Dhaka: The city of walls
There are more or less walls in every city, but maybe there are more of them in this city – Dhaka. Whoever – be it the higher, middle, or lower class – has even a bit of land within this city has it enclosed along its perimeter. The residential neighbourhoods are packed with houses, but they are all clearly demarcated with walls in-between them. Every human being has a desire of owning even the tiniest bit of land, to build a home on it, which will be their own – a personal retreat. But truly, does everyone from all corners of the globe think the same? Private property is sacred in Europe and America, but there are no walls in residential areas. And there are many public buildings void of any enclosures. Even if they are bounded, you'd be able to see what's going on inside – though you'd need permission for entry. Be it public spaces, public buildings, or even private homes – all are encircled with walls as if private properties. We cannot conceive the idea that privacy is sacred. And that is why someone or the other will at any given time just stroll in uninvited even with all these walls around us.
The pace with which Dhaka has grown in the past three decades surmounts the growth it has seen in the previous four centuries. The city belongs to the poor. Yet the poor have no property. Everything lies in the open for them. The city has been encroached mainly by the middle and lower classes while the higher class runs the show.
All dreams and desires, and the sole sense of love of the middle class in Dhaka is limited to just a piece of land. A hand full of earth on which there will be a home one day. The middle class can stoop down to stealing and even selling their dignity just for this. And this unquenchable thirst for land of the middle class has constituted to the uncontrolled growth of Dhaka city in the past two decades.
Why does the middle class crave for a piece of property above all else? Why do they not realise life is short? As long as they have jobs, they have incomes – thus they are able to spend money without any anxiety. But then why do they sacrifice their standards of living to save enough to buy a piece of land? The reason may lie only on the notion that there is no security for life. They know that after retirement, or even a crude decision taken by their employers in firing them, they would have no one to take care of them. Neither the society nor the state would extend a helping hand towards them in any case. They would have to find means to meet ends on their own. And there rises the thought: “If only I can build a house of my own after acquiring a bit of land before retiring, then I would not have to worry for a roof over my head for as long as I live. And I could even draw sustenance from the rent drawn every month from a tenant or two.” And there lies the reason why the middle class accepts bribes – just because of that non-existent land or home. On the other hand if they don't take bribes, they become subjects of extreme paranoia and religiously start believing that they are alive just because they need to be even before they turn 40.
If by any chance one from the middle class strata is able to acquire a piece of land, the first thing they do is erect walls around it. It's as if they are trying to advertise to the world: “I know I am as insignificant as an atom in this world, but even then I am now the proud owner of property that is larger than my grave.” Maybe this puts the mind at ease. This starts the process of everyone spending their wealth at first in fulfilling their desires, and then whole residential neighbourhoods start filling up with countless buildings of all shapes and sizes in the end. Starting from the first planned neighbourhood of Wari in Dhaka to Dhanmondi and Baridhara are all proofs of this phenomenon. In turn everyone becomes infected with indifference because of these structures. The already divided by walls middle class becomes even more fragmented into smaller and smaller clusters every day. Neighbours start to turn against each other.
This culture of building walls directly correlates with the mentality of encroachment and colonial laws. According to the law, precedence is given to the person in possession of the property rather than to whom it belongs to. Dhaka was built upon freehold lands during the Mughal era. Progress was attempted using untaxed lands. Nobody paid heed to who possessed which land. Since there was no demarcation of land during the Mughal era, the concept of walls was not present either. There were demarcation for holy sites though, and thus all of them were fortified with walls. The concept of encroachment arose from there. There were many gardens during the Mughals. The names of those gardens are just fleeting memories now, and so obviously their ruins are not there either. But it can be considered that they were never bounded by walls.
Walls were not a big thing during the colonial times either. There is no proof of walls in either Dhaka's Nawab Companies or Shahbag. All structures in Old Dhaka are as if leaning against each other. Each wall of the building themselves have served as the border for the other house. It wasn't till after 1947 that value of land had become so significant due to a lack of population and wealth. New areas where houses at the time were built are void of walls as well.
Dhaka became the regional capital for the third time after 1947. A group of people left the country, while another replaced them. The culture of encroachment had started right from that time. The culture of possessing land and homes by force became a thing of practice. Whoever successfully encroached a house named it their own property. The practice became more widespread after independence. It was ever since 1975 and the implementation of the long period of martial law that the mentality of possession by force increased at an exponential rate.
Society's muscles have had space to grow since the law is not very effective against brawn. And because of this reason walls had become necessary to protect ones possession through encroachment and to ward off other encroachers. And it's written in law that the matter of lordship for the land will come into consideration after the matter of who has right to it and who has possession of it is first resolved. And that is the reason why public spaces, even government properties fall under encroachers' grips, because no one has any say over it.
It may as well be surprising for the older residents of Dhaka that its population has surpassed 10 million. Any available land falls under encroachment instantly. And those who have any type of property, they are enclosing them with walls. And the same walled in houses are turning into multi-storied flat complexes. Walls within walls – none is related to the other. Even then security is not guaranteed within those walls. People are handing over their lands to developers – there is more security within multi-storied apartment complexes. Threats from encroachers engulfing this city were non-existent before. Even new born babies are being introduced to the concept of encroachment right after birth.
Since the middle class rules Dhaka city, it has turned into a city of walls. And so just laying eyes on these walls the clash of character between the middle class citizens, the elite and the authorities become clear. Where can you find a place void of walls in this city? Let's look at the buildings owned by the authorities first: each and every structure is bounded by tall walls, as if erecting small walls would lessen security for the place. Just take a look at the government building all around the city, or look at the private sector. Each and every one of them, almost, is enclosed by tall walls. All houses in the residential areas are encircled with painted walls. And that's not all, just a slight crack demands it be repaired as soon as possible. And if one is lucky to have some extra cash lying around: break down the old wall and rebuild a new one!
The middle class only thinks about themselves, and hence this love for walls. Their self-preservation is their only religion and so they want to have it enclosed by walls. But it would be false to say that they don't think about the general masses. They are perplexed most of the time while sitting in their drawing rooms and thinking about the nation. The middle class intellectual possesses the ability to defeat a professional political speaker in a debate both qualitatively and quantitatively. But each and every person from within the middle class keeps clear an escape route to be used at the right time. And that's why they seldom fall into trouble, yet they still gain accolades as the peoples' persons in society.
The middle class runs the country at all times. They say authority has to be given to the people. But it has never been heard of that authority has ever reached the grasps of the people, or even that they have ever taken a step towards acquiring it. The middle class authorities have always loved to keep themselves unclear, mysterious and obscure – reason why they encircle themselves with walls. The Secretariat in Dhaka is a prime example. And so no one knows what the authorities are up to, and the authorities within the Secretariat are unaware of the peoples' thoughts. Everything is hidden behind either side of the walls.
The middle class is the sole vessel for the arts, literature and culture. And that is also why they say the arts and literature should be taken to the people. But they never divulge how to go about it clearly, because deep down in their thoughts they never want it to happen. How can they retain a sense of Godliness if the arts and literature are given away to the general masses? Therefore: simply close up the Bangla Academy or the Bangla language with walls around them along with the fine arts or the Fine Arts Academy.
It could have been that the residential areas had Hena plantations along the perimeter of houses instead of walls. The neighbours could thus exchange greetings every now and then having caught the sight of the other over the low bushes. Everything could have been surrounded with the peacefulness of the colour green. The public buildings could have been encircled by low walls or even trees. People and their representatives or public servants could have been in contact with each other all the time. Maybe Louis Kahn had designed the Parliament without any bounding walls thinking of such a vision. Open to all, surrounded by green and water. It is unheard of that any one person's security has ever been breached there.
The middle class, the higher class or the rulers all have erected walls in this manner all over Dhaka city. There are no walls around only one institute and that is the University of Dhaka. This institute literally belongs to society, democratic by character. And that's the reason why everyone and anyone can come and go as they please. It is surrounded by nature and adorned with age old trees. The middle class does not like the concept or public itself, because they afraid of the public. But the University of Dhaka truly belongs to the public and hence they are not afraid of it encroachment by anyone, and thus there is no need for walls there. It has earned independence through its own merit, and all rulers are afraid of independence. And that's why no matter who comes in as a ruler they all want to erect walls around the University of Dhaka. They sometimes literally take the form of students or teachers at times. And some of the times they come out as victors, but not at the end – the incident of 2007 is an example. But they will not stop trying till this institute in Dhaka city has been enclosed by walls, and that way there will be no differences left in this city. I want to see everyone in the very image of the rulers of Dhaka city without any differences: the more there are walls the better it is for them.
I didn't see any walls at the Osmani Memorial either. It's a public space belonging to the public representatives of the municipality. Doesn't matter who's in charge or pulls the strings, because they have to think about the public when it comes to this space. The public want to see this place inside and out, they search for clarity over here. The inside of the Osmani Memorial can be seen from the outside, and the outside from the inside. In reality if everything was as this, then there would be no need to write this article.
Dhaka is now collectively bound by walls of superstition, walls of hatred, walls of corruption, walls of deception, walls of illiteracy.
Dhaka is now a city of walls.
The writer is an author, historian and professor of University of Dhaka.
Translated from the original Bangla text by Hasan Ameen Salahuddin.