Panchayat has a long history in this region. It is essentially a type or system of local governance. But it could not quite stand the test of time.
One of the remaining legacies is the Kaltabazar Panchayat, which has a history of 150 years; and the panchayat area consists of Haji Abdul Majid Lane, Nasir Uddin Sardar Lane, Kazi Abdur Rauf Road, Kunjbabu Lane, Rokonpur first and third lanes.
Md Shah Alam, a sincere treasurer of Kaltabazar Panchayat, has carefully kept documents and pictures of the panchayat's bygone years. From his collection, two things stand out: a 111-year-old picture of Haji Abdul Majid Sardar taken in 1911.
"Majid Sardar was the first Sardar of the Kaltabazar panchayat," said Alam.
And a copy of "Banglar Roop" newspaper from 1935 priced at 1 paisa.
The Sardars, the Kaltabazar Panchayat of the past and a newspaper copy
Haji Abdul Majid Sardar and Nasiruddin Sardar are in-laws.
Mannaf Sardar, son of Majid Sardar, was a friend of Bhawal Raja (also known as Bhawal Sannyasi).
Once, Sannyasi left his kingdom and, for a long time, travelled. When he later returned, he was unrecognisable. He had a long beard and his face was clad in gerua (orangish colour).
Several years had passed by then. The government sat down to deposit his kingdom to the state treasury, so the monk had to prove in court that he was the king of Bhawal and that the palace was his own. Mannaf Sardar then testified in court on behalf of the monk.
The details of the testimony of Mannaf Sardar were published in the then Banglar Roop in 1935, and now a copy remains in Alam's possession.
"Majid Sardar's son Mannaf Sardar (alias Abdul Mannan Bepari) was married to the daughter of Nasiruddin Sardar," said Shah Alam.
He further added, "Mannaf Sardar himself went to Calcutta and named two roads in the Kaltabazar-Rokonpur area after his father and father-in-law. Another Sardar of Kaltabazar Panchayat, Siddik Sardar, died in Medina when he went to perform Hajj in 1958.
Born in 1880, he was the first man in Kaltabazar to pass the 'entrance examination' in 1897. He was so fluent in English that Lord Curzon would sometimes call him for advice.
Nasiruddin Sardar, son of Siddik Sardar, was not a turban-wearing Sardar. But the people of the area considered him one anyway. He died in 2001."
Haji Abdul Majid was known as Majid Ostagar, who was in the business of construction. He was involved in the construction of many of the ancient buildings of Dhaka, including the Curzon Hall.
Ghulam Rahman Sardar and he donated the site of Tikatuli cemetery to bury the residents of the panchayat. Majid died in 1938, leaving behind two sons and a daughter. His eldest son Mannaf Sardar, a leading contractor at that time, was the elected Commissioner of Dhaka Municipality four times.
Based on Mannaf Sardar's testimony, it was proved that Bhawal Raja Sannyasi Kumar was, in fact, alive.
Panchayat through the times
The panchayat system existed even in the 1950s to some extent. However, its existence crumbled after the country's independence.
Kajeer Ahmed Sohag (born 1986), a member of Khaje Dewan First Lane Panchayat, said that the panchayat system was an effective one because, back in the day, communication was abysmal. The court could not be reached fast enough by foot and police action was invariably delayed in many places.
After Bangladesh's liberation, times changed and everything started to become politicised. Social organisations no longer had the opportunity to be effective and our old values did not survive once communication technologies began to advance.
One thing to note is that the panchayat system catered to the locals i.e. original Dhakaites. Outsiders could not be members of the panchayat. Now outsiders outnumber the local ones in every mahalla (area).
Goni Sardar was the first Sardar (chieftain) of the Khaje Dewar Moholla Panchayat. A road and a community centre are named after Goni Sardar.
There is a permanent Panchayat building, the place was donated by a person named Tara Bibi. The area was previously a hut and in 1960, it was modernised into a building. Now it is adorned with modern tiles.
However, the panchayat no longer has the same role in our society as it did before.
Nowadays in the panchayat building, vaccination programmes, birthdays and death anniversaries of political personalities are held. It has a limited judiciary ability. There is no cemetery.
But the elderly still have a place in the panchayat. They are usually seated in the royak (a sitting bench) outside the Khaje Dewan Panchayat. The elderly, aged above 50, often sit and gossip in a mixture of Bangla and Urdu languages.
Kaltabazar has retained the tradition
A small house built below Al Moin Madrasa belongs to Kaltabazar Panchayat. The construction of the building began in 1990. But it was in 2001 when the work of the Panchayat resumed again. A community centre was also built inside the building.
Until a few years ago, marriage ceremonies, circumcision ceremonies, etc, were organised here for a charge of Tk3,000, which spiked to the current Tk5,500 price.
Shah Alam said, "Before, the programmes used to end at midnight, now the programmes go on all night. Compared to others, the rent is one-seventh only. Panchayats always work for the welfare of the people."
Kaltabazar Panchayat has two cemeteries and one panchayat house. The panchayat also runs three mosques and the Al Moin Madrasa. The panchayat office has three staff members and earns an income from renting out space to shops, membership and grants (donations). The Panchayat has regular health, education and poverty alleviation activities.
"We also arrange marriages for poor members. We provide medicine to about 50 people every week. In 2001, we provided 260 families with food for the entire month of Ramadan. Since then we have continued to give it every year.
The number is also increasing every year. This year, approximately 1,200 people [during Ramadan] were fed at a cost of about Tk60 lakh. Our annual income from fixed assets is Tk2 lakh. But some of our donors also help," said Shah Alam.
"We want to keep the Panchayat completely apolitical. We want it to be a place that everyone will love. We have been doing this since 2001. We present our income and expenditure accounts in front of everyone.
I published such a booklet in 2008, where I gave an account of the income and expenditure of the past years," explained Alam.
Are trials held here? "Yes. Many do not want to litigate in the courts. Generally, judgments about lands are passed here. Some divorces have been tried. Ordinary quarrels are also settled," replied Alam.
What is the course of action if someone disobeys your decision?
"There is no longer scope to take any major punitive action. But one action we can take is revoking or suspending someone's right to the cemetery. Usually, no one disobeys the verdict. About 7,000 people live in this Panchayat. Usually, locals can be members of the Panchayat," said Alam.
The organisational structure includes the President, General Secretary, Treasurer and Members – a committee of 11 members.
Is there an active panchayat in Dhaka now? "After seeing us [Kaltabazar panchayat], the Panchayat has become active in some other quarters. There are likely a few panchayats in Malitola, Bansal, Khaje Dewan and on the other side of the river," said Alam.
What do you think the future holds? "Time is changing fast. Now there are many options. If you do not like it here, you can go somewhere else; if you don't like this job, you can do another job. There is only one substantial setback in all this – societal bonds are loosening. If people are good with it, then why do we keep it tied?"