A month-long trip to Bangladesh is an exciting prospect. It is the country that has always been so near and yet so far. This year has not been particularly good for Bangladeshis. With its long history of political turmoil and armed protests, it has made news for all the wrong reasons.
Walking in the streets of capital city Dhaka, you would be forgiven to think that the news is exaggerated. One cannot miss the festive spirit. It could be the enthusiasm emanating from hosting the World T20 Championship; it could also be because the country is celebrating its 43rd Independence Day. Bangladesh achieved independence on 26 March 1971 under the leadership of the Sheikh Mujibur Rahman-led Awami League.
One of the youngest countries in Southeast Asia, Bangladesh had its General Election early this year, a one-sided affair. The ruling Awami league led by Sheikh Hasina formed the government, obtaining a three-fourth majority in the National Assembly.
It has since been termed an unprecedented victory in the history of the country. The results were unsurprising, as the majority of the candidates won the election without even contesting. The fact that the parliament was formed without any representation from the largest opposition party — the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) — had raised eyebrows globally. Incidentally, this was not the first one-sided election, as the BNP had itself formed the National Assembly in the 1990’s in a similar fashion.
Despite the ongoing political crisis in the country, the fervour of Independence Day is not lost among the people. South of the country, the famed Cox’s Bazaar, the longest beach in the world, and one of the most popular destinations in Bangladesh, reverberates with the sound of festivities.
The air is beautiful in the sea-side town. Bangladeshis, both young and old, participate in the Independence Day rallies. A mega kabaddi competition held on the beach has teams from the Border Guards Bangladesh, Bangladesh Police, Bangladesh Navy, Bangladesh Air Force and the Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence groups. “Kabaddi is our national game,” says Babul Miah, senior assistant secretary in the Ministry of Liberation War Affairs, “and we have increased our funding, almost doubled it to scale up the competition this year as compared to last year.”
A beach carnival is also held alongside other festive events, but the highlight of the celebrations is undoubtedly the Independence Day concert at Laboni Point on the beach.
Five of the country’s most popular bands — Maqsud O Dhaka, Chirkut, Souls, Nagar Bauls and James — and the rock band Radioactive, performed in a mega-concert thronged by a crowd of more than 50,000 people. The entire event is telecast live on Maasranga Television, one among the 26 television channels of the country. The sheer talent on display is mesmerising and the crowd’s enthusiasm is infectious. It is a rare occasion when so many popular singers of the country perform on the same stage.
Maqsood O Dhaka, led by Maqsood ul Haque (Mac Haque) — one of the first rock exponents in the country and of Assamese ancestry, is the second band slotted for the evening. They take the stage soon after the folk fusion band Chirkut end their set.
But this is Bangladesh, where politics meets every sphere of life at every turn. Maqsood O Dhaka have just finished their first song, when a disruption stalls proceedings. Some policemen immediately escort the band members backstage. A group of fundamentalists have gate-crashed the venue to protest the concert’s timing in the evening, which coincides with their sacred Maghrib evening prayer. Maqsood is visibly shaken though he tries to remain as calm as possible. After an hour, the protesters are somehow pacified and the show resumes once again.
Next on stage are Souls, a band that keeps the audience on its feet the entire time. However, one can sense the crowd getting impatient; they are itching for the next and final act of the evening. James is a superstar, who is also immensely popular in India, thanks to his collaborations with Bollywood music director Pritam. The crowd roars as he gets on stage.
James career in Bangla music goes back to the ’90s, and he has a repertoire of over 150 songs. It is hard to believe that the audience knows each and every line of each and every song. But they do, and sing along. James’ Hindi song from the Shiney Ahuja-Kangana Ranaut-starrer Gangster is the surprise packet.
The evening is a success, apart from the interruption in the second act. In Bangladesh, such protests are commonplace. A few days ago, I had seen a group playing zikir music to interrupt a Baul sadhu-shongho (spiritual discourse) in Kushtia district. “This is actually not the time to play zikir,” says Shorif Baul, one of the performers that evening. “They are just trying to scare us and interrupt our sessions.”
On another occasion, during one of my many amblings across the streets of Dhaka, I also stumble into the middle of a cross-firing incident. Around midnight, I and a friend are on our way back to his house after dropping off a friend after dinner. In the locality, some policemen are in a huddle, surrounding a bloodied corpse placed in an autorickshaw.
Mac, who is also an anti-establishment poet (and under threat from fundamentalists), is not surprised by the incident. “This is an almost regular phenomenon here nowadays,” he says. “The government itself initiates most of these encounters. Political opponents and sometimes renegades within the ruling party are bumped off. We live in extreme times, and sometimes extreme measures are needed, but then dozens of innocent people are also killed, and it hurts when the government justifies them.” Mac tries to say it in a matter-of-fact manner, but there the tinge of sadness in his voice is unmistakable.
Bangladesh has all the emotions: sadness, euphoria, anger, disappointment. In this land, politics can never be separated from the music. But then, nothing that is apolitical could ever remain significant. Not in Bangladesh at least.
(Aiyushman Dutta is a Guwahati-based freelance writer)