Gopalganj: Sheikh Hasina's home, and fortress

Bangladesh has around 1.3 crore Hindus, about 8 pc of the population

42-The-traditional-boat-race-held Rowing forward: The traditional boat race held on the day after Lakshmi Puja at Kotalipara in Gopalganj | Shutterstock

MAN MATHA NATH Podder's Nautica sneakers betray his Big Apple street cred. He is quite well off―in New York, he lives in a condo, not an apartment. “I would rather stay here,” says Podder, who came back to Bangladesh just to vote.

“In Gopalganj, we are mad for Sheikh Hasina,” he asserts. Podder was a schoolteacher and the Awami League upazila chairman for years. He remembers 1971, the fight for freedom, and the devastation of the death of Sheikh Mujib three and a half years later.

For Podder, this election is personal. “We remember the times when the Bangladesh Nationalist Party was in power,” he says. “Khaleda Zia tortured Hindus; our women were raped, our houses burnt and our land seized.” Especially in Gopalganj 3, a constituency with the largest presence of Hindus, a vote for Hasina is also a vote against this threat.

“We wrapped our goddess in black and forgot our prayers,” says Bimal Krishna Biswas, upazila parishad member. Now the area is dotted with temples. This year, Hasina donated 3.25 lakh takas from her personal fund to the Kotalipara puja pandals. This was in addition to 650 tonnes of rice. At one of the temples in the area, Gita classes have started. “More than a hundred people come to listen,” says Biswas.

Bangladesh has around 1.3 crore Hindus, about 8 per cent of the population. “We always believe that everyone in the country, irrespective of religion and caste, will enjoy equal rights,” she said at the Dhakeshwari Temple in Dhaka during the Durga puja. “We all are the children of this soil. We will live in this land enjoying our rights.”

Nestled in the heart of the Bengal countryside, the picturesque Tungipara is a landscape straight out of a painting―a palette of greens and yellows with an expanse of blue sky mirrored in the ponds. Boats idle, tied to trees in the fields. This is where the Mujib story began; where he was born and buried. It is fitting then that it is here that the Padma Multipurpose Bridge―all 6.15 gleaming kilometres of it―makes dreams come true. Gopalganj may have had the benefit of being connected by rail during Hasina's 15-year tenure, but the impact of the bridge has made the distance evaporate.

“It used to take 10 to 12 hours to reach Dhaka,” says Biswas. It is now just two hours. This has opened a host of opportunities for traders and farmers who can now sell their vegetables in the capital city. If Dhaka has transformed during Hasina's rule, in Gopalganj she has ensured that development is at its doorstep. This year alone 43 projects costing 300 crore taka were inaugurated.

The Sheikh Mujib Memorial―crowded even on a Monday―is but serene. The coffin in which his bullet-ridden body arrived is up for display. A shrine to the Bangabandhu, it preserves his past―the pen he wrote with, the bed he slept in, his spectacles―but very much represents the present and the future. The battle for Bangladesh, one that the Awami League is determined to preserve, is contrary to the BNP's agenda. “The reason this area was neglected during the BNP's time was this was where Mujib was born,” says Podder. “They wanted to destroy everything.”

For Hasina, this is home. And it is her fortress. “She doesn’t need to even come to campaign,” says Sheikh Abdul Basar, president of Tungipara upazila. “She has always given us more than expected.”