears to count on that. It is unscrupulous for it abuses our collective sense of fairplay and compassion in an attempt to punish Sawant’s ideological rivals in India.
Yet when seen through the prism of the thousands of very real human beings I met who are now benefiting from the CAA it is imperative to recognize what it truly means on the human level.
Therefore I urge the City of Seattle to reject this bill. Kshama Sawant is misleading our community in her attempt to harness our goodwill as a political weapon. Her resolution de-personizes an entire people. It is not representative of our Seattle. If passed it will represent a tragic betrayal of the humanitarian and compassionate ethos at the heart of our city.
It is in fact a direct rejection of the 1960s peace and love anti-war and Universal Goodwill exemplified by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar’s Concert for Bangladesh for it condemns the upliftment of the very same people their concert was meant to help.
If the city of Seattle truly wants to address the various humanitarian traumas that have long plagued South Asia, and if the City of Seattle is truly sincere about the human rights of all people, then the city of Seattle must officially offer these long-suffering Bangladeshi refugees asylum.
The current resolution as it stands now, is severely flawed and if passed will be trumpeted throughout India causing further anguish and traumatization of the Bangladeshi refugees. Is that truly the message the City of Seattle wants to send them?
Seems impossible for it is not a true reflection of our Seattle. Clearly it would be a heart breaking step backwards in our Collective efforts towards building a truly compassionate and socially responsible Society.