The don of Khulna

The surrender of a professional murderer is bad news for several Bangladeshi police officers and politicians.

He has possibly killed more people than any other pro fessional criminal in Bangladesh. Before he surrendered in August 1999, Ershad Shikder is said to have done away with around 50 people during his 15-year career in crime. Those murders came while he practically ran Bangladesh´s second largest port-own, Khulna, operating everything from ice factories to fishing trawlers, flesh trade to drugs, all the while extorting money from the town´s businessmen as protection fees.

For the cops, the arrest of Shikder was the easy part, slapping charges not so. The fact that Shikder had been a member of all political parties that ruled Bangladesh, complicated matters more. Worse, his friends in the police department were so many that over two dozen police officers went into hiding following his arrest.

Buy or bump
Shikder was born into crime. His father died in prison and grandfather spent time in jail as a robber. His own initiation into crime began 15 years ago when he came to work as a day labourer at the docks, where he soon formed the "Ershad Bahini", a ruthless gang of hired hands that excelled in murder and extortion.

Shikder´s motto was brutally simple: buy off people, and if they refused, bump them off. And as his reputation grew, he caught the attention of political quarters. It was former president Gen H.M. Ershad who gave Shikder his break into politics by bringing him into the newly formed Jatiyo Party, catapulting the common criminal into the world of big access and big money.

Shikder soon proved his mettle in the big league too by grabbing acre? of railway land, on which was built two multi-storeyed markets, named after the children of Gen Ershad —Shaad and Moni (they have since been demolished as illegal constructions). This was sleaze at full speed, but the general seemed to have had no problem with it. This connection of Shikder´s also sent out a message to all concerned. He had become ´untouchable´; the police his friend.

After Ershad´s fall, he lay low for a while, and emerged later to join the BNP (Bangladesh Nationalis Party), which had come to power And when the Awami League won the elections in 1996, he promptly entered the ruling party.

It may never be known how many people Shikder actually killed, for he was careful not to leave behind any trail. He is reported to have finished off many of his close aides who would have been witness to most of the murders. His ruthlessness is perhaps best exemplified in the murder of his nephew Jehangir, one of his close lieutenants. Having heard that Jehangir had been boasting that his uncle was worth at least BDT 1 billion (USD 20 million dollars), Shikder realised he was not reliable. It is said that Jehangir was asked to withdraw almost a billion Saka from the bank, and when he ´eached Shikder with the money, his uncle killed him.

It was then let out that Jehangir had slipped away with a huge amount of money to India, and Shikder pretended to be the gracious uncle, who had forgiven an errant nephew who had fled with the loot. Till eye witnesses came forward after his arrest, nobody, not even the immediate family, suspected Shikder.

The ice factory that he owned next to the dock, was Shikder´s centre of operations. He had also taken over two temples and a derelict building to run torture centres and execution chambers. He killed by strangling or choking or knifing or shooting or plain beating, or all of thme at one go, as he is said to have one a number of times. And to leave no trace of the murders, he would have the bodies dipped in cement and dumped into the nearby river. There were some, however, who got away, like Abdus Salam, who ran away from Khulna 14 years ago, and dared return only after Shikder surrendered. Salam now wants the law to do what he says Shikder did to him many years ago —his hands were chopped off at the wrists. There are scores like Salam who have been crippled by Shikder, and hundreds gathered after Shikder´s arrest claiming to be relatives of his victims.

Femme fatale
Women played a major role in Shikder´s life (and ultimately, one of them contributed to his fall). Nobody is quite sure how many times Shikder was married. His first wife Khodeja is still in hiding with her children, and is supposed to know a lot of secrets, as she was actively involved in his business. While living with Shikder, she planned elopements and in the two attempts she made, she was caught. It was only when her lovers came face to face with the husband that they realised whose wife they were planning to run away with. Of course, by then, it was too late to contemplate on the perils of romance. They were killed, although for some reason Shikder spared his wife.

Whenever he needed a woman, he got one, and it mattered little if the women were already married or about to be, or even the wife of one his aides. Just nobody dared to stop him. This went on till he saw and fell for Shova, his last wife and at that time the wife of an Awami League (AL) leader of Khulna. "He promised me one crore [10 million] taka if I married him," Shova was to later say. Whether the payment was made or not, she left her husband and duly married Shikder.

When Shikder was asked if he had committed any mistake in his criminal life, he is reported to have despondently replied, "Shova". For, marrying her started a chain of events that broke his safety chain.

Shikder had been working out a deal with a junior minister from the area, which involved the dismissal of the many charges against him, and his surrender in one particular case for which he would be granted bail.

But that was not to be. Monzer Ali Chand, Shova´s ex-husband, managed to mobilise a faction of the Khulna Awami League that was against the said minister. By that time, Shikder´s reputation was becoming increasingly embarrassing to the AL, and having received sup¬port from the higher levels, Chand started a campaign to have Shikder expelled from the party. Meanwhile, the Commissioner of Police of Khulna, Anwarul Iqbal, one honest cop, who had been hounding Shikder without success for long, also went for the kill with the crucial support of the Home Minister, Mohammed Nasim.

Shikder probably did not know of the seriousness of the situation, and of the pressure on both the police and the administration, local and national. When he surrendered, he would have thought that he would soon be free. After all, this was not the first time he was on the run. When the JP fell from power in 1991, he had hidden for five months, and later re-surfaced confidently.

Facing the music

If there was one man who will sink him for real, it will be Nurul Alam, his bodyguard-in-chief. Alam had witnessed most of the killings by Shikder, and realising that he was likely to be silenced, he went into hiding. Surprisingly, Shikder did not look hard enough for him, probably confident that no one who knew his track record as well as Alam did, would dare depose against him.

Alam was arrested soon after Shikder was taken into custody and, to the surprise of everyone, sang like a bird. He told the police that he could provide evidence on the 20 murders that he had personally witnessed. The story then leaked to the press, and the media, perhaps tired of reporting on politics, turned to Shikder´s exploits in a big way and made a splash of it.

Bangladesh Television came up with a special on Shikder and beamed it nationally. Bones, limbs, skeletons, cement blocks, clothes and even a car, all dredged from the river by divers, were kept in a grisly long row for all to see. There was also a deluge of accomplices hoping to get state mercy, who gave eyewitness accounts of the crimes that Shikder had committed. Shikder, his victims, their families, his house, area of operations, his wife Shova (who kept smiling all through the programme for some mysterious reason), brought the criminal and the crimes vividly home to millions. Home Minister Nasim, leading a rather tough drive to root out crime, something which has drawn criticism from human rights groups, was there, too, promising to do his best. His statement was simple: "We will not let Ershad get away."

The police factor

What´s going to ruffle feathers is the fact that Shikder was in league with the police, the politicians and also a section of the media. He is reported to have said that he couldn´t save any money, because he had to pay off practically everyone.

When the police raided Shikder´s house, "Swaranakamol" (Golden Lotus) —among the many he owned — all they could find were a few hand guns, an automatic pistol (for which a licence can´t be issued) and an empty secret larder. This sparse discovery may mean that Ershad was preparing to surrender, or, as likely, that his friends in the police force tipped him off before the raid.

It is alleged that Shikder had managed to manipulate eight of the 11 police commissioners who were in charge of Khulna town during his period of action. It is the acts of senior police officers, who have been named in a separate departmental enquiry dealing with the Police-Shikder connection, that are cause for particular concern. Shikder has provided real evidence about the pay-offs, and what was done with the money, leading to investigations that have vindicated his claims.

The focus is also on one particular area in Dhaka called the "Policemen´s Neighbourhood", so called because of the number of policemen who have built houses, many of whom had worked in the Khulna zone. But in their defence the cops from there say that Shikder is naming people to garble the investigation, and that it is nothing more than a conspiracy hatched by a section of the police force trying to get even with another. In all this, there is one mysterious figure whom everyone is talking about —the "Godfather"—whom even Shikder fears to name, and will only privately whisper it to the police. Intriguing drama this.

At an absurd level, perhaps all that Shikder can do now is to claim a share of the ´Shikder tourism industry´, as plenty of people flock from all over to see his house, his haunts, the ice factory, etc. Booklets on him have been sold in the millions. Plans are now on to make a film on him.

As for the case itself, a special tribunal has been set up just to try him. It´s clear that the government will present the trial as a showcase of its efforts to curb crime. But so far, the trial has not even begun to move and the special tribunal is yet to find a judge. A few witnesses were beaten up recently, and the public are slightly jaded by the media overkill. But even as reporting on charge sheets goes on every day, there is a growing feeling that there are many Shikders out there —in another neighbourhood, another town —operating in gay abandon. Shikder simply happens to be the hatchet man from Khulna who surrendered.

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