The torching of Ranesh Thakur’s music room, where he stored his musical instruments and 40 years’ worth of books containing traditional knowledge and Baul songs, is the latest of a series of attacks against humanists and minorities in Bangladesh.
The persecution of Bauls is not new. During the 19th and early 20th centuries in the Bengali-speaking regions, they were maligned and condemned for not conforming to socio-religious norms. Orthodox Muslims accused them for not being Muslim enough. Like Sufis in the region, Bauls follow esoteric Ma’rifat, not Shari’at, which makes them an easy target for Muslims who measure piety by visible, outward behavior. For singing about their love and search for the Divine, their music – and all music – has been condemned as un-Islamic.
They have been accused by conservative Hindus for not being Hindu enough. For their actions and songs that insist on the equality of all human beings, they have been condemned for flaunting caste rules. For their body-focused yogic rituals, they have been accused of perverting taboos. For their insistence on embracing all humans regardless of caste, religion, gender, class, or health, they have been condemned for breaking ritual purity taboos.
Their hair has been shorn; their beards cut. Their instruments smashed. They have been chased away from dargahs, akhras, ashrams, and festivals. They have been beaten, stabbed, and sometimes killed.
Although attacks against Bauls is not new, the increase of attacks this past decade and the lack of protection afforded to them by a government founded on secularism is alarming. Among the recent attacks, notice how some are perpetrated by miscreants while others are endorsed by the legal arm of the government.
On October 15, 2008, after pressure from Islamic fundamentalists, the Roads and Highways Department and Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh removed five statues of Baul singers, including of Lalan Shah, at the Dhaka airport intersection. Their removal amid cries of protests was a sign of more intolerance to come.
In 2014, in Jessore, Baul Moktar Hossain was hacked to death and others injured when assailants set off several bombs at a folk performance.
In July 2016, a Baul woman from Jhenaidah and a couple from Kushtia were attacked at an akhra in southwest district of Chaudanga. They were beaten by iron rods. The Bauls, between ages 45-65, sustained injuries that required hospital treatment.
In 2016, also in Chuadanga, “[a]bout nine to 10 miscreants with masks stormed the (bauls’) meeting place and tied up them to a tree, beat them and set fire to their shelter,” cutting off their hair, and threatening them to leave the village.
In 2018, Madrassah students in Brahmanbaria attacked baul singer Samsul Haque Chisti (Chisti Baul) at Niaz Muhammad Stadium after some students became angry at lyrics they believed were un-Islamic. As a result, “several hundred students came to the venue in procession and went on the rampage.” Chisti Baul later apologized, citing his age as the cause for his “mistake.”
In January of 2020, Shariat Sharkar was arrested and jailed under the Digital Security Act on the charge of hurting religious sentiments. The Baul performer’s “crime” was challenging anyone to find where Islamic scriptures condemn music. Prominent Bangladeshi citizens have demanded his release, arguing that his imprisonment is a violation of his freedom of expression and will cause more self-censorship.
About a month later, two cases were filed against Baul performer Rita Dewan under the Digital Security Act for allegedly making derogatory statements about Allah during a performance. Her public apology with her two daughters was enough to raise alarms about their personal safety.
In May 2020, in Ujaldhal village in Sunamganj, Baul Ranesh Thakur’s ashar ghar, a room for practicing and teaching music where his instruments and four decades of valuable books were stored, was torched to ashes by assailants. Baul Ranesh Thakur is a disciple of Baul Samrat Shah Abdul Karim (1916-2009). (See updates on developing case.)
Given this series of attacks, it is almost difficult to remember that Bauls have also been celebrated as embodiments of Bengali heritage. Whether during the struggle for independence from colonial rule, or later in war of independence from Pakistan, Bauls became symbols of national and indigenous pride – about what is unique and good about being Bengali and Bangladeshi. It is thus especially troubling to see attacks by civilians who resort to violence and those who use legal measures to punish and censor.
I met Ranesh Thakur and Shah Abdul Karim when interviewing his guru-bōn (another of Shah Abdul Karim’s disciple) in Sylhet. Both were men of integrity: they were quiet, gentle, and thoughtful. They embodied the humanistic songs they write and sing. Like Lalan Shah, whose songs are some of the most widely known songs attributed to Bauls, Shah Abdul Karim has made a profound mark on the singing and philosophy of this tradition. He grew up in poverty and hardship and eventually wrote over 1500 songs. In his songs, he opposes the oppression of marginalized people; he describes the search for the divine; he reflects on the sameness of all humans, regardless of societal hierarchies. In 2001, he was awarded the Ekushey Padak, the second highest civilian award, by the Government of Bangladesh. Disciples carry on the traditions of their teachers and are bearers of knowledge. Thus, an attack on the disciple Baul Ranesh Thakur is an attack on Shah Abdul Karim.
But to lose one’s musical instruments and manuscripts of teachings and songs? This loss is indescribable. Each instrument is unique – a personality that is cultivated through the intimacy of time and emotion, channeling songs that contemplate hardship, vast changes in society, and centuries of tradition. An ektara is not simply purchased in a marketplace. An instrument is treated with the care given to a cherished beloved. It is a constant companion through fickle times. The manuscripts of songs and teachings that are kept in an ashar ghar are irreplaceable – often very literally irreplaceable as they contain handwritten repositories of songs. The books contain handwritten notes in the marginalia, questions and revisions, and heartfelt attempts to understand truth in nature and humanity through poetry.
It’s therefore not a surprise that Ranesh’s neighbor, Shah Nur Jalal, son of Shah Abdul Karim, is reported as saying, “I woke up after hearing screams, and saw the room was burning and Ranesh Thakur was crying.” It is truly heartbreaking.
Baul Shariat Sharkar sits in a jail cell these 5 months, after being charged with the Digital Security Act for “hurting religious sentiments” by publicly asking where in Islamic scriptures it states that music is forbidden. But is the same legal recourse available to these religious minorities whose “religious sentiments” are hurt from violent attacks and the torching of their homes and ashar ghar? Why is it that the laws that “protect” religious sentiments only protect the majority religions?
Also disturbing is The Daily Star’s report that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who said that Baul songs are not to blame for Sharkar’s arrest, also “advised baul singers not to do anything that shows baul songs, which are part of world heritage, in a bad light.”
It’s a good reminder of the regional and global cultural importance of Bauls and their songs. However, Baul songs aren’t named a “world heritage” simply due to their melodies and songs about village life. According to UNESCO’s website on Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, Bauls’ “emphasis lies on the importance of a person’s physical body as the place where God resides. Bauls are admired for this freedom from convention as well as their music and poetry. Baul poetry, music, song and dance are devoted to finding humankind’s relationship to God, and to achieving spiritual liberation.” They’re a “world heritage” because they are humanists who seek to speak truths about humanity.
Furthermore, using the Digital Security Act to censor and punish performing Bauls and Sufis is an attack on their traditional heritage of using riddles, plays on words, and verbal duels. This tradition also uses coded language, including sandhyā bhāṣā, that is not understood by the uninitiated. It is simply wrong to state that Bauls should be careful about what they say. Listeners should be careful about how they listen.
Bauls and Fakirs are no stranger to being underground. Their use of coded language in songs have long protected them from abuse by those who misunderstand lyrics that have underlying meanings. Until their popularity grew with the groundswell of Indian and Bangladesh independence movements and bhadralok sponsorship, most practitioners never identified themselves as “bāul.” In fact, Lalan Shah never called himself a Baul, even though today his songs are celebrated as among the most widely sung bāul-gān. But now, with the weapons of phone videos and social media, their words are maliciously thrown into the public sphere, where meanings are taken at face value and grossly misunderstood. This is extremely dangerous for a group that is already vulnerable.
So, when civilians torch their instruments and heritage, beat or kill them, and the legal system is manipulated to censor their linguistic and spiritual traditions, on what ground can they stand? Perhaps the attacks by Islamists and a legal system that protects the “religious sentiments” of the majority will drive Bauls back into hiding. That would indeed be heartbreaking.
Lisa Irene Knight is a cultural anthropologist and professor of South Asian religions at Furman University in South Carolina, USA. Her research was published in Contradictory Lives: Baul Women in India and Bangladesh by Oxford University Press (2011; 2014), based on two years of fieldwork in the region.