Around 200 years ago, the Kandapar brothel in Tangail used to be the private brothel of local zamindar Santosh. As the years went by, Santosh’s successors sold off of the land to those who lived there.
That was how the brothel, from where sex workers have recently been evicted, came into existence.
According to the local land office, the entire 302 decimal land is now privately owned. Among the owners, 39 are sex workers and the remaining 10 are all men.
There are all kinds of houses – tin-shed, concrete roofed, one-storied and multi-storied. These houses have small chambers where sex workers operate.
After the brothel in Taanbazar in Narayanganj was evicted in 1999, the one in Tangail became the biggest in the country. In October 2006, a section of local residents and clerics tried to evict the Tangail brothel. A local citizen committee opposed he move saying they could not be evicted without rehabilitation. 14 people were injured in clashes that ensued.
The then Tangail Municipality chairman Jamilur Rahman led the committee named “Brothel Eviction Committee.”
A few days later, responding to a public interest lawsuit, the High Court prohibited eviction without proper rehabilitation. In another ruling in 2000, the HC gave legality to the trade.
In 2010 and 2013, the committee again tried to remove the sex workers from the area but failed to succeed. Just like this year, those two eviction drives were also made in the month of Ramadan.
However, according to the sex workers, the committee that worked to stage the eviction this year was much more organised and worked with a much better plan.
The Dhaka Tribune has found that current Municipality Mayor Shahidur Rahman Khan Mukti was the mastermind who orchestrated the eviction.
There are allegations that Mukti had been trying to get hold of the land because he wanted to build a market there. But since the place was fully privately owned and because there was a HC ruling in place against eviction, he had to move tactfully. Instead of direct eviction, he wanted the incident to look as if the sex workers had left the place voluntarily.
The first step was forming a new committee that was not tasked with directly evicting the sex workers; instead, the committee was tasked with building a local public opinion against the centuries old brothel.
The committee itself was cleverly named and formed. This time the name did not include either the word brothel or the word eviction. In Bangla it was called Oshamajik Karjokolap Protirodh Committee which translates to “the unsocial activities prevention committee.”
Maulana Ashrafuzzaman Kashemi, imam of the Tangail Kabarsthan Jaame Masjid, was made the vice-president of the committee. He is a respected cleric in the area and his inclusion readily brought a large section of the local Muslims into the committee’s confidence.
The 205-member committee, formed on June 30, also the first day of the month of Ramadan, incorporated representatives from the local Hindus, Buddhists and Christians, the local puja celebration committee, lawyers from the bar association, doctors and trade bodies such as the local chamber of commerce.
According to sources, Mayor Mukti has always had a lot of influence over the local businessmen, lawyers and doctors. One of his brothers Jahidur Rahman Khan Kakon is the president of the Tangail Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Over the next few days, the committee held several meetings, mainly at the Tangail Kabarsthan Jaame Masjid, especially on Fridays after the Jumma prayers.
According to sources, Mayor Mukti attended most of those meetings and spoke openly about the “ill-effects” that the brothel had been spreading over the area.
The mayor and his three brothers are known as godfathers, and there are very few people in Tangail town who dare to speak on record against them.
After the Jumma prayers on July 4, the committee distributed leaflets containing messages against what they said were “unsocial activities” that were going on inside the brothel, the imams of a number of mosques in the area told the Dhaka Tribune.
On July 6, Aklima Akter Akhi, a leader of the sex workers’ association Nari Mukti Sangha (NMS), accompanied by officials from non-government organisation Care Bangladesh, went to meet Mizanur Rahman Khan, chairman of the National Human Rights Commission.
Upon her return, referring to her discussion with the NHRC boss, Akhi assured her fellow sex workers that nothing was going to happen to them.
On the same day, the unsocial activities prevention committee submitted a memorandum to Mayor Mukti detailing the need for evicting the brothel.
On July 9, the NMS sat in a meeting with the owners of the brothel houses and tried to convince them to bribe local influential people including the mayor, journalists and police to prevent the looming eviction.
Akhi, who reportedly attended that meeting, was never seen again in the area. Evicted sex workers alleged that she had fled with Tk80 lakh of their savings.
On July 11, in a meeting at the kabarsthan mosque, a final decision to evict the brothel was made by the mayor and local MP Md Sanowar Hossain. According to sources, local influential people, the members of the committee and the owners of the brothel houses were present at that meeting.
As news spread that a mob might come and evict the sex workers after the Jumma prayers, three platoons of police were deployed in the area to prevent any possible eviction, said Tangail police Chief Saleh Mohammad Tanvir. But nothing happened on that day.
The next day, July 12, Mayor Mukti arranged a “grand” iftar gathering at the municipality office in which, reportedly, at least 10,000 people participated.
“The mayor arranges iftar parties every year. But this year it was unusual. I have never seen such a huge number of people take part in the iftar… The entire town was empty when the party was going on,” said an NGO worker, requesting not to be named.
In the meantime, a group of several armed young men started gathering in front of the brothel. They were led by Mayor Mukti’s brother Kakon. Local Jubo League Joint Secretary Sanowar Hossain and Swechchhasebak League Joint Convenor Nasiruddin Nuru – both known as close associates of the mayor – were part of the group.
Interestingly, the group did not have anyone from the unsocial activities prevention committee. The committee members were all reportedly attending the mayor’s iftar gathering.
Around 6pm, about an hour before iftar, some members of the group brought two drums of petrol on a van, witnesses said. A sex worker said during the entire time they were gathering in the area, the members of the group kept on threatening the sex workers with dire consequences unless they evacuated.
“As night fell, there was a power outage for about two hours. In the darkness, the members of the group went inside the brothel and raped and tortured some of us,” she said.
“We did not know what to do and started running to and fro. Our leader Akhi’s mobile phone was switched off. She had with her the Tk80 lakh that we had saved with the NMS. Then I left the brothel and could not take any of my belongings with me,” she added.
Most of the sex workers had left the brothel after iftar on July 12 and the remaining few by the next afternoon.
Maulana Kashemi, vice-president of the eviction committee, claimed that they did not know anything about the attack.
He told the Dhaka Tribune: “We were pleasantly surprised to see the sex workers leave the area on their own, sparing us any action. It is nothing but Allah’s blessings in the holy month of Ramadan. We are now happy that Tangail is free from the brothel.”
When asked about the High Court ruling against eviction without rehabilitation, Kashemi said he had no knowledge about it. “This brothel does not have any registration and they did not pay taxes,” he said.
When asked whether they would accept the brothel if it got proper registration, Kashemi cleverly responded with: “We are against all kinds of brothel and unsocial activities.”
Regarding the mayor’s role, he said: “We were never influenced by anyone. The mayor and the general people cooperated with us in fulfilling our demand.”
About the HC ruling, Abdul Latif, secretary of the committee, said: “The state says and does many things. But that does not mean that the Shariah [Islamic law] will agree with them.”
Snuffing out all allegations, Mayor Mukti told the Dhaka Tribune: “I am not the kind of person who would evict them from the brothel without ensuring some sort of rehabilitation. It is true that they left the brothel voluntarily. Their organisation [NMS] never discussed their problems with me.”
He also said: “The house owners ordered them to leave the brothel. Forced eviction is a violation of laws. As an elected representative, how could I force them out of their homes and make them destitute?
“The people of Tangail wanted the brothel to be removed and as their representative, I only supported their cause. That does not mean I evicted them,” he said.