It was a peaceful cultural exhibition on a burning issue; an issue that has been haunting thousands of families of victims and resonating among millions of conscientious citizens of the land and beyond. Prudent organisers shifted the venue of the event to the plinth of the nearby Raju Bhashkorjo at the University of Dhaka premises, although it was originally planned in front of the national museum at Shahbagh (by now an established site to express dissent) on September 4. They had to do so as a large number of supporters of the ruling party had already gathered at Shahbagh to protest the pernicious August 21, 2004 carnage.
At the fresh site, the event began as planned with speakers expressing their concern on the increased incidents of crossfires or encounters. Some activists displayed poignant photographs and others held placards reiterating messages of the constitutional guarantee of the right to life, the right to be treated in accordance with the law, and the like. Within a short time, the peaceful exhibition was disrupted by the councillor of Ward 26 of Dhaka city corporation, a member of the ruling party. The councillor forced his way into the crowd with a band of followers and demanded that "the deliberations should cease immediately". In unequivocal terms, he declared that "first justice has to be ensured for August 21 killings and until then, demands for justice for all other cases must be kept in abeyance".
The ruling party men stood in front of the Drik Gallery's banner wielding their own placards, and also laid a siege of the site. The councillor and his supporters refused to respond when they were asked why a single crime should be privileged over the other, why demands for justice cannot be raised for all wrongdoings simultaneously and whether he or his party endorsed crossfire as a method of law enforcement.
During the entire episode, the members of law enforcement agencies stood still nearby, acting like bystanders and refusing to step in to dissuade, let alone stop, the intruders. They failed to give protection to the organisers to carry out their programme uninterrupted. Faced with a situation of likely outbreak of violence, the Drik event was cut short.
The Drik experience is not a one-off incident. Rather, it is a stark example of how hard it has become for free thinking cultural activists to express their views and display their exhibits in current day Bangladesh. A plethora of examples indicate that artists, singers and cartoonists have also been targeted as objects of violence. A number of Baul singers have been subjected to degrading treatment and intimidation, and their instruments and music rooms have been vandalised and torched. In most cases, state agencies failed to provide any protection and were unable to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Within a year of the passing away of legendary Baul singer Shah Abdul Karim of Shunamganj, extremists and bigots attacked and vandalised his premises in 2010. In a life spanning 93 years, Karim composed about 1500 songs and authored six important books. His songs inspired the nation to demand due rights, including during the 1954 Jukta Front elections, 1969 mass uprising, 1971 Liberation War and 1990s anti-dictatorship movement. The perpetrators remain at large.
Noted Baul singer Shariat (Sarker) Bayati was arrested for his performance in Dhamrai on December 24, 2019. After his recorded concert was broadcast on Youtube, he was charged under the much contested Digital Security Act for "hurting religious sentiments". He was denied bail and remains incarcerated to this day.
In mid-May this year, the ashor ghor (music room) of another noted Baul exponent Ronesh Thakur was torched. Many musical instruments including drums, harmonium and monochord kept in the room were burnt to ashes with the room. To carry forward the Baul philosophy of peace, harmony and fraternity, Thakur set up his Bidhyapeeth (school) and organises regular soirees. The school attracts Baul fans from all over the country.
The incidents of assault on Baul festivals by obscurantist elements appear to have become a common occurrence. In 2011, in Pangsha of Rajbari district, the heads and beards of 24 Bauls were forcibly shaved on the grounds that they turned heretic. Religious fanatics took them to a mosque and made them perform "tawba"'(repent). When his attention was drawn to the incident, the then member of parliament of the constituency dismissed it as a "trivial incident". A similar incident took place in July 2016, when criminals assaulted Bauls and set their akhra (den) on fire at a remote village in Damurhuda upazila of Chuadanga. In this incident, about 20 criminals blindfolded and tied up three Bauls to a tree, including a woman, and cut their hair with a sharp knife before setting fire to the tin-shed akhra.
Even Baul enthusiasts have become targets of the dogmatists. Two teachers of Rajshahi University were allegedly murdered by extremists in 2014 and 2016. A physician was attacked in Kushtia in 2014.
In the above cases, including that of the Shahbagh melee, the actions of those in administration and law enforcement agencies have been disappointing. In most instances, the perpetrators are yet to be identified, let alone charged and punished. Examples are aplenty when on the grounds of "maintaining public order", organisers and artists have been advised by state agencies to desist from holding their programmes if and when they were approached for protection. In other instances, when complaints are lodged by those purportedly "hurt" by the songs or displays of artists or cultural activists, little time is wasted before police apprehend the latter and put them behind bars and seek remand. Needless to say, all these further embolden the forces that stand for a single ideology and are intolerant of dissent and freethinking, or those who promote a variant of faith that is exogenous to this land.
Satirists and cartoonists also have to bear the brunt of state wrath. Scores of citizens have been charged and detained for caricaturing leading public figures and tarnishing the image of the country and relations with friendly countries under the Digital Security Act. In mid-May this year, after raiding the home of cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore and confiscating his phone and computers, RAB alleged that it found "evidence" of him "spreading rumours to create confusion by drawing cartoons of ruling party leaders." Earlier, Kishore had posted a series of cartoons on Facebook titled "Life in the Time of Corona". The satirical cartoons were critical of the government's response to the Covid-19 crisis.
Artists play a vital role in contesting or critiquing political ideologies, religious beliefs and cultural and social preferences. In that way, art makes a vital contribution to reinforcing democracy. The cultural and creative arts play an important role for "ensuring inclusive economic growth, reducing inequalities and achieving goals set out in the Sustainable Development Agenda". "It has the extraordinary capacity to express resistance and rebellion, protest and hope", notes UNESCO. The organisation also acknowledges that "artistic freedom is the freedom to imagine, create and distribute diverse cultural expressions free of governmental censorship, political interference or the pressures of non-state actors". The UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights notes "Artistic expression is not a luxury; it is a necessity—a defining element of our humanity and a fundamental human right enabling everyone to develop and express their humanity".
The state has a duty to recognise the essential role of art in the life and development of the individual and of society, and accordingly has a duty to protect, defend and assist artists and their freedom of creation, according to the UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of the Artist, 1980.
The rise of obscurantism, coupled with political expediency by the ruling elite, has had a harmful effect on the age old tolerant cultural tradition of Bangladesh that promotes spiritualism, communal harmony and humanism. The failure of the state under successive regimes and its attempt to placate religious extremists have exposed the exponents of syncretism and pluralism to unmitigated violence. While a proud secular nation imbibed in the spirit of the War of Liberation gradually slithers into the abyss of intolerance and dogmatism, its rulers appear to remain oblivious, if not complicit in this aberration. Artists, singers, art enthusiasts and cultural activists who stand for freedom, diversity and coexistence become the victims. The onus lies on us all to mount a united challenge to this pugnacious deviation and restore the country to the great ideals of freedom, liberty and tolerance, and ensure accountability of those who are tasked to run the state while upholding the freedoms enshrined in the constitution.
C R Abrar is an academic with interest on human rights and migration. He acknowledges the support of rights activist Rezaur Rahman Lenin in writing this article.