The English-language newspaper Dhaka Tribune reported on Friday that part of a 400-year-old wall protecting the historic Lalbagh Qilla, a fort which dates back to the very founding of Dhaka by the Mughal Dynasty in the early 17th century, has been demolished — and that the Bangladeshi government’s Archaeological Department signed off on the action. This is but one of many construction projects within and around the fort’s grounds that threaten to disarm the historical significance of a structure that has served as a cultural touchstone for the millions who, over the centuries, have called Bengal, and later Bangladesh, home. The Tribune reports:
Part of the massive ancient wall … has been demolished because the archaeological authority wants to build a car park at the cost of Tk 30 lakh [~$39,000].
The action has drawn protests from a number of quarters, especially since the government often neglects historical restoration work on a plea of a lack of funds.
Moreover, and weirdly, after being alerted to the fact that the proposed parking lot would adversely affect the design and feel of the historic site, and that the move is in violation of the Antiquities Act of 1968, meant to protect culturally significant sites in Bangladesh, Altaf Hossain, the director general of the Archaeological Department, said:
This will not adversely affect the main design of the fort.
He later added: “But still, I will look into it. If I find something wrong, I will take action.”
On Sunday, the High Court of Bangladesh intervened and blocked the demolition of the wall, as well as construction of the parking lot, and demanded an explanation for the government’s moves. Responding to the Tribune‘s queries after the court issued the halt, Hossain said:
The construction work was halted two days back. But as the High Court has already ordered to stop the work, now we will renovate the wall.
Asked about the government’s next moves, he said:
There is a ground named Shaheed Ali Eidgah Field … we are thinking to relocate the parking place there. As the field is owned by the city corporation, we will seek their approval.
Basically, the very institution tasked with protecting Bangladesh’s cultural heritage was caught on the job knocking it down, and though there has been some important institutional pushback, it’s hard to tell if activists will be able to arrest the government’s seemingly ongoing plan to remake the fort into something else.
The Lalbagh Fort, or Qilla (literally the “Red Garden Fort,” owing to its red bricks made from the rich alluvial soil native to Bengal), was built by the Mughal Governor of Bengal and later Mughal Emperor Azam Shah. He was the grandson of Emperor Shah Jahan, the man who built a grand tomb to enshrine his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal: the Taj Mahal. The architectural history of the Taj lives on in Bengal, which, as one of the richest states in India, was a bespoke jewel in the crown of the Mughal Empire from the 16th to 19th century, and specifically in Dhaka in the form of the Lalbagh Fort.
Construction on the fort began in 1678 in the same architectural tradition as the Taj, if not with the same opulence and emotional verve. However, it never enjoyed the regard of its Indian cousin: before it was completed, a princess of the Mughal line died within the fort, and the structure was abandoned; after she was buried there, the Mughal court left it to ruin, convinced it was cursed. The fort became prominent only as a shrine to the princess and the Mughal line, a lost heritage. It became a shrine to loss, to memory.
Four hundred years out, the fort stands as a symbol of the founding of Dhaka, then the capital of Mughal Bengal, now the capital city of Bangladesh. It stands as a symbol of a culture contested and maybe even as a benchmark for progress that was later ruined under the East India Company and, after that, the British Raj. Azam Shah’s successor, the Mughal Governor Shaista Khan, nurtured Dhaka as a city and a trading port, and in a surprising turn in 1686, banned the East India Company from Bengal. Successive Bengali rebellions reemployed the story of Shaista Khan’s defense of Bengal against foreign economic and military might, and ultimately the fort became a symbol of Old Dhaka, a hushed place that predates all the insufferable, nasty in-fighting that has roiled politics and society in Bangladesh.
These days the fort is open to the public, often used as a site for the genteel set to relax amid flower shows and the like. And the government is tearing at the walls of an important part of Bangladeshi heritage for what? A car park that only VIPs will be allowed to use. This isn’t an act of iconoclasm, like the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas (now come back to ghostly life) or ISIS’s brutal erasure of Syria and Iraq’s pre-Islamic culture. It is a government effacing its own past for the sake of the convenience of its bloated, rapacious political class. The High Court’s intervention will halt the government’s moves for only a while. Director General Hossain has been given two weeks to respond to the court’s demand for an explanation, but when the government sends the protectors of its cultural history to knock down parts of that history, you have to wonder: who watches the watchmen?
We’ve seen this story before: Sohel Rana, the owner of the Rana Plaza building that collapsed in 2013, killing 1,100 factory workers, was a close associate of the current prime minister and enjoyed an inherited position within the ruling Awami League Party. After the collapse, under public pressure, Rana became a pariah, but before that he enjoyed great privileges that bordered on illegality. In the fort’s case, there’s no proof that there are any quid pro quos, but it is telling that, without any public consultation whatsoever, the government began rolling over the people’s grounds, paving over not-quite-paradise, to put up a parking lot.