Once upon a time in Sylhet: Ilias Ali and Anwaruzzaman Choudhury, two models of politics in Bangladesh

This article looks into the disappearance of Ilias Ali, the Sylheti opposition politician mentioned in the Amnesty International Annual Report on events of 2012 in Bangladesh. It explores the transnational politics of Sylhet through the changing fortunes of Mr Ali and his potential successor Anwaruzzaman Choudhury.

Saira Nawal, Ilias Ali's 8 year old daughter's letter to the then US Secretary of State HIllary CLinton

On 24th May Amnesty International published its Bangladesh Report for 2012, highlighting just the tip of the iceberg of human rights abuses carried out during the current Awami League government.  When a local reporter questioned an Amnesty official, the first incident to come up was the abduction and presumed murder of opposition politician Ilias Ali. Ali was the ex-MP of the Sylhet-2 constituency and Organising Secretary of the BNP’s Sylhet Division, and along with his driver Ansar Ali, went missing on the night of 17/18th April 2012 in Dhaka. Their car was found abandoned in the Banani area, near his home, with eyewitnesses alleging a sedan was hit by two police cars and someone dragged out.

Sited in north-eastern corner of the country, Sylhet has a rich political history. This includes; Shah Jalal establishing Islam there in 14th century, theological opposition to two-nation theory from Maulana Hussain Ahmed Madani, and the politics of Bhashani, “the Red Maulana” who started his movement amongst the tenant farmers of Assam.

In addition to the proliferation of shopping malls and remittance income, Sylhet’s prominence can be seen through the rise of politicians like Ilias Ali. This signals an era where a person from an ordinary Muslim family, without having an ‘aristocratic’ name such as Syed, Ansari, Choudhury, Mirza or Sheikh, can rise into the upper echelons of Bangladeshi politics through the dint of their own sweat and effort. One commentator reflected that Ilias Ali was a product of Bangladesh’s unique history and politics, ‘if not for the partition and then creation of Bangladesh, he wouldn’t have even made to Dhaka University’.

Meritocracy of Curricular and Extracurricular Activities

The iconic photo of Ilias Ali  during the Anti Ershad movement circa 1990

Ilias Ali’s route to prominence was characterised by a non-privilege based political practice and a record of tangible public service. In the 1980s he stood out in the hectic, often violent politics of Dhaka University and was one of the student leaders in the successful movement against Ershad’s military dictatorship. Successful negotiating the transition from student to national politics, he resisted the chance for a lucrative career in business or civil bureaucracy and decided to go back to his village in Bishwanath neat Sylhet Town to build a popular political base with the masses. The BNP was not strong in the locality, and Jamaat had targeted the anti-Awami League vote bank. Being strongly opposed to their politics, he successfully grew a party there.

This work amongst the masses paid off in 2001, resulting in a landslide victory in his local Sylhet-2 constituency by 49,000 votes. Again Ilias Ali was not your run of the mill MP, he threw himself into an active public works programme, like a latter-day deshi Huey P Long, he managed an extensive road building and infrastructure programme in the rural Bishwanath region of Sylhet district.

As a visitor I was surprised to see isolated villages in rural Bishwanath boasting tarmac roads, with plaques commemorating their construction and opening under the auspices of Ilias Ali. It seemed that Ilias Ali was set on the path to a senior leadership position. However, on the 11th of January 2007 there was a military overthrow of the BNP government, and we turn to another political narrative.

Anwar Bhai photo 1

Anwaruzzaman Chowdhury, or Anwar Bhai as he is popularly known, was a student leader in Government College, Sylhet, but unlike Ilias Ali he did not make the successful transition to national politics. Instead of a career in business or bureaucracy, he chose the path open to many Sylhetis, of a life abroad in the UK. His life could have followed the normal script of politically active Bangladeshis in the UK, of the “Clark Kent Super Bengali Syndrome”, ordinary worker or businessman during the day and active political analyst at night, speaking at the various nightly meetings hosted in the restaurants and community centres that dot the English landscape.

Party insiders allege that after the 11th of January 2007 his fortunes changed, when he established links with the new military overlords of Bangladesh. It is reasoned that the new regime needed the support of the Awami League street fighters to maintain peace on the street, while they went about combating the power structure of the BNP. An anonymous source in the UK Awami League Party, told me, how Anwar Bhai would stock up on phone cards with which to regularly brief  the military personnel in charge of Sylhet. The source even recalls buying phone cards for Anwar Bhai, who was at the same time climbing the UK party structure, through public and personal displays of fealty to Sheikh Hasina and her sister Sheikh Rehana. Such an account sounds a familiar sycophancy, if not intra-party rivalry, that characterises much of the politics of our age. These allegations are important to mention here because, if true, they shed light on the powerful transnational connections that Bangladeshis in the UK nurture and exploit.

The Demise and Fall of Ilias Ali

Ilias Ali behind the BNP head Khaleda Zia during the Long March programme on 11 October 2011 Source: Wikipedia

In the subsequent and militarily supervised elections of December 2007, the Awami League candidate Shofiqur Rahman Chowdhury won with 109,000 votes in Sylhet 2 seat, narrowly defeating Ilias Ali who got 106,000 votes. Local BNP party officials disputed the validity of the result, citing ballot papers found outside the polling booth as evidence of fraud. However taking the loss as a signal to work harder, the now ex-parliamentarian Ilias Ali returned to building up a grassroots network, focusing on local issues and culminating in the Long March against the India’s controversial Tipaimukh Dam in 2011.

On Tuesday, 17 April 2012, Ilias Ali disappeared after last being seen in Dhaka at midnight with his driver. His private car was found by police near his Dhaka home. Allegations in the regional press have been made that the Bangladeshi Prime Minister’s brother-in-law and security adviser, retired major general Tarique Ahmed Siddiqui, has been running a death squad to abduct and kill opponents of the regime. On the purported hit list was the name of Ilias Ali. To this day authorities have fail to come up with an explanation as to what had happened to Ilias Ali on that fateful night.

Rising star and fortunes of Anwar Bhai

With the coming of the Awami League government in 2008, Anwar’s fortune turned a corner. As an anonymous UK party member told me, from not being able to afford phone cards, he now holds millions of taka in his bank account as well as extensive bureaucratic control. It is said that not a single Officer-in-Charge (OC) of a police station in Sylhet, is promoted or transferred without his permission.

Under the current Awami League government he has built up an extensive patronage network in Sylhet and in the UK diaspora, through the control of the streets via the Jubo League (Awami League Youth Wing) and of the bureaucracy and police. The party source told me that several absentee landlords in the UK have used his services to settle land disputes in their favour, or evict tenants/squatters. In one case in early 2010, around-the-clock protection was provided to construction workers in the Uposhohor suburb in Sylhet, when a UK-based businessman muscled out the owners of a half built block of flats, finished off the development and then parcelled out the flats to his nearest kith and kin. In another case later on in 2010, a Whitechapel businessman used his services to take over the management and surrounding land of a local college in rural Biswanath.

Anwar’s rise has been meteoric and caused resentment within his own party. Through his close connections to PM Sheikh Hasina’s London-based sister Sheikh Rehana and her family, he is now Joint General Secretary of the UK Awami League. A position was handed to him, in the UK by Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister, in early 2011.

Anwar is a prospective parlimentary candidate for Ilias Ali’s old Sylhet-2 constituency, which covers Bishwanath, Balagonj and Usmaninagar, the incumbant Awami League MP stepping down.To reinforce his grip on the seat’s rural areas, it is said that he travels around the district in a convoy of cars, distributing handouts to supplicants. When challenged by a local as to why he is not using his money to build up local infrastructure or initiate development projects, instead of creating a culture of dependency, his reply is said to have been ‘that is politics, that is how you win votes in Bangladesh.’

A Tale of two Sylhets…

The approaches of Ilias Ali and Anwar Bhai present two paths of political development to the people of Sylhet and Bangladesh. They become clearer when we examine the transnational political connection, as an article in the Guardian stated with a $1 billion remittances per annum from the UK alone, instead of being the wealthiest and the healthiest, Sylhet has the poorest education uptake and poor health statistics in the country.

Nobody that I spoke to claimed Ilias Ali to be saint. There have been allegations of corruption and allegations that he was involved in the murder of a fellow student leader. Yet it is the idea that he represented and egalitarian political promotion, that sticks in everyone’s mind. So much so, that when rival Awami League party cadres in the neighbouring Dhakin Surma heard about his abduction, they walked en mass to Ilias Ali’s village, paying respect to his mother and consoling her.

In Ilias Ali’s narrative, the only way out of poverty is through succeeding in competitive public examinations and pursuing a career at home. You serve your community through a grass root network of public works and infrastructure. It is a story of merit based hard graft and social dialogue, a story which would not have happened without the partition of India and the creation of Bangladesh.

The other is the a continuation of the the dark days of the East India Company and the return of the feudal zamindari estate. Here loyalty and subservience prized over meritocracy and independence, and foreign interests trump the rights and demands of ordinary citizens at home. This is demonstrated by vivid acts of loyalty and subservience by Anwar Bhai towards Sheikh Hasina and her family.

The current political crisis can be viewed as a tussle between these two conflicting narratives approaches to politics. From the striking RMG workers of Ashulia, tea plantation workers of Sylhet and madrassah students of Kanchpur and Hathazari, to the masses killed inMotijheel and the untold disappeared throughout the country, as well as more than a thousand political prisoners rotting in the prisons of Bangladesh, all struggle is on. Theirs is the fight to keep the country truly independent, free from external influence, and the challenge of preventing the People’s Republic of Bangladesh from turning into the dynastic fiefdom of Sheikh Hasina and the ‘Banana Republic’ of her Awami League.

…It rechristened its territories

As the “Banana Republics”,

And over the sleeping dead,

Over the restless heroes

Who brought about the greatness,

The liberty and the flags,

It established a comic opera. . .

Pablo Neruda

Source: The Khichuri