The public hearing over the acquisition of century-old Birchandra Ganapathagar and Nagar Milonayton (the town hall) in Cumilla as a heritage property was scheduled to start at 11:30am yesterday.
For the last couple of months, activists and residents have been protesting a move to demolish the historic town hall to construct a "new and modern establishment" there. And yesterday, people of the town were supposed to gather there and express their opinions regarding the matter.
However, since 9am, supporters of Cumilla-6 lawmaker AKM Bahauddin Bahar started to throng the town hall premises in droves in support of the lawmaker and demolition of the historic establishment.
Bahar is an adviser to the town hall committee and one of the initiators of the move to construct a "new and modern" town hall that includes auditorium, multi-storey building, VIP lounge, car parking and other facilities.
By the time it was 11am, supporters of the lawmaker, holding banners and shouting slogans, had pretty much occupied the premises, leaving little to no room for others, alleged locals.
The roads to Kandirpaar area, where this centre for educational, cultural, intellectual and socio-political activities in Cumilla city stands tall on a sprawling 3.4 acres of land, were either blocked by law enforcers or supporters of the lawmaker.
The hearing lasted for about two hours.
Amid the commotion, the lawmaker took the stage to give the concluding speech.
"The construction of town hall building started in 1933 and completed in 1935. It was constructed with the donation of Cumilla's people. So, the development of the town hall will also be decided by the people of Cumilla," he said.
He then spoke in favour of demolishing the town hall and constructing a "modern" one. "Those who do not want a new town hall are against development," he added.
Needless to say, the audience hailed his decision.
The hearing was presided over by Md Abdul Mannan Ilyus, additional secretary to the cultural affairs ministry. Hannan Mia, director general of the archaeology department, Abul Fazal Mir, deputy commissioner of Cumilla, and other government officials were also present at the event.
The lawmaker could not be contacted for comments despite repeated attempts.
'NEW, MODERN TOWN HALL'
The decision to demolish the town hall to make way for a "new and modern" one was taken following the request of the Cumilla-6 lawmaker, according to officials of the district administration.
Mentionable, there is also a four-storey market on the property, which is owned by him.
The Public Works Department (PWD) has already drafted a design proposal for the new establishment. PWD sent the proposal to the Ministry of Cultural Affairs for approval. As the place has cultural and historical significance, it needs approval from the ministry in this regard, said officials concerned.
The lawmaker earlier sent a letter to the ministry and in response, the ministry asked PWD to draft a design proposal for the new establishment.
On September 2, Bahar held a views-exchange meeting at the DC's office on design proposal and demolishing the structure, confirmed DC Abul Fazal Mir.
This plan to "modernise" the town hall meanwhile has been met with staunch criticism from cultural activists, civil society members and locals.
Dr Ataur Rahman, regional director of Chattogram and Sylhet divisions of the Department of Archeology, said Cumilla Town Hall is a heritage site and must be protected.
Reserved seat lawmaker Anjum Sultana Sima, a resident of Cumilla, alleged that the lawmaker is trying to demolish the town hall for business purposes.
"It should be renovated not demolished. Why do we need a public hearing for acquisition of the town hall as a heritage property? It was just for a show," she added.
This correspondent also spoke to city planners and archaeologists who said the structure must be preserved and maintained properly instead of being demolished.
Freedom fighter and eminent cultural personality Nasiruddin Yousuff echoed the same. "Only the followers of the lawmakers spoke at the hearing. We also wrote to the additional secretary of the cultural ministry to cancel it," he added.
Asked, Hannan Mia, director general of the archeology department, said, "The cultural affairs ministry will take the decision about Cumilla Town Hall keeping in mind the public interest."
Meanwhile, Tarikur Rahman Jewel, general secretary of Cumilla Sadar upazila unit of Awami league, said, "We demand a modern and beautiful town hall building and our MP (Bahar) is going to accomplish that."
A WITNESS TO HISTORY
For over a hundred years, Birchandra Ganapathagar (public library) has been a centre for educational, cultural, intellectual and socio-political activities in Cumilla city.
It was constructed by then Tripura King Birchandra Manikka Bahadur. A library and a two-storey auditorium were also built on the premises.
A witness to some of the most important events in our history such as the Language Movement and Liberation War, this town hall has been graced by the presence of distinguished individuals including Rabindranath Tagore, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Mahatma Gandhi, Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das, Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Sher-e-Bangla AK Fazlul Haque and Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, among others.
Cumilla Theosophical Society, Cumilla Club and Ministerial Officers' Club were also established on the Town Hall premises -- in 1889, 1917 and 1920 respectively.