Home truths

Published : Dec 17, 2010 00:00 IST

The eviction of opposition leader Khaleda Zia from her cantonment residence whips up passions in Bangladesh.

in Dhaka

FOR 38 years, 6 Shaheed Moinul Road in Dhaka Cantonment was Khaleda Zia's address. The sprawling house on more than a hectare was the official residence of her husband, General Zia-ur-Rahman, the army chief of Bangladesh who later became its military ruler and President. It became her official residence too as Prime Minister of the country twice. The allotment of the house to her was cancelled last year and on November 13, the Cantonment Board took possession of it after Khaleda Zia, who is now the Leader of the Opposition, moved to a civilian neighbourhood. But she vacated the house after whipping up passions.

Khaleda Zia said she was evicted forcibly by state violence. The ruling Awami League and the military agencies, however, rebutted the allegation. The military press wing, Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), said Khaleda Zia had willingly moved out of the house with dignity and honour.

The cantonment residence was leased out for a token amount to the young widow of Zia-ur-Rahman after his assassination in Chittagong in 1981. Khaleda Zia was only a homemaker at that time and her two sons Tarique Rahman and Arafat Rahman were very young. Later, Khaleda herself became a politician and was elected Prime Minister twice after she led the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which her husband founded, to victory. One of her sons is now a controversial politician and the other a businessman; both face multiple corruption charges and have been in exile for years.

Not surprisingly, the cantonment residence has remained of sentimental value to Khaleda Zia. Many secular politicians believe that it was used to hatch conspiracies against democracy and pro-liberation politics.

Khaleda Zia has another house, at 196 Gulshan Avenue, Dhaka, on a 32-khata land (one hectare is approximately 25 khata), which too was allotted to her by the government after her husband's death. Many believe that propriety demanded that she vacate at least one house voluntarily now that she was a politician in a democratic system, but she held on to both as of right. When some members of civil society and her political opponents demanded that she vacate the cantonment house, her supporters defended their leader's claim on the house citing emotional reasons.

A rude awakening came on October 13, when the High Court rejected a writ petition by the BNP chairperson challenging the Cantonment Board's notice that asked her to vacate the house. The court asked the authorities to allow Khaleda 30 days to move out. On November 8, Khaleda filed a leave-to-appeal in the Appellate Division. The court, on November 10, adjourned the hearing until November 29 without issuing a stay order. Khaleda's lawyers had not sought such an order.

The same day, Attorney General Mahbubey Alam issued a statement that if Khaleda Zia did not vacate the house by November 12, she would be committing contempt of court. This was a broad indication of the government's stance. To everyone's surprise, Khaleda's party now began a strong campaign against the High Court verdict, portraying it as a conspiracy of the government to oust its leader from her house.

Some people allege that the opposition leader and her lawyers were out to make political gains as they were sure to lose the appeal in court. Thus, while on the one hand Khaleda and her supporters sought humanitarian consideration from the government, on the other they kept up their campaign to achieve political mileage.

On the morning of November 13, a day after the deadline, a few Cantonment Board officials sought to enter Khaleda's residence, but the guards refused to let them in. Later, some personnel of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and policemen cordoned off the house.

Khaleda, who earlier did not respond to the officers' requests, came out of her bedroom at one stage. The officers requested her to vacate the house accepting the court verdict.

At a news conference later, a weeping Khaleda told newspersons that she was forced out of the house in the clothes she was wearing. I have been humiliated and insulted, she said with tears rolling down her cheeks. What actually happened inside the cantonment residence is not known.

A debate raged over the eviction. The BNP's secretary general Khandaker Delwar Hossain said that his leader had been thrown out of her house cruelly and illegally. The ISPR, however, termed Khaleda's claim as a blatant lie. The statement she made at the press conference making allegations of lock-breaking, her forced ouster, and misbehaviour with her and her relatives are all blatant lies, false and motivated, said an ISPR release. The military press wing also alleged that the opposition leader had threatened and rebuked the members of the armed forces in filthy language and called them ungrateful dogs and national enemy.

It said the former Prime Minister was fully prepared to vacate the house and had packed her belongings in several bags and big cartons. It said she also had transferred many of the household articles beforehand to her younger brother Shamim Iskandar's residence.

The statement described the events that took place at the house since the morning of November 13 until her voluntary exit from the house at 3-15 p.m. in a car driven by her personal driver. The ISPR, which came under sharp attack from the opposition party, said the Cantonment Board officials had gone to the house to request her to vacate the house and to take possession of it in a legal manner as the deadline imposed by the High Court had expired a day earlier. They apparently conveyed the request to Khaleda by 9-30 a.m. According to the statement, 61 of the 67 domestic aides who were staying there had left the house, but the officials were told that Khaleda was asleep.

At around 11, the statement said, Khaleda came to know that the officials concerned were waiting outside.Then she started preparations in an easy going' manner and spent nearly two hours for make-ups and other related activities, and seeing her unnecessary delay, two policewomen knocked at her windows but she became furious and rebuked the army hurling abuses, the release said.

Khaleda apparently went around every room to see if the household articles were all right and demanded written assurances from the officials about their safety. She finally gave her decision to leave the house after the Cantonment Board officials gave her a written assurance of protecting the materials, the release said.

The statement said that in the previous days Khaleda had transferred nearly 100 cartons and bags to the residence of another brother, Sayeed Iskandar, and the mother-in-law of her younger son, Arafat Rahman, and had kept the rest of the materials packed and ready to be transferred.

Orgy of violence

The news of the eviction sent BNP workers into an orgy of violence in the capital and elsewhere, including in front of the main gate of the cantonment. They vandalised at least 100 vehicles and torched another two dozen. Some 200 people were injured in clashes. Many activists were arrested.

Attorney General Alam accused Khaleda Zia's counsel of deliberately refraining from pleading for a stay on the High Court verdict. But pro-BNP lawyers levelled a countercharge that the Attorney General himself had plotted the eviction. Alliance partners of Khaleda Zia and a section of the newspapers termed the developments at the cantonment residence a conspiracy and autocratic action.

Interestingly, some allies of the ruling Awami League felt that the government had acted in haste. From a political perspective, it seems to me that it would have been wise if the government had not done it in haste, Workers Party president Rashed Khan Menon, a Member of Parliament, remarked.

Some observers point out the eviction was entirely legal. They feel Khaleda's lawyers did not ask for a stay on the High Court verdict fearing that she might have no alternative but to vacate the house if the Supreme Court had rejected such a plea. Others say the government was walking into a trap and it would have been wise for it to wait for the final verdict of the Supreme Court.

The jurist Shahdeen Malik said if an appeal was filed and there was no pressing need to implement a judgment, it was customary to wait for the final court verdict.

Another eminent jurist, M. Zahir, said since the Supreme Court had fixed a date to hear the appeal, the government should have waited for its decision.

The November 13 eviction brings to memory a similar action by the Khaleda Zia government, which cancelled the allotment of a house to Sheikh Hasina's sister Rehana, when the BNP was in power. Apparently, the surviving daughters of the country's founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, have had no benefits from the state.

Hartal politics

Bangladesh's largely condemned politics of hartal made a comeback with the alleged eviction. The BNP enforced a nationwide shutdown for two days from November 14, before Eid, when thousands of people were busy returning to their villages from towns, doing last-minute shopping and checking out the cattle market to buy goats and cows to observe the rituals relating to the festival.The countrywide Junior School Certificate Examination was postponed because of the hartal.

The Sheikh Hasina Cabinet criticised the BNP for making the eviction a major issue. That Khaleda's lawyers did not ask for a stay on the High Court order was part of a political strategy, they believe.

The BNP, in fact, was desperately seeking an issue to take to the streets. It had taken a vociferous stand against the deals the country signed with India recently, including the ones on transit through Bangladesh, and had vowed to launch an oust-government movement if these deals were not scrapped. Among others, it also had a major agenda to frustrate the ongoing trial of the country's war criminals, who belong mostly to the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami, which is the strongest ally of Khaleda Zia.

However, even as they disapprove of Khaleda's politics and her action of keeping the government property in her possession unethically, many people say the way the government handled the issue was wrong. And if the hartal enforced by the BNP on November 14 is any indication, more of its kind could come.

Sheikh Hasina said in Parliament that the government would construct flats at 6 Shaheed Moinul Road for the bereaved family members of the 57 army officers who were killed in the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) mutiny in Dhaka in 2009. But apparently the eviction issue will not die soon.

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