Traffic in the capital's northern part was brought to its knees throughout yesterday by a faction of the Tabligh Jamaat, as it blocked the busy Airport Road protesting the arrival of the religious group's top scholar from India to attend Biswa Ijtema.
Followers of the faction, mostly belonging to radical Islamist group Hefajat-e Islam, sat on the road and chanted slogans against Maulana Saad Kandhalvi for what they claimed were his "controversial comments about the Koran and Sunnah."
Thousands of city dwellers, especially officer-goers, students and commuters suffered badly as they remained stranded on the road for hours.
Most of the domestic and international flights were delayed, as captains, crew members and passengers all got stuck in the traffic chaos, airlines officials said.
People on their hundreds were seen walking for miles to reach their destinations.
Many sufferers came down heavily on the government and the police for allowing the demonstrators to occupy such a vital road for so many hours.
The protest was organised by the Bangladesh Qawmi Madrasa Education Board and Hefajat-e Islam on instructions of Shah Ahmed Shafi, chief of Hefajat and the Qawmi Madrasa Education Board, demonstrators said.
The demonstrators were mainly Qawmi madrasa students and teachers who could not say exactly what Maulana Saad said to bring them to the streets.
It began around 9:00am when the demonstrators took position on the road in front of the airport. Soon, the tailback on the busy thoroughfare extended up to Banani in the south and Tongi in the north as more of their men joined the protest.
A large group of them blocked the entrance to the VIP terminal, hearing that Saad arrived at the airport around 12:00pm. They were seen checking vehicles in efforts to prevent Saad's departure from the airport.
In the process, most of those who came from abroad suffered. Rehana is one of them. She landed from Dubai at 12:30pm but was stranded inside for over three hours.
Her husband hired a car to go to their village home in Faridpur. But he had to abandon the car as it did not move an inch in more than half an hour. Later, the couple was seen waiting with several luggage on the footpath near the airport roundabout.
Aminur Islam and five other youths from Naogaon arrived at Mohakhali Bus Terminal around 9:00am to catch a flight to Saudi Arabia. Sensing trouble on the road, they started for the airport around 1:15pm although their flight was to depart at 11:00pm.
“After coming to Banani, our bus got stuck. We had to walk the whole way,” Aminur told The Daily Star at 4:30pm near the airport.
After spending several hours on the road, Arifa Monjoor picked up her two kids form The Aga Khan School in Uttara around 3:00pm. At 9:00pm, she was still on way to her Gulshan home.
Biman Bangladesh Airlines General Manager (public relations) Shakil Meraj said almost all domestic and international flights scheduled to fly between 10:00am to 8:00pm were affected.
“The flights were delayed for 30 minutes to one hour,” he told The Daily Star last night.
On average, 130 international and domestic flights, both outgoing and inbound, operate through the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport daily, sources said.
At 9:50pm, Shahriar, who works in Farmgate, wrote on his Facebook, "Already five hours since I left office. Still don't know when I would reach home [Uttara]."
Vehicles started moving after the agitators left the road at 4:30pm. But the congestions that spilled over to different roads remained till 10:00pm.
Before leaving the street, Mufti Mahfuzul Haque, principal of Jamia Rahmania Qawmi Madrasa in the city's Mohammadpur, said they would block the Kakrail mosque, so that Maulana Saad, who was staying at the mosque, could not come out.
Kakrail mosque is considered the headquarters of the Bangladesh chapter of Tabligh Jamaat.
"We told the government to send him back to India. We will allow Maulana Saad to come out of the mosque only if he wants to go back," said Mahfuzul, joint secretary general of Hefajat-run Qawmi Madrasa Education Board.
Maulana Afsar Ali, vice-president of the same education board and the second man in Hefajat after Maulana Shafi, and Maulana Abdul Quddus, secretary general of the board, were among other top Hefajat leaders present during the protest.
Speaking at the protest, Quddus said they spoke with the home minister so that Maulana Saad cannot enter the country and yet he did.
“He gave some wrong explanations of the Koran. He has to apologise for that. Only then will we receive him with open arms,” he told the protest programme.
He, however, did not say what exactly Maulana Saad said to draw their ire.
The chief Mufti of Hathazari Qawmi Madrasa Mufti Kefayetullah attended the protest as the representative of Shafi.
After Mufti Mahfuzul's announcement of blocking Kakrail mosque, authorities beefed up security around the mosque by deploying some 40 police personnel.
"Police were deployed to avert any untoward incidents due to the prevailing tension," said Maruf Hossain Sorder, deputy commissioner (Ramna Division) of Dhaka Metropolitan Police, who was at the Kakrail Mosque at 10:45pm.
Police were seen allowing people to enter the mosque only after verification.
The Daily Star tried to contact Syed Wasif Islam, a key leader of Tabligh Jamaat, but he did not pick up the phone. Authorities in the Kakrail mosque would not make any comment either.
The Ijtema begins on Saturday on the bank of Tugar in Tongi.
A rift in the Bangladesh chapter's Tabligh leadership surfaced after the Hefajat-backed section raised voice against some of Saad's statements and demanded cancellation of his Bangladesh visit last year.
His statements caused uproar on several occasions and division in the leadership of the Nizamuddin Markaz of Delhi, considered the international headquarters of Tabligh Jamaat.
The anti-Saad group took a tough stance against his joining this year's Ijtema and the 11-member Shura council got divided over the issue. They sat for several meetings with the home minister to resolve the issue. Saad arrived in the middle of all this, sources in Tabligh Jamaat said.
Tabligh Jamaat, known as a non-political global religious movement, came into being in 1927 in India. According to some estimates, it has 70 to 80 million followers in more than 150 countries, majority of them in South Asia.
Its largest chapter is in Bangladesh with an estimated 15 million members. They travel in small groups from one place to another, stay in mosques and invite people to perform daily religious duties.