Abu Bakkar, a septuagenarian baul from Meherpur, has pursued the wandering life of a Lalon devotee for over 50 years now. Never has he faced any harassment, that is until early August, when he had to pay the price for preaching love for mankind and equality of all.
On August 3, about 25 men, led by the village chief Abbas Ali alias Abbas Piddhan, attacked his akhra (a meeting place for bauls) in Chandpur village under Gangni upazila when he, along with his followers, was singing baul songs.
The attackers beat them up and threatened to oust them from the village if they did not say their prayers regularly at a mosque and abandon baul philosophy altogether.
On the following day at least 30 of Bakkar's followers from the village were summoned and forced to perform public penance before Mawlana Nasir Uddin who is an imam of a village mosque and an activist of Jamaat-e-Islami. Bakkar, however, managed to flee along with a few of his followers.
As he returned to his akhra on August 7 after lodging a complaint case with the Chief Judicial Magistrate's court, he was subjected to a brutal retaliatory assault at night.
A group of seven unidentified men pinned him down, gagged his mouth, blindfolded him and cut off his hair and moustache around 10:30pm.
"Baul philosophy is my religion and I have practised it for decades. I have never faced any trouble before. Nor did I bother anyone because I live in seclusion. Then why should I be subjected to such humiliation?" protested Bakkar who has since gone into hiding with many of his followers including Minhaz Uddin, Motaleb Hossain and Kuddus Ali.
Bakkar filed the case against Mawlana Nasir, village chief Abbas Ali and his aides Ramzan Ali, Sanwar Ali and Rouf. He said his lack of confidence in the police had led him directly to the court. He, however, did not lodge any complaint after the second attack.
The court ordered Raipur Union Parishad (UP) Chairman Alfazuddin Kalu to investigate the matter and submit a report within a week. The chairman, having received the letter on August 8, sought an extension of two more weeks and is yet to submit his findings as of filing this report at 6:00pm on August 23.
According to local sources, Mawlana Nasir, Abbas Ali, Sanwar Ali and many of their aides had held a number of meetings where the Mawlana issued fatwa against the bauls.
"Baul philosophy contradicts Islam in so many ways. If anyone follows baulism, he must be stopped," Mawlana Nasir told this correspondent over the phone.
Following the incidents a sense of insecurity now prevails among bauls across the district, especially among Bakkar's followers and close associates, as the attackers got off scot-free and continue to issue threats to everybody practising baulism.
Meanwhile, different socio cultural organisations and bauls in Kushtia, Meherpur and Chuadanga condemned the attacks and demanded exemplary punishment to the perpetrators.
"The government has to deal the attackers with an iron hand, otherwise the baul community will not survive," Mohammad Ali, the current caretaker of Lalon Academy in Kushtia, told this correspondent.
Meherpur Police Super AKM Nahidul Islam told this correspondent that the court ordered the UP chairman to investigate the matter they had not arrested the attackers.
"But the cultural ministry sent me a directive to address the matter immediately. I'll start a police investigation very soon to bring the attackers to book," he said.
Bakkar and his followers return home
In a latest development, a team of at least 50 cultural activists comprising singers Anusheh Anadil and Shafi Mondol, baul researcher Saimon Zakaria, and members of Chuadanga District Lalon Committee and many other local bauls met Bakkar in Meherpur on August 20. After an assurance of security from Meherpur police and the Gangni municipality mayor Ahmed Ali, they accompanied Bakkar and his followers to their village homes.
Blaming the government's laxity for the attacks, Shafi Mondol, a renowned baul singer, said bauls across the country are vulnerable to sporadic attacks masterminded by religious fanatics.
"Such heinous attacks are nothing new. Only they never make the headlines. The government is not taking any action against these attackers," said Shafi.
The last attack that drew some media attention took place at Char Ramnagar village in Pangsha upazila of Rajbari district in which 28 bauls were assaulted and their hair and moustache cut following instructions of a local imam.