The face of Bangladesh
I was going to leave a snarky comment about “Ilias Ali’s role in the death of SAMS Kibria and Saifur Rahman“, but Jyoti expects more from us, so let’s see what we can do.
Ever noticed how most obituaries in Bangladesh mention the deceased was born in a shombhranto Muslim poribar? Well, it would be quite strange to say that of Ilias Ali, for he wasn’t born as a Syed or a Sheikh or a Mirza or Chowdhury. Ilias Ali was born in an ordinary family in Sylhet, and if not for the partition and then creation of Bangladesh, he wouldn’t have even made to Dhaka University.
When he did make it to Dhaka University, he found himself in a turbulent time and place. Whereas in the 1960s, student politics was about ideas and ideologies — leftist EPSU, centrist Chhatra League and NSF, and the rightist ICS — things changed after independence. Mujibists couldn’t tolerate losing to the left — first to pro-Moscoe Student Union, then pro-JSD Chhatra League — and introduced the culture of arms. Under Sheikh Moni and Sheikh Kamal’s tutelage, DUCSU election was rigged, and the infamous ‘seven murders’ were murdered by the Mujibist BCL (the ringleader, Shafiul Alam Pradhan, somehow has ended up in the anti-AL camp now, while the comrades of his victims are now in the pro-ALmohajote– but that’s a different story).
Towards the end of the Zia era, student politics seemed to be returning to the 1960s style clash of ideas and ideologies. Elections were held to DUCSU and other student unions. Leftist factions, particularly JSD Chhatra League, dominated. Mahmudur Rahman Manna carried the same stature as Rashed Khan Menon or Tofail Ahmed in the earlier generation. Islami Chhatra Shibir started reorganising around the same time. And Gen Zia understood the need for organising a student front for his party, and JCD was created.
But the politics of armed cadres returned after Gen Ershad came to power in 1982. Ershad faced a student uprising in 1983, which was suppressed through carrots (buying off prominent student leaders with cash or cushy foreign posts) or sticks (well, bullets). Notun Bangla Chhatra Shomaj was the preferred method of delivering the latter.
And Ilias Ali’s beginning was there.
Ilias Ali was the typical face of the 1980s campus — young guy who makes it to DU through the highly competitive public student system, and falls in the wrong company, and becomes what the Hyder Hussain sings as: kintu moder daika niya, lokkho takrar lov dekhaiya, ostro haatey tuila dilo godi shurokkhaye.
A natural organiser, Ali ended up becoming a key leader of the Chhatra Shomaj’s armed group. When Chhatra Shomaj was disbanded, he gravitated towards the JCD. And along the way, he gained fame by killing Pagla Shaheed – himself a notorious armed cadre, and brother of JCD leader Sanaul Huq Niru (whose story of going from the hero of 1983 anti-Ershad uprising to the villainous killer of Dr Milon in 1990 is a tragedy for another day).
So, Ilias Ali was a murderer, an armed cadre, shontrashi, gunda? Yes. But was that all he was?
Hardly. For the story doesn’t end in 1990.
The last DUCSU election was held in 1990. Neither AL nor BNP dared to hold the election to what used to be called the ‘nation’s second parliament’ because neither side had the confidence of the general student population. And talk to the DU students from the early 1990s, and you will find a quite interesting dichotomy — all the vodrolok types, with 3 generations of DU students in the family, hating Ilias Ali, and all the mofosshol types who were the first ones in the family to make it to DU loving him.
Ilias Ali was the face of Bangladesh that really got going after 1990.
He wasn’t the most famous student leader of independent Bangladesh. In their time, Mujahidul Islam Selim (DUCSU VP of 1972) or Mahmudur Rahman Manna (DUCSU VP 1979) or Sultan Mansur (DUCSU VP 1989) were much more popular. Even in JCD, Niru-Bablu-Ovi-Shamsuzzaman Dudu-Asaduzzaman Ripon-Khairul Kabir Khokon etc were better known. But very few of them made the successful transition to national politics.
Ilias Ali was the exception. He could have ended up as a successful businessman. Instead, he went back to his village in Sylhet, and spent years building up a grass root network. He worked with the community murubbis to keep the area free of Jamaatis/jihadis/jongis. BNP hadn’t been strong in Sylhet, and Jamaat targetted the anti-AL vote bank in the area. He was strongly opposed to that, and successfully built a party there. He won a seat by landlside in 2001, and came within a few hundred votes of being re-elected in Dec 2008 — a remarkable result.
Many an opposition leader (from both sides) have been arrested/killed over the years. How many has resulted in the spontaneous uprising where young men defied police bullet?
Somewhere along the way from the 1980s to 2010s, Ilias Ali became a genuinely popular politician.
And that’s also the face of Bangladesh too.
Bangladesh is more than the 200 private university students who got to see Hillary. Bangladesh is full of Ilias Alis. The question is, which Ilias Ali is the face of tomorrow’s Bangladesh — the 1980s cadre, or the 2010s leader?