Secretaries and high-ranking military and civilian officials have palatial houses, apartments, and plots in posh areas such as Dhanmondi, Banani, Gulshan, Baridhara, Uttara, Purbachal, Lalmatia, and DOHS.
Some also have vacation bungalows and even herds of cows and buffalo, shrimp polders, resorts, and factories. A lucky few also own apartments, houses, and shopping centres in New York, Toronto, Dubai, Singapore, and Houston.
Shah Abdul Hannan possessed none of these, although he was a Collector of Customs and Excise, Director General of the Anti-Corruption Bureau, Member and Chairman of the National Board of Revenue, Deputy Governor of Bangladesh Bank, and Secretary of the Ministry of Social Welfare, Internal Resources, and Banking divisions.
His last residence was a flat at Uttar Goran in a building that he shared with his brothers and sisters. He died last Wednesday, a few months after recovering from Covid-19.
One may argue about the political ideology of Shah Abdul Hannan. But this article is merely a reflection of my memories and interactions with him.
My first meeting with him was during an Eid Miladunnabi seminar at the Chittagong Muslim Institute Hall in 1967 or 1968. He was a Deputy Collector of the Chittagong Customs House at the time. As I recall, Commodore Asif Alvi, Chairman of Chittagong Port Authority, was also present at the event.
Then, in 1979, I also joined the Customs and Excise service. I had just gotten married a few days back. We were invited to a post-wedding dinner at our aunt-in-law's house. During the dinner conversation, she mentioned, "Our Bulbul's (Mr Hannan's wife) husband also works in the Customs department."
"I have met Bulbul Apa's husband Hannan Bhai but didn't know that he worked at the Customs department." my wife said.
Soon after, I was posted in the Chittagong Customs House. Later in 1982, I was transferred to Dhaka Customs and Excise Collectorate under his supervision. Our interaction was limited to superior-subordinate officers at the time. At the time, both of us had to face many problems related to wristwatch smuggling incidents at the Dhaka Airfreight Unit.
I travelled abroad for higher studies in 1984, and on my return joined the National Board of Revenue as Second Secretary. He was a Member of the National Board of Revenue at the time.
"We could not have you at our home after your wedding," he said one day. "Your Apa has invited you for lunch this Friday." We visited their flat at Eskaton with some gifts that we brought from the United States.
"Look how Kabir Bhai (me) took my cousin to the United States and lived there for a few years," Bulbul Apa said at the dinner table reproachfully. "You work in the same department and have been working there for so long, and you haven't taken me anywhere!"
"Kabir is a brilliant officer," Hannan Bhai added. "His case was different!", he mumbled some sort of a reply to skirt the question.
Hannan Bhai was always reluctant about going abroad even for government work by himself, not to mention taking his wife along. However, in 1990, as a member of the National Board of Revenue, before implementing VAT, he travelled to the Philippines and India, and a few other countries - as part of a joint public-private delegation. His travelling companions told me that he opted for fruits and desserts over the hotel's main courses. He even took some biscuits from Bangladesh with him to limit the consumption of outside food.
Hannan-Bulbul couple's trip abroad
Nearly one year after visiting their residence, I attended a conference of the World Customs Organization (WCO) in Brussels. Manzoor Mannan, a senior colleague of mine, was our Permanent Representative at WCO (later an ACC member). At their dinner table, I shared with Mannan Bhai Mrs Hannan's lamentation of never visiting abroad and explored together how we could mitigate this. Mannan Bhai agreed that Hannan Bhabi's grievances were genuine as all our service members have visited different countries with their spouses.
After discussion, we agreed that the Secretary-General of the World Customs Organization would invite Shah Abdul Hannan, Chairman of the National Board of Revenue, to personally visit their headquarters in Brussels – the usual practice of asking incoming heads of the Customs department.
The WCO will cover all of his travel and lodging expenses. Hannan Bhai and Bhabi will stay with Mannan Bhai's family at their home in Brussels. Mrs Hannan will also seek some medical advice during the visit. Both of us strategised, WCO would send the invitation to me.
Otherwise, if it reached Shah Abdul Hannan directly, he would immediately send a polite reply declining the invitation. I prepared a summary for their approval of the couple's visit by the Prime Minister and took it to our new Chairman, Shah Abdul Hannan. He was vehemently opposed to signing the summary.
Mannan Bhai called him from Brussels while I was at the Chairman's room, pleading with him to accept the invitation. After sitting with him for about an hour and debating, he finally signed the summary - visibly irritated by our unrelenting persuasion. With the summary in hand, I went to Finance Minister Shah AMS Kibria. He asked me one question, "Will Mr Hannan travel abroad?" "Whenever I tell him to go on official visits, he declines, giving this or that excuse."
I confided to the finance minister everything that had happened so far and told him how tough it had been for me to get his nod. The Finance minister was going to meet the Prime Minister for some other work on that day. He said that he would take the summary along with him.
I got a call the next day after the summary was returned to the Chairman with the Prime Minister's approval. He didn't read the entire summary the last time since he was angry. "Now that I read it in full, what would be your Apa's work in Brussels? Who will cover her travel and lodging expenses?"
"Your wife can fly by paying only 10% as you are a member of the Bangladesh Biman Board of Directors." I said. "And you'll be staying with Mannan Bhai's family in Brussels." He reluctantly agreed.
The problem was that they did not have a good travel bag. All they had was a steel trunk, unsuitable for travelling to Brussels! We had recently returned from a trip overseas and had both suitcases and trolley bags. So, I delivered those to their residence. Our strategy worked, and the Hannan-Bulbul couple returned home after their only foreign trip together.
Why in 'Uttar Goran'?
I, along with many others, had urged him to apply for a plot to Rajuk on numerous occasions. 'I have an ancestral property in Dhaka, even if it is Ejmali (joint property) with my brothers and sisters,' he said.
I will not sign any fraudulent declaration suppressing this fact. Apart from that, how would I pay the application fee and the instalment money for the plot? - he said. We had seen two Rajuk Chairman and Works Secretary pleading with him to apply. "We'll take care of the rest" – they assured him. No pleadings or assurances could persuade him!
Shah Abdul Hannan had set a rare and glaring example of financial, moral, and intellectual honesty. I pray for the salvation of his departed soul. My condolences are due to Emu and Faisal- their children. I want to remind them that having such a man as a father is a rare honour for any child. And we tell ourselves that having such a government officer like Shah Abdul Hannan is a matter of tremendous fortune for any nation.
M Fouzul Kabir Khan is a former Secretary and economist. This article was originally published in Prothom Alo on June 3 and has been translated from Bangla by Taiyeba Islam of Keystone Research.