Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Mahilara, Bangladesh: Celebration of Life

Celebration of Life: The Tradition Continues
Dr. Sachi G. Dastidar


The famous Bengali writer of the last century, S. Wazed Ali [b 1898], wrote in Bharatbarsha: That Tradition Still Continues how in India, tradition dies hard. After returning to his home decades later he found his middle-aged grocer still reading grocer’s son Ramayan, only that this middle aged man was read to as a child decades earlier. Recently [12/02-01103] when four of us from the U.S. took a trip to West Bengal and Haryana states of India and to the neighboring Bangladesh it reminded me of Wazed Ali’s India. This time it reminded me of our tradition of triumph of life in the midst of torment.

As we are associated with the Probini Foundation of New York we were invited to several places in India and Bangladesh. In India Probini Foundation helps two orphanage-run schools in West Bengal and Assam and three more schools at poor oppressed-caste Hindu neighborhoods in West Bengal. In Bangladesh Probini helps nine orphanage- and ashram-run schools. All of those institutions have come under attack from the Pakistan Army and by their Bengali Islamic allies as they are run by Hindus, but popular with Muslims. Some institutions were completely destroyed, while others survived precariously. Many of their occupants, mostly poor belonging to the oppressed-castes, were killed or ‘lost’ for ever. That tradition of oppression was repeated in the Fall of 2001 when Bangladesh elected a pro-Islamic Government by unleashing an anti-Hindu pogrom. We were extremely concerned about our Probini family there. A few months back, in June of 2001, we had opened the Nihar Kana Bhaktabash school adjoining a 300-year old temple and mott ashram in the name of my mother and my mother-in­-law who were driven out during earlier anti-Hindu pogroms. In Bangladesh some of the districts we were invited to included Barisal, Dhaka, NoakhaIi, Comilla and Madaripur. During the 2001 pogrom we had received urgent appeals from our families when they were attacked for no reason other that their religion. Before the election all the Hindu school committee members in Barisal were driven out. We sought help from Bangladesh Government in stopping the carnage. We also sought moral help from the administrations of the United States, and from West Bengal and Tripura, two Indian Bengali states run by privileged-caste Bangladeshi Bhadralok Hindu Communists who chose not to live with Muslims in their homeland, while preaching the other way.

At Dhaka it is always wonderful to see little Basanti, the first child to be supported by Probini, maturing like the Eternal Spring that her name symbolizes. Whenever we visit the
orphanage Basanti and other children would rush looking for visiting Baba [father], Ma, Didi [older sister], and Dada [older brother] and tell stories since the last visit. Groups of girls took
their didi from room to room while the boys did the same to their dada. The non-sectarian
orphanage was established in 1908 by the Dhaka [Hindu] Orphanage Society. It sits on the bank of Burri Ganga river in Old Dhaka, a former Hindu area. The orphanage was destroyed in 1971: by the Pakistan Army and Bengali Islamists. Pakistan declared war on Bangladesh independence on.25 March 1971 by attacking the Hindu neighborhood killing thousands in one sweep. After independence the orphanage came back to life with the help of surviving Hindus and by Norwegian Christians. Yet lot more work needs to be done. Life triumphed in another small, yet significant, way. On this visit we found a white thaan sari-clad widow as the Matron of the orphanage. Everyone calls her either Ranidi, sister Rani, or Mashi, aunt, as calling by name is considered impolite and uncultured in Bengali and Indian cultures. Ranidi is a survivor of an earlier pogrom. She fled her nearby home in 1964 for India when Pakistan unleashed an anti­
Hindu Hazarat Bal Danga killing to suppress Bengali [Muslim] nationalism. According Washington Post and London Times of January 22, 1964, on the very first day of the pogrom over one thousand Hindus were killed in Ranidi’s Old Dhaka. After raising her family in India, refugee Ranidi decided to bring life back to her ancestral home. Our Dhaka hosts showed us how
in the midst of oppression life also came back to Ramna at the center of Dhaka, the capital. Here stood India’s oldest Kali temple. Legend has it that it was built in the First Millennium. In 1971
Pakistan Army dynamited it and then with the help of Bengali Islamists burned down the temple and the adjoining Ma Anandamoyeer (Anandamoyee’s) Ashram, along with over hundred devotees- men, women , and children, sanyasis [monks], sanyasinis [nuns], priests and visitors. During the last pro­-tolerant administration a citizen commission led by Justice Rehman Sobhan, a Muslim, investigated the atrocities, publishing its findings [www.hrcbm.com]. On 27 March 2001 Dr. S. A. Malek, a Muslim and a freedom fighter, dedicated a memorial plaque at the Ramna Kali Mandir site with the names of the victims. Soon after, the surviving Hindus brought life back by, celebrating their first Kali Puja in 30 years erecting a temporary pandal, a marquee. Months after he celebration the pandal stands as a tribute to the life that perished for no reason. Going to Barisal district to be with our Probini family was exciting and as well as worrisome. Worrisome because area's minority non-Muslims were driven out- many at gun point, in 2001. Others were beaten up, girls and wives abused, ransom extracted, not allowed to vote. Our friends estimated that between 10-15,000 Hindus were not allowed to vote in areas adjoining our Probini School. I had sought an appointment with the newly elected M.P., a Muslim, who benefited from the oppression and disenfranchisement of non-Muslims. The M.P. was extremely cordial, warm and hospitable. I had to remind him that no criminal has been punished nor has any victim compensated and extortion paid by Hindus and Christians to live in their own home have not been returned. A Hindu family where I stayed during my 2001 visit had to pay two hundred thousand taka extortion for 'mukti' [liberation] of each of their daughters and wives. Before we took to the dirt road to reach the ashram school leaving behind the Dhaka-Barisal National Highway we saw the signs of rebirth with people waiting at the turn for the Probini delegation. Students from age six to sixty [for adult literacy], and their families erupted in instant celebration by ululating, blowing conches, offering of marigold garlands and putting auspicious teep dots on our forehead, with tears of joy and “Long live Probini” chants. What my, parents could not do, this group could: They celebrated their life in their own home after such a horrific oppression. Eight U.S. and Bangladeshi families who built the Nihar Kana school were gratified to know that their modest contribution could provide shelter to scores of families whose lives were threatened. Mr. Haji Saheb, a Muslims and the Founder of Mahilara College, arranged: a reception by the faculty which included a Muslim professor whose family moved into my wife's home. The Muslim family who moved into our home during another anti-Hindu pogrom was not so welcoming. At Madaripur, Probini is providing teachers to the Binod Bidya Niketan free school of the Pranab Ashram. The Ashram was built in 1924 at his hometown by the Indian Freedom Fighter Swami Pranavananda, founder of the Bharat Sevasram Sangha [Organization to serve India] Hindu order of social service. In 1971 this ashram too was destroyed, along with the non­ sectarian free school, and the student dormitory. In 1987 an elderly monk was murdered in a nearby village. Now at the request of the Ashram, Probini is trying to raise funds to rebuild the dormitory serving the poor and Hindu oppressed-caste students, though casteism among Hindus is absent there. Here too the warmth and the expression of gratefulness from the students, parents and neighbors were overwhelming: showering of flower petals on the visitors, conch blowing, .'ululating, "Welcome to Probini" slogan, offering of garlands continued for some time. Seeing no sindur mark on the mamed lady of the group, scores of manied Hindu women came to offer her sindur. Many manied Hindu, Buddhist and Christian women have stopped wearing sindur and I conch sankha wedding bangles, especially in big cities, for routine slur and abuse, as it identifies them as non-Muslim. [With Islamization and communalization of Bangladesh Bengali Muslim women have stopped wearing sindur and sanklza, just as Muslim men have stopped wearing dhuti outfit, although that tradition still continues among many Bengali Muslims of India. Our Hindu hostesses in big cities showed us their plight] Madaripur is the hometown of my maternal grandfather, who was a well known lawyer and a political activist of Indian Independence Movement spending years in British prison for saying “Bande Mataram” [Glory to the Motherland], only to be driven out by Muslim League activists after the 1947 partition with a shirt on his back. In 1920 my mother caused sensation by going to school after her maniage [at a tender age], and then standing first in the provincial examination from the Donovan Girls’ School of Madaripur. On 17 November 1920 the Governor of Bengal congratulated her for the achievement, yet my parents and grandparents received condemnation from Muslims and conservative Hindus for Ma going to school. On this journey, we joined our Probini family in their celebration while the locals acknowledged past contributions of the pioneers. In the midst of our Probini work in Bangladesh and India we frequently come across families with 'lost' relations. [Hindu population in Bangladesh is down from a third of the population in 1947 to a mere 9% in 2001. Calculation from the Bangladesh Government Census reveals a loss of 40-45 million people, including second and third-generation BangIa Hindu refugees born in India, and millions who were killed, especially during the Bangladeshi Independence War.] We came to know that a group of 65 women survivors may have found shelter in the Mahila [women’s] Ashram of Kamal City in Haryana, after bouncing from camps in Bangladesh, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh. These women and their families suffered extensively during the 1971 Bangladesh War when Pakistan's stated policy was cleansing of Hindus [See Hamudoor Rehman Commission report of the Pakistan Government, http://www.hrcbm.com/] and secularist Muslim leaders. The Kamal Mahila Ashram was a major shelter for Hindu-Sikh women victimized by the 1947 partition of Punjab. Almost all of the families lost one or more of their family members during that anti-Hindu carnage. As in the 1964 Hazarat Bal killings, the 1971 action against Bangladesh independence began with the massacre of Hindus. Hearing I was returning from her native Dhaka the eyes of Mrs. Jaya Debi glowed. She had to leave behind her murdered husband and son, fleeing with her two little daughters. Mashi, Saraswati Debi, another survivor whose husband was murdered in front of her eyes, inquired about her beloved Barisal, where she had a prosperous life, but has since had a meager existence. "Can you tell us anything about our home?" asked many. Mahilara Ashram led us to the BangIa Colony of Sector III where Haryana Government has provided small plots of land to these survivors. It was an wonderful site. It is a symbol of success of human endeavor. Individuals who lost everything, then survived with the generosity of Rs. 250 [$5] a month, have built new homes with sheer hard work and perseverance - thirty years from those days of extermination campaign. Poor they may be, but not one family would let us go without offering cha-mishti [tea and sweets] or dal-bhaat [lentil and rice]. “Please visit our home,” was a common call. This was the true celebration of life! Before we left Kamal, Rebati, a single mother, asked me, “Kaka,” uncle “would you be able to find a space for my son Jhontu” a 5th grader, “at one of Probini ashrams?” I wondered, Is it the love of one’s homeland, fearlessness, forgiveness or fatalism that enables one to conquer the grief of killing grounds? The courageous women and men of Kamal, Barisal, Dhaka and Madaripur reminded me of another Bengali luminary, Rajani Kanto Sen [1865-1910] who wrote in Mithya Mataved [False differences in beliefs]:

"There are some who see light when closing their eyes, others see darkness,
Some say there is a knee-deep water, whereas others seek to swim........
Some say She (He) is very kind, others say She (He) is to be afraid of,......
Some say She (He) is beyond praise, whereas others say She (He) is to be praised."

Source: Hinduism Today, October-November-December 2002 issue, 39-40

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