Baishakh is the first month of the Bangla New Year which was initiated by Emperor Akbar to facilitate collection of rent from the tenants in harmony with the crop-harvesting calendar. According to Amartya Sen (reference: Argumentative India) Emperor Akbar wanted to have a calendar which can be used by all irrespective of religious persuasions. Amir Fateullah Siraji was given the task to formulate this secular calendar for all.
He took quite a long time and it was finally introduced in 1584 but given effect from 1556 when Akbar took charge of the empire. In addition to celebrate the New Year of revenue collection, the rural Bengal organized many fairs and cultural events to welcome the New Year. The advent of British rule diminished the significance of this indigenous New Year. However, the business community and farmers continued to celebrate the day with festivity.
The Bangla New Year got a new impetus in East Bengal following the Language Movement which started in 1948 and burst into a full-blown orchestration in 1952. The search for Bangla as one of the state languages of Bangladesh through supreme sacrifices of some young lives provided a new focus for the Bengalese to embrace Bangla New Year as an occasion to demonstrate their separate cultural identity.
This was completely contradictory to the myopic ideology of Pakistani elites who wanted to push religiosity as the center of their nationalism. The Language Movement clearly set the agenda for a secular Bengali nationalism centering around its language and heritage and not on communal aspirations.
The post-Language Movement political and social mobilizations in East Bengal centered on Bengali cultural aspirations and democratic values. The 1954 Provincial Election gave a clear mandate to the winning Bengali elites to curve their future society and governance to flourish Bengali culture in line with the broad aspirations of the martyrs of 1952.
However, these aspirations of Bengalese remained unfulfilled due to Military intervention in 1958 and leaders and activists got arrested. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the first student leader to be detained on 11 March 1948 for promoting the cause of Bangla as a state language, gradually emerged as the symbol of hope and aspirations of the struggling people of East Bengal. He was, obviously the first and most important target of oppression of the Military rulers. But he was not to be daunted by the pressure of detention by an oppressive regime.
He came out and went into jails frequently at the sweet will of the Pakistani elites. He was very successful in attracting the young workers for rejuvenating his party Awami League which broadly reflected the aspirations of teeming millions who wanted freedom from all kinds of exploitation and injustices. He also kept close liaison with the cultural activists who wanted to promote the dreams of the Bengalese as a separate ethnic entity speaking Bangla. They used to consider Rabindranath Tagore, the first Asian to get a Nobel Prize for his outstanding literary achievements, as one of the fountains of Bengali culture.
His writings, particularly the songs became household cultural possession of the emerging middle class in East Bengal. 1961 was the year of his centenary celebration. The cultural and literary leaders including the teachers, judges, lawyers, poets, business men and women came together to celebrate his birth centenary in a befitting manner. The Pakistani elites, as expected, colored him as a Hindu poet and created all kinds of obstacles to the celebration of his centenary.
The Radio Pakistan was asked not to relay Tagore songs. The students and political activists gave full support to the organizers of Tagore centenary celebration committee and the government could not do much in denting the enthusiasm of the people of East Bengal who simply adored him as someone who always reflected their dreams and aspirations.
The progressive political forces led by Sheikh Mujib and other left leaning parties gave full support to the celebration of Tagore centenary. Following this extraordinary mobilization of cultural and social forces around Tagore centenary a group of cultural activists met in Jayedevpur in the guise of a picnic to form the cultural organization called Chhayanaut. Initially, they organized cultural meetings in-house to celebrate Bangla New Year.
As the time passed, Chhayanaut started its school for teaching songs and dances focusing on the creative outputs of Tagore, Nazrul and other cultural legends of Bengal. By then, Sheikh Mujb has already launched his six-point movement for greater economic, political and cultural autonomy for the people of East Bengal. In response, Sheikh Mujib and his co-leaders were put in jail. Despite leaders being in jail, the workers defied the oppression of the then government and started mobilizing for the greater cause of the Bengalese. They called for a general strike on 7th June 1966 and 11 protesters were killed. Sheikh Mujib was still in jail and uncompromising. He was then charged with a sedition case under the so called Agartola conspiracy case.
The people of East Bengal were boiling with agitation for justice and legitimate democratic rights. Around this historic moment, Chhayanaut decided to go out of their in-house renderings of songs to promote Bengali cultural aspirations. Late Dr. Nawazesh Ahmed, a botanist of international repute chose the shade of a ' banyan' tree at Ramna Park as the venue for open-air rendering of songs of Tagore, Nazrul and others. This was in mid-April of 1967. The urban middle class responded positively to this call of Chhayannaut to come out of the houses to greet Poila Baishakh, the Bangla New Year in the early morning. People came in bigger number in the next year.
The numbers continued to increase until it became a national event. This year is the fiftieth anniversary of this Ramna event of celebration of Bangla New Year. Except in 1971, Chhayannaut continued to organize this exceptional show of strength of secular Bangla culture for years after years. This orchestration is much more than simple celebration of the Bangla New Year. This event originated as a mark of defiance to a regime who wanted to communalize our cultural domain. They wanted to divide the social harmony which has been in existence in East Bengal for hundreds of years. This rebellious character of Poila Baishakh must be noted carefully.
The independent Bangladesh, of course, provided a welcoming ambience for observing Bangla New Year. However, the defeated but dormant Pakistani communal forces were still brewing their ill-motivations against Bangla New Year in their own ways.
It was, therefore, not surprising that the celebration at the Ramna botamool got partially interrupted again in 1976 following the killing of Bangabandhu in 1975. The military government raised a number of barricades against open air rendering of songs. They wanted to stop the microphones and subdued the celebration. But the determined leadership of Chhayanaut did not succumbed to this pseudo Pakistani pressure and went ahead with normal rendering of the songs. The communal forces showed their real teethes in 2001 and hurled bombs at the spectators of this cultural event. A number of innocent people were called.
I was standing with my wife on this spot only a few minutes earlier. I heard the noise of the blast when I was about half a kilometer away. Despite this shock, the students and artists of Chhayanaut did not stop rendering their songs. They continued singing and Professor Sanjida Khatun, one of the main architects of this cultural organization, kept her cool and gave her usual concluding speech.
Her speech sent a new wave of resilience against any attack on our Bengali culture and freedom which we earned at the cost of huge amount of blood. The caravan of Chhayanaut moved on defying all kinds of pressures from forces of evil. I would also like to recollect the immense contribution of late Wahidul Haque for making this journey of cultural transformation such a great success.
Chhayanaut deserves to be congratulated for setting this heritage of celebrating our Bangla New Year not only as a mark of our cultural strengths but also as a symbol of defiance against all the retrogressive forces who communalize our societal gains. The only way to take this movement forward is to provide quality education with the values that are at the core of our Bangla culture.
The government and society at large must not compromise on this basic issue of providing scientific and modern education with secular band democratic values. Otherwise, we will not be able to prepare our young generations with the knowledge and skills needed for a modern nation. It is heartening to see many institutions and organizations are coming forward to promote the essence of Poila Baishakh. The business houses including the banks and financial institutions have come out in a big way to enhance their domain focusing on our New Year celebrations.
The whole country is abuzz with fairs and activities promoting our Bangla culture. We must now go out of our urban centers and take the message of our cultural heritage to the villages. The RabindraSangeet Shammilon Parishad, a complementary organization of Chhayannaut, is trying in modest way to take these messages out of Dhaka through it manifold programs. But we got to do more. The whole Bangladesh deserves to be overwhelmed with our cultural renderings that promote a secular, humane and inclusive society and development.
The Charukola Institute of Dhaka University has already earned UNESCO recognition of our fantastic cultural heritage by putting up the Mongol Shobhajatra depicting various art forms. We need many more of such innovative cultural initiatives. Our expatriate Bengalese living in different parts of the world are also doing their best to promote our secular art and culture surrounding Poila Baishakh.
Let's hope for more such engagements both within and outside Bangladesh for a culturally diversified, secular and democratic nationhood for which so many martyrs gave their lives.
The writer is Professor, Development Studies, Dhaka University and former Governor, Bangladesh Bank.