Can Public Spaces and Festivals Foster Tolerance in Bangladesh?

Dhaka, being one of the world’s most densely populated cities as well as a city with a deep and enduring history, is naturally a ground for both communal cohesion and conflict. Two newspaper articles demonstrate how the municipal aspect and the historical or religious aspects play into this. One, an opinion piece written by a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Dhaka, demonstrates how open public spaces can help to restore empathy among city dwellers, creating space for cohesion and inclusion in light of the division that we have been seeing over the past few years (Rashid, 2017). The other is a deep dive into the multiplicity of the Bengali and Bangladeshi identities, studied around how Pahela Baishakh, the Bengali New Year, is celebrated (Swapan, 2018). 

With its ever-increasing population density, the citizens of Dhaka are in want of recreational spaces where one can go and spend time without spending a lot of money. Ideally, such spaces should be provided by the Government and Government agencies in the form of public spaces such as parks, lakes, playgrounds and more (Rashid, 2017). The public space that the author highlights is Hatirjheel. By the time the article was written, the space had become a hub for families, youngsters, and couples to visit, spend time with each other and experience the city. The bridge and road systems created an aesthetically pleasing space, and the small food carts that had cropped up further added to the recreational environment. In the author’s opinion, such an open space where the citizens are allowed to roam and spend time as they please helps people acclimate to the presence of people of different backgrounds (Rashid, 2017). With the way the social climate has evolved, with some neighbourhoods becoming geographically divided according to religious affiliations, people rarely witness those of other religious affiliations in familiar settings; however, open public spaces such as those described above put the “other” in a familiar setting, rather than a purely other-religious setting, humanising them and allowing for empathy and social harmony to grow (Rashid, 2017).

Similarly, the modern ways of celebrating Pohela Baishakh have no religious root, but rather were secular and based around the creation of a unified Bengali National identity (Swapan, 2018). During the Pakistan regime, Pohela Baishakh was seen to have a Hindu basis in the way it was celebrated, despite being rooted in the beginning of a new business year for the people of Bengal. The Pakistani ruling regime believed such a celebration could not be allowed within the Islamic state of Pakistan. Chayanaut, an organisation promoting the musical culture of Bengal, put together the first open-air musical concert to celebrate the coming of the New Year (Hoque, 2014). This celebration was held in Ramna Park, a large public park with great historical significance. From this first installment in 1967, more and more modes of celebrating the holiday have come up (Hoque, 2014). These days, even the urban centres see village-style fairs, other dance and musical events, public readings, and more (Swapan, 2018). Further, the Mongol Shobhajatra, roughly translated to mean a parade for wellness, is a newer addition to the celebrations, with the first procession coming out in 2008, and it has since been recognized by UNESCO (Swapan, 2018). However, these celebrations are still at times met with political and religious resistance, as the methods of celebration such as Mongol Pradip, lighting candles for well-being, or eating panta-eilish, a kind of fermented rice dish eaten with fried Hilsa fish, are seen to be rooted in Hindu myths and beliefs. Although the mass media often criticise this line of thinking for being “fundamentalist,” it is still a way of thinking that is quickly spreading. One of the matters taken issue with is the fact that, as a Muslim-majority nation, the country should not be celebrating in a way which is deemed “un-Islamic” (Swapan, 2018). The problem with this is that, even if Muslims make up the majority, there are other religions existing within Bangladesh, and even among Muslims, not everyone follows Islam in the same way. Ultimately, the author makes the argument that there is no one Bengali way to celebrate Pohela Baishakh, as multitudes exist within the Bengali identity even outside of religious affiliation (Swapan, 2018). 

Both these articles and their respective authors talk in-depth about the state of social and religious cohesion in Bangladesh, albeit surrounding different topics, and both offer different solutions to the issue of the widening divide in the country. Swapan, in his article, states that thinking of Bengalis as a monolith is a mistake we continue to make (Swapan, 2018). This, outside of othering the ethnic minorities who live in Bangladesh and celebrate Pohela Baishakh, allows for tensions in how Baishakh ought to be celebrated. Some believe that as we have a  Muslim majority population, Baishakh should be celebrated in a way conducive to Islamic tradition, or not at all. On the other hand, people searching for authenticity may say that we should find the traditional practices at the root of the holiday and celebrate accordingly, finding a way to become closer to the land as the original celebrators were (Swapan, 2018). However, neither of these is possible; the search for the original Bangaliyana, as Swapan says, is futile, as we are simply too fragmented to do so. Here, I agree with the author. Bengalis are an ethnicity containing multitudes that cannot be boiled down just to religious differences. Within religions, there are sectarian differences, whether Muslim or Hindu; and if the broadest classification by religion in Bangladesh is not a comprehensive one, imagine what happens when we get into the nuances of identity. 

Besides, I do believe that Rashid’s concept of promoting empathy- essentially the promotion of compassion, cohesion and harmony- through urban design and planning is a tangible possibility for Bangladesh. In general, we have heard of the decreasing number of open spaces for children to play in, and the lack of recreational spaces in the city. I have also grown up listening to my parents’ stories about how they always had a space to play in in the afternoon, and how diverse their childhood neighbourhoods were. How much they were able to meld and mix with their peers, irrespective of their religious identity. I, myself, grew up in environments where I had playgrounds and big groups of children with whom I could play. I was never particularly shielded from anyone who was perceived to be too “different” and this has meant that I have never held the belief that any one person does not “belong” in a certain space where I am entitled. There have been studies carried out in support of such claims, the ones I shall cite were carried out in Pakistan and the EU (Abella et al., 2020; Aelbrecht & Stevens, 2023). The study carried out in Pakistan used four short Virtual Reality scenarios on various residents of Karachi to determine whether sharing open public spaces with people of various religions is something they would do, and the findings showed that with better urban planning, more people would be willing to visit public spaces and spend time there even if that meant exposure to diverse demographics. However, this study did not demonstrate a significant effect on cohesion depending on these VR scenarios.

The next study was more academic and based in the EU, taking a multi-disciplinary approach by onboarding social scientists as well as urban planners to put together a theoretical basis to promote cohesion through urban planning, using the idea of geographies of encounters and furthering research on this idea. This study found that, hypothetically, key social dimensions that shape cohesion link the management and attributes of public design; challenging the notion that the only deciding dynamics were the cultural and social, but that the material conditions of these encounters can affect how social encounters go (Aelbrecht & Stevens, 2023). By addressing public design, one can address the symbolism of the design within public spaces to address the needs of diverse ethnic groups, how the social-material changes have an effect on people’s multi-sensorial engagements with the material space and what kinds of allowances may be possible within them, and how temporary and permanent interventions can impact social cohesion in public spaces (Aelbrecht & Stevens, 2023). Ultimately the study builds upon the existing premise that well-thought-out urban design can create opportunities for intercultural interactions and experiences in living together.

My belief is that existing alongside other religious groups and starting with tolerance is the right path to be on. Still, I also see certain flaws in the idea of public design in itself creating enough of an impact on such a broad and layered issue. The initial study quoted which was carried out in Pakistan showed that the participants would simply be willing to be in the same public space as people from different backgrounds, not necessarily adding to social cohesion— simply put, they would be willing to tolerate. The other study, based in the EU, comes from a very different geographical, social and cultural context than that of Bangladesh. The EU’s version of secularity would be very different from the version of secularity which can and does exist in Bangladesh. Take Bhargava’s understanding of the French model of secularity, it is deemed ideal because it believes it has done away with religion entirely (Bhargava, 2013). The state is said to be distinct from religion, although it may intervene if necessary, however, religion may never intervene in state affairs. Despite such beliefs, the underpinnings of most of the state’s recent decision-making have shown a strong Christian bias under the French model of secularity (Bhargava, 2013). This, on the other hand, does not necessarily mean doing away with secularism or the secular ideas underpinning public design. Without secularism, it will not be possible for any minority community to exist in a state. Instead, Bhargava advocates for contextual secularity, secularism created within the context and the unique history of the state within which it shall operate. For this, there is a need for democracy as well. Democracy, not in the way that it operates currently, but a more-educated form where the population makes decisions based on the actual well-being of the people of the country, not to be swayed by the use of religion in politics as has happened so far.

Here, I bring in the role of the state. In Dhaka, the government and its different agencies control and are responsible for the maintenance of roughly 400 acres of land which fall under the city’s cultural properties- including but not limited to parks, lakes, temples and churches (Rashid, 2017). The state also, through its disciplinary power, is responsible for the systems of cohesion and conflict that exist, through its involvement in the integration of religion into the public sphere (Van Der Veer, 1999). As Van Der Veer further argues, religion becoming integral to the modern nation-state has meant that it has played a role in the making of the modern subject as well, ultimately creating the modern public (Van Der Veer, 1999). Bangladesh has had a long history of the involvement of religion within state policy-making, as seen through the changes brought to the constitution, the activities of the religious parties such as the Jamaat-e-Islam and their influence over government decision-making. This has led to an environment where it has become dangerous to be of a religious minority or even to appear to go against Islam in some places, as evidenced by the multitude of attacks on the puja pandals during Durga Puja, the largest Hindu festival widely celebrated in Bangladesh, over the past few years; or by the issuance of fatwa, which is locally used to mean Islamic punishment, against women and NGOs in the 90s and early 2000s (Riaz, 2005). As such, the state has a responsibility to foster an environment of tolerance and eventually, ideally, pluralism. If urban design was given more thought, if more investment went into creating public spaces where people of different religious belief systems could co-exist as equals, neutral to each other, maybe that would be a starting point.

I say it would be a starting point because tolerance is not acceptance, tolerating someone does not mean you accept someone into the hegemonic fabric of what one considers their own. Rather, it brings up an image of sitting someone off to the side—not welcomed but not entirely removed either. A similar idea is brought up by Wendy Brown, wherein she states that tolerance, when brought about by the dominant, always has an expression of dominance, even if it is meant to help or include those with less power. To quote Brown, “Tolerance is generally conferred by those who do not require it upon those who do; it arises within and codifies a normative order in which those who deviate from, rather than conform to the norms, are eligible for tolerance” Brown, 2008, #415). The idea that one would have to teach tolerance is shown to say that intolerance is what comes naturally, and thus one must be taught to tolerate those who are different. This, along with the idea of who confers tolerance upon whom, shows clearly that tolerance is a concept existing within a power dynamic. So, in Bangladesh, if one must teach the Muslim majority tolerance—to tolerate the other in a public space, tolerate the other’s celebration of a quintessential Bengali holiday—the message is not to live alongside or pluralistically, but rather to do the minority a favour, essentially, by merely tolerating them.

So, as always when we try to solve a problem of religious cohesion and conflict, there are a multitude of ways to view the issue and various lenses through which to view it. The idea that public spaces and design could be an aid to social cohesion in Bangladesh, in my opinion, is a path worth exploring further. Yes, it may mean that initially there is only tolerance, but what if eventually, we are able to create spaces where communities must interact and intermingle in order to experience the space fully? Could we imagine children of different communities playing together in the parks, their parents learning tolerance and pluralism from them? It may be idealistic, but I believe it is good to aim optimistically before allowing pessimism to lower our expectations. 



Abella, J. L., Fruttero, A., Tas, E. O., & Taj, U. (2020). Urban Design, Public Spaces, and Social Cohesion: Evidence from a Virtual Reality Experiment. In Policy Research Working Paper (No. 9407). World Bank, Washington, DC. 

Aelbrecht, P., & Stevens, Q. (2023). Geographies of Encounter, Public Space, and Social Cohesion: Reviewing Knowledge at the Intersection of Social Sciences and Built Environment Disciplines. Urban Planning, 8(4), 63-76.

Bhargava, R. (2013). Reimagining Secularism: Respect, Domination and Principled Distance. Economic and Political Weekly, 48(50), 79–92. 

Brown, W. (2008). TOLERANCE AS/IN CIVILIZATIONAL DISCOURSE. Nomos, 48, 406–441.

Hoque, M. (2014, April 14). Pohela baishakh: imagined vs. real. The Daily Star. 

Rashid, S. (2017). Urban spaces can promote empathy. The Daily Star.

Riaz, A. (2005). Traditional Institutions as Tools of Political Islam in Bangladesh. Journal of Asian and African Studies, 40(3), 171-196. 

Swapan, A. (2018, April 14). Celebrating common threads. The Daily Star. 


Van Der Veer, P. (1999). The Moral State: Religion, Nation, and Empire in Victorian Britain and British India. In P. van der Veer & H. Lehmann (Eds.), Nation and Religion: Perspectives on Europe and Asia (pp. 15–43). Princeton University Press.