The 400-year-old Rath Mela, a fair integral to Hindu festival Rath Jatra Utsab, in Dhamrai was shut down Saturday night allegedly over a rift between the local lawmaker and the municipality mayor.
Organisers and locals said police had asked them to suspend the festival for two days from yesterday morning, citing security concerns.
The fair is a 21-day event and is the biggest Rath Jatra festival of the country.
But Dhamrai Municipal Mayor Golam Kabir and his men went to the venue on Saturday night and forced the traders to dismantle their stalls. Some stall owners alleged that they were beaten up and told to steer clear of the venue.
“Our mayor was more active than police in shutting down the fair,” said Nanda Gopal Sen, a joint secretary of Shree Shree Joshomadhab Mandir Committee that organises the festival.
Locals said the mayor was offended as he was not formally inviting to the inaugural ceremony of the festival on June 25.
He became angry when the local MP was invited, according to the organisers.
Moreover, the mayor wanted to set up a cattle market in Jatrabari Math, the venue of the historic festival and location of Joshmadhab Temple. The Hindu community, backed by Lawmaker MA Maleque at the time, opposed the move.
“This also might be a reason for him to shut down the fair,” one of the organisers said.
"It is an attempt to destroy the traditional fair. It is the consequence of conflicts within a political party,” Nanda Gopal Sen, joint secretary of Shree Shree Joshomadhab Mandir committee, told The Daily Star.
As a consequence, the festival organisers initially announced that they would not hold Ulto [reverse] Rath Jatra, a ritual of pulling idols on chariots, today.
But Superintendent of Police of Dhaka Shah Migan Shafiur Rahman, who met the organisers in presence of the lawmaker last night, told The Daily Star that the Ulto Rath Jatra and the fair would be held. If need be, the 21-day fair would be extended.
Shafiur said the organisers in the meeting demanded justice for the destruction of their shops.
Late in the night, Asit Goswami, another joint secretary of the committee, said the Hindu community would decide on holding the Ulto Rath Jatra at 11:00am today.
Tapash Kumar Pal, general secretary of Bangladesh Puja Udjapan Parishad, demanded proper investigation into the incident.
Shutting down the fair aggrieved the people who consider it a tradition and their heritage. Thousands of people, including scores of Muslims, join the fair every year.
Sukanta Banik, a local Hindu community leader, said, “We understand the security concern. But the way the fair got shut down was unacceptable."
Talking to The Daily Star, Mayor Golam Kabir denied the existence of any rift between him and the lawmaker. He said it was the police that did everything.
He also said his men just assisted police in ensuring a “peaceful celebration” of the festival. He supported the closing of the fair.
Lawmaker Maleque, however, told The Daily Star that the Hindu community was agitated after the mayor had the shops destroyed and shop employees beaten up.
Mohammad Rezaul Haque, officer-in-charge of Dhamrai Police Station, said they requested the fair organisers to remove the makeshift stalls from Jatrabari-Rothkhola road to ensure smooth traffic flow during Ulto Rath Jatra and asked them to keep the stalls on fair premises closed during the Rath Jatra over security concerns.
“I did not ask anyone to dismantle the shops. I told them that they could resume the fair after Ulto Rath Jatra was over,” he told The Daily Star.
Locals and police said top officials of Dhaka district police met the organisers on Friday and Saturday after they received intelligence of a possible bomb attack on the Ulto Rath Jatra.
With megaphones, police and municipal authorities on Saturday urged people to keep the permanent roadside shops closed from Sunday morning to Tuesday morning.
But some people loyal to the mayor went to the fair around 11:30pm on Saturday and asked the stall owners to remove their structure by next morning. A bulldozer of Dhamrai municipality was stationed there, witnesses and organisers said.
Visiting the spot, this correspondent found most of the stalls destroyed. Some shopkeepers were seen removing the structures.
The tent of the “New Tripty Circus”, the main attraction of the fair, was forcibly dismantled, organisers alleged.