Dhaka Courier

The Pagol of Jurain vs WASA

A resident of Jurain, Dhaka showed the sample of WASA water to its director AKM Shahid Uddin and a debate ensued following this at the WASA office at Karwan Bazar in Dhaka on 23 April 2019. Photo: Courtesy

The dubbing of the person – bearded, elderly and angry- as a Pagol by the MD of WASA was very apt and proper. It defined the power and status of the two persons standing on the opposite poles of power.  One represented authority, clout and the establishment while the other had little to count except a jug of murky WASA water. He wanted to make some lemonade to offer to WASA on behalf of the people. In the end the lemonade was refused and the man was termed as “pagol”.  It was a fitting term for him. As he represented disgruntled public interest, it’s fair to say the protesting public appears to WASA and its MD as Pagol too.

A brief history of Pagol

The term Pagol has historical connotations. It usually means mystics who give up conventional life and take to shrines and become imbued with extreme love for the Divine. Religious mendicants have always been referred to as “pagol”. What it implies is a person outside the establishment, the one who can be discarded or at least disregarded.

By calling his behaviours “nutty” and using the man’s brother as a source of info to make his discomfort with WASA’s murky water halal, the MD displayed fear about his own position and reputation.  He normally deals with important people, but here is this Pagol who threatens him with lemonade. This isn’t easy for old hands to take.   This is particularly so when the man is not using force. The jug was mightier than the police baton. Worse, he doesn’t belong to the Opposition political parties. It left WASA quite helpless.

But Pagol has a longer history than that of last week.  The Pagol panthis were a group of mendicants from then Sherpur, Jamalpur area who led an anti-zamindar and anti-British resistance  and forced concessions from the ruling colonizers.

Pagol Panthi and History

Pagol Panthi Movement (1825-1833) was a peasant movement guided by religious mendicants.  Initially anti-zamindar, it became an anti-British movement in general.

Northern Mymensingh including Sherpur included many ethnic and faith groups. Culture was syncretistic in nature. Garos, Hajangs, Dalus, Hudis and the Rajvangshies as well as Hindus and Muslims lived there.  Karim Shah the founder of the Pagol Panthi sect followed Majnu Shah’s ideas.  His followers included people from all faiths.

Their way of life seemed unusual to the plains people who thus called them 'Pagols'. The ideas of the Pagol Panthis had been formed incorporating the non-violent elements of all religions and were consistent with the traditional faiths of the peasantry.

Under Karim Shah’s son Tipu Shah, the Pagols and their associates fought against the zamindars and the Brits. They were captured in 1833 and tried but the government accepted many of their demands including rent reduction.

After Tipu Shah (d 1852) Janku Pathor and Dobraj Pathor took over leadership and a new wave of resistance began. The rebels entered Sherpur town, looted offices and captured and burnt the police station and declared themselves independent. Zamindars and officials took shelter in Mymensingh town. Peace was eventually restored by giving concessions to rent rate. [M Delwar Hussain in Banglapedia]

Today’s Pagols ?

What happened at WASA was historically different but conceptually not so.  What the bearded man with the jug had done was become a symbol of public resentment and WASA MD that of authority. By ignoring him and calling him names, the MD did what the rulers always do, demonize the critic. What is however different is that WASA water is consumed by all and that makes the supporters of the Pagol almost entire Dhaka.

It was also interesting how the news was played in media where the shenanigans of the political parties continued to get high coverage while social media focused on the Pagla. This social and political division reflects the reality of   Bangladesh where the elite does politics and the people do social movements.

Media’s unwillingness to pick the issue up also shows that it’s a stake holder in the current status quo.  However, politics is in decline with a moribund parliament which not many really care about. In this scenario, the social political scene is emerging.  And in this space, it’s not parties that matter but the disorganized often chaotic assemblage that are resentful and grumbling.

Both the quota movement and the safe road movements show how public unhappiness is being channeled into protest.. They are not successful in terms of political landmarks or immediate gains but they point to the mood of society.  This shift from the political to the personal space is not well understood by many including media but the increasing division between the two means a change of sorts is on which in small and big ways will not let anyone alone.

The people are more Pagol Panthi than the authorities and media would like to admit and that is unhealthy for all. But the image of an unarmed man with no political identity making a fool of an official organization with nothing but protest carries an image not likely to disappear from the public mind.

  • The Pagol of Jurain vs WASA
  • Afsan Chowdhury
  • Vol 35
  • Issue 43
  • DhakaCourier

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