Harassment and Arrest of Bauls in Bangladesh Threatens Tradition

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We are deeply disturbed about recent attacks against the Sufi and Baul community in Bangladesh. Not only do these attacks violate freedom of speech, they also violate freedom of religion. Bauls and Sufis in Bangladesh represent diverse communities, with many Bauls rooted in Islamic traditions of Sufism — the mystical branch of Islam that spread Islam into the region centuries ago. Other Bauls draw on Hindu Vaishnava texts and imagery. Bauls and Sufis have a very long and rich tradition of engaging in religious debate and knowledge production during musical performances such as Pala-gaan. Being successful in these debates requires knowledge about religious, spiritual, philosophical, and societal topics. According to their tradition, Bauls seek to understand internal, mystical aspects of religion, and this knowledge is learned only after initiation into the tradition. Songs such as Baul-gaan and Pala-gaan have esoteric meanings not easily understood by uninitiated. These traditions are a beautiful part of Bangladeshi heritage and need to be protected. They are also essential to democracy because the traditions support creativity, philosophical thinking, and logic as well as tolerance of diversity.

In January 2020, Baul singer Shariat Sarkar was arrested when an Islamic cleric filed a case after Sarkar stated that music is not forbidden and offered a monetary reward to anyone who could prove that music is forbidden by Islamic scripture. Also this year, two cases have been filed against Rita Dewan for “hurting religious sentiments” during a Pala-gaan music performance. The musical debate of Pala-gaan used mystical and esoteric language, which may be misunderstood by listeners who focus only on external, literal interpretations. According to tradition, the songs should not be taken literally. Out of fear of retaliation and personal harm, she — together with her two young daughters — has apologized publicly.

In both cases, citizens are using Section 28 of the Digital Security Act, passed in 2018, as a weapon to punish religious minorities and long-standing Bangladeshi traditions. If convicted, the sentencing may include a fine and up to 7 years imprisonment. The Digital Security Act criminalizes many forms of freedom of expression and has been used to detain several journalists, writers, poets, and activists.

The cases against Shariat Sarkar and Rita Dewan occur after several Sufis and Bauls have been attacked or brutally killed in recent years. These actions originating from different constituents — from the government and from Islamists — pose serious and lethal threats to the Sufi and Baul individuals, communities, and traditions. Together, they threaten to silence forever these important Bangladeshi traditions.

Instead of protecting people, the Digital Security Act is being used to violate religious freedom and freedom of expression. The Digital Security Act is a weapon used by the religious majority against the minority. We expect the Government of Bangladesh to protect all her citizens. We expect the Government to act in the nation’s best interest by protecting her unique traditions and demanding an inclusive vision for Bangladesh’s future. The nation of Bangladeshi was founded with the principle of secularism precisely to promote harmony and protect the diverse communities and traditions. To save the spirit of 1971 and the many riches of Bangladeshi culture, it is urgent that Bangladesh’s government guide her people toward tolerance and harmony.

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