The photo is quite shocking. The cache of arms and ammunition seized from a convoy of a lawmaker's supporters is good enough to fight a small battle. Interestingly, all these firearms were found to be licensed. The question that springs to mind is why supporters of a political leader need so many arms in a little district like Feni?
Think of Feni of the late 1990s. One name will spring to mind: Joynal Hazari. Back then, the name would strike terror into anyone.
After the Awami League took office in 1996, the then Feni-2 AL lawmaker became the district's “emperor,” taking everything under his control with the help of his henchmen. Murder, violence, extortion and tender manipulation became a commonplace. In Joynal Hazari's Feni, at least 120 AL and BNP men were killed between 1996 and 2001.
Things started to change for the better ahead of the 2001 polls. Joynal Hazari fled to India on August 17 in the face of an anti-crime drive by the caretaker government. He returned home only after the election, which his party lost to BNP. The polls defeat brought his downfall.
Fifteen years have passed since then, but people in Feni still live in fear because even as one Hazari fell, another rose. This new Hazari who has allegedly wrested control of the district's crime world is Nizam Hazari, Feni-2 MP and also general secretary of the district AL.
On June 6, the Feni people once again heard the rattling of firearms like that in the late 90s. The recovery of 15 arms by Rab from three vehicles carrying ruling AL men at Lalpur of Feni offered only a glimpse of the situation in the district where, locals say, nothing happens without Nizam's consent.
All the 26 arrested from the cars are said to be Nizam Hazari's men.
Nizam was once Joynal's close cohort. Before that he was involved with Chittagong Chhatra League, the ruling AL's student body, and thrived as a cadre of AJM Nasir Uddin, now Chittagong mayor, controlling Agrabad area in 1991-1992. After returning to Feni in 1997, he joined Joynal Hazari's group.
Then in 2000, Nizam landed in jail in an arms case but came out of prison in 2005 securing High Court bail by submitting fake documents. Subsequently, he joined politics in 2008 and became mayor of Feni municipality two years later.
He has been at the centre of controversy since last year's brutal murder of Feni's Phulgazi upazila chairman Ekramul Haque. All the accused in the murder are close associates of Nizam and there are allegations that the lawmaker had a hand in it, which he denies.
THE RETURN OF FEAR
When Nizam Hazari entered politics in Feni in 2008, he took a stance against Joynal Hazari, his former boss, to draw public support. It worked because people were looking for a break from killing and violence. But soon, he set his eyes on the so-called “steering committee members” through whom Joynal Hazari once ran the show. Today, most of them are with Nizam, allegedly extorting money from the transport sector and controlling the district's tender and sand business worth crores of taka.
The Daily Star recently spoke to about 50 people in Feni -- locals, businessmen, politicians, law enforcers, administration officials and journalists -- to get an idea of the workings of Nizam and his gang. Few dare to be quoted for fear of reprisal, but almost all of them said Nizam started to follow in the footsteps of Joynal after becoming the Feni municipal mayor in 2010. And after winning the January 5 elections unopposed, he made the district his “own property”.
“Nizam has become all in all in Feni and he controls everything,” Abdur Rahman, Feni district AL president, told this correspondent.
Asked about the difference between the Joynal Hazari and Nizam Hazari era, he said, “At least some difference of opinions was allowed within the party [AL] when Joynal Hazari was there, but now no one dares to challenge Nizam.”
But why so much fear? A local journalist who spoke on condition of anonymity said, "When Ekramul Haque came under attack, Eakram's men were in his car with arms. Still, they could not save him. Now how come you expect people to speak against Nizam?”
During a June 10-12 visit to the district, this correspondent found scarcely any billboard, electric pole or establishment that did not carry posters or banners showing portraits of Nizam Hazari, in a sign of his authority.
Municipal officials alleged the district BCL grabbed most of the billboards without permission from the municipality ahead of its conference held in May.
"Felicitations to Nizam Uddin Hazari for electing Salah Uddin Feroz and Javed Haider George Chhatra League president and general secretary of Feni district unit," read one thankyou message on numerous billboards and electric poles.
According to the BCL constitution, its office bearers must be elected through its council and a lawmaker has nothing to do with it.
Interestingly, the billboards also had portraits of Alauddin Ahmed Nasim, who does not hold any party post now. Nasim is a former member of the AL central working committee and also former protocol officer of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Locals claim Nasim and an influential minister are Nizam's source of power.
When called for his comment on Thursday, Nasim's phone was found switched off. One of his brothers said he was in Canada.
ALL FOR POWER
Most incidents of violence and killing in the town take place over establishing supremacy, as independent lawmaker of Feni-3 Haji Rahimullah appears as a challenger to Nizam.
Police records show, the district saw 15 killings since January this year and most of them are political.
The June 2 murder of Jubo League leader Azizul Haque in Sonagazi and the recent recovery of 15 firearms by Rab are the outcome of the conflict between Nizam and Rahimullah, according to locals.
After becoming MP, Rahimullah, also president of Jeddah chapter AL, took control of tender bids in his constituency, making Nizam unhappy, they said.
Contacted, Rahimullah said killing, tender manipulation and extortion were Nizam's main business.
He alleged Nizam masterminded the killing of Phulgazi upazila chairman Ekramul. "Feni people live in terror due to his [Nizam's] extortion and tender manipulation. He has positioned his hired goons in different areas."
According to him, Nizam collects about Tk 1 crore in extortion daily.
"From vegetable vendors to jewellers, nobody is spared. He has turned Feni into his own property,” he told this newspaper by phone on Wednesday.
“I have informed the prime minister about all his misdeeds," he said, adding that Nizam and his men were not allowing him to discharge his duties or hold any meeting and was trying to control everything in his constituency as well.
However, unlike in many other districts, violence over extortion and tender manipulation is rare in Feni. It is partly because of Nizam Hazari's firm control over everything and partly because he has distributed the jobs of extortion from transport sector, tender manipulation and sand business among his followers. They include Jubo League leaders, AL leaders, BNP leaders and Jamaat men.
In exchange, the lawmaker allegedly gets 10 to 15 percent of the collection.
The Daily Star has obtained their names and party posts but is withholding the names, as it could not contact them for their comments.
A day after Rab arrested 26 people with 15 arms, Nizam Hazari denied that they were his men. But sources said the lawmaker rushed to Lalpur and tried to free them all after the news spread.
Most of the arms are licensed under names of Jubo League leaders, but at the time of the recovery they were not being carried by their owners, Rab officials said.
Locals and politicians there believe the arms recovery was a result of the conflict between Rahimullah and Nizam.
They claimed Rab also nabbed district Jubo League Convener Didarul Kabir Raton and unit Joint Conveners Swapan Miyazi and Sushen Shil from the spot, but Nizam managed to have them released. Later, Nizam and some top district AL leaders went to the Rab office to secure the release of the others but failed.
Talking to The Daily Star, the lawmaker dismissed that people were living in fear.
"Feni is a quiet place now," he said.
He said Feni was rife with violence when Joynal Hazari was in town. "But now it is a place of coexistence. There is no violence here.”
He would not comment on the allegation that he controls tender, sand business and extortion in the district and that he gets a share of the money.
Pressed, he said, "You will have to first identify those who made the allegation.”
Asked about the arrest of his men with arms, he said, “They are not my men. Rather, they are Bangabandhu and Sheikh Hasina's men. As a representative of Sheikh Hasina, I went to the spot to have them freed. But they are not my men."