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Colourful Celebration of Poyla Boishakh-DhakaThe Baishakh this year resembles the turmoil of a summer storm more than the placid celebration of spring. We are moving through a time of anxiety and confusion. Everyone is telling us what is right, what is wrong. They are questioning our identity and we are trying to impose our own on others. We have been put in situations whereby the political state whatever little bit of it is left has experienced extreme stress. Extra-constitutionality has become commonplace and many think nothing of advocating torture on their political enemies. Something has gone deeply wrong with us and our state. More than celebration, we need reflection.

* * *

At least some, if not many will not be celebrating but resisting the rise of a new political force called Hifazat-e Islam. Its arguments are particularly unacceptable when it comes to women, and the kind of Hifazat vision doesn’t exist in any parts of the world except in Pakistan and maybe parts of India. Yet it does in Bangladesh quite strongly and the material basis for that is the existence of the Quami Madrassah system where the textbooks haven’t been changed in several centuries possibly. It’s entirely out of sync with the national aspirations of Bangladesh. It’s not a question of what goes and doesn’t go with urban middle-class sensibilities and cultural expressions but what is rejected by a more relevant vision of an inclusive empowering society which Hifazat opposes.

* * *

If Hifazat seemed so alien to many, it’s because we have no idea about the rural poor. The Long March probably gave a glimpse into their world and thinking for the first time after 1972 in a way that made us take notice. Suddenly, they were no longer the distant peasant who we imagine sings while working in the field, whose wife brings lunch to him and evenings are spent listening to dotara music, the badly imagined world of our movies and natoks. These sons of peasants were angry with us and said only their world view was correct and insisted we join it. There was an element of déjà vu in their call. It was like a one-party system, a sort of a religious BKSAL. It’s something we rejected before and something we have done now. But just as we had been happy to dump it without solving the problems that created BKSAL, we may do the same with Hifazat. They are not a threat to anyone but they ignite fears deep within us.

* * *

Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Hifazat-e Islam is a product of rural poverty and an education system that can only lead to a career in the madrassahs and mosque. The Qaumi madrassah system is the recipient of those who have no future and can’t even imagine a future elsewhere and no other place to go. They never gain qualifications to join the world and we have never bothered to welcome them in. The gathering at Dhaka had many elements including political ones but it was also a call for attention from them and a wakeup call for the rest.

* * *

But the response of the ‘scared middle class’ has been to celebrate Baishakh with the kind of symbols, language and meanings which contests the Hifazat imagination. Hence it’s a celebration of resistance against the Hifazat’s Islamic imagination. In many ways it’s a reaction to an attempt of assertion by a world most of us have never seen.

We always talk of the widening gap between the rich and the poor that is the economic gap but the recent events have shown that the cultural gap between the have-nots and the have-something is even bigger. All these gaps exist; we ignore them but don’t realize that it’s through these gaps that the chariots of instability run in.

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What we need is Baishakh not just of songs and dances and panta bhaat but to understand and celebrate the values that make us Bengalis; Hindu, Muslim or Nastik. These values are more authentic than the saree and kurta and the face painted expressions of our national identity. Here are three events from history which we should ponder upon.

Photo: Reuters

We have always been mixing our faiths and social practices so each stage is an overlap of the previous one. Almost everything is an accumulation of our traditions ranging from Buddhist to Wahabi Islam. This has happened in every society including the Middle Eastern from which the three very similar Abrahamic traditions rose. We are an inclusive people and we have to learn to live with our own cultural diversity. But to insist that all must support one narrative happens when there is socio-economic turmoil as its happening now. The partisan politics of the AL-BNP type has few historical references in our culture. Culturally, this is the biggest break with Bengali tradition.

We are a natural ‘secular’ people because we try to assimilate. But we have always lived with religion and faith because it helps us survive. Most of the exclusionary ideas that ails our society have come from outsiders whether the caste system carrying Senas of Karnataka or the madrassah founding central Asian invaders under Bakhtiyar Khilji. Bengalis are the great social mixers and hyper emotional so we have been more moved by devotional songs than scriptures. We would rather do the more important things in life like raising a family, getting them educated, and hoping nothing bad happens to them so getting some quality tabiz than discussing political and theological issues.

The colonial era also produced a high number of educated middle-class and the zamindary system which alienated them from the poorer social classes so today’s middle-class has no empathy for the poor, no cultural connection with them and are some of the most intolerant people on earth. We negotiate our political life using village politics which is why it has no space for negotiations. We refuse to endorse modernity’s principles which include tolerance, engagement and respect for human rights. We are‘khets’ in trousers and we don’t want to give it up either.

We need to move on and instead of the anondo, maybe a few could focus on what makes us Bengalis.

* * *

This Baishakh, we are in considerable discomfort due to political conflicts and many are feeling threatened by the emergence of new forces but if we reflect on the reasons why — no doubt a difficult task for a people who celebrate emotions over intellect — it might become clear that we are producing our own nemesis. Today it’s the Hifazat, probably fuelled by the Jamaat-e-Islami and its allies or some say the AL itself — but tomorrow’s horseman who rides into town may be more focused and not go away. Whether we want that, is up to us.

Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist, activist and writer.

Afsan Chowdhuryis a bdnews24.com columnist.

15 Responses to “Pahela Baishakh, Hefazet-e Islam and us Bengalis”

  1. Mohammad Anoarul Islam

    First of All, is 1st of Baishakh is related to Bengali nation? I have a strong doubt, this ceremony was initiated by a Non-Bengali, Whose name was Akbar, Who was a Moghul Emperor.
    Secondly, Religious matter is the most important part of our life, yes it is true that during the festival any one can perform his religious activities but we should step forward towards anything after doing minimum research whether that steps is accepted by the our religion or not. This is so simple that no one need to know any complex math..
    Let us discuses about few activities which are being performed during this celebration… singing, dancing, wearing Shakha, Tip like Hindus which are clearly not accepted by Islam…
    And moreover there is Puja(Religious festival) names “ghot” from Hindu religion is also on the same day… Then How a true Muslim can calibrate this !!!
    Now if anybody thinks that celebrating 1st of Baishakh will help him to beg peach and happiness for the rest of year from ALMIGHTY ALLAH PAK, then he is 100% wrong, according to the Hadith Shareef Mention below:
    “Hazrat Abdullah Inbe Masudh Radiyallahu Tayala Unhu narrated that Hajur Pak Sallallahu Alahiwasallam mentioned that, He, who feed his/her family with delicious food on the day of Ahusra (10th of Mahe Muhorram), The Almighty ALLAH Will keep that person economically sound for the whole year ” ( Ref: Tibrani Shareef)
    So mainly, this celebration of 1st of Baishakh has formed from two festivals:
    1. Emperor Akbar introduced this for harvesting purpose And
    2. Persian Emperor King Jamshed clelebrated new year named as “Nawroje”
    Unfortunately these two person did not have any relation with Bengali/Bengali Culture…

    At the end, I would like mention one quote form Hazrat Imaam Abu Hafs Qabir Rahmatullahi Alaihi. He remarks, ‘anyone donating even an egg on the occasion of celebrating a new year’s day shall be devoid of 50 years of his a’amal (religious practices). That means that he shall be deprived of the good practices of his whole lifetime owing to the celebration of new year’s day.”

    I hope, I have tried to make it clear that celebrating 1st of Baishakh can never be related to Bengali Culture and it is not accepted by Islam.
    Now it is up to you whether to celebrate this or not…
    May Allah Aceept Our Prayer..Amin..
    Mohammad Anoarul Islam

  2. Particle

    Articulate and heartwarming.

    This article and the views expressed are obviously going to irritate the “Bangladesh identity is Islamic identity” advocates. But it doesn’t take a post doctorate to tell you that 50 years of Maududi fascism and Saudi funding isn’t going to be quite enough to erase 1,500 years of culture off the face of the delta.

  3. Shabbir A Bashar

    The Bangla calendar has a lot in common with the Thai calendar as do the two languages incidentally – having common roots – in vocabulary, grammar and script. “Songkran” as it is known in Thailand (not that different from the word “shongkranti” as in the end of the Bangla month “Choitro”) is the most important annual festival. It is a time to let go, cleanse and embrace a new beginning. It is celebrated over several days around the 14th of April of the Gregorian calendar. The most remarkable ritual that is apparently both quintessential and ubiquitous is the splashing of water – cleansing. Sub-ordinates will ceremonially wash the hands of their bosses using lotus drenched waters from a silver bowl; there’s food, dance and celebration. I have also seen similar cultural practices amongst the tribal Bangladeshis. Thus, to claim it as the sole property of Bengali culture seems somewhat dubious and is possibly borne out of both ignorance and bigotry. The essence seems to be the embracing of a new beginning and frankly the way it is celebrated all over Thailand is truly a sight to behold. The very title of this article has attempted to turn this pledge of renewal into some kind of a battle between peoples (Muslims, Buddhists, Bangalis and non-Bangla) of Bangladesh and that is quite offensive. At the very least, Bangladesh should both acknowledge and honor its tribal heritage and through that build bridges with progressive nations like Thailand. I see absolutely no conflict whatsoever between the influences of the pre- and post Islamic heritages of this land that has come to be known as Bangladesh. The essence of renewal exists in all religions and cultures to remind us of the need for reflection, soul searching and humility. Please seek commonality over differences and inclusion over exclusion.

  4. M.Mozammel Haque

    Pahela Baishak is a ceremony for every one in Bangladesh.
    Is there any restriction if some one observes his religious prayer in this time.A muslim,a christian,a sanatani person,a nature worshiper even a Buddhist can perform his worship in the event if he has the intention.Afaith did never prohibit others to observe his practice.It is only his intention to do it.
    Now the question comes up-is it possible to do it?
    And definitely here lies the real strength in faith.
    Any one who does not care about faith like those who speak of many rubbish things about his own religious leader can also comment very silly things even about his parents.
    So these people are at first abandoned by their good parents.
    There are many celebrations of different faiths.These remind their people to gain perfection in serving others.
    If any one prohibit this celebration means he does not belong to the faith and he does not understand it.
    In this situation it is imperative to know it first to remark and this has to be accepted earlier many faithful people had remarked on the celebration.And still it is present and this means there is some truth behind its existence and let us thin and rethink and make other to think.God bless.

  5. anowarulislam

    bangalir hajar bosore ai ytijjo thakbe bangali jatir redoya ,kono moulobad shokti ata rukhte parbena .joy hobe manobotar.

  6. KMAK

    Mr.Afsan: What we need is Baishakh not just of songs and dances and panta bhaat but to understand and celebrate the values that make us Bengalis; Hindu, Muslim or Nastik…the response of the ‘scared middle class’ has been to celebrate Baishakh with the kind of symbols, language and meanings which contests the Hifazat imagination. Hence it’s a celebration of resistance against the Hifazat’s Islamic imagination. In many ways it’s a reaction to an attempt of assertion by a world most of us have never seen.

    Even before we were Bengalis or East Pakistanis, we were Muslims. Islam predates the independence of this nation. Islam is also the source of moral values for the vast majority of Bangladeshis. The average Bangladeshi Muslim does not define good or bad in terms of what complements his national identity or goes against it; neither does he define morality in terms of what is constitutional or not, but his morality is governed to a large extent according to what he feels God has allowed or prohibited. It is also Islam that distinguishes Bangladesh from Calcutta. Even if removed from the status of being state religion, the visibility of Islam in society would remain. Consider that at every other street you will find a mosque, five times a day you will hear the adhan, when you go outside you will come across many “dari-tupi” men and burkah or hijab wearing women, when you are greeted by someone you will hear “Salam Alaikum”, and when you turn on the TV you will find Islamic programmes on every other channel. Dhaka alone is characterized as the city of mosques! Not a city of churches, or Hindu temples, or Buddhist Monasteries, but a city of mosques! All these and more make Islam integral to the heritage, values and identity of Bangladesh.

    Given that Islam is everywhere we look, Mr.Afsan’s suggestion that the sacred middle class is oblivious to the influence of Islam on Bangladeshi society is simply ludicrous. The religious minorities are well aware of the significant role Islam plays in Bangladesh. Ironically, if anyone is adamant on downplaying the role of Islam in Bangladesh, it is not the Hindus, Christians or Buddhists, but some secularists masquerading as Muslims.

    • afsan

      “Even before we were Bengalis or East Pakistanis, we were Muslims.”

      There is no evidence to support this. Muslims emerged only after the Khaliji invasion of 1204 and remained a minority till the census of 1877. Bengali is an ethnic identity and it predates every other identity.

      • Khan


        You’re right, the Bengali identity does predate the others. However, just for the info, it is believed that Pahela baisakh celebrations were started from the time of Emperor Akbar and the current Bengla calendar was developed by him. (pls check wikipedia)

        The Bengali identity is limited to this world. The Muslim identity extends to the next world. Which is why the latter is given more importance. As long as cultural celebrations don’t conflict with Islam, there should be no problem in them. But in Islam, any annual/recurring celebration, except the two Eids and Fridays, be it pahela baisakh, birthdays, anniversaries etc, are not allowed. When Prophet(sw) migrated to Madina, he found the madinites celebrating a seasonal festival and replaced them with just the two Eid celebrations. Even the prophet’s birthday, (which some Muslims celebrate) is not allowed. Why? i don’t know. Only Allah knows the wisdom behind it.

        There are a few things that i liked about this article and a few things that i didn’t. However, i liked the gist of it: that we should move on from the ‘anondo’ to more pressing matters. After discussing the current issue with a few people, i realised that the reason we’re facing this turmoil in our country is due to lack of knowledge. They’re scared cuz they don’t know, they believe whatever they hear from Mollahs and anti-mollahs and make assumptions. Most people don’t bother to study about either Islam or their cultural history (myself included perhaps), and just go with the flow. The author is right. i think that if people used their intellect over emotions, yet keeping a tenacious grip on the requirements of their faith, this conflict between religion and bangali culture would never have occurred.

    • Sumit Mazumdar

      KMAK: Do not complain then when the French prohibit Muslim women from wearing burkhas in public space.

  7. Rezaul Karim

    With over 60,000 madrasas in Bangladesh a movement like Hefazat is bound to emerge. If you study history, you will find that Islamic empires and governments were very rarely lead by clerics or moulavis. Only about ten caliphs of Islam had risen from the ranks of moulavis. The rest of over 500 caliphs were characters from ‘1001 Arabian Nights’. To achieve success in modern times the clerics in Turkey and Egypt chose technocrats to lead Islamic parties and win elections. Even the Alqaeda was lead by an engineer and a doctor. We should encourage our moulavis to groom technocrat leaders and go for elections. After winning elections they can approve their 13 demands in parliament. If Hefazat and other moulavis start terrorising the people it will become like Pakistan. In Pakistan moulavis are nowhere near going to power. In Pakistan they already have a caretaker govt. In Pakistan two PMs were dismissed by the court. Pakistan has got a hot line with the White House and receives $3 billion of US aid. Not bad!

    • Kamal Sarwar

      Yet, in this dreadful tragic drama of internecine conflict neither of the contending protagonists will be the winner. There will be no spoils of victory for them. The losers will be the country, its people. Women’s empowerment and dignity will suffer. Above all, there is no glory in presiding over the liquidation of one’s own country.
      The winners will be the forces of evil darkness and decadence over good light and progress. The winners will be falsehood, prejudice and bigotry over truth, freedom, creativity, art and culture, poetry, music and beauty, everything for which life is worth living.

  8. russel

    A good write-up Mr Afsan. Afsan.But in your last lines you have insinuated someone who may be more focused and not go away. Are you meaning something terrible?
    Waiting for your another thought provoking article..

  9. Golam Arshad

    Afsan: It is the turning twirl of a “Cultural Divide” so far was latent, NOW being flamed to be ” A Rage in Real Time”. You are right to the hilt of TRUTH, and I do agree, when you wrote, ” no doubt a difficult task for a people who celebrate emotions over intellect — it might become clear that we are producing our own nemesis”.(End Quote)

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