In Bangladesh, ‘Religious Zealots’ Attack, Shave Head of Teen Baul Singer

Sharif Khiam
Dhaka
2021-09-22
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In Bangladesh, ‘Religious Zealots’ Attack, Shave Head of Teen Baul Singer A Baul singer performs at an annual Lalon Dham gathering in Kushtia district in southwestern Bangladesh, March 24, 2016.
Sharif Khiam/BenarNews

Three men have been arrested on suspicion of forcibly cutting the long hair of a 16-year-old singer in northern Bangladesh, police said Wednesday, in the latest case of hardline Muslims harassing performers of a traditional Bengali folk genre.

A group of five Bangladeshis assaulted and shaved the head of the teenage Baul folk musician Mehedi Hassan on Saturday in the Shibganj sub-district in Bogura district, about 128 miles northwest of Dhaka, police said.

Singing Baul songs is not an offense, said Sirajul Islam, chief of the Shibganj sub-district police. But Islamic hardliners in Muslim-majority Bangladesh see these wandering Baul minstrels – influenced by Hinduism, Buddhism and Sufi Islam – as apostates and heretics.

“This is not an isolated incident. This incident is a continuation of a series of attacks by religious zealots on the traditional Bengali culture,” Sirajul told BenarNews.

“The offenders are not members of any Islamic outfit or faith-based party; they are simply local zealots. Humiliating, assaulting and forcefully shaving someone’s head for wearing white outfits and keeping long hair are, of course, offenses.”

Police identified the three arrested Tuesday night as Shafiul Islam Khokon, 50, Mejbaul Islam, 52, and Tareq Rahman, 20. Two other suspects identified as Fazlu Mia, 40, and Abu Taher, 55, remain at large.

In his complaint, Hasan alleged the five suspects made derogatory comments about his clothes, songs and long hair.

He said they allegedly forced their way into his house around 10 p.m. Saturday before assaulting him and shaving his head.

Tofail Ahmed, chairman of the Shibganj local government body union council, said people in his neighborhood had been living in peace with people of different faiths.

“Some local zealot Muslims had been angry with the minor Baul as he used to light candles in the evening to observe the Baul rituals,” Tofail Ahmed, chairman of the Shibganj local government body union council, told BenarNews.

“This sort of incident is undesirable. What the five people did cannot be accepted under any circumstances,” Ahmed said on Wednesday.

He said the accused persons considered the teenager a Hindu “because Baul rituals have some resemblance with Hinduism.”

UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations, has said that Bauls “neither identify with any organized religion nor with the caste system, special deities, temples or sacred places.”

In 2005, the U.N. agency proclaimed the Baul artistic genre a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”

The singers are concentrated in Bangladesh and in the Indian states of West Bengal and Tripura. They survive on donations from their performances.

Many Bauls wear a white “lungi” (a type of sarong), a long shirt and thin white towels called “gamchhas.” They play locally made one- or four-string instruments while they sing.

‘Bauls are non-violent’

Sobhan Sarker, a Baul leader, said at least six people from his community had been assaulted over the last two months.

“The Bauls are non-violent. They do not go into arguments with people. They silently endure attacks and assaults. They do not even stage organized protests. So, the situation is not changing,” he told BenarNews.

COVID-19 has worsened living conditions for the Bauls, Sobhan said.

“Many famous Bauls have been passing their days under economic hardship because of the pandemic,” he said.

Among those suffering is Kajol Dewan, who said he used to perform 250 times a year, but that number fell to about 45 since the pandemic began in March 2020.

In addition, Islamic hardliners have in recent years filed cases under the Digital Security Act over allegations the Baul singers had harmed religious sentiments.

In February 2020, Rita Dewan, an acclaimed Bangladeshi Baul singer, went into hiding after zealots threatened to kill her for “making vulgar remarks about god” in a performance uploaded online.

A Dhaka court this year granted bail to Dewan after a complaint was filed against her under the Digital Security Act over allegations she made derogatory comments about Allah while competing in a singing duel with another singer, the Dhaka Tribune reported.

Shariat Sarker, another Baul singer, languished in prison for seven months after he was arrested under the act in January 2020.

Kajol Dewan, a former president of Bangladesh National Baul Samity Foundation, said many attacks go unreported.

“This sort of attack has been taking place frequently. The incidents do not come to light as the Bauls live in remote villages,” he told BenarNews on Wednesday.

“We must protest.”

In 2011, zealots cut the hair and beards of 28 Bauls in Pangsha sub-district in Rajbari district in central Bangladesh.

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