Christmas and the Gregorian New Year come closest to what can be considered secular celebrations in many parts of South Asia, except its few Christian-majority zones. The wide currency of these festivities among urban sectors of the largely non-Christian populace has drawn flak from certain puritan Hindu and Muslim groups, assuming that things like pure Hinduisms and Islams exist in the sub-continent. Apart from this, very rarely do people from the two major religious communities come together for any common celebration.

This is where the Mongol Shobhajatra – the Bangla Naboborsho (Bengali new year) procession with its colourful floats on Poyla Boishakh (the first day of the month), which usually falls on April 14 or 15 in Bangladesh – stands out as a cross-communal celebration that also connects with the secular aspects of the land and its culture. This is rare in a sub-continent where many aspects of what goes under the rubric of culture is intensely communalised in a religious sense, with the playing down of ethno-cultural communitarian bonds that link people across religious lines.

In November, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation included the Mongol Shobhajatra in its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The recognition came at the 11th session of the Inter-governmental Committee on Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. “Mongol Shobhajatra symbolises the pride of the people of Bangladesh in their living heritage as well as their strength and courage to fight sinister forces, and their vindication of truth and justice,” the commission said on the occasion.

Almost all the other entries from the sub-continent in the Unesco list have some sort of religious character. The Mongol Shobhajatra stands apart in its deep import that privileges the ties of a people with their natural homeland over their ties with the super-natural.

How it all started

The origin of the Mongol Shobhajatra is quite recent. In 1985, an art school called Charupeeth in Jessore town in Bangladesh, in a bid to showcase the culture of Bengal, organised a procession marking the struggle for the Bangla language, which is observed as Martyrs’ Day on February 21. Its success prompted the organisers to bring out a surprise procession on the first day of the Bengali new year. Around 300 participants, including school children, wore colourful masks and dressed up as traditional Bengali kings, queens and fairies, and as flowers, birds and butterflies. They took care to avoid any overt religious symbolism as they wanted it to be a celebration of the common cultural bonds of the Bengali homeland that cut across religions.

This is especially important since celebrations of cultural symbols grounded in Bengal have inevitably brought charges of “Hinduani” (Hindu custom) from Islamic radicals, a throwback to the charges hurled at the country’s liberation movement by Pakistani authorities and their Bengali collaborators. The mid-1980s were also a time of political Islamisation in the People’s Republic of Bangladesh with the then dictator General HM Ershad in power. In such an atmosphere, the procession in Jessore was a hit.

In 1988, most political parties in Bangladesh, including the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, boycotted elections called by Ershad. This created the ground for a movement for restoration of democracy, leading to Ershad’s eventual ouster in 1990. In this politically charged atmosphere, various strains of political expression bloomed. Many look back at that period as arguably the liveliest time for political activism since the 1971 liberation – a time full of possibilities.

Around this time, in 1989, a group at the then Charukola Institute (Fine Arts Institute, now the Faculty of Fine Arts) at the University of Dhaka planned a procession along the lines of the Jessore initiative. Among its main organisers were sculptor Mahabub Jamal Shamim and two veterans of the Jessore event, print artist Moklesur Rahman and painter Heronmay Chanda. It was a celebration of the culture of Bengal at a time when General Ershad sought to Islamise the political context to consolidate his grip on power. This made it a visibly emphatic response to the long-standing Bengaliness versus Muslimness debate. It sought to clearly privilege Bengaliness over Muslimness while presenting them as non-contradictory – a strategy secular Muslims in the country still deploy, perhaps with diminishing returns in a much more Islamised polity.

Children at play during the Mongol Shobhajatra in Dhaka. Photo credit: REUTERS/Andrew Biraj

With the 1989 procession in Dhaka, the Mongol Shobhajatra became a mass event that spread quickly across the country. Today, similar processions are held all over while the Dhaka event has become a gigantic celebratory affair and marker of Bengali renewal every new year. In 1996, the celebration took on its present name, Mongol Shobhajatra. Now the crowds are humongous and they grow every year. The streets are painted with giant designs of the Bengali alpona (typically, floral designs on the floor). The preparations start weeks, if not months, in advance. The artistic expression on display and the vibrant floats that are a signature of the procession put to shame the drab government-ordered floats that citizens of the Indian Union are subjected to on January 26.

The Mongol Shobhajatra has become a potent symbol of Bangladesh’s secular political imagination, of the idea of a trans-communal Bengali identity and nationhood. It has helped make the Bengali new year the one truly non-religious Bengali cultural celebration. The stress on secularism, non-sectarianism and inclusion makes it an unparalleled event in the sub-continent’s recent history. The idea of freedom and guarding against religious extremism continues in its themes. Last year – the Bengali year 1422 – the targeted killing of free-thinking bloggers was the inspiration behind the procession’s “Onek alo jaalte hobe moner ondhokare” (many lamps to light the darkness of our minds) theme. A 20-foot-high float of a demon portrayed the rise of communalism and sought to unite people against it. Along with motifs of animals, birds and flowers, caricatures of the genocide-assisting war criminals of 1971 have also found their way to these floats.

Persisting with the charge that the Mongol Shobhajatra is a crypto-Hindu celebration, Islamic groups have termed the procession haram and un-Islamic. Such charges can have grave consequences in Bangladesh. A growing threat from Islamic militancy in recent times has led to the security cover at the Mongol Shobhajatra being increased exponentially, gnawing at the very spontaneity of such an event. The commitment to inclusiveness and freedom has been sullied by the detention of activists from the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Queer community, after they started participating in the procession.

The India story

In West Bengal, the new year celebrations are a much more muted affair and there really does not exist any cross-communal celebration of Bengaliness on a mass scale. Thus, for a West Bengali like me, witnessing the Mongol Shobhajatra has been one of intense emotions with an awareness of what we sorely lack in West Bengal. What is also deeply transformative for me is how certain thematic characteristics that a West Bengali only associates with Hindu celebrations can exist devoid of their religious symbolism. This creative deployment of Bengaliness is probably the greatest wake-up call for Hindu Bengalis for some of whom Bengaliness and Hinduness are one and the same while the Muslim Bengali is a cultural other. It showcases the deep cultural strains and motifs of Bengal that are deeper than Hinduism or Islam.

The Mongol Shobhajatra and the evolution of the Bengali new year could not have emerged without the backing of a sovereign people, standing for all things Bengali as a matter of national priority and not as an afterthought in some bureaucratic checkbox of unity in diversity. The Unesco recognition unintentionally underscored the fact that the Bengali cultural sphere’s centre of gravity has now clearly shifted to Bengal’s eastern half, perhaps permanently.