Golam Maola Roni
I met Jamaat leader Mir Quasem Ali last Ramadan in 2013. At that time I was a detainee in Kashempur Prison. Back then, I had been arrested with the care accorded to a thief, a robber or a gang leader, despite the fact that I bore the designation of MP (Member of Parliament) alongside my original name.
I was initially kept in Dhaka Central Jail and then shifted to Kashempur Prison at night. As I was crossing the jail gate at Kashempur Prison during midnight, I felt mentally and physically exhausted from severe hunger, fatigue and humiliation. This was my first experience in prison. None of my family members or close relatives had experienced prison. Thus I had no knowledge of the rules or ways of life in imprisonment.
It is quite a long walking distance from the main gate to the prison cell at Kashempur Prison. It probably was the 14th or 15th night of Holy Ramadan. The sky was illuminated with soft light from the half moon. I was accompanied by two prison-guards. Nervous at their intimidating presence, I asked one of them about whom I would be staying with. He replied, “Mir Quasem Ali, Mahmudur Rahman and Gias Uddin Al Mamun”. He further informed that I would not be able to meet them during the night, but later in the daytime.
Next morning I met Mir Quasem Ali. As he shook my hand, he looked at me with a puzzled look, saying: “You seem to be very familiar. Where have I seen you?” I replied, “At television”. He promptly concluded the conversation with a quick reply of “Oh! I see”. I was a little disappointed with my first acquaintance with Mir Quasem Ali, which was totally different compared to those with Mahmudur Rahman and Gias Uddin Al Mamun, which were much more frank, cordial and open in attitude than that of the former. I decidedly felt that Mir Quasem Ali was either hard hearted, grumpy or held a serious grudge against the Awami League. But it did not take much time to change my misconceptions about the man.
In the holy month of Ramadan, we used to break our fasts during the ‘Iftar’ and have dinner together. After Ramadan we used to have our breakfast, lunch and dinner together. At first we were only four in number. Later another Jamaat leader, ATM Azhar joined our company. He was brought to Kashempur Prison from Gazipur District Jail just a few days after the Ramadan.
We regularly used to perform prayers in congregation, except the Fajr prayer, which was early in the morning. During the evenings, we used to have long discussions while being seated on chairs in front of our building facing the large open ground. Sometimes we simply walked instead of conversing. After two or three days my relationship with Mir Quasem Ali began to thaw towards normal. We began to accord each other mutual respect like friends.
The unending leisure time of prison life usually left me tired. Even after carrying out a multitude of routine tasks including namaz (prayer), tasbih-tahlil (remembering the Almighty Allah), studying, sleeping and exercise, I still had a lot of time at hand. Whenever I felt heavy hearted, I used to walk about in the corridor. At times such as this, Mir Quasem used to affectionately call for me to visit him at his room, or come by to visit me in my room. He always talked less and listened more. He was adept at throwing towards me intelligent and searching questions regarding my life, philosophy, politics, religion, society, love, family and about my constitutional areas. After intently listening to my answers, he usually remarked with a ‘fine’ or ‘Alhamdulillah’ and the like. Within a few days I reached the understanding that Mir Quasem Ali was not like other people from contemporary society. This became clear to me as I keenly observed him while following the style of his behavior, speaking, food habits and prayer among other traits. Whenever any question arose in my mind, I asked him right away, and he always responded in the best manner as per his capability.
Before being sent to jail, I had heard a lot of long tales and rumors regarding Mir Quasem Ali from my many friends and contacts. It was rumored that he was a billionaire in possession of millions of dollars; that he was the main funder of Jamaat; that he was the owner of a good number of establishments and institutions, of both open and clandestine nature, at both home and abroad; that he always travelled by helicopter from one place to another in the country and many more of the like.
One of the biggest allegations leveled against him is that he is rumored to have appointed a lobbyist firm in the United States, and is said to have spent 50 million US dollars or 400 crore Bangladeshi taka, in order to lobby to halt the trial of war criminals in the 1971 War of Liberation. I had never believed the ridiculous stories to begin with, and avoided going into debate with those who propagated such stories as true fact. I found that their social, economic and political standards were in a much lower position, and hence it was futile to talk or debate with such people.
Since 1991 I have been running my own business. Hence, I am very clearly informed about the wealthy persons living in Bangladesh and their antics. There are some specific places where the wealthy of Bangladesh tend to cluster at, along with the specific clubs where they love to socialize at. Like many others, I knew of the luxurious cars, sophisticated residences, beautiful ladies, gardens, friends, meetings and business bodies of those wealthy figures. However, in that society, I neither heard nor saw Mir Quasem Ali. He has been living at a house located in Mirpur on a 5 Katha plot sharing with his other brothers since the independence of the country.
My conception about US politics, economy and lobbyist firms is clearer than most, since I have obtained the US State Department Fellowship on these issues. First of all it is mandatory to know what role the lobbyist firms in the US can do or can perform. Secondly, how can the US, as a country, halt the trial of the war criminals? Not just the US; is there any other country in the world having the power of barring the trial of the war criminals? And do we live any more in such an era as earlier, where such trials can be influenced significantly in such a manner?
When a public leader like Sheikh Hasina did not receive the phone call of the the second most powerful man of the US, the Foreign Secretary, rejected the call of the US ambassador in Bangladesh, denied a meeting with the visiting US assistant foreign minister and the special envoy to the United Nations, Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, I believe it would not be wise for me to expound on how a lobbyist firm would be able to deal with her?
Moreover, most of the US citizens live from hand to mouth on a daily basis. Ninety percent of the American citizens would become afraid if only five thousand dollars were placed in front of them. So avoiding any questioning based on any outside gossip, I just discussed with Mir Quasem about the period of 1971 and tried to know what his role was at that time.
One day, while conversing, I asked him whether there was any problem regarding his businesses due to his imprisonment. He replied, “[I have] no problematic businesses. There is a developer company in Chittagong. But the flat business is not good now and there is no new project. Two ships under name of Keari Sindabad running in Saint Martin-Cox Bazar route. It’s a seasonal business and going well. On the other hand, there are a good number of directors in both the Daily Nayadiganta and the Diganta Television and the both companies are public limited. So I do not have any tension [regarding the management of the two companies]. My sons are taking care of these businesses. Besides, my directorship in Ibn Sina or Islami Bank is mostly honorary. In these institutes I was the member of the Board of Directors’ like some of the other Jamaat leaders who served here. The founding processes and running procedures of these institutes are different from other institutes of the country. For example, among the chairmen of the Islamic Bank, quite a few did not have the ownership of single penny in the bank”.
I was listening to Mir Quasem Ali and looking around the whole room. Nothing including the clothes, the decoration or the furniture seemed to be extra-ordinary for a detainee with divisional facilities, especially when compared to the others. We all used to drink mineral water bought from the shops located inside the prison. On the other hand, Mir Quasem Ali always drank the normal water from the supply line. He did not eat any foreign fruits. He ate the local fruits like grapefruit, pineapple, hug plum, banana and the like whenever available. There were six ceiling fans in the room of a divisional prisoner, which we always kept switched on. Mir Quasem, on the other hand just switched one fan only that too if needed. Observing this, Gias Uddin used to jokingly say: “Sir! what will you do by saving so much wealth?” He did not say anything and just laughed.
In the mean time, as time went by, I noticed more frank and cordial behavior from him. I used the opportunity and tried to ask him many imprudent questions in order to try to measure up his mental steadfastness.
I am still very regretful till now for a comment I made one day. In the evening of that day, I along with Mahmudur Rahman and Mir Quasem Ali were talking while sitting on the chairs in the field before our prison cells. Suddenly, I asked him, “How much do you weigh?” He replied, “92 kg.” I said, “It’s dangerous, Please reduce it. Otherwise, something serious might happen.” He questioned,” what might happen?” I replied, “You are supposed to be served death penalty and hanged till death.” He further questioned, “So what? What is the relationship between death penalty by hanging and my weight?” Like an idiot, I uttered,” The body of Sheikh Abdur Rahman (head of extremist leader in Bangladesh who was served death penalty) was severed from his due to overweight….” He laughed loudly like a child upon hearing my comments. Then with a smiling face he looked at the sky and addressed me, saying, “Mr MP! All decisions come from the above (the Almighty Allah).” I suddenly turned nervous, feeling as if I was stricken by thunder and my heart was filled with unbearable pain. I looked around, facing away from him, pretending to be absent-minded. But I failed to hide my weakness, and looked at his face. My eyes felt like burning with intolerable pain. Holding my face in my two hands, I tried to cover my agony and embarrassment. He was still looking at the sky.
After this incident I sought pardon from the Almighty Allah and decided not to utter any irrational word regarding this in future. Most of the time Mahmudur Rahman, Mamun and I discussed on political matters and Mir Quasem used to listen.. One day. I said, “Sir! I have never seen such a silly man like you in my life. You were in abroad. Why did you come to this country and get arrested?” Instead of answering the question Mir Quasem asked me a question in return, “Why should I stay abroad?” Listening to his answer, Mamun replied, “Listen to him! Listen to him!”
In reply to Mamun’s expression, Mir Quasem said, “I know well what I have done. I returned to my country keeping confidence upon myself regarding my deeds. Besides, I had faith to the judiciary of the country!” Hearing such innocent remarks, Mamun became bored and addressed Mir Quasem as follows, “Sir! please take another slice of bread, another slice.” I and Mahmudur Rahman were left smiling at the comment.
We very often joked at two habits of Mir Quasem. First of all, in every prayer, he wore a new dress. Since we performed prayer together four times every day, it was not long before that we noticed him with new dress every time. Mamun, in his straightforward manner, asked him as to why he changed dress four times. He replied, “..not four times, but five.” He further tried to explain, saying, “We would meet any emperor or aristocratic person wearing a new and smart dress. In the same way I stand before the Almighty Allah with a new dress five times during my prayer (Namaz)”.
Other than the changing of his dress, I also observed another habit in Mir Quasem Ali. Every evening, he came down from his room, offered Salam, and performed handshake with all present, and even exchanged greetings with the detainees standing in front of our cells. Many convicts including Killer Abbas had their residence at Mirpur. He showed an extra amount of cordiality with them. Mamun made jokes and said, “Sir, I know that you are thinking of standing for election from Mirpur! That is why you are trying to manage everything from jail!” He just replied gently that this gesture of his was not for election or any other purpose, saying, “I am just trying to protect the rights of my neighbors”
Whenever he had a hearing at the court, he exchanged Salam with all before leaving the prison. He took his suits at the time of being produced before the tribunal. After returning from the court to jail, he very often used to made jokes on different issues. We never saw him in a gloomy mood, until suddenly, one morning, we observed Mir Quasem in a sad mood. It seemed to me that he was suffering from some kind of serious mental agony. We asked, “What is the matter? What has happened?” He replied, “I did not sleep well last night while thinking over an issue. That is why I was feeling very worried since last night”. Hearing such speech from him, we became anxious. With deep anxiety we asked him what had happened and the serious issue that he had been worried about. With a gloomy mood he replied, “I found in a journal that the layer of ice in Siberia, Iceland and Antarctica was melting due to the environmental crisis across the world. If it continued, within the next few years countries like Bangladesh and the Maldives might go missing. If Bangladesh went missing due to this phenomenon, what would happen to the lives of the 17 crore people of this country?” I was totally astonished and looked at his face. I wondered, “What a man! While his own life is in full risk, he is thinking about the ice of Antarctica!”
He always stood as the Imam in the prayers including the Taraweeh (late night prayer during the holy Ramadan) prayers during Ramadan. After the prayer he always performed a long Munajat. Usually, another seven or eight detainees also participated with us in performing the prayer. During everyday Munajat he uttered, “Oh, our Creator, you are fully aware of our present work, our minds and situation. If we do any misdeed, try us and if not, cover us with your blanket of mercy. Make our hearts stronger so that we do not turn hopeless regarding your ultimate judgement, your mercy and your rewards. Oh Allah! We know and strongly believe that no oppressor was able do any harm to your beloved worshipers, not even to the extent of a hair’s breadth. Oh Allah! Please accept us as your beloved servants. Please release us from this prison and grant your mercy over us, and reunite us with our family members and children. Please protect us and our family members from the disgrace of this imprisonment. Oh Allah! Please bestow your mercy upon Bangladesh. Please make our rulers just and purify our belief. We look towards the sky in the hope of attaining your mercy. We have raised our hands to you to gain your sympathy. Please pardon us and give us the best of results both in this world and the hereafter. Please protect us every moment. Ameen”
Writer: Former Member of the Parliament (MP)
Translator: Kamruzzaman Bablu, Journalist