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Mother of secularism: Pohela Boishaak will defeat all inequality:

40By Piya Mayenin

Pohela Boishaak, named after the Bishakha star is the first day of the Bengali calendar. The date of the Bengali year coincides with the mid-April in the western world. Although spring in UK, it is the onset of summer in Bangladesh and other places.

Maybe the fine weather is partly why Britain has seen an ever growing Pohela Boishaak celebration throughout the country. Bengali women look forward to wearing colourful sarees, adorning their hair with flowers, reshmi churi or bangles on their arms and wearing bindi on their forehead. The men wear their Punjabis and shawls, an opportunity to flash a real display of being Bengaliness. The highlight of the day is family friends gathering, the music, the murmur of laughter and music in the air, the fairs. The added beauty of Pohela Boishaak is that there are no pre-expectations such as exchanges of gifts and buying new clothes which has increasingly dominated Christmas and Eid .

The day is observed with cultural programs, festivals and carnivals in many countries all over the world including MithilaAssamBurmaCambodiaKeralaManipurNepalOdishaSri LankaTamil Naduand and Thailand and now the communities in UK Canada Europe USA UAE have been increasing embracing the festivities.

New year, a national holiday, starts at dawn in Bangladesh, where people find a tree, a bank or river and gather to witness the sunrise and greet Boishaak usually with Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Esho he Boishaak, Esho Esho. The rest of the day witnesses singing, processions, fairs and jatra plays.   On the second day, businesses start with a new ledger, customers are offered gifts and sweets.



The history of the Bengali calendar can be traced back and attributed to king Shashanka of the Gauda kingdom, who is often attributed with creating the first separate political entity in the kingdom, as the starting date falls squarely within his reign. This was then revised by the Mughal Emperor Jalaluddin Muhammed Akber, who revised the Bengali Calendar in order to make tax collection easier in Bengal.[i] Some sources credit the idea to the finance minister of Akbar, Todar Mal. The distinctive characteristic of this revised Bengali year was that it was based on a union of the solar and lunar year.

Traditionally the festivities started from the deep villages’ in the heartland of Bengal. The reaping of harvest is a very happy time for farmers. That happiness is spread throughout where people visit each other and have good food in the time of harvest. This happiness and practice of the rural Bengal has now evolved to become vast events, layered with colours, in big cities like Dhaka and more recently even in Sylhet.

The rural life in Bangladesh is showcased and talked of in the celebrations. The rainbow of Boishaak festivities in the capital incorporates now a vivid procession organized by the students and teachers of Institute of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka, started from the mid 1980’s.


Criticisms of Pohela Boishaak

Criticism is healthy way to refine, enhance, cultivate and develop ideas in every sphere of our lives as this advances the human progression. One of those criticisms, in modern times, could be for arguments sake, the mixing of carnival masks in the processions and whether that is a mixing of cultures which is not Bengali. This is because the history of carnivals emerged as a dynamic and long standing political stance against slavery by the African people in the Caribbean. After Christopher Columbus sailed through the Caribbean, within a few hundred years the slave trade was well established. By the early 19th century, some six million slaves had been brought to the Caribbean.

The Carnival was introduced to Trinidad around 1785, and became the way African people expressed their power as individuals, as well as their rich cultural traditions. After 1838, when slavery was abolished, the freed Africans began to host their own carnival celebrations in the streets that grew more and more elaborate, and soon became more popular than the balls.[ii]

However, the counter argument would be that the gesture is all over the world, historical oppression is firmly stood against and a display of own culture and identity is cherished with celebrations and thus the joyous celebrations depict this breakaway from oppression.

Criticisms in Bangladesh have been predominantly from those who oppose secularism. Religious divisions seem to want to push through and the only festival and opposition on the basis that it is un-Islamic has been seen time and time again. [iii].   This continues to confuse people and blurs the concept that Pohela Boishaak is a celebration of Bengalis and is not a religious festival.

The magnificence of this day is the magical fairytale of being happy and content with ethnicity, connecting and celebrating the same roots of ethnicity everywhere. All prejudices cease to exist. Wherever one comes from within Bangladesh and from West Bengal or America Canada or UK, or Europe, the religious differences, geographical distances all become immaterial on this magical day and religion and regional differences holds no barrier.


Political History

Public and organized celebration in the large cities started during the 1960’s Pohela Boishak developed in the larger cities especially in Dhaka to counter the force of Pakistan’s attempt to suppress and subdue the culture and language of the Bengali people.

The Pakistani Government had banned poems written by Rabindranath Tagore, the most famous poet and writer in Bengali literature. Protesting this move, Chayanaut opened their Pohela Boishakh celebrations at Ramna Park with Tagore’s song welcoming the month in 1965. The day continued to be celebrated in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) as a symbol of Bengali culture. The Bengali peoples struggles in order to speak their own language and culture was a battle that started in 1952 and lasted until the liberation war from Pakistan in 1971 where the Bengali speaking people finally established their own piece of land, Bangladesh.

From 1972 the Bangladesh nationalist movement instilled this national festival which is an integral part of the Bengali people’s cultural heritage.

Sadly the Islamist ideology that is intolerant of Bengali existence seems to continue in Bangladesh.

Gender inequality/Political Strife

To date the intolerance and oppression of minorities in Bangladesh is still an occurrence. [iv]

This year’s event saw disappointment in Dhaka also. [v]. The attacks on Pohela boishaak on 14 April 2015, Bangla New Year 1422, seems to tell the old age story of gender discrimination and violence against women that is rooted deep in the history of patriarchal societies throughout the world. It also tells a story of the struggle to celebrate an ethnic identity without having to add on political culture which appears to be intolerant of women and minorities.

This appalling state of affairs in the 21st century that women are humiliated and sexually harassed publicly can be seen in the light of the patriarchal domination of women throughout history. The Bangladesh high court has ruled the incident against young women in public near the gate of Teachers and Students’ Centre (TSC) of Dhaka University and the Suhrawardy Udyan (the historical Suhrawardy Garden), known as a premise of the country’s progressive people.

It is claimed that police were present on the scene and did not act in their role of state security personnel. Furthermore, it is alleged that the Proctor of the University has made controversial statements and denied evidence of the sexual assaults which was within the Dhaka University’s premise where CCTV footage was available.

If the above is proven it demonstrates a deep rooted patriarchal tacit acceptance of violence against women and girls must be stamped out because every woman is the wife, the other, the daughter and sister of a man. Far too often we see women taken as war spoils and abused in political strifes and human progression demands every man and woman to put an end to this. Women cannot be the boxing practice for political strife’s in a country any longer. Women must be the political navigators.


Bangladesh is a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly, is often described as an international bill of rights for women. By accepting the Convention, States commit themselves to undertake a series of measures to end discrimination against women in all forms.

Seeds planted of activism and criticism of the absence of an effective policy and legislative framework to combat sexual harassment in Bangladesh[vi] has now seen some fruits. In response to work from Bangladesh National Womens Association ( BNLWA) a monumental verdict was handed down, in the context of promotion of gender equality in Bangladesh, in the division bench of the High Court delivering a milestone judgment (14 May 2009) by issuing certain directives in the form of guidelines to be treated as law.

In fact for years now Bangladesh has worked to strengthen the rights of women and fight bigotry in promoting gender equality through legislation. Yet the failure to enforce those laws to combat sexual harassment in practice was once again reminded in the in the evening of 14 April2015.

Protests have been seen in Bangladesh and UK based organizations against this failure of Bangladesh including Nari Diganta.[vii] And the writer believes the force of these protests must continue until laws are respected.

Conclusion- Pohela Boishaak mother of Bengali secularism.

The ruling of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, in 2015, after the incident, is laudable and demonstrates a strong judiciary through which the people must pressure to enforce laws. Every woman’s organization must rise. Existing laws must be enforced. Every person must speak out.

The history of the struggle of the human endeavor to exist in dignity because of their own culture and identity is widespread including the Kurds[viii] Bengalis and the Baluch[ix] and more.

For Bengalis Pohela Boishaak is a reminder of all those struggles faced by themselves and for people of different cultures and identities throughout this planet who have been killed and living in war zones and struggling just to be able to say I am “..……”

Pohela Boishaak is thus one of those humanist celebrations that must be celebrated with vigor warmth and hope for progressive human existence regardless of religion or sex. It must be the inspiration to other ethnical identities struggling to exist and must be protected from all Islamist nationalist ideology that propagates it is wrong to be Bengali and all sexist ideology that propagates women should not take part in living a free and equal existence to men.

Most importantly, It must not be forgotten the national and secular festival of 21 February commemorating the martyrs in our language movement may not have been at all possible if our secularism history was not rooted with the thousand years of age Pohela Boishaak, a truly secular festival that celebrated purely a national identity. This gave us the platform and opportunity to develop 21 February which also was made into International Mother Language Day, a worldwide annual observance held on 21 February to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity multilingualism. Pohela Boishak in that sense is the true mother of secularism in Bengal and we must protect our mother. We have to work at the gender differences through this magnificence of co – existing harmoniously and with dignity that was given to us by our mother of secularism.


[i] The Mughals collected tax according to the Islamic calendar and Akbar ordered an improvement of the calendar systems, because the lunar Islamic calendar did not agree with the harvest sessions and the farmers faced severe difficulties in paying taxes out of season.

[ii] http://www.allahwe.org/History.html

[iii] http://opinion.bdnews24.com/2013/04/13/pahela-baishakh-hefazet-e-islam-and-us-bengalis/

[iv] http://www.ibtimes.com/banglastan-do-hindus-have-future-bangladesh-1556463

[v] http://www.thedailystar.net/frontpage/outrage-over-sex-assault-77496

[vi] http://www.thedailystar.net/protecting-women-from-sexual-harassment-14957

[vii] https://naridiganta.wordpress.com/2015/04/19/rumana-hashem-tells-the-story-of-her-bangladeshi-sisters/

[viii] http://www.merip.org/mer/mer189/kurdish-experience

[ix] http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/baluchistan-i