Skip to Content

Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 105

Letter from America: Thoughts on Bangladesh – 6

By Dr. Habib Siddiqui

Last week, I was in the port city of Khulna, located in the south-west corner of Bangladesh. It is a major city and is not too far from the Sundarbans.

It was an unsafe time to visit the port city of Khulna, or for that matter any place within Bangladesh, given the political unrest that has been wrecking havoc inside Bangladesh since last month. It is a constitutional crisis, created by the politicians – both in power and opposition, who have no desire or so it seems towards resolving the problem peacefully. Violent demonstrations, including setting vehicles on fire, derailing trains, obstructing major roads and highways with everything imaginable, let alone throwing firebomb and attacking anyone on the streets, including police and ordinary commuters have become the new norm these days.

So, it was a risky decision to go out of Chittagong. But I wanted to go since I have not visited the city since 1994. My mom’s family comes from Khulna, and many of my cousins still live in the city. The city, unfortunately, does not have any airport to fly into. As such, road communication often is the preferred alternative requiring only about 10-12 hours reaching Khulna from Chittagong.

My brother-in-law Bahar and I bought bus tickets just minutes after the opposition-called 60-hour long strike has ended. The fear was that the opposition alliance would call its second strike within days, and if we don’t leave soon, we may not be able to get to Khulna anytime soon. As expected, therefore, there were lots of traffic on the road, and we arrived in Khulna almost five hours late. The road condition via Aricha ferry route, especially after Jessore, was terrible and painful for any passenger. The bus driver, however, seems to know all the short-cut tricks to by-pass other trucks and vehicles, and made good use of his knowledge of the roads and highways to shorten the travel time. It was tiring nonetheless.

My cousin Sheikh M. Nurruzzaman Manju and nephew Ruhit came with their car to receive us at the bus terminal. We decided to stay with another cousin Sheikh Nurul Haque Kochi who lived in the home that belonged to his parents - my maternal aunt and her husband, both now deceased. The cousin brothers are successful businessmen and live near Haji Mohsin Road, named after the legendary philanthropist of the British era. Their homes are all close by allowing Bahar and I to chat and dine freely whenever we wanted.

Since I have not visited my birthplace, Bashtali, located in Rampal thana in Bagerhat (which was before part of Khulna district) for more than three decades, my plan was to visit the place next day, which was Friday. After a good rest on Thursday night, Bahar and I left for Bashtali in Manju’s van. His wife and Kochi also joined in. On the way, we paid tolls and crossed over the Rupsha Bridge which has been built not too long ago. Years ago when I visited Bashtali with my mom, I remember we had to cross the river by boat or launch (small steam boat) and then take a very slow-moving train (probably the slowest in the world) to reach Bagerhat town. And then we would take a launch to ultimately reach Bashtali – my birthplace. One time, we missed the last launch that had left the ferry, and we had to take a boat instead which took a few hours to reach Bashtali.

Obviously, those days are long gone in this part of Bangladesh. The road communication between Khulna city and Rampal thana and once-remote villages and small towns has significantly improved. It takes only a fraction of the old time - now less than two hours - to go from Khulna city to Bashtali. My mother says much of the credit for such communication miracle connecting Khulna city to other parts of the district goes it to its former Mayor – Alhajj Abdul Khaleq Talukdar (of Awami League).

It was really a very nice, pleasant ride all the way to Bashtali. On our way, we stopped by a dairy shop (which makes jilapi and mishty or ros golla – a type of popular sweets product made out of milk, which is a popular snack or dessert served in Bangladesh) in Rampal and bought few kilos of various types of sweets. The shop owner is a Hindu who is known to my cousins very well and was nice to have us taste his sweets before buying.

We then stopped by an orphanage and a madrasa in Islamabad – Islamabad Siddiqui Fadil (Degree) Madrasa, which had enjoyed hefty donations and support from my mom and my two cousins – Manju and Kochi. On the way to the madrasa, we were greeted by many students – aged six and above- who had lined up along the road. The ex-principal, Abdul Matin Quddusi, a learned scholar, gave a very heartrending speech on the history of the madrasa, one of the oldest in the entire region that was started by a saint - the Pir of Furfura, and as to how it struggled to function all these years without any government support, and how timely my mom’s financial supports were at its crunch time to keep it running. He also relayed how he had met my parents in Chittagong many years ago, and that my mother was the first of the university graduates with an M.A. degree from the region. He praised the donations she and her (late) elder sister (Manju and Kochi’s mom) had made, and requested that we, as children of such philanthropist parents, should continue their noble practices, without which the madrasa and the attached orphanage would have long been closed down. When requested, I delivered a brief speech in which I urged the young students to become true human beings for I felt that we are trying to become everything but good human beings that care and are mindful of their obligations before God and His creation.

After taking some group pictures we headed out for Bashtali. On our way, we stopped by another dairy shop, owned by a Hindu, in Gilatala and bought several kilos of various types of sweets. It was obvious that the sweets-makings cottage industry in rural areas continue to be owned and operated mostly by Hindus.

The trip to Bashtali from Gilatala was a very short one, and after arriving in front of my grandpa’s home – an old brick home, which is almost in ruins now, we freshened up and walked to the newly rebuilt mosque in the village. It was Friday, the time for Jumu’ah prayer. As we, the four of us, male members, walked inside the mosque, everyone’s eyes stared at us since Bahar and I are newcomers to this mosque. The prayer leader, Imam, had expected our visit to the place, and requested that I give a brief talk before he delivered khutbah (the Friday sermon). I was not prepared but got up on my feet and delivered a small message on the importance of being truthful.

After the prayer service, we were given a tour of the mosque premises, which houses a school and were apprised of the progress made in various areas there including expansion capacity for prayer services. My cousin Al-hajj Zillur Rahman Chowdhury had contributed heftily for this mosque. My mother also paid for its water supply with construction of deep tube wells and an ablution area. The locals were very appreciative of such donations for the mosque.

An uncle of mine, who is my mom’s cousin, and continues to live there, invited several members of the congregation to eat at his family home. He has been instrumental in overlooking some of the projects there. The local union chairman vowed to provide all help for the on-going projects there that were financed by our families.

After a seven-course lunch (without counting the sweet items), I walked around the buildings in the Chowdhury Lodge – which belonged to my grandpa, meeting some of my relatives. Some of them came from nearby places to meet me there. Many of their family members have moved away to cities or are now settled overseas, and the once very prosperous family home - has very little to show of its past glory these days. It was sad for me to see this change. Others that were once poor and worked as laborers for my grandpa seem to have prospered quite well. I noticed a beautiful two-story home nearby, constructed recently by a doctor, who now works for the Post-Graduate Hospital in Dhaka. His parents were very poor and my mother helped him financially for his education. It was good to see how he has been able to do good for his family members left behind.

I also noticed that most locals were involved with shrimp cultivation and not as much with rice cultivation. This part of the country, which is low-lying delta area, used to have some of the finest soil producing bumper crops year round. Now salinity has adversely affected such cultivation, and people for a plethora of reasons have moved to shrimp cultivation. Acres of land are now leased by the shrimp marketers for its cultivation for a very small amount of fee paid to the landowners. As such the old big land-owners, unless they got into this new trade, are becoming poor while a new wealthy class is emerging fast. Many of them live in big cities and don’t even visit the villages to see the impact of this shrimp business. But even then I was approached by only two persons for some monetary help. Those who have become very poor did not feel comfortable raising such issues.

Motor driven easy-bikes (something like a tri-cycle with open roof seats), and not rickshaws, now carry people around the roads. My mother donated nearly a dozen of such motorized transports to the poor in the area.

After those acquaintance meetings, we walked to the newly built Barrister Saidur Rahman Girls’ Madrasa, which has been named after my late uncle (mejo mama), who was a very famous barrister during Pakistan times. He was the first one from the region to study in Presidency College under Calcutta University in Kolkata during the British era before heading out for London for his Bar-at-Law degree. He was a contemporary of Justice Abu Said Chowdhury, who later became the President of the newly independent Bangladesh. I was told that my uncle was appointed an ambassador to the UK, which he could not fulfill because of having an English wife. On April 4, 1964 he was in the Radio Pakistan office, Dhaka, to deliver a scheduled speech on human rights when he suffered a heart attack, and later died before he could be admitted to the hospital. He was only 40 when he died leaving behind two sons who now live in the UK.

Mejo mama also taught law at Dhaka University and was recognized as a great teacher. I remember him as a very handsome man who was extremely popular and well respected for his personality and work. One of his juniors (legal assistant), Latifur Rahman, later became the Chief Justice of Bangladesh and head of a caretaker government. His body was taken to Bashtali and buried there. [My choto mama (another uncle – younger to my mom) Barrister Razzaq Rahman (now deceased), who had returned from UK not too long ago, sat in the same chamber in Malibagh, Dhaka to continue the legal practice.]

This madrasa, built in mejo mama’s name, has a residential hostel for the girls and we were met my some of the students there. My parents and cousin – Zillu bhaijan (Zillur Rahman Chowdhury) have been the financiers for this project. There we met Zillu bhai’s wife who supervises the facility. (At the time of our visit, Zillu bhai was in Khulna city and could not meet us. We later met him in Khulna.)

In the nearby plot, my mother is financing a Health Complex project so that trained doctors could attend to villagers there, and that way the patients need not go to Bagerhat town or Khulna city for their primary healthcare needs. This project is in its early stage and may take at least a couple more years before it finishes with built structures. My two visiting cousins and the resident uncle are overseeing this project.

Next, we prayed for forgiveness for the departed souls of our deceased relatives buried in the family graveyard, which is located in front of the Girls’ madrasa. Then we headed for the shore area – the ghat (in the local term) – on the Kumarkhali River where launches once used to ferry people around from other parts, including Bagerhat. Now with all the silt deposits in the river bed, I am told that even those launches don’t navigate in these shallow waters. We visited the market place on the river front and then visited Manju’s father-in-law’s home who lived nearby. His wife was resting there while we were busy in our grandpa’s place. After a short stopover there we visited his brother-in-law’s home who lived closely. He showed us his garden which grows all varieties of fruits.

After sunset, we headed for Khulna city, and arrived in Lulu’s home in the city before the time for Esha (night) prayer. Her mom (Sufi khala) and my mom are first cousins, and she had invited us to have our dinner at her home. Her husband, before his retirement, used to work in Chittagong and live in our six-story house, Aranika, as a tenant. They have moved back to Khulna city to be close to my aunt – Sufi khala. It was good seeing them both with their daughter and grand-son there. Although Lulu had prepared a hefty meal for all of us, our stomach was full, and we could not eat much and had to beg excuse of the generous hosts. Then we stopped by Mohsin mama’s home. He is another of my mom’s cousin (uncle of Lulu) who also lives in Khulna city. There we dropped off his mother who had traveled with us all the way from Bashtali. Then we dropped off at Kochi’s home to take rest for the night. It was a well spent trip to my birthplace. I took plenty of pictures to later share with my mom and other relatives.

Within the next two days, I met every other first and second cousin that still lives in Khulna city. And everywhere I went, they wanted to serve us hefty meal, which I had to decline politely in most cases for my stomach had no extra capacity for overeating. It was joyous moment everywhere nonetheless. I could not recognize the new faces that have emerged in many of those families.

Everywhere I moved inside the city, except the vegetable and fish market areas, it looked impressively clean. Unlike many parts of Dhaka and Chittagong, vendors did not vend their products on the foot paths, blocking people’s path. I did not see garbage piling up either on the footpaths or streets. From my cousin’s home, I could recognize the reason - why. Every day, cleaning workers from the city municipality would knock on the doors of residents to collect their trash and carry it away in their carts, something that I have failed to see in most parts of either Dhaka or Chittagong. Khulna city is the cleanest city of Bangladesh that I have seen. It could serve as a model to be easily copied by other more prosperous cities. (I am also told that Rajshahi is similarly very clean. But I have not been to Rajshahi in decades since my BUET days, and have no way of comparing it with Khulna.)

Khulna does not have commuting problem with road-jams which are common in Chittagong and Dhaka. Its inner city roads are not crowded by trucks and buses or even motor vehicles which make it easy to walk around or take a safe ride in rickshaws and taxis. But the rickshaw seats there were comparatively narrower to those found in either Chittagong or Dhaka. The real estate development within the city seems also well managed, and nothing like those found in either Chittagong or Dhaka. I felt that if there were a place for I to retire in Bangladesh one day, this city definitely would be my choice to do so.

I wish I had enough time to spend few more days with my cousins in Khulna. But the pre-election time political turmoil simply did not allow that luxury. The opposition alliance had called for an 84 hour long strike soon after we had arrived in Khulna, and we had to find some means to return. Bus journey was out of question, not only for the suffering I endured coming in, but it was unsafe. The criminal elements within the opposition alliance have been attacking the bus riders, setting the buses to flames. A plane trip to either Chittagong or Dhaka would involve first going to Jessore, where the nearest airport is located, but it would involve taking a long ride by bus or personal car or taxi to the airport, which was not possible during the time of a strike. Strikers simply didn’t like anyone taking such rides anywhere and have attacked violently and mercilessly those risk takers. So, a train ride seems to be the only option left open for us. It was not safe either since strikers have uprooted rail lines derailing trains in various parts of the country. We had to take that risk.

Unfortunately, we found out that there was no direct route from Khulna to Chittagong. We could take the night-time Sundarbans Express which would bring us to Dhaka early next morning. And there from we could take another train or plane to Chittagong. But again the plane journey was not feasible, since the airports are located far away from the heart of the city, and even if one were to arrive at the destination, the road trip to home could not have been safe in a taxi either.

Getting a train ticket is not easy these days because of all such considerations. Fortunately, Bahar was able to manage two tickets for us. After saying goodbyes to our loved ones in Khulna, we took a rickshaw ride at night to the train station. It was in the middle of the strike period, so a trip by car or taxi was unsafe. My two cousins – Manju and Kochi - also came to see us off. After arriving at the train station, we learned that there was a three hour delay for our train to start because of a derailment accident nearby. The police inspector in charge at the rail station was known to Bahar, who graciously allowed us to rest in his office.

While we were resting there, we heard the sound of a bomb blast nearby and were informed that the nearby police station had been attacked by the criminal elements of the opposition alliance which had called in the strike. It was embarrassing for the Officer-in-Charge there to admit that his own police station had been bombed, so he denied such to the inquiring members of the Rapid Action Battalion. Afraid of being officially rebuked for a lousy job to protecting its own station and blocked from any potential promotion later on, he preferred lying! That was easy and convenient for him.

Waiting is always difficult, especially for me. I would arrive at a place earlier than be late. As such, we had arrived at the train station half an hour earlier than the scheduled time, and now we have to pass three hours and a half there. Not an easy task! So, to pass our time, we started chatting with the police inspector who had also enough time to chat with us. He told us of his experience visiting parts of India by train for a health related problem he had. He is fully cured now. He informed how difficult it was to procure a train ticket for long distance travel inside India. A traveler must book those tickets at least a week in advance. However, with a hefty commission (bribe) paid to agents, tickets could be procured there the next day, after waiting for 24 hours. The services offered inside the train, I was told, were superior to those found in Bangladesh. I wish one of the days I would have that opportunity to visit India. The only memory I have of India is when I visited Bahrampur area of West Bengal, located on the other side of Padma River, soon after the liberation war, as a team member of an under-18 college cricket team, which was the best in the Rajshahi Division. Our cadet college team had the best record in the division.

I asked Mr. Shah Alam, the police officer, why Jessore seemed to have more industries these days than Khulna in the post-liberation area. He told us about a Mafia Don – like character, named Ershad Sikder, who had terrorized the city for years until he was killed in the May of 2004 after found guilty of multiple murders. He was the most notorious of serial killers in Bangladeshi history that had enjoyed political support from all the major parties. No one could dare to do business in Khulna without his blessings in the 1980s and the 1990s.

Ershad Sikder was a porter who once worked in the jetty to later become their leader. He ultimately controlled the entire labor market in shipping, rail and transportation sectors. He demanded a specific percentage to be paid to him for all those service sectors. Anyone daring to challenge his authority or refusing to pay his demand would be executed by him, and sometimes thrown down to the river.

Even the government officers, including divisional commissioner, police super and others were afraid of Ershad Sikder. He would buy their influence by showering them with appropriate gifts. His mantra was – everyone has a price with which he/she could be bought. And he used that mantra religiously on everyone important, even a police constable or rail guard was not ignored. Those who did not fit in were summarily eliminated by him personally. Surrounded always by musclemen, he was a terror figure recognized and feared by all – big or small. Even government officers would seek his help on their personal problems or disputes.

According to the court records, Sikder amassed millions of taka by criminal muscle power, and then used that money to buy political influence. His lavishly decorated mansion in the city and his business establishments were frequented by the leaders of all major political parties. The politicians liked him more because he had a sizable private force, equipped with illegal weapons.

He first joined the Jatiya Party of former military ruler Hussein Muhammad Ershad and became a council member of the Khulna City Corporation in the late 1980s. When the president and his first wife would visit the city, they would be seen meeting Ershad Sikder, whom the president called his ‘adopted son’. Just imagine!

After the fall of the Ershad regime and restoration of democracy in the early 1990s, Ershad Sikder joined the then governing party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. But he swapped sides and joined the Awami League when it came to power a few years afterwards.

But his political mentors in the Awami League refused to back him when he killed one of their own men, Khalid Hossain, following his arrest in 1999. Sikder's own bodyguard also betrayed him and gave a vivid description to the trial court of the gruesome way in which he killed the young political activist. A witness to the murder told that he beat Khalid Hossain mercilessly, and at one point jumped on his chest, breaking all his bones. His bodyguard also testified that Sikder was responsible for more than 20 other murders.

Ershad Sikder’s honeymoon with politics came to an abrupt end when he was found guilty in that well-publicized case. He was later hanged to death in 2004.

As we have been attentively listening to the story of Khulna’s Don our train whistled into the station. My cousins had said good-bye to us earlier in the middle of the story since it was getting quite late at night for them to get back to their family. We thanked Mr. Alam for his recollection of the Ershad Sikder story, and show of kindness and then embarked on the train. There was no further delay on our way, and we arrived three hours late in Dhaka the next day.

In its May 2004 report, a BBC commentator said, “Ershad Sikder's rise from poor labourer to rich man in Khulna symbolises the dreadful state of Bangladeshi politics.”

Well, that sums up the politics of Bangladesh. Probably, very little has changed in the last ten years. Politics and business continues to be dominated by those untouchables!

To be continued >>>

- Asian Tribune -

diconary view
Share this