India: Bauls: Minstrels in Distress
The way to the divine
Has been blocked
By temples and mosques.As these words of a Baul song bear out, the wandering minstrels of
bengal have always been above the narrow confines of religion. Clad in flowing robes,
strumming an ektara, the Bauls have long been an integral part of the regionís lush
landscape, wandering from village to village singing of a universal God. Their faith
comes straight from the heart and refuses to be circumscribed by Hindu or Islamic
tenets; it is isntead a synthesis of the unorthodox Sufi strain in Islam and the
Hindu concept of Bhakti, or devotion. That is why the purists have always been suspicious
of these self-proclaimed fakirs; history records many instances of both Hindu and
Muslim Bauls being ostracised by religious puritans.
And itís happening once again in the Bengal of the ë90s. Several incidents in the
past few years suggest a disturbing trend of conservative elements targeting the
free-wheeling lifestyle of the village singer-philosophers. Though Bauls are found
throughout the state, the cases of persecution are being reported from the border
districts of Murshidabad and Nadia, where a tiny band of these minstrels is struggling
to survive against a renewed wave of intolerance.
Take the case of Sadar Fakir of Kurchaidanga, a village in Nadia. His life revolved
round his ektara and the songs that debunked religion. « The search for Allah
and Bhagwan is futile, » says Sadar. « Salvation lies in a universal love
for mankind. » But the local maulvis donít agree. In September last year, they
called a religious congregation fan declared Sadar a kafir (non-believer). That,
in itself, was not so bad as Sadar had never pretended to be a believer. The real
damage, however, was done when his land was forcibly cropped and his thatched house
completely ransacked. Even worse, he was sternly forbidden from singing within the
village boundaries. « I still canít sing inside my village. My soul was murdered,
» laments Sadar.
Similar treatment was meted out to Omar Shah Fakir of Alinager in Nadia. Late last
year, the village elders called a meeting where Omar was charged with sacrilege;
he was dragged out of his home and his beard shaved. A fine of Rs 1 001 was imposed
and Omarís neighbours were debarred from socialising with him. His son Azizul moved
out of the family home to escape the maulvisí wrath; Azizul has been threatened with
a fine of Rs 400 if he allows Omar to play with his son. Omarís beard has grown back,
but he hasnít quite forgotten the humiliating experience.
Social boycotts of Bauls are becoming common in the two districts. In Dharampur village,
Murshidabad, 10 fakirs are currently facing such a ban. « Our only fault is
that we believe that we are human beings. Being Hindus or Muslims is only incidental,
» says Kazem Sheikh, one of those ostracised. « They are harming Islam,
» justifies Karim Sheikh, the maulvi of the local mosque. Five ears ago, six
Baul fakirs were hacked to death for refusing to capitulate to the diktats of religious
zealots in Kotgram, a village in Birbhum.
The Bauls, however, are now beginning to organise themselves against the fundamentalistsí
onslaught. The Baul Fakir Sangh recently organised a gathering at Kumirdah village
in Murshidabad district, where several fakirs attacked the persecution by both «
Muslim fanatics » and « Hindu bigots ». The Bauls who were present
spoke of being ostracised in their villages, being beaten up by religious fanatics,
and of their homes being burnt to ashes. Says Shakti Nath Jha, president of the Sangh:
« This gathering was held to serve notice that the Baul fakirs cannot be silenced.
As in the jpast, the present too cannot drown out their voices. »
The Bauls of Muslim origin may be facing the brunt of the onslaught, but those from
a Hindu background are also in the firing line. When Gouranga Hazra of the Hindu-dominated
Beldanga village in Murshidabad took on a Muslim fakir as his guru, he was beaten
up, his hut burnt down and a boycott imposed on him. « Communal tensions are
rising in Murshidabad, » admits Khagendranath Ojha, district vice-president
of the BJP.
One provocation is the continued influx of illegal migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh,
encouraging orthodox Muslims and Hindus to take a hard line. « Distrust between
the two communites is certainly growing, « says Mujibar Rahman, principal of
the Ziagunj Dhanya Kumari College in Murshidabad. Indeed, many civil rights activists
and intellectuals feel that religious tolerance and communal harmony are coming under
increasing pressure in pickets of West Bengal.
The irony is that a community that decries formal religion has been caught in the
crossfire. Rabindranath Tagore had said of the Bauls: « One day I chanced to
hear a song of a Baul beggar of Bengal. It spoke of an intense yearning for the divine
which is in man and not in the temple scriptures, in images or symbols. Since then
I have often sought to understand these people whose songs are their only form of
worship… I have fitted the tunes of the Bauls to many of my songs. » The people
who are now targeting this heterodox community are obviously out of touch with some
of the greater traditions of Bengal.