Nation celebrates Pahela Baishakh amid calls to fight communalism

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More than four decades after Baishakh celebrations became a weapon of the Bengali’s political war against Pakistani state communalism and since Bangladesh emerged as a secular state, the Bangla New Year has annually returned to record similar national achievements in different times but with a similar context.

Octogenarian artiste-cultural activist Sanjida Khatun has said the “war will continue” as the call in this year’s Pahela Baishakh is for raising a powerful voice against communalism with the Awami League, the party that led Bangladesh in the Liberation War with the spirit of secularism, is in power.

Sanjida Khatun’s organisation Chhayanaut has organised one of the main events at Ramna Batamul at dawn on Friday, two days after the hanging of militant leader Mufti Hannan on charges of killing three people in a grenade attack in Sylhet in 2004.

Hannan was also sentenced to death for the murder of 10 people in the 2001 bombing at Chhayanaut’s Pahela Baishakh programme.

Dhaka University’s Faculty of Fine Arts has organised the ‘Mangal Shobhajatra’, the main procession celebrating the Bangla New Year, with a renewed call for a rejection of communalism across the country.

UNESCO’s recognition of the Pahela Baishakh procession last year as one of the ‘Intangible Cultural Heritages of Humanity’ will add a new dimension to the celebrations this year.

In February this year, Cultural Affairs Minister Asaduzzaman Noor announced a plan to expand the programme throughout the country.

But some radical Islamist organisations like Hifazat-e Islam and Awami Olama League called on the government to cancel the plan, branding such celebrations as conflicting with Islam.

For his part, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan sees no security threat over the celebrations.

Asked whether additional security measures had been put in place following the execution of the HuJI leader, the home minister said: “We don’t see any sign of a threat…Our security forces have done whatever is needed.”

Though President Md Abdul Hamid has in a message on the eve of the Bangla New Year said Bengali culture of a thousand of years is imbued with non-communal spirit where there is no place for fundamentalism, militancy or terrorism, the government’s approval of demands made by communal forces is ‘frightening some people’.

Several quarters have voiced concerns over ‘the possibility of a rise in militancy’ as a result of the government’s agreeing with radical Islamists’ demand for the removal of the Lady Justice statue from the Supreme Court premises and a recognition of top Qawmi madrasa degree.

Awami League General Secretary Obaidul Quader, however, has said the party is not forging any alliance with the hardliners.

Sanjida, who has seen it all – the rise of militancy and the cultural war against it – spoke to on the eve of the first day of the Bangla year 1424.

“I’ve seen how the progressive society is veering towards the right. I’ve witnessed both cultural activities and militancy.”

“This parallel war was always there. We’ll have to continue it now,” she added.

She also has a word of advice on how to fight the war. “We will have to reach out to the rural people with the story of the Liberation War, history, humanity and the injustice that is being carried out in the name of religion.”

Amidst all these worries and anxieties, the people of Bangladesh have joined the celebrations for all.

After accepting the demand to remove the statue from the Supreme Court premises, the Awami League has cancelled its Pahela Baishakh procession in Dhaka, citing public suffering as the reason.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, however, has asked the people not to get confused about the Bangla New Year celebrations. She has urged all the people to celebrate the occasion peacefully saying the festival has nothing to do with any religion.

Defending the ‘Mangal Shobhajatra’, she has said, “The art of making clay dolls, pots and other decorative pieces is rooted in our tradition.”

Cultural Affairs Minister Asaduzzaman Noor, one of the key organisers of the procession when it was introduced in 1989, said, “The procession is a cultural affair, a cultural movement. It’s a fight against the dark forces and evil practices. The dark forces are trying to stop this procession.”

The theme of this year’s ‘Mangal Shobhajatra’ is taken from poet Rabidranath Tagore’s line: “Anandaloke Mangalaloke Biraja Satyasundara”.

It started at 9:30am from the Faculty of Fine Arts and will end at the same place after parading through Shahbagh intersection, Ruposi Bangla Hotel, Hare Road, Matsya Bhaban intersection, High Court, Doyel Chaattar, Bangla Academy and the TSC.

The Chhayanaut programme started hours before that. The New Year was invited through Ragas at 6:10am. A ‘Palagan’ (folk musical) was also organised.

A host of cultural organisations, educational institutions, government and non-government offices have organised events to celebrate the Bangla New Year.

Traditional dishes will be served at jails, orphanages, hospitals and children’s homes on the day.

People throughout Bangladesh have ‘Paanta Bhat’ (soaked rice) with smashed lentil or potato and green or red chilli. Fishes, especially Hilsha, are integral to the celebrations of the Bengalis. But this year the prime minister has urged all not to keep Hilsha on their platter because the breeding season is ongoing.

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