It was my first visit to Bangladesh in 1990. I was excited because my parents were born in East Pakistan and had settled in India in 1947. I wondered if I would be able to take a day off and sneak out of Dhaka to visit the district, Barisal, they were from. But I had little time to reflect on such potential diversions during the barely 30-minute flight from Calcutta. It was actually nerve racking because of the assignment.
My job was to interview the deposed President of Bangladesh, H.M. Ershad. He was a military General, the former Army Chief who had usurped power and had become a dictator. But a few days back even he had to abdicate following mass pro-democracy agitations by the people with students in the forefront. Bangladesh had become independent in 1971 less than 20 years ago after a bloodbath. The volatile country had seen several coups and political assassinations. And I wondered what would have made a dictator to step down. Even more importantly, why interview a deposed and discredited dictator?
I instinctively realized how difficult it would be. The deposed President, assuming he was still playing golf and having a sun downer with friends, was under no obligation to meet a correspondent from India out of the blue, someone who he had never met. Having some idea of how office politics worked even in newsrooms, I wondered if this was foisted on me as a test that editors knew I would fail at. But there was nothing to do but think of ways of meeting the man. What could one possibly ask a deposed President, I wondered.
Indian media even then was indifferent to neighbouring countries and there was little coverage of Bangladesh here. There of course was no Internet. Information was sketchy and I had no contacts in Dhaka barring the Station Manager of Indian Airlines at Dhaka, who was earlier posted in my hometown of Ranchi.
The only information I could glean at Dhaka airport was that President Ershad had gone underground; and the Army was keeping its cards close to its chest. The day after was my deadline and the prospect of getting an interview looked bleak. I asked the cabbie, in the time honoured tradition of all foreign correspondents, where he thought Ershad could be in hiding. With a look of utter disgust he replied that he was sure the deposed President was in the cantonment, protected by the army.
After checking into the hotel, I asked for a taxi to take me around. They politely informed that no taxi was available since it was already past 6 pm. The city was still tense. Sporadic trouble and violence were being reported and I would be well advised to stay back in the hotel. That was not an option and walking out of the hotel, I discovered that both buses and the ubiquitous cycle rickshaws were on the road. I took a rickshaw and asked him to take me to the office of Ittefaq, the iconic Bengali daily which my father regularly received when he was alive.
Journalists, I guessed, would be able to help with the whereabouts of Ershad. But while hospitable, the Chief Reporter and other reporters looked bemused. The situation was rather unstable, they declared and it was not advisable to look for Ershad. Come back after three months, if you want to see him, that is if he is still alive by then, they joked. They were more keen to discuss Indian politics. I managed to extricate myself after an hour and made my way to Dhanmondi, where the Awami League office was. It was crowded and the mood was electric. But no, they also had no clue about Ershad. They were also suspicious why an Indian journalist was trying to meet the deposed President. I beat a hasty retreat.
Back in the hotel, I had my dinner but was restless. It was past 10.30 pm and I had made no progress. I picked up the Telephone Directory and thought I could start calling foreign journalists posted in Dhaka and try my luck. But before that I discovered that the directory carried names and numbers of military officers ! In India such information was not published in directories but there the numbers were all there. The five or six calls I managed to make and connect evoked shock, disbelief and some rude advice but no light.
The next morning I had better luck and got a taxi arranged by the hotel. The morning newspapers had informed that students in Dhaka University would be celebrating the day as a ‘Bijoy Dibos’ or victory day. I am glad I chose to spend two hours at the university, soaking in the songs, dances and ‘Abir’ or dry coloured powder flying all over the place. But where was Ershad ?
When we finally left the university, I requested the driver to take me to the cantonment. Which gate, he asked. I had no clue and asked him to try the nearest one. We were turned away from the first gate. At the second gate, I recklessly told the sentry, ‘Colonel Jamal’. I had seen the name in the telephone directory the previous evening and thought I would try and see if I could meet him in person. To my surprise, the sentry gave a smart salute and waved us in.
We drove in and as I wondered what to do next, we took a turn at a T-point. I was shocked to see rows of tanks apparently ready to roll into the city. Each tank had men sitting on top and some chatting by the side. My heart racing, I got out of the cab and ran after the first officer I saw. He was shocked and advised me to get out of the cantonment pronto. “You are trespassing and if you get arrested, your High Commission wouldn’t even get to know of it,” he said coldly. I fervently assured that I would leave immediately but could he tell me the whereabouts of Ershad? He curtly said, “Ask Mamood” and turned his back.
Who is Mamood ? I asked the cabbie after we had driven out of the cantonment and I had time to recover from the panic that had set in. It was sheer madness, I had to admit to myself. But who is this Mamood ? The cabbie gave me a bewildered look and blurted out, “He is…err…was the Vice President”. How would an Indian journalist know the name of the Vice President of Bangladesh?
Would he know where Mamood lived, I asked. Of course he did. When we arrived at the bungalow, there were sentries all over the place and I was informed that Mamood was under house arrest. But if he agreed, he could meet me. There was nothing to do but send in a visiting card and wait. It was past 2 pm and I was reconciled that no interview was coming my way. After what seemed an eternity, a sentry came out with my card and asked me to follow him in.
Mamood, I later learnt, was a well-known Barrister and was married to the daughter of poet Jashimuddin. The couple received me cordially and asked if I had my lunch. They fed me and we chatted for some time before I asked if he could help me get an interview with Ershad. He said he had no idea where Ershad was but added, “ When Sir wants to ask or convey something, he would call from wherever he is.” No, such calls didn’t come every day and no, he had not received any call that day either.
Excited, I asked if I could wait and take a chance. The former VP was in a mood to chat and we whiled away discussing everything under the Sun. It was fascinating to find him recite poems, delve into literature, discuss politics and the Constitution. One or two other visitors were also coming in and he greeted them warmly. At times he would retreat into his study, a huge hall with book-lined walls and large photographs of him with world leaders. I remember one with the Reagans.
A little after 4 pm he dashed out of the study and excitedly called me. “Sir is on the line and he has agreed to speak to you.”
There was no time to collect my thoughts. My heart pumping wildly and my throat having dried up, I somehow greeted the fallen dictator and lied that Shekhar Gupta, then with India Today and later the editor-in-chief of Indian Express of course, had asked me to convey his greetings. Shekhar surely would have known Ershad, I guessed and took a chance. Ershad was pleasant but said it was not possible for him to meet me. A month or two later, he might, he said. But we did chat for 10 minutes or so and I furiously scribbled some key words.
When I went out of the study, I was drained and yet excited. For whatever it was worth, I had managed to speak to the bloke and he had said things that could pass by way of an interview. I was also in a hurry to leave but Mamood was in no hurry to let me go. He introduced me to a local reporter or chief reporter of an English daily newspaper with whom he was seated. He introduced us and both asked what Ershad had said.
‘Nothing’, I told them. They clearly did not believe me. Seeing their disbelieving looks, I reluctantly spun a tale and said that he had agreed to meet me after a few weeks, that he defended his record etc., carefully omitting to mention what he had actually said. I hated myself but I was not going to give up on a scoop.
When I took leave, Mamood requested me to drop the local journalist at the National Press Club. My mind was on the interview and I wanted to get it out of the way. I turned down the invitation to spend some time at the club and rushed back to the hotel to file my copy. By the time I received a confirmation, it was past 8 pm. I was elated and was about to inform the office that I would like to stay back for a few more days when Delhi asked me to get out by the first flight in the morning.
More violence was expected, they informed and the Army could again take over. The airport could shut down and I needed to get out fast.
The next few hours were spent in arranging a seat and my acquaintance with the IA Station Manager helped. He drove me to his residence for dinner and dropped me back. I packed and went to sleep.
Around 6.30 in the morning I was woken up by a phone call from the reception. There was a visitor for me. A visitor at that hour and in Dhaka, where I didn’t know anyone? The visitor came on the line and it turned out that he was the local journalist I had met the previous day. He had brought a copy of the newspaper which had carried my interview, he said, and came up to the room to deliver it.
‘Ershad speaks to Indian newsman’ read the headline of a single column story on the front page. It innocently reported that it was a telephonic conversation with a visiting India Today correspondent and that the conversation was held at the residence of Mamood; that Ershad had agreed to a longer and formal interview later etc.
There was nothing to be done and soon after breakfast, I rushed to the airport. By Noon I was back in Calcutta. And by the same evening, Reuters, Associated Press and BBC had all spoken to Ershad and reported on what the deposed President had told them.
I guessed they would have rushed to Mamood’s house and waited for Ershad’s call, as I had done. And of course my interview with him was no longer a scoop.