Saturday, October 25, 2008

Baul Sculpture: Notice has been given

The manner in which a small group of radical Islamists pulled down a baul monument at the airport roundabout last week speaks volumes about the path we are treading today. It is instructive to note that the government immediately backed away from taking a stance on the issue - continuing its policy of appeasement of the religious right. This is not surprising though, since both the major parties would have perhaps done the same, whatever rhetoric we were force-fed on the local TV networks. What is far more significant is that powerful sections of the intelligentsia, the academia, and civil society have remained silent on the issue. While truncheons fall hard on the backs of garments workers demanding their back pay or students demanding restoration of their fundamental rights, the religious identity of these bigots was enough to grant them a sweeping immunity. Yes, Bangladesh is country where the dominant culture is deeply secular despite the religious fault-lines triggered by the partition some sixty years ago. And in the same breath it must be said ‘no, it will not matter, unless we pit that ideology with the one that the bigots preach.’ If we allow this depraved cabal of religious clerics to corner us over and over again, be it on the state’s women’s development policy or a sculpture ‘any sculpture ‘ we are ceding valuable public spaces in which we express diversity and dissent. In the week that has passed, a great number of people from the country’s mainstream have expressed their distress over what they see as an insult to Lalon Shah. Many say they are surprised at the ‘audacity’ of the bigots that they could attack such a potent and universal symbol of our culture and tradition. Don’t be surprised, this is the new milepost. When a women’s rights group attempted a public protest, the government was suddenly all too eager to enforce the Emergency Powers Rules, and they were denied a public platform. Once again, there was a murmur of protest, but those whose call to arms to defend the constitutionally guaranteed equality of the sexes would have mattered often stayed silent - for fear and for convenience. Now, Lalon Shah is just the new milepost.The reality that is emerging is that those who have a stake in power, or are beneficiaries of the existing power structure, will not take the lead in speaking up - and they have too much invested to make a choice that may prove politically unpopular. There are those, however, who have spoken up. A broad spectrum of artistes and cultural activists banded together on the Dhaka University campus for much of the past week and campaigned against what they saw as an invasion of the cultural space by the religious right. The numbers of people this programme attracted was a heartening testimony to the mass appeal of the counterargument to religious radicalism and intolerance.

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