Our Collapsing Cultural Canopy, Conflicts and attack on Bauls
Maqsoodul Haque – Mac
”Whatever is Sin for a Nation, could be salvation for another” Fakir Lalon Shah
- The choice by default of people with a cultural bent of mind prior to any national elections is to vote for the ruling Awami League, for no other reason than its ‘commitment to secular pluralism’ which on surface and devoid of deceits - translates to tolerance of minority views, ideas, beliefs and lifestyles. Yes, we have managed to drive out the BNP-Jamaat nexus of Islam pasand bigots as also a Military backed ‘Caretaker Government’ – but is our new found spirit of Freedom and Democracy any indicator that we have been able to wrestle control, or enlarge the very constricted liberal space that overrides our collapsing cultural canopy?
- For instance, there have been absolutely no ‘big noise’ from our so-called ‘Cultural Activists’ when it concerns recent spate of looting, theft and ransacking of deities in Shonaton Temples all across the country, nor has there been any ‘protest’ to decry the forceful eviction, usurping of their land housing religious sites, or the intermittent violence against the community. The reasons are understandable: all of these are happening during apparently ‘secular’ times when we bask in complacency of having been able to marginalize the Mollahs at long last. Our ‘Cultural Activists’ therefore do not want to embarrass the Government of the day – and in our Bangaliana have even turned a blind eye to continued racist oppression of other communities including Adivasis – our Indigenous Peoples.
- In focus: the incident in Pangsha, Rajbari on 5th April where 28 members of the Baul fraternity were attacked, their long hair and beard shorn by a local Imam and other cohorts, later forcing them to a nearby Mosque to utter ‘Tawba’ (repentance). Their crime? They were holding a yearly ‘Shadhu Shongo’ (Conclave of the Wise) which the fanatics branded ‘un-Islamic’ – are deeply disturbing signals. The incident went unreported until about the 8th of April and was limited to the vernacular press. Other newspaper joined in begrudgingly, and had it not been for Mohammad Fakir (the Shadhu who called the Conclave) lodging a case in the nearby police station – it would have been brushed under the carpet. The attempted suppression of this news became all the more obvious when the facts went public. Surprise of all surprise - it wasn’t our ‘known and sworn’ enemies – the ‘fun-da-mental-ist’ who launched the attacks. Turns out, the attackers including the Imam were either Awami League leaders or/are involved with the ruling party politics in the area.
- Belatedly exposed to the faux pas the local Awami League MP Zillul Hakim was seen expressing his ‘regrets’ on TV and that the issue has been ‘mutually and peacefully resolved’– with the Bauls apparently ‘agreeing to a solution’. End of the story? No, there were no apologies offered to the Bauls, the Court case was bypassed and it only confirmed that our ‘secular, plural and progressive forces’ were the real perpetrators, possibly even the instigators of the attack. Later reports suggest the Bauls were coerced into the ‘agreement’ prior to the meeting with the MP. Asked why an agreement was arrived on an issue of such seriousness especially when it is in Court, private video footages quoted the MP as saying –“even murder cases are resolved in my constituency in like manner”!
- Bauls and their music are not only our national wealth they are listed in the UNESCO declaration of 2005 as ‘Masterpieces of Oral Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ and while two Baul Saints, the Late Khoda Buksh Shah of Chuadanga and Late Karim Shah of Sunamganj, Sylhet were awarded Bangladesh’s highest Civilian Honor Ekushey Padak, members of the agnostic fraternity continue to eke out an existence in the periphery and are largely ostracized. It is nonetheless heartening that the Baul Movement has built up enormous urban followings since the mid 90’s and on Facebook there was an outcry – with some aficionados calling for a ‘counter Shadhu Shongo’ at Pangsha later in the month. My immediate reaction was to point out that a Shadhu Shongo is not meant for tit-for-tat reprisals or a forum for protest or expression of irate sentiments.
- These conclaves are essentially limited to discourses into the music, life and teaching of the many Saints who sought to illumine the majority of our people. Further, a Shadhu Shongo is called by a Baul Shadhu (practitioner) and those sending out the Facebook invites – did not necessarily fit into the category – nor did anybody have a clue that Shadhu Shongo’s are not held in the month of Boishakh! Why? Again it is best left for the Shadhu’s to explain – however from my very limited knowledge on the subject; one has to study esoteric Indian Cosmology to get the drift. Same reason, the month of Boishakh is not thought to be auspicious even for marriages.
- In any event – good sense prevailed and it was left to Mohammad Fakir of Pangsha to send out a new invite – asking people to ‘assist him complete the incomplete Shadhu Shongo’. With hundreds of eager enthusiast with no knowledge of either the Baul way of life, or the regimes associated with the belief system imminently set to descend upon Pangsha to ‘right the wrong’, one hopes this does not degenerate into a photo-op cultural picnic! Any escalation and/or law and order situation will lead to more outrages on the Bauls and result in unwanted intrusion and curiosity on their belief – which while acknowledging the ‘omniscient Maker’, rejects all religions, temples, mosques, rituals and symbolism – a belief and life style of our people for over two thousand years.
- I also find it very hard to accept the blasé synonymity drawn between Bauls and Fakir Lalon Shah, which has been much the case in the Media this time around as in the past. Lalon never claimed to be a Baul, and the Baul movement indeed predates him by centuries. Therefore not all Bauls are ‘Lalon devotees’ – or vice versa. One may hold Fakir Lalon Shah In the highest of reverence, be inspired by his message – but it goes contrary to Baul belief if we are to propel any man to a pedestal for worship. Lalon in his lifetime abhorred and resisted such inclinations.
- While shearing off long hair and beards of a Baul is condemnable – it is not a ‘sacrilegious’ act at any rate, rather a criminal attack, humiliation of the worst kind and a violation of an individual’s sovereignty. Sporting long hair or beard does not necessarily make one a Baul, as much as skull caps, beards and dresses denoting the so-called ‘Islamic identity’ of the Mollah any affirmation of a pukkah Muslim either!
- It is time that we move forward than get bogged down by trivialities which border on the tokenistic. Cultural cohesion can only be achieved by thorough knowledge and understanding of our inherent strength – our folk philosophies and philosophers – and without a doubt Lalon stands out as the greatest Master we as a Nation have been blessed with.
- To end, a Baul greeting – Joi Guru – ‘Long Live the Great God in Man’.
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Friday, Dhaka 29th April 2011