Published : Friday, 30 September, 2022 at 12:00 AM Count : 733
Mizanur Rahman Shelley
Brahmanbaria, a fabled sub-division from the British colonial times was a prized postings for young civil servants of the elite cadre - ICS/CSP. Before it became a district in February 1984, it had been a proud part of the greater Comilla district. There were certain sub-divisions in British Bengal and East Pakistan which were distinctive. Their inhabitants rarely refer to themselves as residents of the greater district of which their sub-division was a part. Along with Munshiganj-Bikrampur and Narayanganj of Dhaka, Moulavibazar of Sylhet, Feni of Noakhali, Bagerhat of Khulna, Brahmambaria was inhabited by those who always define their home as Brahmanbaria and not Comilla. One does not know the origin of this tradition but it was there in 1969 when I was appointed SDO Brahmanbaria for a very brief but exciting and enjoyable tenure.
Before taking over as SDO, I had my trepidations. The apprehension certainly related to uncertain challenges of charges of a semi-independent administrator but it also evoked other fears. Brahmanbaria was a station of seasoned and legendary ICS officers such as NM Khan and CSP officers such as Shoaib Sultan Khan, AZM Obaidullah Khan and Rashidur Reza Faruqui and others. NM Khan left an indelible imprint on the minds of generations of Brahmanbarians. During the British period, he became a legend by having a canal dug by the voluntary labour of not only the common people but of proud and egoistic landlords. The Anderson canal was beneficial for the irrigation of agricultural lands. From then on, the saying among civil officers was that if they could get only five rupees worth of government grant, they could easily mobilise Rs 95 from the community in the area. With my record as a voluntary social worker from school days I was naturally enthused to work for the society in Brahmanbaria.
I noted that the sub-division extended over 742 square miles and was inhabited by some 1.4 million people in the 1960s. It was divided into several thanas (police stations) which were converted in 1980s into upazilas or sub-districts when the administrative units called the sub-division was abolished. The thanas in Brahmanbaria in 1969 were the sadar, Kasba, Sarail, Nasirnagar, Nabinagar and Banchharampur. In my short tenure as SDO, I managed to visit all the thanas despite poor communication.
Joining duties as SDO: It was on a slightly cold November morning that I left our Dhaka residence in Green Road on my way to Brahmanbaria. With me were my wife Sufia and toddler sons Nipu and Topu. It was a moment of great divide in our life because this was the seventh time after five years of our marriage that we were going to start life as a separate and independent family. The earlier years saw us living in the joint family of our parents, brothers and sisters. So worried were my parents about us leaving as a separate family that they made us promise that we would not physically punish our sons. They also made one of my younger brothers Mahmudur Rahman Tipu accompany us to the new place. Tipu was then studying in the Agricultural University, Mymensingh and enjoying a month-long vacation. He was pleased to go with us. We proceeded to the old airport at Tejgoan as we were to take a flight to Comilla. At that time, the Pakistan International Airlines flew a daily flight from Dhaka to Comilla and back. Despite there being a comfortable two-hour train journey to Comilla, we took the flight as I wanted to be in my station as soon as possible.
After a short flight of some 20 minutes, we landed at the quiet and small Comilla Airport. There was a surprise in wait for me. Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmed, my batchmate in the CSP batch of 1967 and assistant commissioner of the Comilla district, was at the airport with an impressively large car. An aged gentleman stood by the side of the car. Rakib smilingly introduced the gentleman as Shukkur Ali Khan, a former member of the National Assembly and father of Habibullah Khan, then a high executive of the Gandhara Motors representing the US company General Motors. Obviously, Rakib had persuaded the generous former parliamentarian from Nabinagar to bring the car for taking me to Brahmanbaria.
Officials from Brahmanbaria were also there with the SDO's Jeep for my use. Initially, I was hesitant to get into the big car as it was not 'official'. But Shukkur Ali Khan and Rakib strongly persuaded me to get into the car with the official Jeep trailing behind. After a tasty lunch at the Circuit House, Rakib took us to the Bungalow of the deputy commissioner Kazi Azhar Ali, CSP. He cheerfully received us and after usual words of welcome briefed me about my coming responsibilities. As he came out on the verandah to bid us farewell, he spotted the large car and exclaimed laughingly, 'You have managed to get such a big car even before taking charge. One does not know what will happen in the future!' I replied, 'Sir, it is not my doing. Your assistant commissioner Rakib has organised all this.' Kazi Azhar Ali smiled understandingly and waived us goodbye. The car followed by the Jeep completed the two and half hours' drive to Brahmanbaria by nightfall.
Tipu's account: As younger brother Tipu recalls in his writing 'One month with the SDO Brahmanbaria': 'The ride along the Comilla, Brahmanbaria, Sylhet road was memorable. On both sides quiet villages adorned by green leafy trees of mango and blackberry lent a lasting charm to the unfolding scene. We reached the Brahmanbaria town safely. It was a cluster of semi-urban structures and settlements. The town was designed like similar other mufassil towns dating from the British colonial times. There were the inevitable sub-divisional court house of red bricks overlooking a sill water body, the police lines, the main road along which sprawled the bazaars, schools, colleges and mission buildings.'
Tipu was impressed by the expansive parameters of the SDO's bungalow built according to the prescriptions of the British colonial times. He writes, 'The residence was generously spacious surrounded on all sides by extensive stretches of grassy land shaded by varied trees. In the front, there was a beautiful garden with charming flower plants. Behind there was a large pond scarted by an orchard and paddyfields. Then there was the railway towards Dhaka. One could feel home sick watching the trains milling with eager passengers come and go in organised haste.
The town had a comfortable rest house of the Water and Power Development Authority and a dak bungalow for accommodating important visitors. Tipu rightly recalls the tenor of busy life of a SDO in his station. He also correctly recollects the nearly silent and peaceful nights of a mufassil town. Come sunset, misty darkness of the late autumn descended softly like a light and warm blanket. The nights were awhile with the buzz of the invisible cricket which relieved the unbroken silence. Again the darkness was lit up by the tiny lights of the numerous fireflies.
I found this quiet hours posing a challenge to me. In Dhaka, evenings were crowded with the eloquent company of friends. Here in the midst of the solitude of the high officials, I felt helplessly lonely. My small family of course was there to give me affectionate company. Nevertheless, its capacity to relieve my solitude was limited. As Brahmanbaria was within the range of Dhaka Television, part of the evening could be occupied by watching television, black and white as it was in those times. In addition, there was the confidential office in the residence where I disposed the pending files. Dinner and sleep came relatively early. It is a tribute to the tranquil peace and satisfactory law and order of the time that there was no security guards, armed or otherwise, to ensure our safety in the lonesome bungalow. The only employee to give us protective company was the cook, Khalek.
The few demonstration and sit-ins that took place in the SDO's official residence during my tenure were peaceful and short. These did not need police intervention. Softly carried out negotiations were enough to make the aggrieved groups melt away in peace. The author, founder Chairman of Centre for Development Research, Bangladesh (CDRB) and Editor quarterly "Asian Affairs" was a former teacher of political science in Dhaka University (1964-1967) and former member of the erstwhile Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP) (1967-1980) and former non-partisan technocrat Cabinet Minister of Bangladesh (1990)