Beyond the Green Fields

bdnews24 desk
Published : 16 Feb 2016, 01:33 PM
Updated : 16 Feb 2016, 01:33 PM

Featured Image:
Sheikh Hasina is taken to a Dhaka court after her arrest in July 2007.

© Mostafigur Rahman


Sheikh Hasina made her formal entry into politics in 1981. It was a harbinger of the long struggle she would wage for a restoration of secular democracy in Bangladesh following the trauma of a series of assassinations and a regression of the country to negativism on the watch of forces ready and willing to undermine the original principles of the War of Liberation in 1971.

She and her party, the Awami League, emerged victorious at the elections of June 1996. She served as prime minister till July 2001. She returned to office as prime minister in January 2009 after new elections — and much political turbulence besides — which position she continues to hold.

Sub Jail 10 June 2008

In front of my prison house is a green field. The whole Sangsad Bhaban area is full of trees that make everything look green. And there are so many shades of green on display! Also fronting the house is an evergreen tree which bears red oleander flowers. How green its leaves are! Sometimes the leaves rustle in the breeze. They remind me of the birds I used to hear singing in Ganabhaban. They seem to still be flying towards me. I think of many things and many memories stir in me. Memories are my only companions in this lonely prison.

When I stand on the verandah of the house my eyes roam across the green fields and take in the road on the other side. Innumerable cars dart across that road ceaselessly. So many people walk on that road! It is especially full of cars in the early morning. They belong to people who come here for their morning walks.

On the other side of the road is Ganabhaban. If one lets one's eyes roam, one can see a row of trees along the road. Many of them are very tall. Nestled among these trees are coconut palms. And I can see Ganabhaban through the coconut tree leaves. They seem to be looking at me inquiringly. At night the leaves seem to become incandescent. In the morning shalik birds flock to these trees. The trees also attract some pretty raucous birds at that time. A very healthy monkey shows up too. He visits me every day. At times he calls on me at ten or eleven in the morning and at times around two thirty in the afternoon. I feed him bananas and other fruits. Once when I was unable to feed him because I had a fever, he refused to take any food from the female wardens. When they offered him food he made faces at them from the top of a papaya tree and then took off.

I offer my Fajr (early morning) prayers and then read the Qu'ran on the verandah afterward. Later, I walk back and forth on the verandah. There is also a pomelo tree where the birds shriek at the top of their voices. I see them and say to myself: they must be launching a movement. They insist that their demands be heard! They have to be given food. They will disappear as soon as they have had their fill.

I am a prisoner in the building on this side of the road. A house within the parliamentary complex has been converted into a sub-jail to incarcerate me. I am in a prison on this side and on the other is Ganabhaban! I was Prime Minister in it for five years—from 1996 to 2001. I used to stay there and now I am imprisoned here. I was Prime Minister then and I am an accused now. And what are the charges against me? I am accused of engaging in extortion!

Apparently I had been guilty of extortion when I was Prime Minister. It took them ten years to discover my guilt! In the interim period, that is to say, from 2001 to 2006, the four-party alliance led by the BNP was in power. They had charge-sheeted me for quite a few reasons but they were never able to accuse me of extortion. The caretaker government has turned out to be more eager than the alliance government to bring charges against me.

The irony is that I had launched the movement that would eventually lead to the formation of this caretaker government. Sixty-eight people had lost their lives at the hands of BNP-Jamaat thugs and the police. My movement was aimed at ensuring free and neutral elections. I had wanted the kind of election where people would be able to vote freely. I had launched the movement to prevent the four-party alliance from stage-managing elections and manufacturing the results. I had wanted to consolidate democracy by safeguarding the rights of people to cast their votes without coercion. I had wanted to make elections transparent and the election machinery accountable.

Our people were to be at the center of power in my scheme of things. This is because they are the true repository of power in the republic. They are the ones who were to be entrusted with the job of deciding who would hold office and who would be deprived of it. I had wanted to give this fundamental and constitutional right of people back to them. They were to be given the means to vote freely. The government was supposed to be formed through elections. There would be transparency and accountability. There would be no fixing of ballots, no tampering with results or taking over of polling booths! Voters would feel free to make their choices through the ballot box. On behalf of my party and the grand alliance we took a number of steps to ensure transparent and neutral elections.

I had announced a plan to reform the caretaker government system and the Election Commission on behalf of the Grand Alliance. The goals and the intentions of the declaration were quite clear. The aim was to strengthen the constitution, reinforce democracy and protect the rights of citizens. People had been deprived of those rights again and again. Time and again they were being pushed into darkness. My intention was to ensure that they would not be deprived of their rights anymore. A powerful group was having a great time at the expense of ordinary people.

The people of the country had become tired of the misrule, abuse of power, corruption, systematic loot, torture and cruelty perpetrated by the four-party alliance. They found themselves unable to tolerate such misrule beyond a point. Moreover, prices of rice, lentils, cooking oil, salt and all essential everyday items had increased at such a rate that people found themselves unable to cope with the way things were. They wanted change. But the kind of change they wanted was through elections, as is the norm in a democracy. No other form of change is acceptable. I had launched a movement to attain this goal through elections conducted in a free, transparent and neutral manner. Our people had responded to this movement spontaneously and whole-heartedly. The movement had become a successful one. President Iajuddin Ahmed had been forced to step down from his position as Chief Adviser. The armed forces chose to stand by their countrymen.

Mr. Fakhruddin Ahmed had earlier been sworn in as Chief Adviser. We were present at the oath-taking ceremony and supported the proceedings. The BNP and the Jamaat boycotted the ceremony and had stayed away from the event. We had expected the caretaker government to adopt the reform proposals we had put forward by holding free and neutral elections and by forming a government comprising representatives elected by our citizens. It was hoped that they would be able to solve the problems faced by people. But what do I see today? People are still leading a life of deprivation. Although the government has been paying lip service to elections, it has been concocting schemes to postpone them. They have announced a "road map" according to which elections are going to be held two years from now! Ordinary people have their doubts about whether elections will be held at all.

It seems that those occupying positions of power are glued to their seats. New parties are being formed all the time. Some people who have been driven out by their guardians because of their dubious character have been busy forming parties through funds provided by the government, which thus has been making ill use of the country's finances. Owners of black money and those who thrive on charging exorbitant interest, indeed are engaged in usury, are having a field day. In particular, people who would never dream of being elected to any position are suddenly in the limelight. The kinds of people who have always lost their election deposits are the ones who are the most active now. Those who are honest and transparent in their dealings and have never sold themselves to the intelligence agencies of the country are at a disadvantage. On the other hand, those who are given to shady dealings have come close to these agencies. They are now being reincarnated as honest and innocent folks. Strange are the ways of the world!

And there is another group of people who always appear to hold out for the opportune moment. These are the types of people who seem to have a "Use Me" sticker prominently displayed on them. They would like to be at other people's service for their own selfish ends. They are adept at changing their colors, chameleon-like. Now they have suddenly taken on the guise of innocence.

I had led a movement that achieved its goal of initiating elections to be conducted by a caretaker government. I had been instrumental in the formation of the caretaker government. And my reward? To be labeled an extortionist and accused of corruption! My reward was imprisonment! For five years the four-party alliance government did everything it could to dig into my past in a vain bid to find something with which to tarnish my reputation as well as that of my family but failed to come up with anything. And yet Mr. Fakhruddin's government claims that it has found evidence to indict me.

They claim to have discovered that I handed out electoral nominations to people in my party on receipt of donations from them. But instead of nominating the person who had offered me fifty crore taka I had chosen someone else to contest the election for my party. I refused nomination to the person who had offered me a lot more money. How could it be that I refused fifty crore taka and was now being accused of accepting only five crore taka? I could exercise so much restraint when offered a sum as huge as fifty crore taka and yet was now being blamed for succumbing to the relatively modest sum of five crore taka. These people have found that I have gone for five crore taka and have not noted that I had refused fifty crore taka. What brilliance!

What is notable is that the people who have been filing such complaints had been whisked away to secret destinations before they came up with their accusations. Their family members were unable to find out where they had been taken to or how they were doing. They searched for them desperately everywhere. Their abductors took five days with some of them, ten or twenty days or even longer with others, till relentless torture made these abducted men agree to file these cases.

The first case of extortion framed against me aimed to prove that someone had stuffed a small briefcase filled with five hundred taka notes that totaled three crore taka and had left it in Ganabhaban. But a case filled with so much money would have weighed at least sixty-nine kg. Three 30-inch Samsonite suitcases would be required to hold money amounting to three crores. But obviously some magician knew how to fill a small briefcase with so much money! Surely that person knew some magical tricks and the people who discovered it were no ordinary mortals!

Those who came up with the accusations knew all along that I never accept any bribes. All my life I have never had any interaction with such people. I have never asked anyone for money. To ask anything from anyone is against my nature. In my personal life I have never wanted anything from anyone. I like to spend according to my means. I don't indulge myself in exotic food on borrowed money. I don't flaunt money that I have stolen from someone.

They have managed to create an atmosphere of panic throughout the country and it has come to a state where anyone can be accused of anything by someone or the other. And to resort to torture too — this was a clear case of a violation of human rights. All this was designed to convict me on the basis of trumped up charges so that I would be disqualified from participating in elections. And they were doing so since they knew that in any election our people would vote for me. They knew that if I got elected I would form the government. The citizens of our country wanted me to form the next government. But these people wish to trample on the wishes of our citizens.

Let me now come to the judges. I was able to witness the efficiency of these judges while the case was being heard in court. The court seemed to be crowded with people from the task force and detective agencies. A few of them had attempted to disguise themselves by wearing caps so that they would look different. They looked weird in their disguises.

All the time the proceedings seemed to me to be controlled by invisible forces that were exerting pressure on the working of the court. I kept thinking: Is this any way of coming to a judgment? Such travesty of justice! Such farce in the name of justice! How will the judges use their conscience, knowledge and wisdom and think their decisions through? Judges take their oath under the constitution, but would they be able to fulfill their constitutional obligations in such a situation?

As a matter of fact, a judge of the High Court said openly that he was not being able to function according to the oath he had sworn. One can imagine how the lower courts are functioning if such is the state of the higher courts! The judiciary was separated from the executive branch with much fanfare but its freedom seems to be confined to pen and paper now. No more than lip service is being done to the idea. It is obvious that the intelligence agencies are keeping the judges under pressure. If the High Court issues a ruling, it is stayed by the Supreme Court! Ultimately the High Court bench is changed. Apparently, a special envoy from the government met the Chief Justice to tell him that no bail should be given to me. Imagine the situation when the Supreme Court has to be directed! If the highest court has no freedom one can only imagine the way things are in the lower courts.

What it all comes to is that the sentence that will be passed in the end is whatever the government has decided should be passed. On 1 November 2007 the judiciary was separated from the executive branch of the government. The question that I will ask is: If one compares the state of the judiciary before 1 November and after,, what will be the result? Why this farce enacted before the people?

I was in Ganabhaban but am now in a prison. What guarantee is there that those who are in power now won't be behind bars in the future? There is not much distance between the seat of power and the gates of prison.

President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan is now trying to find an honorable way of making an exit from power. And who is he a supplicant to? To the people he had once insulted and removed from power. God is above everything and He moves in mysterious ways. It is according to His directives that the man who is a king now will be a beggar tomorrow. But because the trappings of power blind mortals they forget this truth.

One day when this house is converted into a sub-jail again, who is going to be its inmate? I wait for that day!

This building of the prison had a lot of trees once. Fruit trees, flowering trees, and the tall trees that bordered the walls have all been felled. Even the trees outside the wall have been cut down. The area outside has been encircled by a barbed wire fence. On the roof a bunker has been set up where RAB and policemen stand guard. On the ground, police and prison guard patrols are on duty. The first floor of this two-storied building is separated from the ground floor by a collapsible gate on which hangs a huge lock all day long. They have made arrangements to confine me in a room on the west side of this floor. It is from the window of this room that I can view the green field and Ganabhaban. Once boys used to play football on this field but now that has stopped.

The whole place is very dirty. The upholstery is poor and frayed; newspapers and paper are strewn all over the house. A room on the east side of the unit is so dirty that it appears to be a garbage dump. Everything from the floor to the walls is unclean and full of dirt. Even the tables and chairs have collected dust. A jail is supposed to function according to certain norms. A Personal Account or P. C. can be used to keep money. I gave the money I had to the jailer so that he could keep the money in such an account as is the rule. I spent my own money to buy towels, and cleaning materials as well as cleaning agents such as Vim, Harpic and brushes, brooms, etc. Though one can use the money in the P. C. to buy necessary items, some regulations have to be followed.

In any case, I was given the items I had asked for. A bed that was provided collapsed as soon as I tried to sit on it. I was given a sofa set but it was very dirty. The bed cover was torn, apparently because a rat had fancied it. The mattress was tattered as well as unclean. It was as if all these items had been bought from a warehouse. However, I had been allotted three new towels and three bed sheets. I spread one of the sheets over the sofa and spent the night on it. The next day I declared that the broken bed would either have to be replaced or removed, in which case I would sleep on the floor. This was because the previous day when the bed had collapsed, the D. I. G. of Prisons, Haider Siddique had given orders so that the bed could be held up by putting bricks under it and this was done. But this has not made the bed fit for sleeping. In any case, the bed was replaced a day later and this became a news item in the papers!

My food comes from the Central Jail premises. Sometimes it is early evening by the time my lunch reaches this building. And the menu? The less said about it the better! At least I am being provided food thrice a day while a lot of people have to go without food the whole day. We have to accept whatever God has in store for us. My father had to endure a lot of suffering whenever he was in prison. At least I have a house to myself with one good room, although it is damp and mildewed in places. My father would be confined in a prison cell. All his life he had to undergo unimaginable suffering. To transform the fate of Bengal's people he struggled all his life and endured all sorts of hardship. Pakistan's Mianwali prison was in a place where the weather was extreme—summers were steaming and winters freezing there. He would be given nothing but flat bread and a dish of lentils. My father never liked such food. And yet we never heard him talk about the food he had been served in that or any other prison. He would never complain to us about having such food. It was only when he was talking to my mother that such details of his prison life would emerge from some fold of the conversation. He would always suppress the hardships he had had to endure.

When I look out from the eastern window I can see the Sangsad Bhaban buildings. Ganabhaban is to the north. Whenever I think of it I go to the window to take a look at the complex. I see people travelling on the road across the field. One day, as I stood by the window, I saw the very healthy monkey cross the field and go over to the northern side. This monkey would come and stand on the southern wall every day. Whenever I would throw some food bits at it, it would pick them up. It would come my way twice or thrice a day. But today he seemed to have left for good. He crossed the vast field with measured steps. I noticed that he walked for a while and then looked back, once to the left and then to the right. Then he resumed his walk. In this manner he finally crossed the field and disappeared amidst the trees that bordered the lake. He seemed to have headed towards Ganabhaban. Because the monkey was free it could move in this leisurely manner and cross the field. I, on the other hand, am a prisoner, all by myself on the first floor of the building. I can't walk across the field even if I want to because I do not have the freedom that he enjoys. But my mind is free; it can't be constrained. In my imagination I keep crossing the green field, again and again…

Ganabhaban 6 March 2010

It is my first morning in Ganabhaban. Yesterday I moved from Jamuna House to this one. The first thing I did on arriving was to open the southern door. Would I be able to view the house where I had been incarcerated in the Sangsad Bhaban complex? I manage to get a glimpse of the house through the trees.

I had been kept as a prisoner in that house on 16 July, 2007. It had been converted into a sub-jail according to an order issued by the caretaker government. The other buildings of the complex had been converted into special courts. Case after case was filed to harass me. I remember seeing Ganabhaban from the northern window of my room then.

It was during the caretaker government's rule that it was discovered that I was the most corrupt of persons. That is why the first strategy that was pursued was to try to keep me outside the country. But this ploy did not succeed. Later, trumped up charges were made to arrest me without a warrant and I was dragged to court. Afterwards, I was confined in the sub-jail for eleven months. I was completely by myself—a solitary prisoner! It was from this prison house that I would view Ganabhaban! On the east was Sangsad Bhaban and on the north was Ganabhaban.

This is my first morning in Ganabhaban. As is the always the case, I woke up at five o'clock. At five-thirty I said my prayers. I then heard the bugle sound as our national flag was raised ceremonially. I went to the library to recite the Holy Qu'ran. When I was here previously I had a room in the eastern wing of the building converted into a library. But the books I had brought for it are not there any longer. I, however, know this room as the library. A shelf has been brought here for now. I hope to make this into a proper library once more. In any case, when I finished reciting from the Qu'ran I thought that I would take a walk. The sun had not yet come up.

Ganabhaban was full of bird songs. Birds were fluttering their wings in their nests. They would take off any time now in search of food. Ganabhaban was full of trees and birds. I opened the southern window. Because this part was so full of trees there wasn't much to be seen from here. Nevertheless, I could see the coconut tree that I always glimpsed when I was confined in the prison house in Sangsad Bhaban. The leaves of that tree would sway in the breeze and this would allow me to see the lights of Ganabhaban at night. In the daytime I would glimpse some parts of that complex. From here I can view the walls of the prison house. Now the parliamentary whip, Liton Chowdhury, stays in that house. He had asked me before shifting if it would be proper to move into the house. He was a little hesitant to do so since he knew it had been converted into a sub-jail to imprison me. When I gave him my permission he moved in. I can now see the flag from between the leaves as well as a part of the house, Sophia and her mother had got up early in the morning. I went to their room. Joy was sleeping. Joy and his wife and daughter were visiting Dhaka. I had moved into this house with them yesterday. After Maghreb prayers I arranged for a Milad prayer meeting here.

God can do anything that He wishes to. The Ganabhaban field, the road that runs alongside, the vast playing field beyond! I was a prisoner in the house beside the field. And now I am prime minister living in the house on the other side, in the Ganabhaban complex. I was also here in Ganabhaban in 1996 when I was prime minister. A caretaker government was formed under Latifur Rahman. Shahabuddin Saheb was then president. On 16 July 2001, that is to say the day after power had been handed over to the caretaker government, the telephone lines to Ganabhaban were cut. The electricity cables too were cut—something that is totally illegal. It takes time to shift houses. The Special Security Force (SSF) had made it known that they would be able to ensure my security if they were here to protect me. The government had enacted a law stating that as the daughter of the Father of the Nation I would be allotted a government house and given full security coverage. It had been decided previously that I would be staying on in Ganabhaban. Our tenant had left Sudha Sadan and maintenance work was being done there. I had decided that I would shift to that house in a month's time. But how could they be so insulting? There are people who had sold off a President's house for a taka! My father had been martyred while he was president of the country. Despite this fact, I had not made the government sell me one of its houses to me for a taka.

I had handed over power to the caretaker government and moved to Dhanmondi's Sudha Sadan for five years. On 16 August 2001 I vacated Ganabhaban. I returned to the complex once again on 5 March 2010. God confers power on whoever He wants to and snatches it away from that person and gives it back again. I read in the 26th Sura of the Holy Qu'ran, known as Sura Imran: "Say, "O Lord, You are the proprietor of this kingdom. You confer it on whoever you want to and snatch it away when You want to. You bestow honour as You want to and take it away when You want to. You honour one as You wish to and disgrace one as You want to. All the good one can hope for is in Your hands!'".

I have always kept faith in God. That is why I have come back to Ganabhaban once again. I have a lot of memories of this place. My father was here as prime minister though he used to stay at our Road 32 residence. But he would attend office in this complex. He would have lunch here and rest for a while afterward. In the evening he would take a walk inside its compound. My two brothers, Captain Sheikh Kamal and Lieutenant Sheikh Jamal, got married here. My youngest brother Russell would fish in this lake. He would throw the fish he caught back into the lake. Every day Joy would come and visit this place with Russell. The Ganabhaban was the official residence of the prime minister of the sovereign country of Bangladesh. It was built according to the plan designed by the famous architect Louis I. Kahn.

Now I am in Ganabhaban again looking at the sub jail! I moved to this house as the Prime Minister of the People's Republic of Bangladesh yesterday. Elections were held on December 29. It was a transparently held, peaceful and orderly election. People from all walks of life had been able to vote freely in this election, irrespective of religion, color or class. In the previous voter list there were more than 1 crore 23 lakh fake voters. This caretaker government printed the voter list along with photographs of voters. Our Armed Forces were responsible for printing this voters' list in the quickest possible time. They managed to turn the impossible into the possible. To create national identity cards along with the voters' list was a formidable task. But through this process the scheme the military administration had concocted to manipulate the people's vote came to an end.

What was most obvious in the elections held this time was the immense desire of ordinary people to cast their votes. The elite of our country, that is to say our upper classes, rarely go to the voting centers to cast their ballots. This time they went to the voting centers even with their household help. They had stood in queues for hours to vote. People from neighbouring slums were also part of the queues. Parallel lines had been formed and everyone waited for their turn to cast the vote patiently. Hindus, Christians and Buddhists—people of all religions were able to cast their votes in a peaceful environment confidently. This atmosphere was absent in the 2001 elections. Then houses were locked up from outside so that their inhabitants could not come out and go to the voting centers to cast their votes. Moreover, voters were intimidated and brutalised so that they would not dare to vote. But on this occasion things were completely different.

If the people of this country can cast their votes freely and in a peaceful environment at every election in this country, we will be able to leave injustice, corruption, terrorism behind us. Governments will then have to act transparently and will be held accountable for their actions. The most important thing is that the country will then be able to move forward rapidly. All members of parliament and ministers will have to be on their toes. This is because they will not have to plead for votes from voters. They will have to work for their constituencies with such thoughts in their minds. The Election Commission will have to work freely and impartially for this reason.

Slowly the sunlight expands across the skies. This dawn seems to be lighting up through the mild wintry breeze blowing in from the north. The whole atmosphere is echoing with birdcalls.

I am grateful to the people of Bangladesh. I have sworn an oath to transform the lives of our people and improve their lot. I will need to repay the love they have shown for me. I have taken a sacred vow to gift to them a world that is beautiful and happy.

My golden Bengal, I love you!

Sheikh Hasina, daughter of Bangladesh's founding father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, is Prime Minister of Bangladesh.
Translated by Fakrul Alam, Department of English, University of Dhaka.
Edited by Syed Badrul Ahsan
Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher