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Urban Study Group threatens legal battle over demolition of century-old Jahaj Bari

  • Published at 02:04 am June 21st, 2019
Jahaj Bari-Mahmud Hossain Opu-Dhaka Tribune
‘Jahaj Bari’ in Old Dhaka’s Chawkbazar before a part of it was demolished on the night of last Eid-ul-Fitr Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

Building owners dispute its origin, claim it was built on private property

The owners of Jahaj Bari—  a century-old building in the Chawkbazar area of Old Dhaka—demolished the structure on Eid night, violating a High Court order; according to Urban Study Group (USG), an organization working to protect Dhaka’s architectural heritage.

However, the owners of the building claim it was built on private property in the 1940s, and they were fully within their rights to demolish it.

In a directive issued on August 13 last year, the High Court ordered Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha (Rajuk) and the Department of Archaeology to preserve 2,200 buildings—including Jahaj Bari—to protect Dhaka’s architectural heritage. 

The list of 2,200 buildings, which was prepared by USG, split the buildings into three categories. Efforts should be made to preserve the near entirety of grade 1 buildings, significant parts of the interior and the façade should be preserved for grade 2 buildings, while only the historical façade needs to be preserved for grade 3 buildings. Jahaj Bari was a grade 1 building, as per the USG list.

USG also claims that the land on which Jahaj Bari was built is a Waqf estate, and permission was not taken from the Waqf Administration before its demolition.

USG Chief Executive Taimur Islam said he would send a legal notice to the person concerned over the matter, and file a lawsuit if action is not taken.

However, Chawkbazar police say they have received papers which show that the property was bought by Awami League lawmaker Haji Mohammad Selim in 2015.

Claims and counter-claims

According to USG, the two-storey Jahaj Bari was built in the late 19th century and is likely the oldest trading house in the country. The organization also claims that it was built on Waqf Board property.

However, Chawkbazar police station Officer-in-Charge (OC) Shamim Or Rashid Talukdar said Awami League lawmaker Haji Selim had submitted papers showing that he had bought the property in 2015.

“Awami League lawmaker was present during the demolition on Eid night. He informed us that he bought the two-storey building, and has also submitted property papers which show that it was bought in 2015,” the OC said. 

He added that a city survey named the owner of the building and did not list it as belonging to the Waqf Board.

“If the land belonged to the Waqf Board, they need to clarify how it ended up being listed as private property,” the OC said. 

Haji Selim could not be reached for comment. His Personal Assistant Sohel Ahmed said the lawmaker was out of the country, and directed the correspondent to speak with Mirja Mohammed Nehal.

When contacted, Nehal said he was a childhood friend of Haji Selim and is looking after the Jahaj Bari matter for him.

He added that Haji Selim is the owner of the building, and the owner can do whatever he wishes with private property.

Nehal also denied receiving a High Court order preventing the demolition of the building, and questioned how USG Chief Executive Taimur Islam could list a private building as a heritage site.

“There was no building on the property in 1900. The previous owners of this land are recorded as Moniruddin Bepari and Motijan Bepari. Motijan Bepari built Jahaj Bari in 1945. They handed over the building to their grandson Badrul Haque, and Badrul Haque to his son Abu Babu. Haji Selim bought the building from Abu Babu a couple of years ago,” Nehal said.

“We have legal papers for this private property, and have paid tax as well. All the documents have been submitted to the Chawkbazar police station,” he added, questioning how private property that was passed down through members of a family could be a Waqf estate.

Waqf Board Administrator Shahidul Islam could not be reached for comment by phone.

Building caretaker missing, locals uncomfortable

Despite significant efforts, Haji Abdul Haque, the caretaker of the building appointed by the Waqf Board, could not be reached for comment. Phone calls were left unanswered, while attendants at his shop and house said he was away, during multiple visits.

When visiting the property on which Jahaj Bari had been built, locals said they were uncomfortable discussing the issue as the person who demolished the house is a local lawmaker. 

Mohammad Imran, owner of a shop adjacent to the property, said he had heard that the building had been listed as a heritage site and the High Court had issued an order preventing its demolition.

“However, when I returned after Eid, I found that the building had already been demolished,” he added.

Another local, asking to remain anonymous, said Jahaj Bari had been demolished in order to construct a multi-storey building.

“No one here has the courage to speak against the local lawmaker. Jahaj Bari was allegedly demolished to make a high-rise building, but how can it be demolished if the land belongs to the Waqf Board?,” he questioned.

Earlier, part of Jahaj Bari was demolished before the USG put a stop to the demolition by filing a general diary with Chawkbazar police station on March 29. Almost half of the second floor extension had been destroyed before police intervened. The demolition was completed on Eid night.