Mozammel H. Khan

THE cabinet in a recent decision has cancelled the allotment of BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia’s house in the cantonment. In the words of the cabinet proceedings, the cancellation was “due to a number of anomalies regarding the allotment within the military zone.”

The decision has given rise to, as expected, instant protests from BNP and its adherent organisations. The criticisms included terms such as “illegal,” “immoral,” “political vengeance,” etc. To get the real perspective of the issue, let us get to the bottom of it.

To begin with, the house was a state (army is of course a part of the state) property that was allocated to late Major General Ziaur Rahman when he was the deputy chief of staff of the armed forces. After the self-declared president Khandaker Mustaque made him the army chief, why he did not move out of the house to the one designated for the army chief is a matter for the army administration to explain.

However, after he became president of the republic, doffing his army uniform, every citizen has the right to enquire why did he not move to the house (Bangabhaban) designated for the president? President Zia not only violated the norm (maybe not rule) by staying inside the cantonment house, although he was a civilian president, but also he was functioning as the chairman of the political party that he founded from the cantonment.

After President Zia was assassinated, the cantonment house was allotted to his wife by the then BNP government, on the ground that she was staying in that house during that period. In the meantime, another house in Gulshan was already allotted to the widow of the deceased president.

The question that anyone could raise: was it morally right to give the cantonment house to the widow of a slain president or to that of a slain decorated war hero? Ziaur Rahman was neither the sole president or nor the sole war hero who was assassinated while in office. If the question of morality comes, it must be applied, without discrimination, to all individuals who fall in the same category. Is there any reason why the family of Ziaur Rahman should get any preferential treatment when compared to others of the same class?

If a cabinet decision takes precedence over any existing legal or moral barriers, it itself becomes a law. And if the allotment of the two houses to a widow was done as per the cabinet decision, even violating any existing law, the allotment was perfectly legal. However, can the decision of one cabinet be reversed by another cabinet? If one does a simple research on the history of cabinet decisions in Bangladesh, the answer would be affirmative.

In 2001, the cabinet of the AL government allotted two houses, the Ganabhaban (ignoring the moral aspect) to a daughter of a slain president (not to mention the father of the nation) and another (no moral or legal norm was violated) to the other daughter of the same leader.

In the same year, right after forming the cabinet, a meeting of the cabinet chaired by Khaleda Zia cancelled the allotment of both the houses and went so far as to have the belongings of its occupant removed for one while establishing a police station on the other. If those evictions were legally right, what is the legal issue now?

By the same token, the house, outside the cantonment, that was allotted by a previous a BNP government to the widow of a slain decorated and wounded war hero was cancelled by the last BNP government (and reportedly bought by a nephew of Khaleda Zia).

When the cantonment house was given to Khaleda Zia, she was not a politician and it was never envisaged that she would ever become one or else the house in this exclusive area would never be given to her, as opined by H.M. Ershad who as the army chief piloted the cabinet decision in 1981.

Moreover, Khaleda Zia spent a staggering 80 lakh from the national exchequer to refurbish the house while she became PM in 1991. A corruption case against her in this regard was quashed by Justice Aziz, later the infamous CEC.

The cantonment, not the property of any political group or the other, is a very sensitive area, and as such it is a norm that no one would conduct political activities staying inside it. In fact, during the last tenure of Khaleda Zia, even the then leader of the opposition and the former Prime Minister was barred from walking through it to visit injured Dr. Humayan Azad. That was not the end of it; a legal suit was filed against her for attempting to pass through the cantonment. Can any in the BNP camp explain why Sheikh Hasina was barred from passing through the cantonment when Khaleda Zia lives and conducts political activities from the same arena?

The response of BNP and its sister organisations vis-à-vis the cancellation of the lease was very prompt, as expected. They have threatened to wage legal battle and street movement, which are within the purview of their legal and democratic rights. Many of them already claimed that 15 crores of people are with them in their battle to reverse the cabinet decision. However, only time will tell how much they will be able to entice the citizens to take to the streets or bring them in tune with their battle to preserve the ownership of a nine-bigha palatial house for the BNP chairperson and her two sons, when they have another one-and-a-half bigha house in the posh area of the city.

Dr. Mozammel H. Khan is the Convenor of the Canadian Committee for Human Rights and Democracy in Bangladesh.