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The Battle over Culture: Fundamentalist threats and secular response in Bangladesh


The Baul statues episode

by Harsh Kapoor, 12 November 2008

A compilation of reports and analysis | 12 November 2008

 1. Shibir’s militancy: it’s a do-or-die challenge for all (New Age)
 2. Shibir threatens RU cultural activists with death (Daily Star)
 3. Smash Palace (Naeem Mohaiemen)
 4. Cultural activists need to unite (New Age)
 5. More protests against removal of sculptures
 6. Protests go on against removal of sculptures
 7. The sculpture row (A.B.M.S. Zahur)
 8. Lalon and Terror (Rahnuma Ahmed)
 9. Marchers for sculpture stopped
 10. Demolition of Lalon sculpture a conspiracy 3-day protests begin in Rajshahi; rally, human chain held in Nilphamari, Dinajpur
 11. Bauls unite for culture (Iqbal Siddiquee)
 12. The writing on the wall (Reaz Ahmad)
 13. Notice has been given (New Age)
 14. Anti-sculpture body warned against holding rally today (Daily Star)
 15. Citizens to unite against sculpture removal (Daily Star)
 16. All the king’s men (Hana Shams Ahmed)
 17. Reinstall baul sculptures (Daily Star)
 18. Yet another walkover for bigots (New age)
 19. Time to take a stand (Ashfaq Wares Khan)
 20. Fury rages on against removal of sculpture (Daily Star)
 21. Protests go on against removal of sculptures (Daily Star)
 22. Baul Statue Protests Gather Momentum (Unheard Voices)
 23. Put back Baul singers’ statues near ZIA (Daily Star)
 24. Govt shows where its sympathy lies, again (New Age)
 25. Removal of sculptures sparks protests (Daily Star)
 26. Sculptures near ZIA removed after protests (Daily Star)
 27. Neo Talibans active in Bangladesh
 (Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury) 
 28. Controversies shroud Lalon and his songs (Ershad Kamol)
 29. Bigots against baul monument (New Age, 16 October 2008)



New Age, November 9, 2008


Shibir’s militancy: it’s a do-or-die challenge for all

How is it that the government is completely inactive against the fascist forces of the Islami Chhatra Shibir who run amok on the campus of Rajshahi University and are not only threatening cultural activists and secular and progressive groups but issuing open declarations to burn alive any citizen who participates in them? The threat of assassination of cultural activists was issued by the student front of the Jamaat-e-Islami and reported in Saturday’s New Age. It is a defiance of the rule of law and a challenge to the secular democratic forces. It is unbelievable that some fascist groups should issue public announcement of burning a group of people alive on ideological grounds and yet the government will do nothing. No response even when the challenge is thrown to its own power and authority. The words and deeds of the Shibir activists have reached a stage where it can no longer be called religious fanaticism but imposition of a fascist agenda based on suppression of culture and all kinds of dissent and freedom. The Jamaat-e-Islami, the Islami Chhatra Shibir and its fundamentalist and militant allies are steadily moving in that direction. The total government inaction in restraining them is a boon to them. Instead, the government does everything to restrain those who try to resist Islamist extremists out to vandalise art and culture and bulldoze their way to the ultimate establishment of theocracy in the country.

Last Thursday the Shibir activists assaulted a female student of the university and threatened others for staging a drama, as part of their protest programme against the dismantling of the Baul sculptures. The Shibir men got away without any punishment or even a warning. The police did arrive and ‘calmed the situation’ which means they made no difference between perpetrators and victims. This was succour to the marauders and on Friday, according to a New Age report, they threatened to burn alive some individuals belonging to the cultural organisation Udichi. The report further mentions that a militant organisation, Anjuman Al-Baiyanat, announced reward for those who could kill the people declared as ‘murtad’ (apostates). This is an open declaration of selective terrorism. While the government has imposed an open ended state of emergency on the grounds of safeguarding the law and order situation in the country, it does nothing when radical Islamists are issuing death threats against citizens. All must unite to resist it. It is a challenge not only for the progressive secular sections but also for the moderate religious groups which are uneasy over the perverse zealotry in the name of religion but have not acted against it thus far.



The Daily Star, Bangladesh - November 8, 2008

Shibir threatens RU cultural activists with death



The Daily Star, November 3, 2008

Smash Palace

by Naeem Mohaiemen

A cycle of outrage over baul statues has created many surprising and dissonant coalitions: youngblood (Charu Kala protests), musicians (bauls and fusion bands), signifiers (wear a gamcha in support), and shushil (umbrellas at National Museum). And diverse editorial tactics: cowardly capitulation (Afsan Chowdhury, New Age, 20/10/08), stop it before it’s too late (Kamal Lohani, Janakantha, 21/10/08), king’s men (Hana Shams, Daily Star, 21/10/08), core heritage (Inam Ahmed, Prothom Alo, 28/10/08), middle ages (Audity Falguny, Shamokal, 29/10/08), Islam’s tolerance tradition (Humayun Ahmed, Prothom Alo, 27/10/08).

Humayun Ahmed is worth studying, because the novelist presumes exhaustive theology research is needed to settle the issue. Invoke Byzantine painting of Mother Mary spared by the Prophet, Sheikh Sadi’s mazaar statue, paintings of animals preserved by Hazrat Omar, and IOJ will retreat to their barracks. It is what Jeebesh Bagchi described in the context of debates about Kashmiri Pandits as "the mistaken belief that if you just keep piling up enough facts, the other side will be stunned into silence." Theological debates, important as they are, will not be sufficient to navigate a political conflict.

A few writers move to a quiet space and outline other elephants in the room. Badruddin Umar (Shamokal, 28/10/08) asks why elder intellectuals focus on a pawn and avoid naming state machinery. Rahnuma Ahmed (New Age, 29/10/08) highlights how political forces have been targeted for twenty months, with the exception of Jamaat e Islami and allied "Islamist" forces. Finally, Faruq Wasif (Prothom Alo, 29/10/08) talks about the convenient timing, providing maximum distraction from the spider web of election ’08.

Return for a moment to Audity Falguny’s rhetoric of "middle ages" — it gets the outrage adrenalin pumping, but gets lost in the distraction maze. Study closely Amini’s press conference after the statues were removed. Threatening destruction of "Awami League era" statues and railing against cantonment “Shikha Onirbaan", he plays the role of charlatan. Even his use of the vernacular, “Heida ami dekhi nai" (about BNP-era statues), seems designed to tickle perceptions. A man who talks like the Dhakaiya of jokes (”Korta aitasen na jaitasen?"), how can he be a serious threat, right? How easy to ridicule, and forget the real beneficiaries and puppet-masters.

In 2003, similar protests were the excuse for a willing government to ban Ahmadiyya Muslim books. While filming that confrontation for my project "Muslims or Heretics: My Camera Can Lie," I had a moment of camera schizophrenia. In the rough cut of that film, there was grainy, blurred footage of Khatme Nabuwat rallies, filmed from distant rooftops. The impression was (on-screen and in my head) of ravenous mobs that could only be filmed from a safe distance. Outside the cage, as it were.

Returning to the project after a six-month gap, I started directly filming rallies and found a jarring reality. “Shangbadik bhaya ashche" they would shout, and part ways so I got the best vantage point for my video. During one "death to..." speech, I found my crowd shots obstructed by ten press photographers, all gunning for the best angle of angry faces before their filing deadlines. A BBC cameraman reached up on stage and moved the microphone away from the mufti’s face, to get an unobstructed shot. No one blinked at this intervention by a representative of the "imperialists" being masticated on stage. The "fiery Islamist rally" is now a form of performance art, it needs that BBC camera as oxygen. The audience is inside and outside borders, and the international eye is often more critical — without getting on an "Enemies List," this politics cannot survive.

What we have is a two steps forward one step back, catch-and-release "Islamist" project. These periodic fracases push the political debate away from our real crisis of hyper-capitalist over-development twinned with basic needs under-development. We move instead to a space of polarised battles between the yin and yang of "Islam in danger" and "the Islamists are coming." Every few months, a new bogey: Madrasa students, Khatme Nabuwwat, Hizbut Tahrir, Islami Oikko Jote, Jagrata Muslim Janata. Somewhere in an overseas think tank, yet another "next Afghanistan" report.

All this can lead to the highly artificial "consensus" opinion, inside government and among international players, that some Islamist representative must be brought to the national negotiating table. What a convenient setup: specter of "radical Islamists" drives a fear-debate, and then the largest Islamist party steps forward as "moderate Islamic" voice. Give us enough seats, and we will control the Aminis.

December 2008 approaches with the denouement of "level playing field" electoral math. Cartoons, statues, women’s bill, everything can feed into that equation. The myth of the "Islamist bloc" or "religious sentiment" was used by state apparatus in 1977 and 1982 to bleed secularism’s body parts. 2008 is trying for a replay of that tired script.

Perception brutalises reality, and the dominant trope the state pushes is of "Islamists" as ferocious warriors who can bring any government to a standstill. Or that "militant Islamic" groups are about to take over this country. This allows governments to maintain power and security agencies to expand surveillance into every sector of citizen life (Dhanmondi barbed wire barricades and body checks of young men at 11 pm). But where does the perception of a powerful "Islamic bloc" come from? In history, the groups that actually posed strongest street-based challenge to state power were Awami League in 1968-70, JSD and Sarbahara Party in 1973-74, and university student led bipartisan moha-jote of 1988-90.

Jeebesh Bagchi proposes a hard reboot: "In most cases the terms these days are being set by people with extreme performative position and acts. In India now, Modi has set the term around two axes — "state terror as security" and "development without dissent." Now, how do you work through these axes? We need to think hard as to how to bypass or steal away these conceptual frameworks.

We write and film and photograph and protest, not to stop an "Islamist threat" but to take control of the terms of the debate. To bring the focus back to real political issues: the asphyxiated democracy project, an end to security panic, and to the brutal daily absence of roti-kapra-makan.

Naeem Mohaiemen works on art and technology projects.



New Age, November 2, 2008


Cultural activists need to unite

The time has come for the cultural activists to unite and last Friday’s procession by artists and art lovers at the fine arts faculty of Dhaka University has been a continuation of the fortnight-long protest against the forces of bigotry and darkness. Once again artists, singers, fine arts students and cultural personalities held a rally against the removal of the Baul monument from in front of the Dhaka airport, as reported in yesterday’s New Age. The whole country must unite to save the nation’s cultural legacy from bigots who are out to erase our centuries of heritage. These obscurantists must be resisted with a firmness that is expressive of the nation’s best resolve to protect and preserve what gives meaning to and defines its independence.

Unfortunately, that national resolve has not yet been expressed with the same firmness that emboldens the fanatical, anti-cultural forces to issue new threats. The mainline political parties have not yet come out in open condemnation of the bigots. A united resistance is made more difficult because the present interim government is meeting the fanatics half-way and leans heavily towards their side. Thus, the progressive, secular protestors who are giving leadership to the nation on the cultural front have not yet muster support from the country’s main power centres while the government’s role is at best ambiguous and at worst accessorial. The question is not merely one of a particular piece of sculpture at a particular place but it represents a critical choice between obscurantism and enlightenment that the nation is facing, thanks to the new-fangled striking power of the newly empowered groups of obscurantists.

The sculpture must be re-installed as a primary move to salve the cultural injury dealt to the nation, as well as to give a clear message to the errant mullahs that to force a wrong concept upon the nation and that too through vandalism is not acceptable. This aim should be pursued single-mindedly. The demand raised by the Conscious Artists’ Society to name the airport crossing where the sculpture had been erected as Lalon Square is in itself a well-reasoned and patriotic demand but at this time such demands may prove diversionary. This will also provide the government an opportunity to strike an ignoble compromise — sculpture has been removed but the name of Lalon is being preserved. Similarly, the demand for formation of a national committee to formulate a policy on placement of sculptures can only be considered if it is comprised mostly of well-meaning cultural personalities working in different mediums. One, after all, needs to understand, the artists who need full freedom for fostering their creativity cannot labour under government censorship. In the recent past, when the government was facing two-sided pressure from fundamentalists and women’s rights activists over women development policy, it set up a committee with representation from the very fundamentalists. To form a national committee is the easiest escape chute for a government unable or unwilling to take a hard decision.



The Daily Star, November 2, 2008

More protests against removal of sculptures

Staff Correspondent

Protests against the removal of the Baul sculptures from the airport intersection continued yesterday with rallies, seminars and discussion meetings organised under different platforms.

Cultural groups like the Sachetan Shilpi Samaj, and political parties such as Workers Party of Bangladesh (WPB), Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB), Democratic Left Alliance (DLA) held separate programmes to voice their protest against the removal of the sculptures.

Speakers at a discussion held at Muktijuddho Jadughor (Liberation War Museum) in the city yesterday called on people to remain united to resist the conspiracy against the country that is being instigated with the removal of the sculptures.

Speakers demanded the reinstallation of the sculptures at the venue. They said that a united movement should be launched comprising different organisations under one platform to protest the removal of the sculptures.

Dr Rangalal Sen presided over the session addressed by Sammilita Samajik Andolon president Ajoy Roy, Prof Syed Anwar Hossain and noted cultural personality Ramendu Majumder.

Speakers said the main objective of the liberation war had been to establish a secular society where the rights of all people would be protected. But anti-liberation forces are trying to ruin that sprit of freedom.

Meanwhile, Sachetan Shilpi Samaj — a platform of cultural activists and painters — yesterday brought out a procession to protest the removal of sculptures. They carried placards and sang patriotic songs while parading Dhaka University (DU) campus.

Workers Party of Bangladesh (WPB) formed a human chain in front of its office yesterday. The party leaders said communal forces were working against the cultural heritage of the country.

They demanded punishment of those who threatened to demolish the sculptures. Politburo member of the party Nurul Hasan, Anisur Rahman Mallik, central leaders Hajera Sultana, Mozammel Haque Tara, among others were present during the human chain formation.

Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB) also formed a human chain in front of its office at around 4:00 pm protesting at the removal of Baul sculptures.

The CPB held a brief rally after the human chain was formed and called on the people to forge a movement against extremist forces.

The Democratic Left Alliance (DLA) yesterday formed a human chain in front of the National Museum at 4:00pm. They also held a protest rally.

The DLA demanded trial of all war criminals and a ban on religion-based politics in the country.

DLA coordinator advocate Abdus Salam, DLA leaders Abdullah Sarkar, Saiful Haque, Bazlur Rashid Firoz, Mosharefa Mishu and Junaed Saki, among others, addressed the rally.

Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal also held human chain programmes at different venues across the country.

Bangladesh Chhatra League (T-S) also held a human chain on DU campus demanding reinstallation of the Baul sculptures immediately.

The protests across the country began on October 16, a day after the Roads and Highways Department (RHD) and Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh (CAAB) were forced to remove five sculptures of Bauls (folk singers) including Lalon Shah in front of the Zia International Airport in the face of protests from an Islamist group.



The Daily Star, November 1, 2008

Protests go on against removal of sculptures

DU Correspondent

Cultural activists brought out a procession on Dhaka University campus in protest at the removal of Baul sculptures from airport roundabout yesterday.

They demanded a free environment for art and culture in the country.

Sachetan Shilpi Samaj brought out the procession from the Fine Arts Institute. Singing along patriotic songs and holding dolls, the activists paraded the campus.

The organisation, which draws in artists from across the cultural spectrum, said they do not go gaga over sculptor Mrinal Haque who had designed the dismantled sculptures, nor do they have anything to do with the so-called Murti Protirodh Committee.

They said they only want a free environment for art and culture in the country.

The activists called on the government to adopt a policy on the recommendation of a proposed specialist committee comprised of painters, sculptors, urban planners, architects, archaeologists and historians, to erect sculptures in the city.

Popular singer Mamataj, who took part in the procession, told reporters that she could not hold concerts in a few places because of threats from fundamentalists, adding that cultural activities in the country would peter out if such strangulation is allowed to continue.

Kendria Khelaghar Asar, a children’s organisation, called for immediate reinstallation of the sculptures in front of Zia International Airport.

They, at a rally at Central Shaheed Minar, demanded that the government name the roundabout ’Lalon Chattar’.



The Daily Star, 31 October 2008

The sculpture row

by A.B.M.S. Zahur

You can bring down a sculpture but you cannot break our spirit. Photo: Iqbal Ahmed/ Drik News

DESPITE repeated assurance from the CTG, neither the political parties nor the common people are certain about parliamentary election being held on due date. However, the CTG, EC and political parties are preoccupied with various works related to election. In such a situation, a small group of Islamic militants is trying to be prominent through some provocative actions.

All of a sudden, the amir of Khatme Nabooat, Mufti Noor Hossain Noorani, wants to replace the sculpture of five bauls with a Haj Minar because he feels that the statue (he does not differentiate between a sculpture and a statue) in that spot will hurt the religious sentiment of the Hajis.

It is unfortunate that a small group of Islamic militants has dared to take steps against the government decision during emergency. We do not understand how a government decision is less important and less effective than the decision of a small, capricious militant group. Needless to say, the people in general are deeply shocked.

A few months back, the police department informed us that some militant groups were secretly organising themselves for starting violent activities. We suspect that this incident might be a warning for a big storm brought about jointly by Islamic militants to stop a free, fair and credible election. Thus, this incident, though apparently created by a small group, may not be treated lightly by the authority.

The militant leaders, who have taken the leading role for completing this job, are reported to be Mufti Noor Hossain Noorani and Mufti Fazlul Haque Amini. Mufti Noorani is the Amir of Khatme Nabooat and convener of Zia International Roundabout Resistance Committee and Mufti Amini the chairman of Islami Oikya Jote.

It may be pointed out that Mufti Noorani started a countrywide agitation to force the government to treat the Ahmadiya community as non-Muslim. Later on, the said community had to approach the US to quell this menacing movement.

The government is very concerned with election related functions, and is making preparation for an honourable exit. The political parties are more or less silent about the event because of their fear of adverse reaction on voters if they use any words of condemnation in the parliamentary and upazila elections.

The civil society is also not courageous enough to face the militant groups. Notwithstanding such a situation, the government cannot accept such an audacious act by the militants, who are certainly not capable of winning the hearts of our peace-loving people.

Mufti Amini is smarter than Mufti Noorani. As such, he will spare no pains to utilise the anti-baul sculpture installation movement. It is a common knowledge that Mufti Amini desires to transform Bangladesh into Afghanistan. On October 9, 1998, he stated in an interview in a Bengali weekly (2000) that he would not allow installation of statues (sculptures) on road intersections if the government failed to stop it; his followers would break them, even if some people lost their lives.

Amini’s slogan is: "We are all Talibans, and Bangladesh will be Afghanistan." He even hinted at the possibility of bloody encounters. He stated that if his followers could capture power (we are not sure about the method of his capture), all the statues installed in Dhaka University would be smashed.

He wants to extinguish "Shikha Onirban" (symbol of war of liberation) at the Dhaka cantonment because he is against worshipping of fire. His attack was mainly aimed at Sheikh Hasina and her party, the AL.

By containing the movement of JMB, the government has so far been able to control Islamic terrorists’ activities to a reasonable extent. As per a police report, the reorganised militants may hit back after the exit of the CTG. Let us hope that our law enforcing agencies will be able to handle any such danger.

Though militant groups are small in size and in numbers, they are capable of undertaking creating big mishaps. The simultaneous bomb blasts in 530 places during the 4-party regime is an example. The government must handle them firmly because it has nothing to lose. Instead, appropriate action against these militants will bring them good name.

We love democracy and believe in sovereignty of the people. We shall never allow our "Sonar Bangla" to be transformed into "Ashar" (dead) Bangla by sympathisers of the Talibans.

A.B.M.S. Zahur is a former joint secretary.



Lalon and Terror

by Rahnuma Ahmed, 29 October 2008

Re-configuring the nation’s political map during emergency

In the name of bringing ‘beauty’ to politics in Bangladesh, the lineaments of political reconfiguration undertaken by this military-backed caretaker government are becoming ominously clear: mainstream political parties in shambles, Jamaat-e-Islami intact, Muslim clerics and Islamic forces re-emerging as a political force under state patronage, and the exercise of rampant power by western diplomats, writes Rahnuma Ahmed

Drifting in cage and out again 
 Hark unknown bird does fly
 Shackles of my heart
 If my arms could entwine
 With them I would thee bind
 Fakir Lalon Shah, Khachar bhitor ochin pakhi — Translation by Shahidul Alam

Baul sculpture and the nation’s most powerful man

‘NO DECISION is taken without the army chief’s consent, that’s why we informed him,’ said Maulana Noor Hossain Noorani, amir of Khatme Nabuwat Andolon Bangladesh and imam of the Fayedabad mosque, at a press conference. ‘He didn’t like the idea of setting up an idol either, right in front of the airport, so close to the Hajji camp. It was removed at his initiative’ (Prothom Alo, October 17).

The ‘it’ in question was a piece of sculpture, of five baul mystics and singers. Titled Unknown Bird in a Cage, it was being created in front of Zia International Airport, Dhaka. Madrassah students and masjid imams of adjoining areas were mobilised, the Bimanbondor Golchottor Murti Protirodh Committee (Committee to Resist Idols at Airport Roundabout) was formed. A 24-hour ultimatum was given. The art work, nearly seventy per cent complete, was removed by employees of the Roads and Highways Department and the Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh.

Artists, intellectuals, cultural activists, writers, teachers, students, and many others have since continuously protested against the removal of the sculpture, both in Dhaka, and other cities and towns of Bangladesh. They have demanded its restoration, have re-named the roundabout Lalon Chottor, and accused the military-backed caretaker government of capitulating, yet again, to the demands of Islamic extremists, and forces opposing the 1971 war of liberation.

Soon after its removal, Fazlul Haq Amini, chairman of a faction of Islami Oikya Jote and amir of Islami Ain Bastabayan Committee said at a press conference, if an Islamic government comes to power, all statues built by Sheikh Hasina’s government (1996-2001) will be demolished, since statues are ‘dangerously anti-Islamic’. Eternal flames, Shikha Chironton (Liberation War Museum), and Shikha Anirban (Dhaka Cantonment) will be extinguished. ‘Paying respect to fire is the same as worshipping fire.’ What about statues built during Khaleda Zia-led four-party alliance government (of which he had been a part)? ‘Where, which ones?’ Rajshahi University campus was the prompt reply. ‘Why didn’t you raise these questions when you were in power?’ ‘We did, personally, but they didn’t listen. We were used as stepping stones.’ Amini also demanded that the National Women Development Policy 2008, shelved this year after protests by a section of Muslim clerics and some Islamic parties, should be scrapped (Prothom Alo, October 18).

Noorani and his followers demand that a hajj minar should be built instead, and the road should be re-named Hajj road. ‘Men from the administration and the intelligence agencies,’ he said at the press conference, ‘wore off their shoes, they kept coming to us.’ (Prothom Alo, October 17). Now where had I read of close contacts between Khatme Nabuwat and the intelligence agencies?

I remembered. A Human Rights Watch report, Bangladesh: Breach of Faith (2005), had stated that Khatme Nabuwat had close links to the ruling BNP through the Jamaat-e-Islami and the IOJ, its coalition partners. I remembered other things too. It was the same Noor Hossain Noorani who had said Tarique Rahman, senior secretary general of the BNP, was their ‘amir and same-aged friend,’ and had threatened police officials saying Tarique would directly intervene if Khatme Nabuwat’s anti-Ahmadiyya campaign was obstructed. According to reports, high-up intelligence agency officials (DGFI, NSI) had mediated contacts between the ruling party and Khatme Nabuwat. He had met the DGFI chief in Dhaka cantonment thrice, Noorani had thus boasted to Satkhira reporters in 2005, a statement never publicly refuted by the intelligence agency (Tasneem Khalil, The Prince of Bogra, Forum, April 2007, issue withdrawn, article available on the internet).

What links does the present military-backed caretaker government, and more so, its intelligence agencies, have with these extremist groups? I cannot help but wonder. Is there more to what’s happening than meets the eye?

Other questions pop into my head. The baul sculpture was not advertised, as public art should be. No open competition, no short-listing, no selection panel. On the contrary, the contract seems to have been awarded as a personal dispensation. The only condition seems to have been that the sculptor must get hold of a sponsor. High regard for public art, for baul tradition, listed by the UNESCO as a world cultural heritage, and for procedural matters. Particularly by a government whose raison d’etre is establishing the rule of law and rooting out corruption. [. . .] read more



The Daily Independent , 28 October 2008

Marchers for sculpture stopped 

Police yesterday barred hundreds of protesters under the banner of the ’Sculpture Protection Movement’, from marching towards roundabout at Zia International Airport (ZIA) from where the Baul statue was removed. They started their rally from Aparajeyo Bangla at Dhaka University’s at around 11am. Police resisted them while the rally reached at the Faculty of Fine Arts. They placed a five-point demand to the government including reconstruction of the sculpture at Goalchattar in front of the airport with the theme of the ’Liberation War and folk culture’, ensuring the practice of secular education and culture, modification of madrasa education, trial of war criminals and banning religion-based politics.

Coming down heavily on the Islamic bigots for instigating the removal of the Baul sculpture, Professor Sirajul Islam Chowdhury said, "The Islamic bigots abuse religion and people’s religious sentiments for their own purpose."

Blaming the government for obstructing the demonstration with the help of police, Professor MM Akash said, "We will continue our movement until the demands are met." He urged the democratic parties to include their demands in their electoral manifestos.



The Daily Star, October 27, 2008

Demolition of Lalon sculpture a conspiracy 3-day protests begin in Rajshahi; rally, human chain held in Nilphamari, Dinajpur

 Cultural organisations form a human chain on the premises of Dinajpur Government College yesterday demanding re-installation of baul sculpture near Zia International Airport in the capital. Photo: STAR

Protests against demolition of Lalon sculpture in the capital by religious bigots continued yesterday in districts. The protesters demanded re-installation of the sculpture, saying it is expressive of Bangladesh’s rich culture and heritage.

In Rajshahi University, Sculpture Protection Mancho, a newly floated organisation of over 20 cultural bodies and students organisation, yesterday launched a three-day programme on the campus demanding re-installation of the Baul sculpture near Zia International Airport in Dhaka.

On the first day, the Manch held a rally in front of Madhu Canteen and vowed to resist anarchy and violence in the name of religion.

Leaders at the rally also expressed solidarity with the proposal to name of ZIA Chhatar as ’Baul Chhatar’.

They said demolition of the Lalon sculpture is apart of an evil design by fundamentalist forces to destabilise the situation ahead of the election. It is a plot against Bangla culture and tradition, and also the spirit of the Liberation war, they said.

The programme includes sit-in demonstration and cultural programme today (Monday), protest art exhibition and rally and human chain on the campus tomorrow.

Earlier on the day, Bangladesh Chhatra Union (BCU), Samajtrantrik Chhatra Front (SCF) and Progotishil Chhatra Jote (PCJ) at RU formed separate human chains and held protest rallies on the campus demanding reinstallation of the sculpture.

In Nilphamari, different socio-cultural organizations formed a human chain and held a rally at Chowrongi intersection in the town demanding re-setting of the sculpture.

Local Udichi Shilphi Ghosti, Muktijoddha Smriti Pathagar, Mohila Parishad, Sahitto Parishad, Sammilito Sangskritik Jote, Bhawyaia Academy, Shilpi Samaj, Ekatturer Ghatok Dalal Nirmul Committe jointly organized the programmes.



The Daily Star, October 26, 2008

Bauls unite for culture 
 Iqbal Siddiquee, Sylhet

 Bauls perform at a programme demanding a free atmosphere for the arts. Photo: STAR

Cultural activists of Sylhet organised a session of Baul songs at the city’s Central Shahid Minar at Chouhatta area, on Friday. Their aim was to protest the removal of the sculpture near Zia International Airport and to press for its immediate re-installation. A human chain was also taken out in front of the central Shahid Minar in the afternoon.

Poet Tushar Kar, Dr. Abul Fateh Fattah, Poet Shuvendu Imam and Press club Vice-President Al-Azad spoke on the occasion before a crowd of thousands of people.

The speakers called for resistance against communalism. They also demanded a free atmosphere for the arts. Their protest, they added, would continue till the Lalon sculpture was re-installed.

Bauls like Ranesh Thakur, Mitali Chakravarty, Baul Siraj Udin, Md. Shahab Uddin, Mamatamoyi Dass, Fatema Tuj Mukta, Zoerima, Kamal Uddin Russel, Sumi and Dulal Sarker presented Baul songs in addition to those by members of Baul Kalyan Samity, Sylhet, and Bhati Bangla Baul Academy O Gobeshana Kendra.

Nabashikha Theatre staged a play titled “Team”. At the concluding session the speakers included principal Golam Hossain Azad; cultural activists Nazmul Haque, Sumon Kumar Das, Pranab Kanti Dev and Prantik Parshad President Ujjal Roy, among others.

Earlier, the Sylhet unit of Udichi Shilpi Goshthi organised a meeting to protest the removal of the sculpture. Unit chief Barrister Arosh Ali chaired the meeting where the speakers included Brojo Gopal Chowdhury, Sumita Dutta, Arun Kumar Sarker and Abhijit Das Jam.

The speakers pointed out that Lalon remains a major source of inspiration for non communal forces in the region. The nation, they added, will have to uphold his spirit to ensure peace in the country.



Daily Star, October 26, 2008

The writing on the wall

by Reaz Ahmad

WE are not living in a theocracy, are we? But, then again, neither are we in a democracy, at least, at this at this particular juncture of time. Our democratic rights have been put on hold by the imposition of a state of emergency with a promise of holding a free and fair poll that the country has been longing for for quite sometime now.

The reason why the question of "living in a theocracy" crept into our mind is the recent phenomenon of discreet intrusion of religious extremism into our statehood. As the basic secular democratic fabric of our society is being compromised due to prolonged absence of democracy in the country, pseudo-religious forces are now becoming brave enough to unmask their ugly face with renewed vigour.

They are now preaching and propagating their band of misguided religion in such a spirited fashion that a retreating unelected government appears, at times, to be skidding from the right track. The track of democracy, the track of secularity, and the track of 1971 that the Bengalis, irrespective of their creed, caste, age, and religious beliefs have cherished all along.

In fact, the overnight dismantling of under-construction sculptures from the ZIA airport roundabout at the diktat of pseudo-religious thugs is the ugliest manifestation of fanaticism in recent memory. This is a kind of barbaric act that Bangladesh can never stand for, because its people — having an unparalleled passion for democracy, yearning for aesthetic sense, and love for peace — never deserved it in the first place.

This act of putting the brakes on our democratic, secular adherence really put our tolerance to the test. The overwhelming majority of Bangladesh, sans an unresponsive government, is feeling utterly enraged, defiled and deprived. Time is ticking fast for people to identify the phantom behind the diktat that, many suspect, is sitting in the hallways of this military-controlled unelected government.

In this instance, the very first mistake the government committed was to hurriedly dismantle the baul sculpture, which was near completion, at the behest of pseudo-religious bigots. But, as if that stupidity was not enough, the government decided to fool the ever-conscious citizenry of the country by giving the lame excuse of design problem to justify(!) its act.

How on earth could a government rate collective public intelligence so poorly that it expected the people to believe that the design flaws were only identified when a handful of pseudo-religious bigots marched down the streets and threatened removal of the same on the pretext of religious sanctity?

The obvious question one would like to raise is whether there was an oversight mechanism in place to identify and rectify the so-called design flaws? How could it be? Who is to be blamed — the Roads and Highway Division or the Civil Aviation Authority? In fact, it was a cruel joke played to belittle the collective public wisdom of Bangladesh.

It’s a travesty of justice that, in bygone years, independence-spirited people were charged with treason just for seeking trial of war criminals, whereas people of the repute of Mufti Amini are touting for demolition of all sculptures and art-works. It’s to our utter surprise that people like Amini could make such incendiary remarks when there is such a government, though not elected by the people, in power. The government forgot to protect the sculpture when bigots marched down the streets near ZIA airport roundabout, defying state of emergency, but it made sure on October 22 that police take away two effigies of Amini from the protesting cultural activists so that those were not burnt to ashes.

Living in prolonged absence of democracy in Bangladesh is very costly now. We’re paying for that every day — our secular characteristics are being compromised, religious sanctity is being misinterpreted, cultural plurality and richness are being robbed. A few weeks back, a district administration of this country clamped a ban on one of the most popular singers — Momtaz — from performing just because some religious leaders had their reservations. When a fugitive from justice and alleged war criminal rubs shoulders with head of the government, and police tend to befool the pool of newsmen by claiming that he was nowhere in sight — what better we can expect from this administration.

But then again, whoever governs should never fail to read the writing on the wall — this time the writing is: "Who does this country belong to — Lalon or Amini?"



New Age, 24 October 2008

Notice has been given

We are all engaged in what is essentially a political battle against intolerance and violence, but we are each of us fighting alone, as cultural activists, as writers and poets, as women, or as Ahmadiyyas. Not as citizens who are united in a belief that respect for diversity – ethnic, cultural, religious, philosophical – to name a few, together constitute the foundations for a healthy society, writes Mahtab Haider

TODAY, more than ever, we have become a society too cocooned in the comfort of wishful thinking, to recognise the reality we are living in. Afghanistan was not Talibanised in a day. It took years, even decades of Cold War indoctrination against the Soviet invasion, during which the culture of tolerance and diversity that characterises most rural populations by default was dismantled piece by piece. And as with Bangladesh today, throughout this process, Afghanistan’s general public had ceded what had seemed to be tiny spaces to the religious hardliners, until eventually they found themselves cornered by a cabal of depraved clerics who saw fit to slice off women’s thumbs when they painted their nails, or publicly whipped taxi drivers because a female passenger had failed to cover her face.

There are two lessons from Afghanistan. That the radicalisation of an entire populace rarely happens overnight – and the mileposts for such radicalisation are often token concessions of public spaces which seem too insignificant to matter. And that it is not a requirement for a whole nation to believe in extreme ideology for an extreme ideology to become the dominant one. Often, as was the case with Afghanistan, the public whose collective endorsement is sought and secured for the practice of violent ideologies are also the victims of it at an individual level. In Afghanistan, as in Iran after the ‘Islamic revolution’, it was a small gang of clerics who seized the mantle of state power and morality and perpetrated the most tragic violence on the populace who were held hostage by their fear. The problem was not that a majority of the country believed in hard-line Islam, it was that a majority of the country were cowed into silence, with no leaders to stand up for rights and justice.

The manner in which a small group of radical Islamists pulled down a baul monument at the airport roundabout last week speaks volumes about the path we are treading today. It is instructive to note that the government immediately backed away from taking a stance on the issue – continuing its policy of appeasement of the religious right. This is not surprising though, since both the major parties would have perhaps done the same, whatever rhetoric we were force-fed on the local TV networks. What is far more significant is that powerful sections of the intelligentsia, the academia, and civil society have remained silent on the issue. Some of them because party politics dictates a wait and watch policy for now, some because it will hurt their business, some because they remember what happened to Humayun Azad or Shamsur Rahman, and all of them because it is more convenient to say nothing.

While truncheons fall hard on the backs of garments workers demanding their back pay or students demanding restoration of their fundamental rights, the religious identity of these bigots was enough to grant them a sweeping immunity. Yes, Bangladesh is country where the dominant culture is deeply secular despite the religious fault-lines triggered by the partition some sixty years ago. And in the same breath it must be said ‘no, it will not matter, unless we pit that ideology with the one that the bigots preach.’ If we allow this depraved cabal of religious clerics to corner us over and over again, be it on the state’s women’s development policy or a sculpture — any sculpture — we are ceding valuable public spaces in which we express diversity and dissent.

In the week that has passed, a great number of people from the country’s mainstream have expressed their distress over what they see as an insult to Lalon Shah. Many say they are surprised at the ‘audacity’ of the bigots that they could attack such a potent and universal symbol of our culture and tradition. Don’t be surprised, this is the new milepost. Three years ago when the four-party alliance under Khaleda Zia banned Ahmadiyya publications after Islamist bigots demonstrated Friday after Friday in Dhaka’s Tejgaon area, that was a milepost too. Ahmadiyya mosques were ransacked in many places across the country, followers of the faith were beaten up, and the bigots wanted the government to declare them ‘non-Muslim’. At the time, many who are outraged today felt no need to defend the rights of the followers of a small Muslim sect, because the attack was on what was sacred to ‘them’ and not ‘us’.

In May this year, when the military-controlled interim government announced a draft Development Policy for Women, religious hardliners poured onto the streets of the capital after Friday prayers at the national mosque, asking for the policy to conform to the Qur’an. Under orders from the government, the police showed incredible restraint as the mob blocked the streets and damaged public and private property, beating up a surprisingly docile police force with their own truncheons. The following Friday, the leaders of the movement announced after Friday prayers that the government had given in to their demands, amid cheers and chants. When a women’s rights group attempted a public protest, the government was suddenly all too eager to enforce the Emergency Powers Rules, and they were denied a public platform. Once again, there was a murmur of protest, but those whose call to arms to defend the constitutionally guaranteed equality of the sexes would have mattered often stayed silent – for fear and for convenience. Now, Lalon Shah is just the new milepost.

The German poet Martin Niemöller who witnessed the Nazi Holocaust as German intellectuals remained tragically silent captured the perils of that apathy and fear in words that have now become immortalised:

They came first for the Communists, 
 and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.
 Then they came for the Jews,
 and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
 Then they came for the trade unionists,
 and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
 Then they came for the Catholics,
 and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.
 Then they came for me,
 and by that time no one was left to speak up.

The reality that is emerging is that those who have a stake in power, or are beneficiaries of the existing power structure, will not take the lead in speaking up — they have too much invested to make a choice that may prove politically unpopular. There are those, however, who have spoken up. A broad spectrum of artistes and cultural activists banded together on the Dhaka University campus for much of the past week and campaigned against what they saw as an invasion of the cultural space by the religious right. The numbers of people this programme attracted was a heartening testimony to the mass appeal of the counterargument to religious radicalism and intolerance. The problem, of course, is that those sections of society that do believe in democracy and tolerance are content to exist as a counterargument — a reaction to a threat — rather than the argument itself. Over the past four decades, since former president Ziaur Rahman rehabilitated the discredited stalwarts of religion-based politics, and another military strongman HM Ershad amended the constitution to make the state religion Islam, and with the dawning political reality of both major parties courting Islamist parties, the secular fabric of our mainstream has been soiled and stamped upon by venal power politics. But just as that is the case, we must recognise that radical Islamists are singling out adversaries at their own time, on their own terms, and jostling for greater influence in the national mainstream. We are all engaged in what is essentially a political battle against intolerance and violence, but we are each of us fighting alone, as cultural activists, as writers and poets, as women, or as Ahmadiyyas. Not as citizens who are united in a belief that respect for diversity, ethnic, cultural, religious, philosophical, to name a few, together constitute the foundation for a healthy society.

‘Notice has been given: this is just the beginning,’ wrote Arundhati Roy in 2002, in the wake of the riots in India’s Gujarat state, when Muslim neighbourhoods were raided by armies of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal, Muslim women raped, babies impaled on tridents, and men doused with petrol and set on fire. ‘Is this the Hindu rashtra that we’ve all been asked to look forward to? Once the Muslims have been “shown their place,” will milk and Coca-Cola flow across the land? Once the Ram Mandir is built, will there be a shirt on every back and a roti in every belly? Will every tear be wiped from every eye? Can we expect an anniversary celebration next year? Or will there be someone else to hate by then? Alphabetically—Adivasis, Buddhists, Christians, Dalits, Parsis, Sikhs? Those who wear jeans, or speak English, or those who have thick lips, or curly hair? We won’t have to wait long. It’s started already.’

In Bangladesh too, notice has been served. The baul monument was a milepost.



The Daily Star, 24 October 2008

Anti-sculpture body warned against holding rally today 
 Staff Correspondent


Symbolic sculptures made by the students of Fine Arts Institute of Dhaka University yesterday to protest the removal of Baul statues from the airport intersection in the capital. Photo: STAR

Police asked Biman Bandar Gol Chattar Murti Pratirodh Committee, a forum against Baul statues at the airport intersection, not to hold their rally, scheduled for today, as it would be a breach of the Emergency Power Rules, 2007.

"The people concerned are requested not to hold the rally. Police would take legal steps against those who will breach the law," said a Dhaka Metropolitan Police press release yesterday.

The committee scheduled the rally near the Zia International Airport to press home their demand to construct a Hajj Minar at the roundabout where the Baul (folk singer) statues used to be.

However, Chairman of the committee Mufti Noor Hossain Nurani told The Daily Star yesterday, "The programme will go ahead at any cost… cancellation of the programme is out of the question."

Meanwhile, different organisations continued with their protest against the removal of the Baul sculptures and demanded their reinstallation.

In Netrakona cultural activists tried to form a human chain in front of the local press club yesterday demanding reinstallation of the statues. Police, however, prevented them from carrying out their programme, our Netrakona correspondent reports.

Charan Sangskritik Kendra, a cultural organisation, yesterday formed a human chain in front of the National Museum protesting the removal of the sculptures.

They also held a rally there. Speakers at the rally demanded that the government try war criminals and ban religion-based politics.

Central Coordinator of Charan Sangskritik Kendra Jahedul Haque Milu, Samajtantrik Sramik Front General Secretary Rajekuzzaman Ratan, Coordinator of Democratic Left Alliance Abdus Salam and General Secretary of Krishak Front Bazlur Rashid Firoz spoke at the rally, among others.

Lalon Bhaskarja Punosthapan Manch, a platform demanding reinstallation of the sculptures, yesterday held a day-long cultural programme on Dhaka University campus.

The platform displayed posters, photos, news clippings and cartoons on the removal of the sculptures at the TSC and in front of the Ducsu building on the campus.

A recently launched political party, United Citizen Movement (UCM) led by Kazi Faruk Ahmed, in a press release condemned the removal of the statues and demanded their reinstallation.

Samajik Pratirodh Committee (SPC), a platform of several non-government organisations, in a meeting said they were shocked to see the government remove the sculptures under pressure from activists of a certain students organisation.

They condemned the removal of the sculptures, vandalism at Dhaka University Vice-chancellor’s office by madrasa students, sexual harassment of a female student at Jahangirnagar University and harassment of female students at BCIC College. They said these acts just before the elections are making them anxious.

Sramik Karmachari Oikya Parishad, an organisation of labourers and employees, will form a human chain at the Central Shaheed Minar at 4:00pm today protesting the removal of the statues.



The Daily Star, October 22, 2008

Citizens to unite against sculpture removal Staff Correspondent

Cultural activists and Dhaka University students pose as sculptures and parade streets on the campus yesterday, demanding right to free practice of cultural activities and protesting demolition of Baul sculptures at Zia International Airport intersection. Photo: STAR

Eminent citizens of the country yesterday decided to bring all the organisations protesting the removal of Baul statues from the airport roundabout under one platform in a day or two to forge a people’s movement against fundamentalist forces.

They said they will send letters to the Awami League, BNP and other political parties asking them to support the demand for installing a statue of high art value at the site and stand up to what they termed conspiracies against the spirit of the liberation war.

The roads & highways department (RHD) and civil aviation authority removed five Baul (folk singer) statues, including Lalon Shah’s, giving in to pressures from fundamentalists on October 15.

The citizens made the decision at a meeting presided over by acclaimed scholar Dr Khan Sarwar Murshed at Comrade Moni Singh-Farhad Trust building yesterday afternoon.

They said the attack on the sculptures is an attack on the culture and tradition of the country, adding that the country would be unliveable if the fundamentalists were not stopped now.

Academician Dr Anisuzzaman, columnist Syed Abul Maksud, sculptor Emdad Hossain, Ajoy Roy of Sammilita Samajik Andolon, Dhaka University teacher Dr Syed Anwar Hossain, commander Abdur Rauf, human rights activists Dr Hamida Hossain, Khushi Kabir and Shamsuzzaman Khan, among others, spoke at the meeting.

The meeting weighed up three options: publishing an open letter to the chief adviser, a common editorial in all newspapers and submitting a memorandum to the chief adviser demanding brakes on the fundamentalist forces.

The citizens will meet today to choose from the options.

Prof Murshed said the threat manifesting itself by forcing authorities to remove the sculptures and the crowing of Islami Oikya Jote Chairman Mufti Fazlul Haque Amini strike the foundation of the state and its constitution.

He said the communal forces are rearing their heads from local and international conspiracies.

Prof Murshed slated the government for keeping mum on the issue when the country is swamped with strong protests against the removal of the sculptures.

Syed Abul Maksud said the existence of the country as a modern state would come under threat if the communal forces got their own way.

Pointing to a statement of Amini in which he bellowed that they will demolish all the statues erected during the Awami League government, Maksud said they are doing politics using the sculptures.

Sculptures are not idols, he said.

Prof Anisuzzaman said people should be enlightened that the very individuals who are smashing the sculptures now in the name of Islam went on killing sprees during the liberation war using the baloney that Islam would not exist if Pakistan ceases to exist.

Dr Anwar said there is no conflict between Islam and sculptures. He termed the sculpture haters ’distorters of Islam’, saying they cling to a distorted version of the religion.

Meanwhile, different political and cultural organisations continued to protest the removal of the statues.

Speakers at a rally of the Democratic Left Alliance (DLA) said the communal forces are conspiring against the culture and the liberation war gaining from the silence of the government.

Citing the instance of allowing Jamaat-e-Islami Secretary General Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojahid, wanted accused in a graft case, into a meeting with the chief adviser, they alleged that the government was giving shelter to the fundamentalist forces.

Teachers and students from the fine arts faculty of Dhaka University and cultural activists vowed to resist any axis of evil formed against free practice of arts.

They, at a press conference, announced to hold a convention of artists and cultural activists to form a national committee which would prepare a guideline for sculptures and other installations.

They called for formation of a forum comprising artists, critics, architects and city planners, which would devise a policy for erecting sculptures at important public places.

The artists called for naming the roundabout in front of Zia International Airport as Lalan Square.

Abdush Shakur, Abu Naser, Abdus Sattar, Emdad Hossain, Khushi Kabir, Nisar Hossain, Maniruzzaman and theatre artist Shahidul Alam Sacchu, among others, were present at the press conference.

Dhaka University students formed a human chain in front of the university central library demanding the environment for freethinking and free practice of arts.

Fine-arts students of the university posed as sculptures and paraded on the campus.

Samyabadi Dal of Bangladesh and Bangladesh Chhatra Union brought out processions protesting the removal of the sculptures.

Bangladesh Udichi Shilpi Goshthi will hold cultural programme at the Shaheed Minar today to protest the removal.



The Daily Star, 21 October 2008

All the king’s men

by Hana Shams Ahmed

"What caste were you when you came to mother earth? 
 And what caste did you ’wear’ thereafter?
 What would be your caste when you depart this world?
 Think about it.
 And give me an answer."
— From the hymn ’Jaat gelo jaat gelo boley’ Attributed to be the work of Fakir Lalon Shah

First it was "fugitive" Jamaat-e-Islami Secretary General Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojahid who went "missing" from the law-enforcers net only to be seen by rest of the country at a high-profile meeting with none other than the chief adviser of the caretaker government. Then, the government worked with amazing speed at the complaint of the bigots and ordered the airport and civil aviation authorities to take down the sculptures of the bauls. 50 lakh takas had already been spent on it.

This is the same government, by the way, which has been paying lip service to the cause of the trial of the war criminals. Even after several appeals by the Sector Commanders Forum and other groups to initiate the process of the trial, this government has chosen to look the other way. This is also the same government which has been sitting on the draft policy against sexual harassment, just like all other previous governments, and expressing shyness about taking a decision about it. But given how much resistance and intimidation was faced by the government after implementing the [watered down] National Policy on Advancement of Women, this dilly-dallying does not come as much of a surprise.

The latest incident seems to have been incited by none other than the Islami Oikya Jote chairperson Fazlul Huq Amini who "announced" that "all sculptures in the country should be razed to the ground." Amini is the same person who carried out a violent and hate-filled campaign against the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in 2004-05. He is also the person behind the furious protest against the women’s policy, proclaiming a fatwa that by announcing the policy, the caretaker government has spoken against the Quran. Amini also said in a press statement that if ever an Islamic party came to power in Bangladesh it would ban Grameen Bank from operating in the country, calling Nobel laureate Yunus, an "enemy of Islam." So the government has basically given in to a demand of a group which is essentially anti-secularism, anti-women’s empowerment, and anti-empowerment of the poor!

And the giving in to this demand seems to be spreading across the country like a virus. Already a statement signed by 101 leaders of various Islamic groups has demanded that the construction of a sculpture named Bijay Bihanga, or the bird of victory being set up in Barsial marking the liberation of the city from the Pakistani forces in 1971, should be immediately stopped. The work had been ’approved’ by religious leaders earlier.

At one time Bangladesh was termed as a moderate Muslim country. The majority Muslims could live peacefully with people of other faiths — the second largest followers of the faith, the Hindus along with Christians, Buddhists and other minorities. Although inter-faith marriages were culturally been frowned upon, religion induced clashes were unheard of. And then the bombs went off at the Pahela Boishakh celebrations in 2001, which proved to be a turning point in changing the country’s identity of "moderate Muslim."

But how did Amini and many like him get to this position of power? After Ershad’s fall in 1991 the Bangladeshi public were only too happy to see BNP and AL either in power or as the opposition in the parliament. After nine years of dictatorship rule, what more could the people ask for?

The first blow came when BNP decided that forming a coalition with Jamaat, many of whose leaders are known collaborators of the Pakistan army, would give them the political edge they needed to stay in parliament.

The second blow came when Awami League, who boasted of being secular-left in nature, decided it, too, would form a coalition with Khelafat Majlish. That coalition never worked out, but the damage had been done. When the two major political parties have shown their insecurities in front of extremist groups, expecting a caretaker government to take a stand against the hard-liners would be too much to expect. Or would it?

The political identity of Bangladesh is changing fast. If the caretaker government does indeed want to root out corruption and restore its identity as a moderate Muslim country, giving in to the demands of the hard-liners must stop immediately. That can only start with the restoring of the baul sculptures to where they belong.



The Daily Star - 21 October 2008

Reinstall baul sculptures 
 Demand different organisations

Staff Correspondent

The fundamentalist forces in the country are running their activities with the patronage of the present government, speakers alleged at a rally protesting the removal of the five sculptures of bauls near the Zia International Airport.

They were addressing the rally organised by Jano Sangskriti Mancha (JSM) near the Teacher-Student Centre (TSC) on the Dhaka University (DU) campus.

The speakers demanded reinstallation of the sculptures and said the present government has been trying to hide its failures by creating untoward situation with the help of fundamentalists.

Justice Golam Rabbani, DU Prof Geeti Ara Nasrin, Gano Sanghati Andolan Convener Zonaed Saki, and Zaid Aziz, among others, spoke.

Meanwhile, many other organisations continued their protests against the removal of the sculptures.

Expressing resentment over the removal of the sculptures, Samajik Pratirodh Committee (SPC), a combine of 41 organisations, in a statement yesterday said the government should take firm stance against all provocative activities.

They also demanded immediate reinstallation of the sculptures.

Ayesha Khanam, president of Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, Advocate Sultana Kamal, former adviser to caretaker government and executive director of Ain o Shalish Kendra, Shirin Akhter, president of Karmojibi Nari, Dr Badiul Alam Mazumder, country director of the Hunger Project Bangladesh, barristers Tania Ameer and Sara Hossain, among others, signed the statement.

The students of the DU Institute of Fine Arts also held cultural programmes at the institute protesting the incident.

Women for Women, a research and study group, also expressed concern over the removal of the sculptures.

Left-leaning political parties will hold a rally at the Central Shaheed Minar today protesting the removal of the sculptures and Mufti Fazlul Haque Amini’s remarks on the sculptures in the country.

o o o


New Age, 21 October 2008

Yet another walkover for bigots

Our political parties are so terrified of being branded as anti-religion or anti-Islam by Amini and his like that they too would rather take down a baul monument, as this regime has done, than confront intolerance and bigotry by a band of criminals and misfits, writes Shameran Abed

THE sinister political agenda of Islamist bigots were given a significant boost on Wednesday when the present regime, weak and unprincipled as it is, capitulated in the face of pressure from obscurantist forces and tore down a baul sculpture from in front of Zia International Airport. Emboldened by their success, the bigots demanded on Friday that all sculptures in the country be destroyed, even those that commemorate our war of independence. Then, on Sunday, Fazlul Huq Amini, chairman of the Islami Oikya Jote and the foremost champion of religious bigotry, reportedly said that the upcoming parliamentary elections will be fought on the single issue of sculptures, between the lovers of sculpture and the lovers of religion. The intrinsic fallacy of the argument aside, the statement underscores the fact that the bigots have sensed an opening and will exploit it for whatever it is worth.

  Of all the disservice that the current regime has done to our country in the last 21 months, the aiding and abetting of fundamentalists and bigots must rank at the top. To begin with, members of the Jamaat-e-Islami were largely spared from this regime’s anti-corruption crusade, as if they are so incorruptible that none of the BNP’s indiscretions rubbed off on them, even after five years of being a major component of the government that is widely considered the most corrupt in our nation’s history. Then, more than a year after the anti-corruption drive began in earnest, when this regime finally did come around to arresting the Jamaat chief Matiur Rahman Nizami on charges of corruption, they were indisposed to keeping him behind bars for any significant length of time. He was thus released on bail before any other major politician. If that was not dubious enough, the monkey business that this government is doing with the Jamaat secretary general is. Even though a warrant was issued for the arrest of Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid some weeks back, the police apparently have not been able to capture him until now. Yet, consider this: in the weeks that he has officially been ‘absconding’, Mujahid has not only held public events but has visited, as a member of the Jamaat delegation, the office of the chief adviser for official talks and even shook hands with Fakhruddin Ahmed. The chief adviser could have put the handcuffs on this fugitive himself, if he was so inclined. It would have made for great television.

  Also, forget not the role this regime played when bigots laid siege to its women’s development policy, which sought to ensure equal rights for women under the law. Then, like now, the regime capitulated and amended sections of the policy after bigots took out processions after Friday prayers for weeks on end to demand that the policy be scrapped. Yet, when women’s rights activists attempted to bring out a procession in favour of the policy, the regime invoked the emergency powers rules and broke up the procession. In these 21 months, the emergency powers rules have been invoked many times to break up many processions and demonstrations, from those brought out by students at Dhaka University to those by garments’ workers demanding higher pay and rights activists protesting against human rights violations and gender discrimination. Not once, however, have the emergency power rules been invoked to break up a procession brought out by the Islamist bigots.

  It does not end there. When a freedom fighter was mercilessly beaten by Jamaat activists at a freedom fighters’ seminar organised by the Jamaat, which is a ridiculous proposition in the first place, the law enforcement personnel neither provided protection to the victim nor took any action against the perpetrators. This would not have required the invocation of the emergency power rules. Physically assaulting a person is a crime under the ordinary laws of the land the last time this writer checked. What is perhaps most ironic is that the bigots have been able to hold rallies and meetings at will during this period of emergency, but when the Sector Commanders’ Forum, made up of bona fide war heroes, tried to organise a convention to generate support for the issue of trial of war criminals, it faced tremendous resistance from this military-controlled regime which initially denied the forum an appropriate venue for the convention.

  The continual appeasement of obscurantist forces by this regime has naturally encouraged and emboldened the bigots and while the prospect of the end of its dismal tenure later this year may be a silver lining of sorts, the situation is likely to be no better once the country returns to elected rule. This regime has not been the first to give in to these organised forces of darkness, it has just been the latest. The truth is, neither the BNP, which has for almost ten years been allied with the Jamaat, nor the Awami League, which proved through the 2006 Khelafat Majlish deal that it is just as likely to sell its soul to the devil to come to power, can be trusted to take on these bigots if and when they come to power. The parties are so terrified of being branded as anti-religion or anti-Islam by Amini and his like that they too would rather take down a baul monument, as this regime has done, than confront intolerance and bigotry by a band of criminals and misfits.

  For those who feel sickened by sights of bigots rejoicing as government agencies pull down a monument commemorating Lalon Fakir, who, by the way, happened to be a great progressive, the options on offer in the upcoming elections are entirely unpalatable. Even in the United States where there is apparently little difference left between the two major political parties as far as economic policies are concerned, a clear line can still be drawn on the cultural issues. Social progressives can give their vote to the Democratic Party safe in the knowledge that the Democrats will not take away abortion rights of women, just as rural conservatives can give their vote to the Republican Party safe in the knowledge that their second amendment rights to bear firearms will be protected by the GOP. In Bangladesh, the bigots have plenty of choices, but which party can social progressives give their vote to in the upcoming elections and be certain that it will fight bigotry and intolerance on their behalf?

  In the last couple of days, thankfully, we have seen the first signs of a movement to resist the forward march of the obscurantist forces, originating as these movement always do at Dhaka University, which for all its degeneration and decay still remains the foremost bastion of progressive thought. However, in the absence of political leadership on the one hand and the unwillingness of our civil society stalwarts to rise to the challenge on the other, will the progressives who have raised their voice be able to sustain their fight against forces as determined and organised as the obscurantists are? Time will tell.



The Daily Star, October 20, 2008

Time to take a stand

by Ashfaq Wares Khan

WHAT next — Aparajayo Bangla? The Shaheed Minar? The Smriti Shoudho? Wait, what happens to all those "statues" in our temples and churches? What is at stake here is not only the future of these important monuments to our history and our faiths, but the daily rituals that constitute our way of life.

The agitation which culminated in the removal of the five baul sculptures in front of Zia International Airport strikes at the heart of a society built on the foundations of religious tolerance that has developed over a thousand years of adaptation of a diverse set of cultural and religious practices.

The Islamists have already threatened to shut down Pahela Baishakh and they came mighty close by bombing the Ramna Batamul in 2002. Who knows what or who they are going to attack next.

If we are to believe Fazlul Haque Amini, the head of the IOJ and a group that calls itself the Islamic Law Implementation Committee, then don’t expect to see any of this when Islamists take over. Most people say, well, they will never take over. Fine. But, the problem is that they don’t have to. They are being handed out favours for free.

The government’s concession to the Islamists on Wednesday is part of a larger victory for the hard-liners hell-bent on transporting Bangladesh back to the middle ages in the Middle East. What’s worse, the middle ages in the Middle East were perhaps more tolerant and liberal than the society envisioned by these radical Islamists in Bangladesh.

This government, along with its democratic and non-democratic predecessors, has consistently conceded and cravenly acquiesced to the slightest and strangest demands made by Islamist fringe groups who seemingly pull more weight than the vast majority here who do not prescribe to their radical agenda.

This has been facilitated by an appeasement policy run by mainstream political parties. The governing principle apparently being that appeasing the hard-line Islamists, along with a nominal number of arrests, would repel the greater threat of terrorism.

But, even though they object to the full installation of the Islamist agenda, in the long run, by conceding these ostensibly small but significant defeats, the appeasers are conceding and participating in the slow but steady erosion of the tolerant and secular soul of Bengali culture.

This practice of Islamising Bangladesh (and, that too, a narrow interpretation of Islam that is peddled for political ends) at the cost of a secular society is not new. In the 1970s and 1980s, this was represented by the changes in constitution. In the last decade, the attacks have become more bold, more outrageous, and more violent.

Successive governments have not only maintained silence about these attacks, but at times actively encouraged the attacks on other religious communities and secular intellectuals.

The last BNP-led government not only silenced but arrested journalists for publishing news on the violence against Hindu communities in 2001-2002. The same government banned Ahmadiyya religious texts, and also tacitly encouraged the attack on the Ahmadiyya community by the same group that tore down the baul statues. The attackers of Humayun Azad were never really chased.

This isn’t really unexpected in a country when most politicians and administrators refer to it as a "moderate Muslim nation." How the country became a "Muslim" nation, no one knows. But in reality it has and it’s not far from the truth. But to call it moderate? Please!

The double standards here are farcical. The Election Commission has been haranguing over the need for religion-based parties to adapt secular constitutions. Every time the government needs a cultural symbol, it boasts of the grand historical achievements of the country’s writers, playwrights, artists, singers and (surprise!) baul music.

Yet, when push came to shove, the government didn’t waste a second to dispense with the country’s pride and joy when pushed by the Islamists.

The fact that Wednesday’s event took place in front of the airport takes on added significance because the location offers the visitor his or her first impression of Bangladesh.

The signs and symbols leading out of the airport are meant to showcase the best of Bangladesh. Instead, the statue-wreck outside the airport showcases the worst of a country at war with itself.

Wednesday’s event is scarily reminiscent of the Pakistani government ban on Rabindranath Tagore in the 1960s. He wasn’t Islamic enough, they said. Now after nearly 50 years, people are again being provided a false choice of Bengali versus Islam.

It’s a false choice because Bengal, and later Bangladesh, has seamlessly combined religious and cultural practices. One of its richest and most potent expressions is found in baul philosophy, which espouses religious tolerance and the power of humanity to heal the wounds of religious divisions. That’s why the demolition of baul figures is a potent reminder of our larger threats.

The artists and intellectuals who came to protest in the aftermath of the demolition need to be lauded for their efforts. They are rare and courageous at a time when the government has wilted in the face of fear.

But, sadly, this is not enough. The calling to act is an agonising and dangerous vocation in Bangladesh. We don’t have to act with guns or platitudes. If they take down one statue, we must erect another ten as symbols of our firm dissent when faced with fear.

Ashfaq Wares Khan is a freelance journalist.



The Daily Star, 20 October 2008

Fury rages on against removal of sculpture 
 Staff Correspondent

Different organisations yesterday staged demonstrations protesting against the removal of the statues of Baul singers (folk singers) at the Zia International Airport intersection.

A group of Dhaka University (DU) students under the banner of Pragatir Paribrajak Dal, a cultural movement of DU students, held a cultural programme in protest near Ducsu cafeteria on the campus.

The students demanded reinstallation of the sculptures.

Meanwhile, students of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet) yesterday formed a human chain protesting the removal of the statues and the statements of Mufti Fazlul Haque Amini regarding sculptures in Bangladesh.

Around 100 students, mostly members of different cultural and political organisations of Buet, formed the human chain around 1:30pm under the banner of Sammilito Sangskritik Oikya, a platform of different cultural organisations in Buet. It ended around 2:15pm.

The students also brought out a silent procession that paraded different streets inside the university.

Ranak, president of Buet Film Society, Dipesh, president of Murchhana, a cultural club at Buet, Machel, president of Buet Debate Club and Rubel, acting president of Buet unit of Bangladesh Chhatra League, took part in the human chain.

Charan Sangskritik Kendra (CSK), a cultural organisation, during a press conference also demanded reinstallation of the sculptures of the Baul singers.

In a statement, the coordinator of CSK said the removal of the sculptures was a surrender of the government to the fundamentalist forces at the intersection near ZIA.

Bangladesh Mahila Parishad and six anti-fundamentalist organisations—Bratachari Andolan, Nagorik Odhikar Andolan, Anushilan Pathchakra, Jubokarmi Sangha, Pragya, Shahid Rafik Smriti Pathagar—also demanded reinstallation of the statues.



The Daily Star, 19 October 2008

Protests go on against removal of sculptures 
 DU Correspondent

Students of Fine Arts Institute of Dhaka University paint graffiti on the road in front of the institute yesterday to protest against communalism and militancy. Photo: STAR

Teachers and students of Dhaka University (DU) yesterday protested the removal of five sculptures of bauls in front of Zia International Airport in the face of protests by Islamist groups.

They held various programmes on the university campus demanding immediate reinstallation of the sculptures.

Terming the incident a ’threat’ against the country’s history, culture, tradition and pro-liberation forces, they said a certain quarter has been using religion for political purposes.

DU teachers and students under the banner of ’General Teachers and Students’ held a rally at the foot of Aparajeyo Bangla at around 11:00am protesting the incident.

Later, around 500 teachers and students brought out a procession with a banner "We are angry at the removal of the sculptures" and marched various streets on the campus.

Meanwhile, leaders and activists of various left-leaning student organisations formed a human chain around 12:00noon stretching from Shahbagh intersection to Teacher-Student Centre (TSC) intersection protesting the removal of the sculptures.

After the rally, emeritus professor of DU Dr Serajul Islam Choudhury said a section of the present government might have supported those who staged violent protests demanding removal of the sculptures. Otherwise, it would not be possible for them to do so under the state of emergency, he said.

The present government should give a statement about the removal of the sculptures as the government itself had taken the initiative to erect those in front of Zia International Airport, he said.

University students under the banner of Lalan Bhaskarjya Protisthapan Mancha at a press conference at Madhu’s Canteen demanded immediate reinstallation of the sculptures.

The students of the faculty of fine arts organised street painting in front of the faculty in the evening protesting the incident.


22 / Unheard Voices 
 19 October 2008

Baul Statue Protests Gather Momentum

The police scuffle with cultural activists who try to hold a rally at Muktangan in the capital on Saturday in protest against removal of the sculpture of bauls from in front of the Zia International Airport. —New Age photo

Police battle cultural activists trying to hold rally at Muktangan in protest against removal of the sculpture of bauls from Zia International Airport. [New Age photo]

Sculptors, painters, artistes and writers on Saturday joined the teachers and students of Dhaka University in a street protest against the removal of baul statues from the airport road roundabout under pressure from religious zealots. They demanded re-installation of baul sculptures in front of the Zia International Airport and threatened to go for a tougher movement if the government failed to safeguard the artworks and monuments symbolising the nation’s glorious independence war and rich cultural heritage. The protesters gathered at the foot of the Aparajeya Bangla on the DU campus and vowed to protect the country’s cultural heritage. They chanted slogans and carried banners censuring the interim government for siding with the fundamentalist forces and removing the sculptures of baul including that of great mystic poet Lalon Fakir. A human chain was formed in front of the fine art institute. Later at a rally, professor emeritus of Dhaka University Serajul Islam Choudhury came down heavily on Islami Oikya Jote leader Fazlul Huq Amini who announced to raze all sculptures to the ground.

He also criticised the government’s silence over such threats from fundamentalists. Symbols of national pride like central Shaheed Minar, Aparajeya Bangla and Sangsaptak are not free from such threats, he said. ‘It is not impossible for them to attack our national symbols as they had tried to establish Islamic nationalism in Bangladesh,’ he said, adding that evil forces were issuing such threats with the help of the government. Muntassir Mamun, a professor of history, found no scope for confusion about the present government’s support for the religious fundamentalists. ‘The authorities see no wrong in fundamentalists bringing out procession and violating emergency rules. But they act upon promptly and obstruct when university teachers proceed to form a human chain at Shaheed Minar.’ Cartoonist Rafiqun Nabi, poet Muhammad Samad, dramatics teacher Israfil Shaheen, journalism teachers Getee Ara Nasrin and Robaet Ferdous and drama director M Hamid attended the rally. Sammilita Sangskritik Jote also held a rally at the Central Shaheed Minar in the afternoon denouncing the government’s role of maintaining double standard. ‘Cultural activists need to take permission from military for holding a cultural programme across the country, but the mullahs face no resistance even if they go out for creating anarchy,’ said an activist. Playwright Mamunur Rashid said the fundamentalists could show such audacity as the government did not punish the war criminals yet. Awami League publicity secretary and actor Asaduzzaman Noor said the government was trying to confuse the people and divert their attention to another issue from the next general elections.

Bangladesh Engineering University Protests [Bangladesh Engineering University Protests. Photo:]

Bangladesh Chhatra League burnt an effigy of Amini in front of Raju Memorial Monument at the evening to protest his speech. Bangladesh Chhatra Union and the students of fine art painted the street in front of the institute, denouncing the role of the government favouring the bigots. The central steering committee of the 11-Party Alliance on Saturday demanded that the government take stern action against the religious bigots, who are out to destroy the country’s art and culture. The committee at a meeting protested against the government’s decision to remove the statue of Lalon from the Zia International Airport roundabout, bowing to the pressure from a group of Islamist zealots. The bigots were trying to stifle the nation’s glorious heritage and move the country towards darkness, the leftist leaders said. They also condemned the ‘audacious’ remarks of four party alliance leader Fazlul Haque Amini to demolish all the sculptures. They called on all progressive political forces to resist the activities of the ultra Islamist forces. The meeting also vowed to strengthen the unity of non-communal democratic political forces on the basis of 23-point charter of demands. Chaired by Workers Party president Rashed Khan Menon, the meeting was attended among others by Pankaj Bhattachrya, Mohammad Nurul Islam, Giasuddin Haider, Abu Hamed Shahabuddin and Asit Baran. Democratic Left Alliance, a combine of left leaning political parties demanded stern action against Fazlul Haque Amini for his statement for demolition of all sculptures. He must be arrested and punished immediately, the central coordination committee demanded in a press statement issued on Saturday



The Daily Star, 18 October 2008

Put back Baul singers’ statues near ZIA 
 Demand cultural activists, eminent citizens Staff Correspondent

Cultural activists and eminent citizens yesterday demanded reinstallation of the sculptures of the Baul singers (folk singers) at the Zia International Airport intersection saying that an attack on the sculptures is an attack on our culture, Liberation War and the country.

The sculptures include a statue of the illustrious Baul, Lalon Shah.

They said there is a conspiracy against the country’s Liberation War, culture and its secularist character and this is happening as the war criminals have not been punished.

They said this at a discussion organised by Ganosangeet Samannay Parishad to drum up support for a movement against war criminals, criminals, black money holders and communal forces, at the Central Shaheed Minar last evening.

Eminent educationist Prof Serajul Islam Choudhury said the attack on Lalon’s sculpture is an attack on the creativity of the nation.

"The communal forces, the people who use religion for their politics and business, are trying to distract people from their struggle for economic freedom by doing such things," said Prof Choudhury.

"This conspiracy against the country and its culture is going on as we could not punish the war criminals," he said urging the people to unite and resist the conspiracy and realise the dream of the Liberation War.

Sammilito Sangskritik Jote General Secretary Golam Kuddus said the attack and threats of fundamentalist forces are part of a conspiracy to destroy Bengali culture.

He urged the government to start the trial of the war criminals based on the list of 11,000 war criminals who were arrested under the collaborators act.

Kuddus also urged political parties not to nominate war criminals and black money owners in the upcoming elections.

Ganosangeet Samannay Parishad President and eminent singer Fakir Alamgir presided over the discussion. The discussion was followed by a cultural programme.



New Age, 17 October 2008


Govt shows where its sympathy lies, again

WE ARE incensed by the decision of the military-controlled interim government to pull down a monument commemorating our rich baul tradition from in front of Zia International Airport in the face of pressure from a group of obscurantist Islamists. The Dhaka City Corporation had decided some six months ago to build the monument as part of its city beautification programme and the sculptor tasked with the project was almost nearing completion when the government capitulated to the demands of the obscurantists, who had themselves tried to pull down the monument on Wednesday before the government appeased to their bigotry. The monument was a depiction of one of the most famous songs of Lalon Fakir, the icon of baul philosophy and one of our earliest progressives, who provided, some two centuries ago, a powerful voice against the inequities of power relations and gender discriminations in society. The government’s decision to pull down the monument, which is akin to the destruction of the Buddhist sculptures by the Taliban government in Afghanistan in 2001, appears to be the latest in a growing list of actions which point towards a larger truth: this regime goes out of its way to not only appease but to nurture and patronise obscurantism and bigotry at the expense of tolerance and progress - political and cultural.

First, in the last 21 months, we have noticed how high-profile members of the obscurantist Jamaat-e-Islami have been largely spared from this regime’s so-called anti-corruption drive. Second, despite there being an arrest warrant against the Jamaat secretary-general, Ali Ahsan Muhammad Mujahid, he has not been arrested by the government’s law enforcement agencies even though he is carrying on holding public events. What is worse, on Tuesday, Mujahid was part of a Jamaat delegation that held talks with a government team headed by the chief adviser and actually shook hands with Fakhruddin Ahmed. It is incredulous that the chief adviser could hold official talks and shake hands with someone against whom an arrest warrant has been issued and someone who is shown by the police to be ’absconding’.

Third, we saw that when the government had drafted a women development policy to ensure equal rights for women under the law, it was compelled to review the policy and amend sections of it under pressure from a similar group of obscurantists. When the bigots brought out procession after procession following Friday prayers for weeks on end to demand cancellation of the policy, the government not only did not break up those processions but gave in to their demands. However, when women’s rights groups attempted to bring out a procession in favour of the policy, the government cited the Emergency Powers Rules to break up the procession and snatched away their signs and placards. Fourth, we saw that when members of a fundamentalist religion-based party beat up a freedom fighter, the government’s law enforcement agencies refused to protect the freedom fighter or even to enforce the ordinary laws against the perpetrators of the crime. Fifth, obscurantist groups have had no problem holding rallies and meetings in the last 21 months, but when the Sector Commanders’ Forum, a group of distinguished freedom fighters, tried to organise a convention to mobilise public opinion on the issue of the trial of war criminals, it faced massive resistance from the government.

Any one of these unfortunate incidents would have given us pause, but taken together, these incidents of the government continuously siding with the bigots form an extremely disturbing pattern. This regime talks about democracy, progress and the secular spirit of our liberation war, but its actions make it absolutely clear that its sympathies are with those who wish to turn us into an intolerant, medieval society. Following yesterday’s decision to pull down the baul monument, this government has lost every last shred of moral authority to govern this nation. We urge this regime, therefore, to immediately restore the monument and to punish the bigots who have campaigned to bring it down. Also, we urge the democratic-oriented sections of society to raise their voice against such despicable acts of bigotry and also against the regime which supports them.



The Daily Star, 17 October 2008

Removal of sculptures sparks protests 
 Staff Correspondent

Various political and socio-cultural organisations yesterday condemned the removal of the five sculptures of bauls (folk singers) in front of the Zia International Airport (ZIA).

They urged the people to launch movement against the fundamentalists who are posing threats to Bengali culture and heritage.

Meanwhile, Bimanbandar Golchattar Murti Protirodh Committee that forced the authorities concerned to remove the sculptures said the government has to begin the task of erecting a hajj minar by October 23 in place of the sculptures removed on Wednesday.

They also demanded removal of Mahbub Jamil, special assistant to the chief adviser, for taking initiative to erect the sculptures.

Committee Chairman Mufti Nur Hossain Nurani, also the chairman of Khatme Nabuwat Andolon, at a press conference at a city restaurant said if the government fails to meet their demands they would hold a grand rally at the north gate of the hajj camp on October 24.

The Roads and Highways Department (RHD) and Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh (CAAB) were forced to remove the five sculptures in the face of protests of the Murti Protirodh Committee on Wednesday.

"We will not accept anything but a hajj minar at that place and its design must be finalised upon our consent," said Mufti Nur Hossain.

He said all khatibs across the country will bring out processions from mosques today demanding punishment of those who took the initiative to erect the sculptures in front of ZIA.

Sculptor Mrinal Haque said the task of erecting the sculptures began about three and a half months back.

Almost 50 percent work of the project had been finished at a cost of Tk 50 lakh, said Mrinal, who was supposed to sign an agreement with United Commercial Bank Ltd on Wednesday for getting funds.

A CAAB official said they removed the five sculptures of bauls holding ektara on instructions of the ministry concerned.

Ain O Salish Kendra in a statement expressed concern over the removal of the sculptures and said such incidents raise questions about the present government’s commitment to protecting Bengali culture, upholding non-communal spirit and democratic values.

Workers Party of Bangladesh President Rashed Khan Menon and its General Secretary Bimal Biswas in a joint statement also condemned the removal of the sculptures.

They said the present caretaker government has compromised with the fundamentalists on various issues but the people will thwart all attacks on the Bengali culture.

Bangladesh Udichi Shilpi Gosthi, Charan Sangskritik Kendra, Jaybangla Sangskritik Oikya Jote and Bangladesh Students’ Union also condemned the incident.



The Daily Star, 16 October 2008

Sculptures near ZIA removed after protests 
 Staff Correspondent

The Roads and Highways Department (RHD) and Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh (CAAB) were forced to remove five sculptures of Bauls (folk singers) including Lalon Shah in front of the Zia International Airport in the face of protests from an Islamist group.

Sculptor Mrinal Haque told reporters that almost 50 percent task of the Tk 1crore project had been finished at a cost of around Tk 50 lakh.

Two of the five sculptures had been removed by yesterday evening while the rest was to be removed by midnight, Officer-in-Charge (OC) of the Airport Police Station Sirajul Islam told the Daily Star.

He said the erection of the sculptures began about a month ago.

Earlier, Murti Protirodh Committee (Sculpture Prevention Committee) led by Khatme Nabuat Chairman Mufti Nur Hossain Nurani gave an ultimatum of 24 hours for removal of the sculptures.

Witnesses said around 2,000 people gathered in the area when the task of removing the sculptures began at about 11:00am.

The OC quoting the committee leaders said they do not want any sculptures in the airport area where the hajj camp is located.



Weekly Blitz, 15 October 2008

Neo Talibans active in Bangladesh

Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury

When Dhaka is busy in ensuring proper atmosphere for holding next general election by December 2008, several ultra-Islamist groups mostly known as pals of Al Qaeda are gradually becoming active thus exposing fangs of nasty radicalism in the second largest Muslim nation in the world. Weekly Blitz has always been providing various informative and analytical reports to its readers on the danger and risk of rise in Islamist millitancy especially madrassa based mashroom growth of religious extremism. Bangladeshi government has alwayd been ignoring all such investigative reports and had tried several times to shut down the voice of Weekly Blitz.

Notorious gangs of Rapid Action Battalion [RAB] intruded into Weekly Blitz office in March 2008 and abducted me and another colleague of mine at gun point thus looting valuables. Despite repeated written complaints, Bangladeshi government never took any action against the culprit RAB men, which evidently proved that in fact a very influential quarter right within the government was very much behind such notorious actions of RAB. We even came to know that the secretary in charge of Ministry of Home Affairs himself was behind such notorious crime of RAB and he was the man who did everything finally to salvage RAB men from any departmental action. It is even learnt that the Home Secretary is keeping hidden relations with various Islamist millitancy groups and is giving instigations to various madrassas in staging ’Jihad’ in the country and establishment of Sharial Rule.

But, a very recent incident in the capital of Bangladesh, which took place just on Wednesday left a very strong message to the locals and international community that Bangladesh is already within the grips of neo-Talibans. Notorious and ferrotious Mufti Noor Hossain Noorani, who bombed the office of Weekly Blitz in July 2006 and left life threats on me, is once again behind this broad day crime. According to newspaper reports, around 2,000 Islamists and Al Qaida pals on Wednesday forced government authorities to pull down a monument of Bauls on the roundabout at Zia International Airport in Dhaka after they had tried to raze and rallied against the sculpture. Members of law enforcing agencies and various intelligence agencies were seen silently watching the destruction of the neo-Talibans. The Dhaka City Corporation six months ago decided to erect a monument at the place as part of the city beautification program. Sculptor Mrinal Haque about three months and a half ago started building the monument, sculptures of five Bauls holding Ektaras, single-stringed instruments, symbolizing the exuberance of the Bengali culture. The initiative was sponsored by a private bank. Authorities in Airport Police Station told newsmen that the Islamists were allowed to pull down the sculptures under the instruction from ’higher authorities’ in the Ministry of Home Affairs.



The Daily Star, 16 October 2008

Controversies shroud Lalon and his songs

by Ershad Kamol

The Lalon Shrine at Chheuria

Today marks the 118th death anniversary of Fakir Lalon Shah (1774-1890), the most prominent guru of the five schools under Baul traditions. Fakir Lalon Shah’s calibre lies in his ability to raise some universal questions in the simplest of ways.

Nowadays, preservation of the authentic tunes and lyrics of Lalon songs has become a hot topic, after UNESCO proclaimed the traditional Baul songs of Bangladesh as one of the 43 masterpieces of oral and intangible world heritage. Unfortunately most of the research done on Lalon and his songs are quite controversial.

The confusion related to Fakir Lalon Shah and his philosophy surfaced after a few scholars, NGOs and government institutions such as Lalon Academy Complex and pseudo Bauls started promoting different interpretations of Lalon’s verses as well as organising programmes on Bauls with the primary objective of drawing foreign funds.

Questions have been raised regarding the authenticity of lyrics, tunes and philosophies of Lalon songs. Several intellectuals have interpreted Lalon’s biography and philosophies in different ways, which is confusing for the average individual.

A controversy regarding Lalon’s religion continues to ensue, since a few scholars during the Pakistani period wanted to label him as a Muslim. Lalon expert Dr. Abul Ahsan Chowdhury, a teacher of Kushtia University told The Daily Star, "Lalon did not disclose his religious background even to his close associates. Rather, in many verses he took a stance against any form of institutional religion except humanism."

Fakir Anwar Hossain, known as Mantu Shah, a cult leader who is also the convenor of Lalon Mazaar O Shebashadan Rakkha Committee, said, "He was neither a Hindu nor a Muslim, rather developed a new doctrine called Ohedaniat, which we follow. However, we are not allowed to visit the shrine of our Guru Lalon Shah, as some infamous influential locals have barred it."

Ohedaniat combines different traditions of devotional rites such as Shahajiya of Buddhism, Shahajiya of Vaishnavism, Sufism and several other. And the verses by Lalon are called Kalaams by his followers, which are the doctrines of the devotional rites of Ohedaniat.

Fakir Lalon Shah is unique in that in his verses he has interpreted dehotatwa in his own way. Lalon in many of his verses on dehotatwa has implicitly provided guidelines on how to go beyond the ’physical state’ to attain the metaphysical. A layperson perhaps cannot fathom the inner meaning, but these songs are the base of secret devotional rites, centring on the belief that the human body is the seat of all truth.

Many scholars have added new words and many have written verses following Lalon’s style and claimed them as Lalon’s. Moreover, a few have written Lalon’s biographies with serveral contradictions.

The Lalon Shah entree in the Banglapedia, national encyclopaedia of Bangladesh, reveals, "As a young boy, Lalon caught smallpox and was abandoned in a critical condition. Siraj Sain, a Muslim fakir, picked up the child and nursed him back to health."

In fact it was not Siraj Sain, but Maulana Malam Shah who picked up the child and adopted him, and Shiraj Shah was Lalon’s mentor.

When Professor Sirajul Islam, chairman of Asiatic Society of Bangladesh was asked to comment on the issue, he told The Daily Star, "We have noticed that one Lalon exponent’s research varies from the other, however, everyone claims his work as the ’most authentic’ one. We will crosscheck the issue."

And the correct number of Lalon songs is always a controversial issues as some Bauls claim the number of songs composed by Lalon to be up to 10,000 whereas veteran Lalon devotees such Fakir Bader Shah and Mantu Shah claim the number is just over 2000.

The problem is that after so many years of Lalon’s death many pseudo Bauls have labelled songs composed by other Baul Gurus as Lalon’s. For example, many songs composed by Gopal Shah, Adam Chan, the followers of Sati Mayer Ghar, have been later claimed as Lalon’s by pseudo Bauls in India.

"Many songs that conclude with words "Lalon boley" are not essentially composed by Lalon Shah. The diction and philosophy delivered in these songs are totally different from the authentic verses by Lalon. Many Bauls have added "Lalon boley" in their own compositions to popularise the songs, a phenomenon that made the documentation of authentic Lalon songs more difficult," said Lalon expert Dr. Abul Ahsan Chowdhury.

Mantu Shah has preserved authentic lyrics of Fakir Lalon Shah in his book titled Lalon Sangeet (three volumes). He is using the manuscripts of Fakir Maniruddin Shah, a direct disciple of Fakir Lalon Shah. Maniruddin Shah was authorised by Lalon to note down the verses, for the documentation.

Mantu Shah has been working on the documentation since 1960. To quote him, "I’ve travelled to different areas both in Bangladesh and India in search of Fakir Maniruddin Shah’s manuscripts. So far I’ve found 20 manuscripts in the personal collection of the Fakirs as well as scholars and common people."

Professor Dr. Abul Ahsan Choudhury said, "Most of Fakir Maniruddin Shah’s manuscripts are now untraceable. It is an appreciable effort by Mantu Shah, who under the guidance of seasoned Fakirs and Lalon singers is documenting the authentic lyrics of Lalon. He has so far presented over 800 songs, which is the largest documentation of Lalon songs in the country."

Moreover, authenticity regarding the tunes of Lalon songs is also equally controversial. Three types of tunes of Lalon songs are familiar in the country: Akhrai tradition, blending of Akhrai tradition and classical music and fusion of western music with Akhrai tradition.

As Akhrai tradition is oral, the tunes vary from singer to singer. And tunes of Lalon songs presented by the traditional bauls is different from that of the urban Lalon singers such as Lalon exponent Farida Parveen, who try to blend classical music with Lalon songs for a more polished presentation. And a few rock/fusion bands these days are trying to blend the Akhrai tradition with western music.

According to the experts, Lalon composed about 2000 verses. The manuscripts by Fakir Maniruddin Shah were composed by another disciple Fakir Manik Shah. At that stage, verses were considered simply as the manifestation of discourse of Ohedaniat. Subsequently, Fakir Maniruddin Shah, and his disciple, Fakir Khoda Bakhsh Shah, attempted to put these Kalaams into a particular frame of music. Khoda Bakhsh’s disciple, Amulya Shah, was a reputed musicologist who set the Baul songs, in particular Lalon songs, to music. These songs were further developed by his disciples.

Analysing these facts, experts believe that it is imperative that all of the manuscripts of Fakir Maniruddin Shah should be collected from personal collections and then preserved. Lalon music experts must be involved to verify the authenticity of the lyrics as well as the tunes.



New Age, 16 October 2008

Bigots against baul monument

Some Muslim bigots on Wednesday forced government authorities to pull down a monument of bauls on the roundabout at Zia International Airport in Dhaka after they had tried to raze and rallied against the sculpture. The Dhaka City Corporation six months ago decided to erect a monument at the place as part of the city beautification programme.

Sculptor Mrinal Haque about three months and a half ago started building the monument, sculptures of five bauls holding ektaras, single-stringed instruments, symbolising the exuberance of the Bengali culture. The initiative was sponsored by the United Commercial Bank. ‘I have completed 80 per cent of the work amid protests by some Muslim bigots in the name of religious sentiments being hurt,’ Mrinal told New Age. ‘Sensing trouble, the airport and the civil aviation authorities decided to pull down the monument and I agreed to the proposal.’ Several hundred bigots, teamed up as the committee against statue in the airport crossing, tried to stop the initiative just after Mirnal had started work. The bigots on Wednesday gathered near the neighbouring Babu Salam Mosque and brought out a procession demanding that the monument should be immediately dismantled. A large number of lawmen, including Rapid Action Battalion personnel, reached the place, but failed to tackle the situation. The situation deteriorated when several hundred people from different mosques reached the place and joined the protesters at about 3:00pm.

High police officials and the civil aviation authorities at a brief meeting decided to move the sculpture to ward off further trouble. The civil aviation authorities assigned the Fair Enterprise and the Probhati Enterprise to move the sculptures and the protesters joined the demolition job at about 5:00pm. The Airport police told New Age they were pulling down the monument at the directive of higher authorities.