Mahasthangarh, located in present day Bangladesh, is one of the most prominent ‘urban citadel site’ in South Asia. There are over hundred satellite sites in the form of mounds surrounding the main city fortified by a massive wall and rampart. It is identified as the Pundranagar, the ancient capital of Pundrabardhan. Several excavations have been conducted on various parts of this site. Continuous habitation from the early historic period to the colonial period has been detected. Archaeological stratigraphy from the Interim Report of the excavation conducted by the Bangladesh-France joint team has suggested, with the corroboration of the Radiocarbon dates, that the earliest date goes back to the 4th-3rd century BCE. However, most of the area covered by the citadel is yet to be excavated. Besides, recent excavations at Vasu Bihara (a Buddhist monastery) and Bihar dhap (a mound) and Mazar area have revealed interesting cultural history in this part of undivided Bengal.
There is a Mazar of Saint Shah Sultan Mahisawar on one of the prominent locations of the southern fortification wall. Oral history and legends associate Mahisawar with Raja Parashuram. The narrative suggests that local Hindu king Parashuram was defeated by the saint. The narratives are different in the causes and consequences of the battle between the two, embodying possibly the rise of Islam in this part of Bengal. The recent event of destruction started on 27 November 2010 in the name of constructing a multistoried building beside the mazar. Digging of foundation trenches and destruction of precious archaeological remains were noted by the officials of Department of Archaeology. Many people acted immediately against these act of destruction. It is to be noted that, the destruction, illegal digging for looting valuable artefacts, for the collection of soil for even governmental developmental activities are very common in the Mahasthan area where site density is heavy in a wide area. Mention could be made of the Karmasrijan Project (Project to ensure employment) by the local Shibganj Upazila Parishad involved the digging of an important archaeological mound – Baro Tangra Dhap – in mid-2010 for the construction of a road.
On 7 December, Human Rights for Peace in Bangladesh submitted a writ petition to the High Court of Bangladesh alleging the violation of the constitution by the destruction. Preservation and protection of the National Cultural Heritage have been ensured in the constitution of Bangladesh and any kind of construction work threatening the protection has been prohibited. High Court Bench promptly ruled for the immediate stop of the destruction in the name of construction. The nexus between the ruling party president of the Bogra district, District Commissioner of Bogra and Upazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO) of Shibganj upazila was covert. The nexus of the local elites and Bureaucrats inhibited the implementation of the high court rule.
Another Karmasrijan project by the UNO started ransacking another satellite mound – Nitai Dhapanir Pat for the construction of a road. The grass root level government officials and several local journalists acted promptly again. The same High Court bench again summoned five persons including two local ruling party men on 2 February 2011. The bench again ruled for the construction of a ten member inquiry committee and asked the ministry and local administration for their failure in the protection. Unfortunately, most of the members are either bureaucrats or intellectuals with no background in grass root level archaeological reality and heritage studies.
Latest ruling of the High Court followed the newspaper reports of the re-commencing the construction activities during night. The District Commissioner, Police Super and The chairman of the Mazar Development Committee have been summoned to the court for their failure in following previous High Court ruling. The bench has also asked the ministry to find the possibility of removing the mosque associated with the mazar considering religious sentiments. Meanwhile, reliable sources disclosed several acts of threatening and harassment of the grass root level government, Department of Archaeology officials and journalists by the District
Commissioner and UNO. They and their families are living under constant fear of physical attacks.
Interestingly, the urban elite perception about the destruction of archaeological material and cultural heritage in Bangladesh uncritically take the ‘illiterate’, ‘ignorant’ and ‘poor’ mass as the main agents of the destruction of the cultural heritage. In contrast to this urban middle class perception, this series of events pertaining to the demolition of the rich and unique cultural heritage of an extremely important site as Mahasthangarh overtly illustrates that the main agents and culprits are educated, conscious and powerful elite groups. This is true to many other cases of destruction of cultural heritage in Bangladesh. This is a case of educated destruction of cultural patrimony of Bangladesh.
We call for immediate action to stop these educated peoples:
We demand immediate punishment of the District Commissioner, Police Super and Bogra district Awami Leage President for violating the constitution, failure in upholding the High Court ruling and for complete negligence and sheer audacity they have shown by crossing the limits of the jurisprudence.
We demand a judicial inquiry into the entire affair.
We demand that all the reports by the previous inquiry committee should be made public and placed before the High Court.
Finally, we demand the security of the grass root level government officials and journalists who are continuously living with fear and terror by the educated powerful sections related to the state apparatus.
13 Bachelors’ Quarter; Jahangirnagar University
This article has been edited for space and style.