Syedpur (sometimes also spelt 'Saidpur') is a town in the Bangladeshi District of Nilphamari. The District is just north-east of Dinajpur; it is bounded by Lalmonirhat to the East, India to the north, and Panchagarh to the north west. Syedpur is best known for its railway workshop. In 1870, the Assam-Bengal railway set up its largest workshop in Syedpur and many Biharis or Urdu-speakers came to work there. The city has many schools and colleges both for boys and girls. Before 1971, more than two-thirds of the population was Urdu-speaking.
During the British rule the telephone exchange for the whole Assam-Bengal District was also situated in Syedpur. It was the largest city of Bangladesh after Dhaka and Chittagong and before 1971, government employees in Syedpur even received a 'city allowance'. Syedpur, because of its vibrant town, soon became the commercial hub for all the surrounding districts. After 1971 the town started to decline as the Urdu-speakers' businesses were massively attacked. Today it still has a number of government and private banks, insurance companies, hotels, restaurants, pharmacies, and sweet shops but the place has lost its former glory and standing. Under the British there was a military cantonment. There were elite clubs where ballroom dancing would be organised every week; the place also had swimming pools, churches and race courses. It still has the cantonment area, the railway factory, four big stadiums where many divisional and district level cricket and football matches take place each year but these are much reduced. Syedpur had the first airport in north Bengal and there are still many intercity trains and coach services travelling to Dhaka, Rajshahi and Khulna every day from there.
Today the population of Syedpur is about 200,000, of whom 52% are male. Its population is predominantly Muslim (92.26%), while Hindus make up about 7.5%. Before the war in 1971, Urdu-speaking migrants made up 75% of the population. Now they constitute roughly 40%.
Syedpur: from railway workshop to scrap cloth business
After 1971, when the backlash against Biharis started, Biharis from places such as Parbatipur and Dinajpur came to take refuge here, but much of Syedpur was destroyed. The railway workshop which once employed more than 12,000 workers now has about 2,500 employees and is on the verge of extinction. Syedpur is the only place where some Urdu is still taught in certain schools but its wealthier Bihari population have left for Pakistan.
The loose pieces of material rejected by clothing factories started being collected in the mid 1980s after the factories had established themselves in Bangladesh in the early 1980s. These pieces of cloth are bought by the kilo. Tailors around here collect the pieces and make small items of clothing such as children’s pants or women’s blouses.
Md Sher Ali on starting a scrap cloth business
Md Sher Ali, who is about 50, is one of the first to have started this kind of scrap cloth business in Syedpur in 1989. He came to Syedpur in 1971 - before that he lived in Parbatipur where he had a soap factory called the 'Pak Shop'. His family is originally from Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh in India and his maternal grandmother’s house was in Siliguri's Coolipara in West Bengal. He has three boys and two girls and each of his boys runs a shop.
One of my cousins was going to Pakistan so I accompanied him to Dhaka to see him off. There I met an old acquaintance, somebody I used to do old clothes business with, and I told him of my trouble: 'Old clothes have stopped coming, what will I do?'
The man replied, 'I know of a consignment of scrap cloth but I don't have the cash, why don't you buy the lot?' I bought the scrap and found that they were skirts so we took them apart and sold the cloth to the tailors who made children's dresses, half-pants and shirts out of them. I had spent 10,000 takas and got a good return so I continued to travel to Dhaka and bring back these scrap pieces of clothes from garment factories. Others from here soon followed and now we’re about 40 shops in this marketplace called the mukti joddha [freedom fighters of '71] market of Syedpur. Most of the shops here belong to Urdu-speakers, only five belong to Bengalis.
In 1870, the largest railway workshop of the Assam-Bengal railway was set up in Syedpur. It seems that the British preferred hiring Biharis, as they were good technicians. At any one time 12,000 people worked in the immense railway factory.
Nizam Chacha on working for the railways
I used to be a rail power operator – my first port of call was Khulna which I joined in 1963. After that I was transferred to Santahar – it used to be a big junction in those days. From there I was posted to the Paxi Rail Office and then to Amnura, then Bonoharpara, then TNG Ghat in Gaibandha district and from there in 1971 back to Santahar. I got to see the whole of Bangladesh this way.
Then 1971 [civil war between East and West Pakistan] happened. I did not eat anything for a week – human corpses were being devoured by dogs. I trusted in Allah – if my time's up then I'm going to die. There used to be 40,000 Urdu-speakers there, there are none left; most were killed, some managed to run away. I hid in an abandoned steam-engine's burner for two days and two nights. After that, on 21 September the Pakistani army came and I continued working there.
On 14 December there was the surrender of Niyazi. The Indian army went to Santahar and I worked there until 17 December. On 17 December one of my Bengali friends' father warned me saying, 'The Indian army's now here, the Mukti Bahinis are going to arrive anytime soon and are going to kill you, so please leave.' He then accompanied me to Ramnagar rail station.
I arrived at Atraye station around 9.00pm. The station was near the river, there, a Hindu boatman gave me some chire [flattened dry rice] and after eating it I went to sleep in a wood of sal trees. Early next morning I walked from there to Ishurdi – about 60 kilometres away – it took me two days to reach. I was crying and felt the Bengalis had turned me into a bakri [goat].
By a stroke of luck and because my boss liked me I got my job again. The Railways now give me a pension of 2350 takas every month, free hospital treatment and three rail passes to travel all over Bangladesh each year. Because I've lived in so many parts of the country, I can tell which part of Bangladesh a person is from. I worked all over for 36 years. My wife used to ask: 'What kind of a job do you have? You're never here, you send mangoes and fishes and you always return home with friends.' That's life in the Railways.
This is a unique popular art developed to perfection in Bangladesh: the paintings and decorations on the three-wheeled cycle rickshaw which carries people in cities and towns. The rickshaw art in Syedpur was considered better than that of Dhaka or Chittagong because there the morality police have banned rickshaws carrying pictures of people.