It was about the same time last year. Although Covid-19 pandemic was yet to interfere with our right to free movement, we were already experiencing surge of the dengue outbreak. Though the dengue surge did not reach anyway near the height of Covid-19, it did extend beyond our borders and in the neighboring India people were affected alike. I had travelled to Guwahati, as being the Secretary General of the South Asian Association for the Study of the Liver, my presence at the annual conference of the organization in Guwahati was deemed essential.
On one fine winter morning, I was standing at the footsteps of the hills, home to the famous Kamakhya temple. Though not part of my liver itinerary, I had to be there, as ‘dengue or no dengue’, to me it was simply beyond my imagination to be in Guwahati and not visit this famous Hindu temple right in the heart of the city. One thing that drew my attention as I arrived there, was that there were two queues, one too long and other also long, but not as long as the first one.
I eventually realized that the longer queue was for the deities who came to offer offerings to the goddess, while the second one was for people like us, who would only offer visit. I witnessed with great wonder how the two different types of offerings by two different types of people across religion were being offered simultaneously, without any disruption to the serenity of the temple.
And then I suddenly realized that it is not only the dengue outbreak that we share between us in our part of the world, it is also the communal harmony and peaceful coexistence of diverse religious beliefs and practices that add beauty to our region.
For hundreds of years Hindus and Muslims have coexisted and thrived in the Indian sub-continent. Tough India was partitioned in 1947 in religious lines, the fragility of this concept became evident in only 24 years when Bangladesh emerged as an independent nation splitting from Pakistan in 1971.
The true spirit of religious harmony has prevailed in Bangladesh despite state sponsored patronization of the communal elements in Bangladesh since the assassination of Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in August, 1975. Things took an about turn after Bangabandhu’s daughter Sheikh Hasina took to office in 2009. Since then the true spirit of ‘religion is personal, but festivity is universal’ has prevailed once again in Bangladesh in the truest sense.
As I visited the mandaps at Dhakeswari National temple and Ramna Kalibari in Dhaka city during the recently concluded Durga Puja this year, I could feel this inner beauty of Bangladesh once again. As we the delegates from Sampritee Bangladesh, a civil society organization that promotes inter-religion harmony in Bangladesh and one which am I very proud to serve as the Member Secretary, comprising not only of Hindus, but also Muslims like me, stepped in each of the mandaps, we could feel the warmth of the organizers to have us among them during their holiest religious festival.
We could freely move all around and even pose for a selfie with the Goddess. It was not only me, who was a non-Hindu, rather I could spot many like me in the crowd, who were there to share the joy of celebrations. In fact, Covid-19 has forced the organizers to curtail the celebrations to a minimum this year. There were no musical soiree and the mandaps remained accessible to the people only till 8 in the evening. I became nostalgic of the ‘old normal’ times, when in most Durga Puja mandaps in Dhaka city we could see two separate queues, just like that in Kamakhya Temple.
Be it Gulshan-Banani Sarbojonin Puja mandap or the mandap of SarbojoninDurga Puja in Kalabagan, the scenario remained the same, with two queues - one for the deities and the other for us to share the joy of festivities with our Hindu friends. And this is not something that we see in the Dhaka or the urban areas of Bangladesh only. This is the scenario that prevails country wide from the cities to the villages and even in the in the interior of the country.
As the Durga Puja festivities came to an end this year, my colleague Dr. Dulal Chandra Das had returned to work having celebrated Puja with family. The moment he landed at the Department of Hepatology at the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University in Dhaka, he was surrounded by his Muslim colleagues, led by ‘me’ the Chairman of the Department, for ‘naroos’ and other sumptuous Puja treats. Poor Dulal was faced with an embarrassing situation as he did not have the best of Durga Pujas this year, with his mother in law down with Covid-19.
The reason why I mentioned this is the fact that this is the common scenario in Bangladesh where the Hindu colleagues share these Puja treats with their Muslim friends and colleagues. And this is nothing new - this tradition has been there for centuries. Pijush da, the Convener of Sampritee Bangladesh, often shares of his sweet memories of receiving new dresses from his parents during Puja and also during the Eids from the parents of his friends and vice versa.
This year my luck with ‘naroos’ was however not at all bad. I did eventually end up gathering so many of them from my Hindu friends and colleagues that I decided to share these ‘Durga Puja treats’ with my Muslim family members - my mother, my mother in law, my sister, who not? And by the way, this didn’t come as surprise to any of them as this is the Bangladesh they have known as they grew up at different time points, representing our different generations.
And I was enjoyed the vegetarian ‘bhog’ at the office of the Dhakeswari National Temple on ‘Nobomi’, which to me is a must when one visits one of the mandaps during the Durga Puja, as the art of cooking vegetables probably reaches its heights during the Durga Puja.
Enjoying the sumptuous vegetarian menu, for a moment, I got distracted thinking of the vandalism of a handful of mandaps by miscreants even during the Durga Puja this year, adding a tinge of dirt in the multi-coloured canvas of the celebrations. For a moment, I felt very low. However, that gloomy feeling lasted literally for a moment, as I realized that they are the ‘evil minorities’, who now realize that it is them and not our Hindu friends who are the minorities in today’s Bangladesh. These are what we expect from a drowning man as he sees a straw within his grip. These are the last moment desperate
survival bids by these dark forces of our society.
It is no secret to them that Sheikh Hasina will not withstand any act of communalism in a country that her late father had not only liberated, but also established on four pillars, one of which was secularism. Contrary to the post-Bangabandhu Bangladesh, now we are seeing continuous injection of all that is ‘good, better and best’ for a secular society into the society by a government that not only believes in, but also nurtures secularism and the spirit of our great liberation war of 1971, a war that was fought by the Bengali Muslims and Hindus alike. It was a battle that was won when the water of the Bay of Bengal turned red as the blood stream of Bangladeshis and the Indians joined to form a single flow, creating an eternal bondage for the two countries written with blood.
With sensible, secular and nationalist elements now dominating the socio-political-cultural scenario in Bangladesh and India, the communal forces within us are more and more discovering themselves pushed against the wall. It is therefore no wonder that they will try their best to disrupt this secular milieu as without this their survival will be at stake. Least should we forget that not all the nations in our sub-continent nurture the spirit of secularism. We see every effort by them and their evil allies to turn the table in their favour in Bangladesh once again.
However it is also a reality that Bangladesh is a country, with a long history of communal harmony. This is a land where ‘Sufism’ prevails over ‘Wahabism’ and where even the Baishnavas were patronized by the Muslim rulers. This is the land where Sri Chaitanya had uttered centuries back, “humanity is above everything and nothing is above humanism”. No doubt the spirit of Sri Chaitanya had suffered during our 24 years occupation by the Pakistanis and subsequently under pro-Pakistan rule in Bangladesh during post-Bangabandhu era.
However things are once again back on track under the present secular leadership of Sheikh Hasina. The festivities of Durga Puja across Bangladesh in the recent years and sharing of the festivities with the Hindus by the Muslims rising about religious lines is a testimony to this statement. I see brighter days ahead for a secular Bangladesh, where the forces of evil and the dark will soon be defeated once and for ever.
Professor Dr. Mamun Al Mahtab (Shwapnil) is Chairman, Department of Hepatology, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University and Member Secretary, Sampritee Bangladesh