Chittagong/Dhaka: A terrain of water, forests and greenery, Bangladesh has come a long way since it was liberated in 1971 and the country celebrated its 47th Independence Day on March 26, soaking in all hues and colours of freedom with a promise of marching ahead on the path of development.
As our US-Bangla airline’s flight from Kolkata lands in the afternoon at Chittagong airport, the massive expanse of Karnaphuli river merging into the Bay of Bengal with numerous barges, oil tankers and fishing vessels dotting it are visible. Though the airport is relatively small, quiet efficiency of the immigration officers ensures that the passengers are cleared without any fuss. Our host is senior advocate Jahangir Alam Chowdhury who along with his professor wife has come to receive us at the airport. The hospitality of the Chowdhury family is splendid and we meet at Chittagong Seniors’ Club in the heart of the city which also has a rich history behind it. About 50-minute drive from the airport to the city centre is smooth with well laid wide roads.
Chittagong is the biggest city in Bangladesh after Dhaka and is widely described as the commercial capital of the country. The city also played a key role during India’s freedom struggle as well as during the war for liberation of Bangladesh.
We are also invited to the Chittagong Press Club where all office bearers and members extend a warm welcome and talk about friendly and cordial ties between the scribes of the countries. Many of them have visited India more than once and have returned with fond memories. The journalists of Chittagong are also desirous of having active ties with the press clubs in India. They generally speak of warm and friendly Indo-Bangladesh relations and express desire of more exchange visits between the two neighbours in all fields.
Chittagong is also home to about two lakh population of Hindus who were busy celebrating Basanti Puja at this time of the year. Shayamal Kumar Palit who heads the city’s largest cable television network and helps in organizing one of the biggest pujas in Chittagong informs that nearly 200 Durga Pujas are held in the metropolitan area of Chittagong. Our guide and fellow senior scribe Jasim Chowdhury Sabuj says the city wears a colourful, festive look during the puja season which brings to fore the enthusiastic participation of the people. Mr. Sabuj also takes us round the important landmarks in the city – J M Sen Hall where leaders used to hold meetings during the British rule, the headquarter of the then Assam-Bengal Railways, European Club which was by Priti Lata in the 30s who worked in tandem with Masterda Surjo Sen, revolutionary leader whose group had mounted a series of attacks against the then British rule. Masterda remains a legendary figure in Chittagong. Markets and streets in the city are bustling with vehicles with rickshaws, three-wheelers, and cars jostling for space. Chittagong port city has a population of about 2.5 million with a density of 16000 people per sq km. Interestingly, three-wheeler auto rickshaws in Dhaka and Chittagong have fixed wire grills on both the sides, protecting the driver and passengers from potential bag snatchers – a crime which is increasing in Delhi and other cities of India by each passing day.
By the time we land in Dhaka, Independence Day celebrations have already begun and March 26 is a public holiday but students and the city youth are enthusiastically participating in different campaigns with catchy slogans and songs being played from the vehicles in which they criss-cross different parts of the city, spreading the message of peace and vowing to work for the progress and development of the nation. Arterial roads of Dhaka and commercial areas are home to well-lined markets, modern restaurant chains, shops, luxury hotels, a sprawling lake in the middle and many modern and recently-built high-rise buildings. Vertical urban growth seems to be catching up in Dhaka which hosts 16 million people with a density of nearly 50,000 people per sq km. Traffic jams in Dhaka are unpredictable and notorious even as several flyovers have come up in the metropolis. People have a fetish for big cars and mostly Toyota sedans can be easily spotted in good numbers. India’s Tata and Ashok Leyland trucks and trawlers are also visible and so is Mahindra, another auto major.
Dhaka’s National Press Club is the nerve-centre for journalists who make it a point to meet up during the day and discuss the day’s developments with their colleagues or chat up with them or simply indulge in delicious food and snacks that are available in its canteen. On March 26 evening, we are invited to the reception, hosted by the President at Bangabhawan and despite an overcast sky, invitees from all walks of life turn up in large numbers to celebrate the independence day and also register their joy as Bangladesh prepares to shed the tag of LCD (Least Developed Country) and becomes a developing nation.
Parliamentary elections are also due to be held later this year in Bangladesh and the coming months promise to be hectic and politically exciting.