Dhaka’s History Waiting to be Divided
oshairhat is the 111th municipality of Bangladesh but the first municipality was undoubtedly Dhaka. Today’s tremendously commercial, industrial, financial, sporting and cultural Dhaka was not the same in 400 years back. Politically very powerful, the capital city, the administrative headquarters of the Bangladesh is still growing though not healthily. It has grown all around, covering an area of some 360 square km and having a population of over 9.1 million. A considerable number of the inhabitants are very rich, thanks to capitalistic concentration of wealth. It is also home to the rising number of ‘Bangladeshi’ rich people. Most of the 28,000 crorepatis live here. No need to articulate that the creation of the independent state of Bangladesh in 1971 bestowed on Dhaka the glory and prestige of the capital of a sovereign country. This led to Dhaka’s phenomenal growth though not in a very planned way.
Dhaka has a comparatively long history. Its continuation in the pre-Muslim period is cumbersome to trace with certainty. But it grew as an urban centre in the Sultanate period and rose into prominence in the Mughal period when it enjoyed the position of a provincial capital. In 1800 and onward, Dhaka was a place of some importance especially in the pre-Mughal period, but it came to the limelight of history under the Mughals. The city then was a beautiful one, with greens available, dozens of canals, lots of playgrounds, open spaces. At the second phase, the turn down of the political power of the nawabs of Bengal and the rise of the East India Company led to the diminishing of the administrative importance of Dhaka in the late 18th century. In addition, the commercial and manufacturing policies of the East India Company wrecked the financial bases of the city. This naturally led to the shrinking of the physical extent of the city to such a degree that by the beginning of the 19th century Dhaka was a shadow of its former self. Its administrative importance, its trade and manufactures were virtually gone. Likewise its cultural and social activities dwindled greatly.
In the Mughal era Dhaka developed rapidly due to its advantageous geographical setting and its political and administrative significance as the capital. And later as the sub-capital of a very wealthy and ingenious province its prospered internally and externally. Trade in famous manufactures, especially the Muslin went up. At its climax during the Mughal period, the city with its suburbs was said to encompass a population of some 900,000. The population comprised graciousness, high officials, business people, soldiers, manufacturers, traders and service people of various kinds. The inhabitants were of different races and religions. The city proper stretched seven to ten miles along the Buriganga and up to two and a half miles inland. The suburbs extended from the Buriganga to the Tongi Bridge, fifteen miles to the north, and from Mirpur-Jafarabad on the west some ten miles east to Postogola. The administrative importance of Dhaka further grew dramatically during the years 1905-11 when it was made the capital of the new province of East Bengal and Assam. The superstructure of a provincial administration was introduced with different departments and various high and middle-ranking officials.
Thirty six years ticked by. There was no movement, visible development. If we look further, after 1947 the Dhaka municipal government underwent from the contradictory demands of political pragmatism and administrative efficiency. Following the dawn of Pakistan in 1947, Dhaka became the capital of the new province of East Bengal. And thus this rise in the status of the city did not straight away modify the status of its local government, which was a metropolis. The municipal government of Dhaka set up in 1864 was suitable for the type of urban centre which then it was a small divisional headquarters. It then covered vicinity comprising approximately some 8 square miles with a population of some 52,000. In view of the prevailing disordered circumstances soon after the partition and the movement of population the ordinary activities of the then Dhaka Municipality suffered much and the administration could not be carried out in the old manners. Even the periodical election of the municipal commissioners and chairman and vice-chairmen could not be held because of the mammoth change in the electoral roll and other inconveniences. This situation lasted until 1958 when the country came under the military rule and municipal bodies along with other local bodies were perched on the brink and senior civil servants and other local officers were entrusted with the job of running the municipal bodies.
Although the city grew in physique and in population in the succeeding years, it developed spectacularly only after the departure of the British in 1947 and its becoming the capital of a new province. In 1947 the cities enlarged up to 12 square miles with a population of some 250,000. Subsequently Dhaka’s importance grew over the later years. During the Bangladesh period, the urban local bodies operating as the legacy of the past were formally dissolved and official administrators were appointed to each one of them under the President’s Order No.7 of 1971. Again by the President’s Order No. 22 of 1973 municipalities underwent marginal changes in the composition but the functions remained more or less the same as before. In 1977 a new Paurasabha Ordinance was promulgated without substantially altering the portfolio of functions. Under this act Dhaka also became a Paurasabha but the administrative and political significance of the place necessitates a broader skeleton of local government predominantly for people’s representation on the municipal government and for levying of taxes. Hence the demand for augmentation of the Dhaka Municipality began to come from various quarters. In 1983 thus a new form of municipal body named the City Corporation was formed for Dhaka under a separate Ordinance.
By 1983 Dhaka had grown phenomenally. Its population had increased to some 3,440,147 and the area to some 400 square km. Over the years the ward divisions of the city had also greatly increased from its 1947 number of seven. It was thus overdue that the local government of the metropolis must act in response to the changed situation. The 1983 Ordinance, called the Dhaka Municipal Corporation Ordinance, made the city of Dhaka a Corporation to be called the Dhaka Municipal Corporation.
Having known about the history of Dhaka and Dhaka City Corporation, We would know now the importance of this city as a unified one. The unified Dhaka city corporation has huge importance. The Buriganga (Budiganga) and her mother river Dhaleswari (Dhaleshvari) connect Dhaka to the great rivers and through them with almost all districts of Bengal. The old city of Dhaka was miniature, centering round Pakurtali (modern Babubazar area), but on becoming the capital of the Mughal Subah the city was extended along the bank of the river from the fort in the west to modern Sadarghat in the east. Once made the capital, Dhaka was intended to grow up. Administrative requirements and expansion of governmental activities must have led to an expansion of the city. The names of different localities in Dhaka, which stick with even today, put it to somebody how the city grew and developed with its great significance.
As it nurtured administratively, the political connotation of unified Dhaka also increased simultaneously. Indubitably the city’s role in the political life not only of Bangladesh but also of the entire subcontinent during the last two centuries has been much checkered. In the 19th century it was one of the imperative centres of the first War of Independence against British colonial rule, the Sepoy revolt of 1857. The Sepoys of the Bengal army stationed at Lalbagh Fort refused to go along with the effort of the British administrators to neutralize them, warning the revolt of the local army in other parts of the country. The event proved a turning point in the history of the city, the British administrators taking brutal measures and the local population maintaining a profound sense of umbrage against the colonial rulers ever since. The place where the Sepoys were hanged became a symbol of national confrontation. But the event also discovered the enormous loyalty and support for the British by the well-heeled local landlords and businessmen, particularly the Nawab family of Dhaka. With the groundwork of the Indian National Congress in 1885, the city became the centre of Congress activities aimed at garnering support from the whole of eastern Bengal. But the political character of the city during the early twentieth century was critical in bringing about the partition of the province in 1905, being a symbol of a victory for the cause of the Muslims of East Bengal. The part played by the Nawab of Dhaka, Sir Salimullah, in this connection was very significant. From 1905 Dhaka also became a winner for the cause of the Muslims of the subcontinent. It was Sir Salimullah who again took the scheme in founding in Dhaka, in 1906, the first political party of the Muslims of the subcontinent Muslim League which, as opposed to the Indian National Congress, aimed primarily to serve the Muslim interest. The partition of Bengal also led to the Nationalist or swadeshi movement and extremist activities by Hindus opposed to the partition. Dhaka became the centre of all these activities and the stronghold of one of the extremist groups, anushilan samiti. In the following years Dhaka played an important role in the independence movement against the British.
The creation of Pakistan however did not accomplish the hopes and aspirations of the people of East Pakistan, especially of its educated middle class. The declaration of the rulers of Pakistan that only Urdu shall be the state language of Pakistan aggravated a sharp reaction from the East Pakistanis, who took immense conceit in their language and cultural heritage. Dhaka became the chief centre of the language movement, which also gave rise to a nationalistic feeling among East Pakistanis. The Language Movement became the predecessor of the freedom movement of Bangladesh, in which Dhaka played the most imperative role. The movements for parity, the People’s uprising of 1969, the historic speech of Bangabandhu on 7 March 1970 and the launching of the War of Liberation – all started from this city. It was also in this city that the surrender ceremony of the Pakistan Army took place at the Ramna Race Course on 16 December 1971.
Today Dhaka also houses the national and metropolitan chambers of commerce and other institutions of the business people and industrialists. In short, all the country’s trade and commerce, import and export trade are controlled from here. Just as the Bangladesh Bank looks after the public aspect of finance so do the various Chambers of Commerce protect the private business interest. The Stock Market, a recent growth, has added to the commercial life of the city. And all of these tell us the significance of unified Dhaka City Corporation.
Dhaka is one of the most important South Asian cities playing a momentous role in the political, economic, social, cultural and sporting activities of the region. It has developed into one of the most key cultural centres of Asia, clinging to national and international art, music, cinema, theatre, dance and literary conferences and festivals. Western-influenced theatrical performances started in Dhaka from the middle of the nineteenth century and later the appearance of female performers on stage created a consciousness among the traditional sections of Dhaka society. Today theatre is one of the most popular entertainments in the city though the organizers, performers and audience are typically from the educated middle class. The hub of these activities is the Segun-Bagicha, Ramna and Shahbag area – an enclave which has been indeed very recently designed as the Dhaka Sangskrtik Balay or the Dhaka Cultural Enclave.
The decision of the government to split the Dhaka City Corporation into two corporations, one dealing with the northern and the other with the southern part of Dhaka city would be harmful for the future of Dhaka. The citizens would not be benefited since the government has taken the decision because of political considerations. The Cabinet, in its weekly meeting on October 17, decided to divide the DCC into two corporations by amending the Local Government (City Corporation) Act 2009. A capital could not be divided without giving rise to administrative complexities and waste of time. The government was trying to reduce the present mayor’s control by taking such an irrational step. Splitting the corporation into two will increase the waste of money and the level of violence in the city, if one city corporation failed to serve the city dwellers then two city corporations would only produce a chaos. The government should strengthen and delegate more power to the existing corporation of the service-providing agencies of the city like the Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority, Dhaka Power Distribution Company, Dhaka Electric Supply Company Limited, and Titas Gas Transmission and Distribution Company Limited and should be placed under the corporation to ensure centrally coordinated service delivery by them. We hope peace and prosperity of our city which is also the spirit of our liberation. Splitting the Dhaka city corporation would put hindrance to the peace and prosperity of this city. Let us hope for a prosperous city with its unified nature to fulfill the desire of its citizens delegating sufficient power to it rather that diminishing.
However, Dhaka has been caught up in a sudden spree of development and growth, without proper planning and no real control over the haphazard growth. The never ending migration of people from the countryside and district towns often without any jobs is creating tremendous pressure upon the city with its meager housing and other facilities. Thus the city is passing through a period of uncertainties. If things are not taken proper care of, unforeseen developments might overwhelm the place, especially because of the lack of water supply, health hazards and political and social unrest. But it does not mean that this city needs to be divided rather it needs a comprehensive and pragmatic plan to ensure its development. The split of the city would incur huge economic loss and it would also bring political chaos as it is mostly politically driven without concerning the interest of the general people. n