SAY NO TO EVIL
As Narayanganj goes to polls the day after tomorrow to elect the city's Mayor, it is increasingly turning out to be a fight between the power of money and muscle and mass popular support. Whatever the outcome of the poll is, it is going to make a lasting impact in the country's future politics.
back from Narayanganj
Photos: ZAHEDUL I KHAN
THE BROTHERS OSMAN
Meet Kangaroo Parvez, tall, thin and spryly-built. Rain or shine you will find him in Chashara, Narayanganj and the adjoining areas in a spotless white shirt and a pair of formal white trousers. Heads turn as the 35-year-old walks, his clothes making a sharp contrast with his dark face; and if you look at it closely, you will find anything but deliberate cruelty in those deep, black, soulful eyes.
If you do not know Kangaroo, you might mistake him for one of those faceless young men you see in the country's small towns, patiently waiting in a long line for the next bus that will take them home, to the warm embrace of a loving wife or to the heavenly, blissful smile of a child.
Narayanganj City - decorated by election posters.
But make no mistake: Kangaroo is different; the very mention of his name, let alone his presence, can make your heart beat faster if you live in Narayanganj, especially if you are a businessman or a small trader. A few months ago he almost killed one for not paying a hefty ransom that he and his friends had demanded. In 2001, he was arrested by the Joint Forces with firearms.
Kangaroo is the Commander-in-Chief of a group of 150 thugs that control the garment left-over business in the port city. He allegedly works under Shamim Osman, whose name, like that of Lord Voldemort in 'Harry Potter', must be uttered in Narayanganj in a whisper, and whom Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in a meeting has called her brother. There are many who allege that Shamim is the uncrowned king of the underworld in the city, and that this year he wants to make that title official by getting elected in the first Narayanganj City Corporation (NCC) polls.
Narayanganj is far from JK Rowling's fictional Azkaban: real people live here. Three months ago, a young man's body was retrieved from the Shitalakshya, a river that snakes through the city like the serpent King taking a snooze and was once the lifeline for the country's commerce.
The man's face was burnt with acid– attempts had been made to keep his corpse anonymous. But the dead sometimes do tell tales. The man's underwear, which was the only garment he was wearing, gave him away; his family identified the corpse and a case was lodged according to which Caesar and Siddique – two persons allegedly close to Shamim Osman – had frisked Ashik, the victim, away in the darkness of the night before he was so brutally killed. The police have so far failed to arrest the alleged murderers.
Shamim Osman himself is presently facing five cases, the number of which has been much higher before his party the AL came to power. Osman was sentenced to 11 years in prison, which was later quashed by the High Court; three more have been withdrawn after the AL came to power in 2008.
A friendly contest?
Shamim had to go into hiding after the AL completed its term in 2001. He came back to Narayanganj briefly before the 1/11, fled the country again and finally returned in 2009. Before his party came to power in 2008, promising to bring about digital Bangladesh, Osman had been the most wanted criminal in the city. Shamim's elder brother Nasim Osman, a Jatya Party lawmaker, has threatened to kill Prothom Alo Editor Matiur Rahman for running a news report that has exposed a litany of extortion, graft and other illegal activities of the Osman clan.
"Things have changed now," a Narayanganj businessman says, "He doesn't call businesses up for money any more. Nowadays Kangaroo Parvez, Shah Nijam and Ibrahim Chengis do his dirty work."
The list of Osman brothers' alleged crimes is, in fact, much longer: extortion from truck and bus-stands and garment waste, illegal trade in fuels, control of government tender and drug dens and illegal sand trading from the Shitalakshya.
“His [Shamim's] extortion network in transport sector, the truck stand and sand trading sectors are known to every single person in Narayanganj. We do not want to be part of criminal politics," Anwar Hossain, president of Narayanganj city Awami League, tells The Daily Star.
THE LEADER'S PET
It is a mystery why the AL leadership loves Shamim so much so that he has been given the party's blessing to run for the RCC Mayor. Shamim claims that he has been in constant touch with the Prime Minister and Awami League chief. He talks of a relationship that goes beyond politics. "I don't see myself as her younger brother, I consider myself her son because as an elder sister she (Hasina) is like a mother to me," Shamim says.
Shamim says that perhaps not many people have been showered with the love and affection that Sheikh Hasina has shown to him. "I have got an elder sister's love and a mother's affection from her," he says, "I was talking to her the other day; I told her that a conspiracy is going on, to which she replied that not a mere conspiracy, but a mega-conspiracy is being hatched." He, however, refuses to name the conspirators.
Shamim Osman -enjoying the indulgence of the AL's top
Shamim says that he doesn't feel bad at all when people call him a godfather. "I feel good, because I am not a bad person. I am not bad. They say a lot of bad things about me, but they haven't been able to prove anything," he says.
We meet the much-feared Shamim Osman in Shiddirganj, considered to be one of his strongholds. Near Mijimiji Idris Market, flanked by his supporters and sweating profusely, he greets the citizens and hugs an elderly bare-backed blind person. "I love my leader (Sheikh Hasina), and that's why they (people) love me," he says pointing at the blind-man.
The election pledges that Shamim makes are always followed by the phrase "world class" – world-class university, medical college and nursing training college, and a world-class amusement park in Modonganj.
Shamim's charm offensive has failed to woo many voters, who, after years of alleged gangsterism and abuse, are finding it difficult to believe that Shamim has finally given up on mischief, and the talk of Allah and religion that he is so full of is not for the sake of getting votes.
"I don't think he has changed. I have heard that nowadays he holds waz mahfils (religious gatherings) and gives speeches in Urdu, but I think some people are incapable of becoming good," says Aftab Ali (not his real name) in Chashara roundabout, which is a stone’s-throw distance away from Hiramahal, Shamim Osman's house.
Shamim denies any wrongdoing. Why did he have to go into hiding, then, when the AL was defeated in the 2001 general elections? A smile hovers over his face, while Shamim, a tall and burly presence in the crowd, cogitates and replies," My leader (Sheikh Hasina) ordered me at that time to hide. Sheikh Hasina herself called me up at quarter past 3 (after the elections), I told her that I wanted to go to Dhaka. She said, 'No. Just get out, go to the safer side, and also send your boys to a safer side.' I just saved my life."
Shamim takes a pause; perhaps his reply hasn't satisfied himself. He fishes for a better answer and adds, "My Prophet (PBUH) has also made hizrat (hegira). I have been his mere follower"; he then turns around and asks a man in his forties, "Why aren't you in the procession?"
The man smiles feebly and mumbles an explanation. Shamim is all smiles: "You have to pay a fine. Give me Tk 100." The man gives him a Tk 500 note. "You boys have cool drinks with this," Shamim tells his supporters as he passes it onto a member of his electioneering team.
The note, carrying the photo of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, is quickly folded and soon lies in the breast pocket of a Shamim faithful. Kangaroo doesn't accompany Shamim in election campaigns. Perhaps he doesn't like to mix business with politics; in Rowling's novel, Voldemort, the dark lord, doesn't do that either.
THE PEOPLE'S CANDIDATE
For the Awami League leadership, it hasn't been that difficult to choose a candidate to weigh in their support in the NCC elections, not to the extent it has flip-flopped over the issue.
Dr Selina Hayat Ivy was elected Mayor of the now-defunct Narayanganj Municipality in 2003, beating the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-supported candidate by a huge margin while the BNP was in power. Her father was one of the founders of the AL, and she is the Vice President of the city AL and as a Mayor of the Municipality she has fulfilled all her election pledges. She is young, honest and dynamic, and on top of it all, she is popular. Still her party found it difficult, impossible almost, to choose her.
According to newspaper reports, the AL at first opted for Shamim Osman; the following day the pendulum in the party office swung heavily in Ivy's favour. A day later it went in favour of the alleged godfather. Still the AL didn't speak its heart; even after an army of central AL leaders went to the port city to voice their support for Shamim, Acting General Secretary of the party said nothing had been decided, a comment he backtracked from the following day, saying Shamim was the chosen one.
Dr Selina Hayat Ivy, a physician by profession, has managed to win the hearts of many.
Walking in a muddy potholed ally in Abdul Alimpur, Dr Ivy stands in front of different shops and asks for votes. Even though Narayanganj has just been made a city corporation, the three municipalities it is comprised of are miles away from each other. Alimpur traditionally votes for Shamim Osman, but here people's response to her call has been huge.
"I am the people's candidate," Dr Ivy says, as she smiles at a child greeting her procession, "In local government body elections political parties are not supposed to support anyone."
She says that she has been with the people of Narayanganj and they will vote for her this time too. "I have trust in the voters. They are going to choose the right candidate," she says.
Compared to her counterpart's prodigious profile, Ivy's is a rather dull, drab and dry affair. She is not facing any criminal cases, doesn't patronise criminals and even Shamim Osman calls her a nice person.
In her term as the Mayor of Narayanganj Municipality new roads by the length of 176-kilometres have been built. Before she assumed power the city had few roads, which were 78-kilometres-long in total.
During her last eight years in office, the Narayanganj Municipality had retrieved 90 percent of the land from land-grabbers. Dr Ivy had built new graveyards for Muslims and funeral pyres for the Hindus; a solar-powered eco-friendly library and a new truck terminal. To make the City Corporation self-sufficient, she has made two shopping malls, the work of two more in Tanbazaar is underway.
Her popularity among the citizens in the city has remained high, with people drawing a comparison between her campaign and her father Ali Ahmed Chunka's election as the Municipality's first Mayor. Like her, Chunka failed to get the party blessing, independently fought the elections and defeated the party-supported candidate by a huge margin.
Is history going to repeat itself? "Yes," says Ibrahim (not his real name) who sells green coconut near Chashara, "We love Ivy because she has done a lot for us." He, however, wants to remains anonymous: "This is Narayanganj. I have to sell coconut here," he says.
Alam, who voted for the BNP in the last general elections, echoes Ibrahim's view. "I will go for Ivy. She has been with us through thick and thin," he says.
Dr Ivy's image as a clean candidate is her best bet. But things have started to change a little against her after last Monday when Osman supporters have allegedly started to distribute a huge sum of money among the voters in the port area, which traditionally votes for Ivy.
It is also difficult to predict how many votes she is going to get in Shiddirganj, where Osman sympathisers are expecting a landslide in his favour, and with the AL central leaders frequently visiting Narayanganj to ask votes for Shamim, Ivy's chance to repeat history hangs precariously the balance.
Ivy has remained hopeful. She says that she plans to make Narayanganj free from water-logging. "I want to make the NCC a people-oriented organisation. At times the city becomes clogged with traffic, and I want to make it free from congestion," she says, "If I get re-elected I want to make a clinic in every ward of the city."
She says that the rehabilitation of the hawkers is going to be a crucial step in her next term in office. "I want to build a market for them," she says, adding that the bazaars also need be modernised so that the citizens can shop in a healthy and hygienic environment.
Ivy wants to build another rail-track between Dhaka and Narayanganj to make sure that the city's connectivity with the capital helps trade and business in the port city to flourish. She has a master plan on the Shitalakshya, saying, "I want to improve the connectivity between the eastern and western sides of the river, making sure that both the parts have perimeter fence with footpaths to walk for the citizens." She says that she wants to start the work of a museum that will display local history along with the people's struggle for freedom in our Liberation War.
After she finishes talking to us, a youth in the city's Shiddirganj complains that the lake nearby is polluted by the dyeing industries to such an extent that it gives out a putrid smell, and the air is still and heavy with the acid the water-body is emitting.
"In three/four years even gold ornaments develop small holes in them. If you look at any transformer on electric poles you can't but notice the rust in them. Be it television, radio or corrugated iron, nothing lasts here for more than a year or two," the young man says.
Ivy promises that, if elected, she's going to clean the canal, and that she's going to turn it into a lake with proper amusement facilities. "I am going to make three modern parks in Narayanganj, Shiddirganj and Bondor," she says.
"I am what I stand for," she says before she melts into the crowd, which quickly engulfs her.
THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME
Taimur Alam Khondokar is not home. His house in Shaheed Sabir Alam Khondokar road looks empty and forlorn. The BNP-supported candidate has gone to Kalam shaheb's office, we are told. On the concreted courtyard, a few party-faithful are busy laminating black and white posters, their hands are leisurely. A tall woman entertains us with tea and biscuits; we are later told that she is Taimur's wife.
A slum in Siddirganj, Narayanganj.
According to a case filed with the police, Taimur has been accused of planting a bomb in Shamim Osman's office at the fag end of Sheikh Hasina's last term in office. Shamim survived, but his critics say that the explosions occurred while Shamim's followers were making bombs.
Does she, Taimur's wife, really think her husband is capable of murdering someone?
"You should ask him (Taimur)," she replies, then hastens to add, "Shamim Osman himself has, 'I don't think Taimur bhai wanted to kill me'."
We go to former BNP MP Advocate Abdul Kalam's office. We are informed by an acquaintance that the road that leads to Tamiur's house was built in Ivy's last term. We find Taimur surrounded by a few supporters. "I am not going to withdraw," he says.
He refutes Shamim Osman's allegation that he tried to kill Shamim, saying, "He (Shamim) told the Election Commissioner that I had never tried to kill him."
The BNP has said that the party will not participate in any election where electronic voting machine (EVM) is used. Why, then, is he still in the race? "This is a local body election, and I am going to win it," he says.
Taimur says he wants make Narayanganj a well-planned city. "If I am voted to office, I will clean the river and recover the major canals in the NCC area. I will construct roads on both sides of the Shitalakkhya, set up parks and a Shishu academy,” he says.
Water polluted by wastes from dyeing factories in the DND canal.
Narayanganj, three days before the election, resembles more like a divided city. But it may not remain so for long. In the last Union Parishad elections, voters in Narayanganj overwhelmingly rejected candidates supported by Shamim Osman and his brother, which has made many believe that voters in the city, too, are going to reject politics of intimidation, extortion and murder.
For the first time in the country an election is going to be held where one-third of the votes will be cast with electronic voting machines, making the NCC polls a historic one. Even though the BNP-backed candidate has expressed his apprehension regarding the EVM, the people of Narayanganj city have remained enthusiastic.
Anti-incumbency factor has also been high in the port-city, which might cost Shamim Osman some votes for he is running in the ruling alliance's blessing. Another major factor in the NCC polls is going to be the Hindu voters, who traditionally support the AL, but are now divided in their allegiance as the Communist Party of Bangladesh and some left parties have thrown their weight behind Ivy. Some of the Hindu voters in the city complain of intimidation by Shamim supporters, which is not going to go down well on the members of the community in the rest of the municipal corporation. Shamim still enjoys some support in Shiddirganj, which has 1.25 lakh voters, and in the area he might get the majority of the votes. Ivy, on the other hand, is popular in the town and the port.
Whatever the result of the polls is its outcome is going to make a lasting impact on the country's politics. If a free and fair election is not held, the BNP will make it an issue in the national politics, claiming it to be a proof in favour of the party's stance that political governments cannot conduct free and fair elections. The government, for its turn, cannot afford to lose and still it can't let the likes of Kangaroo Parvez take the reign on Election Day. It is, in fact, caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, because if its supported candidate fails to win, it will be an example of the government's declining popular support and if it tries to tamper with the elections the world will cry foul.
Narayanganj presently stands at a crossroads. It has three major candidates to vote for: on one hand they have an immediate-past successful Mayor and on the other they have two candidates whose past is mired in cases of graft, theft and murder. At the end of the day it is the city's voters who are going to decide their future Mayor.
FAQs about the three Frontrunners
Akram Hosen Mamun
The three frontrunners in the Narayanganj City Corporation mayoral race have constantly been the centre of media attention during the last month. As grumpy critics are busy writing columns denouncing the two major political parties for nominating, and the EC for accepting people who have got several criminal cases filed against them, we present you with a short—and, for that matter, an incomplete—account of the pros and cons of the three, lest you get bewildered by the sudden flurry of all these headlines.
Among the eight mayoral candidates, Former Awami League lawmaker Shamim Osman, whose alleged organised crimes have earned him the title of the Godfather, is undoubtedly the most cited name in the media. After spending about eight long years in hiding, far away from his kingdom, the man got back in the saddle again in 2009.
|Taimur Alam Khandakar
Selina Hayat Ivy
Photos: Zahedul I Khan
The grandeur with which he made his return made people wonder if they had travelled back in time and space to a world of the western movies set in the 19th century. His first public appearance was at a rally on April 17 and met the goodfellas in Narayanganj. Businesses shuddered as they received phone calls from his men, asking for their fair share of the pie. Meanwhile, the High Court stayed all the cases against him. He had a period of over 11 years to serve in prison at that time. But that long period of banishment hardly deterred the tenacious Osman from recapturing his kingdom.
A man of such an 'illustrious' career usually gets the support of the political party in office. As befits a personality of such national recognition, the party nominated him as the mayoral candidate.
The party doesn't worry its head about the little fact that Osman faced 17 cases in different times. Of them, he was acquitted in eight cases while proceedings of four have been stayed by the High Court.
Three other cases were quashed by the court. Trial of an arms case filed with Fatullah Police Station is on, and the final report in another case has been submitted.
Little does the party care about such meaningless trivia about a man of such grave import: the prime minister, after all, has declared him to be like a brother to her. Osman, moreover, is a law graduate and he hasn't forgotten to mention in his application to be a mayoral candidate that the cases were politically motivated, and that more cases might have been filed with the same motives. But, we, the initiated public know that the CEC had only been exceedingly understanding to the need of common folks.
Photo: Zahedul I Khan
He declared in the affidavit that he collects over Tk 4 lakh in rent (house and shops) and earns over Tk 9 lakh a year from his import, supply and transport businesses. His wife Salma Osman earns the same amount from business and Tk 24 lakh from her job per year. But strangely, her brother Saidur Rahman, when contacted, says that his sister is a stay-at home mother and doesn't work anywhere.
The yearly income of his son, Imtinan Osman, a law student and a businessman, is Tk 17 lakh. The young man has an FDR worth Tk 1, 31, 00,000.
The second most discussed contender is the BNP-backed Taimur Alam Khandakar. He has nine graft cases against him, according to the affidavit submitted to the local election office.
Proceedings of six cases and conviction in three cases have been stayed by the High Court, Taimur, a lawyer by profession, said in the affidavit.
Also, two cases filed against him in 2001 were rejected by the court. He claimed he could not find the papers related to the cases.
Taimur was chairman of Bangladesh Road Transport Corporation from 2001 to 2006. Earlier, he served as a deputy attorney general.
The BNP leader collects over Tk 4 lakh in rent (house and shop). His yearly income from the court is over Tk 3.5 lakh. In addition, he gets Tk 45,984 in bank interest.
Now the reason why so much media attention is focused on the earnings of the candidates is, to win an election in this country, one needs to distribute bundles of hard cash among millions of voters to 'persuade' them to vote for them. Why should the plebeian general public vote for this or that big shot, if it isn't for a little quick cash? To those who have not internalised the norm, the Chief Election Commissioner's advice is: accept the cash when offered but vote according to your conscience. To the uninitiated, the CEC may appear to be advising his countrymen to take bribes but not do anything unethical. This may well be the best advice the CEC can give, given the reality of electioneering.
Compared to the two illustrious personalities with eventful lives, Selina Hayat Ivy has had the mundane career of a physician. She graduated as a doctor of medicine from a Russian medical school in 1992. With not a single case against her, Ivy's sheet is so clean that there is hardly any scope for juicy gossip. And she does not have any income except for Tk 10 lakh savings in the bank. According to her nomination paper, she has gold and other valuables worth Tk 30,000.
(R) thedailystar.net 2011