BNP supporters in the capital's Badda are faced with somewhat a new way of blackmailing by activists of a front organisation of the Awami League. They were given two choices by Swechchhasebak League, the volunteers wing of the ruling AL: they could either pay for the observance of National Mourning Day on August 15 or face charges of conspiracy against the government and end up behind bars.
This is the choice Zainal, general secretary of Badda thana unit Swechchhasebak League, gave BNP loyalists for extorting money from them, alleged a trader of the area. He claimed Zainal demanded money from many like him in the name of arranging programmes on the mourning day.
Zainal is a listed criminal with a number of extortion and land-grabbing cases against him with Badda Police Station, said M A Jalil, officer-in-charge of the police station.
The OC, confirming Zainal's affiliation with the Swechchhasebak League, however said he had not yet received any complaints of Zainal's extortion for the observance of the day.
Though August 15 is a mourning day, for some AL men the day has become an occasion for celebration and a chance to make money out of the programmes.
"Some men of Ward-26 unit of the Jubo League (AL's youth front) came to my shop and demanded Tk 1,000 for observing the mourning day," a man, who runs a shop of barrels at Karwan Bazar kitchen market, told The Daily Star yesterday.
Anwar Hossain Ripon, vice president of Dhaka city (north) Chhatra League, collected between Tk 300 and Tk 2,000 from around 25 shops on the footpaths of Karwan Bazar, said another shopkeeper, wishing anonymity.
Businesses around Jagannath University (JnU) in Old Dhaka also are experiencing the menacing extortion.
According to sources, the name of Shariful Islam, president of JnU BCL, was being used to extort money from the bus and human haulier stand near the university.
Besides, shopkeepers at the markets adjacent to the university alleged the regular monthly "donations" that they are forced to pay to the JnU BCL leaders were raised this month for observance of the mourning day.
At a meeting at the BCL's central office on Bangabandhu Avenue on Monday, the JnU unit of the AL's student front sought permission to arrange a programme. The request was not granted by the central president and the general secretary, who feared this might lead to extortions, sources said.
Though it is not unusual to arrange programmes for any special day at the community level with voluntary contributions from the locals, this year the collection process took a different character.
Besides silent extortion from small businesses, the Dhaka city unit issued a letter signed by Disaster Management and Relief Minister Mofazzal Hossain Chowdhury Maya, also the general secretary of the unit, for distribution among different organisations and institutions, seeking sponsorship for decorating 27 road dividers of the city on the occasion of August 15.
Maya denied the allegations of extortion. "As the spokesperson of Dhaka City Awami League, I signed the letter and it has no relation with any type of extortion."
Like Maya, Swechchhasebak League President Mollah Abu Kawsar too rejected the claims of extortion by his party men.
Abul Bashar, president of Ramna thana AL, claimed none was forced to pay for the programmes and that they themselves would bear the cost for the observance of the day.
However, the BCL central body has apparently taken a tough stand against extortions for observance of August 15.
Following allegations of extortion, leaders of the Banani and Shahbagh units were summoned to the BCL central office and were asked to refrain from such behaviour, said Siddiqui Nazmul Alam, BCL general secretary.
Holding a programme at the ward level in the city costs around Tk 10 lakh, most of which is spent on food for the destitute. There are 49 thana, 103 ward and 17 union units under the city unit. All these units are likely to arrange programmes for national mourning day.
AL sources said there are some "parasitic organisations", which use the party's name to carry out such extortions. And it has become difficult for the party to contain them.
Interestingly, many banners, festoons and posters, which have popped up all over the city ahead of August 15, appear to promote party men who spent money on them, rather than mourning Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was assassinated with most of his family members in 1975.