Bangladesh is preparing to kick off the Bengali New Year with a colorful parade deemed by UNESCO as part of the world’s heritage, but fundamentalists in the Muslim-majority nation are calling for the festival’s cancelation, saying it promotes non-Islamic values.
Unease over the encroachment of hardline Islam ideology on Bengali culture has been deepened by what many see as concessions made to fundamentalist groups in recent days by Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Mangal Shobhajatra, the parade that starts the new year’s festival known as Pohela Boishakh, is a long-standing tradition that brings together thousands of people of all faiths and backgrounds and celebrates Bangladesh’s cultural richness and diversity. This year’s Mangal Shobhajatra procession will take place on Friday.
“Symbols of non-Muslims are used in Mangal Shobhajatra. It is not acceptable to make the majority people observe this kind of event, which are performed by infidels,” Maulana Abdul Latif Nejami, chairman of the conservative group Islami Oikkyojot, told BenarNews.
The Mangal Shobhajatra, an integral part of Pohela Boishakh, was introduced by fine arts students at Dhaka University in the 1980s to add a colorful procession to the first day of the Bengali year. The celebration has spread to other cities, as well.
In 2016, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) added the Mangal Shobhajatra to its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
But just five months after the UNESCO listing, Islamic groups are demanding a ban, saying the celebration contradicts the tenets of their religion and is not part of their country’s culture.
Government officials have responded by imposing a series of restrictions on celebrations across Bangladesh, citing security concerns.
Among those restrictions is a directive from Dhaka Metropolitan Police to conclude new year’s celebrations by 5 p.m. During the past week Police Commissioner Asaduzzaman Mia has been warning that all people who participate will be subject to a body search by police, and that festive masks and horns will not be allowed.
The restrictions caused Sammilito Sangskritik Jote, an alliance of cultural organizations, to drop its programs at Rabindra Sarobar in the capital Dhaka, even as members plan to celebrate the Bengali new year.
“We will defy their threats and celebrate Pohela Boishakh with more festivity and enthusiasm this year,” Sammilito Sangskritik Jote’s Ramendu Majumder told BenarNews.
Concerns over religion
Secular groups have criticized recent moves by government officials, including a statement made this week by Prime Minister Hasina to a group of Qwami madrassa members that she does not like the new Statue of Justice that stands in front of the Supreme Court, because it is “not Islamic enough.” She said she would meet with the chief justice to discuss its removal.
Conservative Muslim groups had been staging streets protests in recent weeks demanding that the statue of the woman wearing a sari and holding the Scales of Justice be removed.
“The woman’s statue holding the scales cannot be the sign of justice. Allah is the sign of justice and the Quran is the rule of justice. Erecting a scale-holding Greek or Roman statue at the Supreme Court premises in a Muslim majority country like Bangladesh is in no way acceptable to the people,” Mohiuddin Ruhi, the joint secretary of Hefazat-e-Islam, a national organization of teachers and students at madrassas, told BenarNews in February.
Government officials also recently agreed to recognize the madrassas’ Dawra-e-Hadith degree as equivalent to a master’s degree. Professor Emeritus Serajul Islam Choudhury questioned the move, telling The Daily Star the education system implemented by the madrassas – Islamic boarding schools – is not comparable to mainstream education.
Previously, educators expressed concerns over changes being made in textbooks following demands from Hefazat-e-Islam, whose influence is coveted by the ruling Awami League and opposition parties to win votes.
Previous Pohela Boishakh celebrations have been met with violence, including in 2001 when a bombing by Islamic militants killed at least 10 and injured 50 people. Other terror attacks in different venues over the years have also targeted cultural activists, secular writers and publishers and people of different faiths.
More recently, someone defaced a Pohela Boishakh mural at Chittagong University on Wednesday. That same day someone partially erased the description from the Dhaka University monument “Memory Eternal,” consisting of names of university teachers, students and staff who died while fighting for Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan in 1971.
Islami Tradition Protection Committee, an alliance of Islam based political parties, has been carrying on protests against the new year’s celebration.
“Mangal Shobhajatra is not any part of Bengali culture,” committee member Maulana Sultan Mohiuddin told BenarNews. “Symbols of the deities of a particular religion are carried in Mangal Shobhajatra. This cannot be continued in a Muslim majority country.”
The minister of cultural affairs defied any threats.
“The celebration will be more jubilant this year,” Asaduzzaman Nur said. “To curb militancy is a priority for this government. Political movements are not enough to resist militancy, so cultural movement is a must.”
Fine arts students at Dhaka University craft projects for Mangal Shobhajatra, the Bengali New Year's procession, April 4, 2017. [Newsroom Photo]