Abdur Rob Serniabat: Beyond Bloody Vistas
Serniabat Priyanka Taj and Taj Iman Ahmad
YUNUS Talukdar fondly remembers accompanying Abdur Rob Serniabat on a cold winter-night boat trip. Abdur Rob, upon noticing young Yunus's attempt to sleep without shelter from the cold, endearingly beckoned for Yunus to share with him his own blanket. Yunus Talukdar, currently MP of Abdur Rob's home constituency (Bakherganj-1 in Barisal), had peered behind the veils of power and had seen in his leader a man of kindness and compassion.
Abdur Rob sat amongst Yunus and a coterie of young grassroots activists from Barisal for one last time on the hot, clear-skied night of 14th August, 1975. To nascent Bangladesh he was a political giant; he was a friend and confidant of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from their days together at the Baker Hostel in Calcutta, and was at the helm of the Agriculture, Land, and Flood Control Ministries. To the young men, however, gathered there that night at the lower floor of Abdur Rob's 27 Mintu Road Duplex, he was their soft-spoken comrade and guide.
Abdur Rob's grueling schedule on the 14th, including office work, a trip to Bangabhaban, and his mother's milad, had pushed the start of the meeting to 10:30 PM. Front and center of the meeting's discussion were plans to develop villages in Barisal. Ever the political leftist, Abdur Rob envisioned a cooperative farming pilot-program involving five villages which would collectively pool their land and other resources together. He also planned on upgrading all earthen homes to tin structures. His plans were geared towards quickly alleviating the plight of the poor and combating their disillusionment. This would be done by providing them with productive means of self-sustenance and an improved standard of living.
The bygone eras of British and Pakistani misrule had perhaps evoked in him a sense of justice predicated on a more level distribution of wealth and resources. Before joining the Awami League in 1969, he had turned to the Communist Party and later to NAP (Muzaffir) to channel his earlier activism. This background would have a formative affect on his policies later as Minister when he for instance introduced a law capping the size of private land ownership to 100 bighas. Dr. Mukhlesur Rahman, a friend of Abdur Rob and currently Acting President of Barisal Awami League, warmly recalls their after-work intellectual sparring sessions during the 60s. Dr. Rahman would critique socialism on what he believed to be its lack of real world applicability while Abdur Rob, at the time a practicing lawyer and graduate of Islamia College (in Calcutta) and Dhaka University, would espouse its virtues. Dr. Rahman was impressed by Abdur Rob's egalitarian, non-elitist sensibilities despite his having a professional background and his being a brother-in-law to then rising political stalwart Sheikh Mujib. They would banter on as they partook of their evening walks, strolling casually through the local park.
Those were more tranquil times. Sitting amongst his men on the night of the 14th Abdur Rob, at one point, somberly opined, “If Mia Bhai's (Bangabandhu's) Second Revolution succeeds, the country will survive and so will we…and if it fails, none of us will survive.” Abdur Rob understood how high the stakes were. He had bet everything on his beloved Mia Bhai. Bangabandhu had taken extreme measures against the backdrop of Bangladesh's precarious socio-political landscape. The famine of 1974, severe political unrest, and escalating levels of corruption and chaos took their toll on post-independence Bangladesh, bringing it ever nearer to a state of anarchy. The 4th Amendment to The Constitution paved the way for the key feature and most hotly debated aspect of the Second Revolution: BAKSAL. A single party, presidential form of government was to stay in effect until Bangabandhu, as President, felt that the country had been duly restored. Key elements of democracy were curtailed to allow for quick national reconstruction efforts. Such radical changes did not sit well, however, with the intelligentsia and with many party leaders. As the late night of 14th August gave way to the early hours of the 15th, Abdur Rob's meeting with the young men from Barisal had concluded. He made his way up the stairs escorted by his nephew Jahangir Serniabat. Abdur Rob instructed Jahangir, an aspiring young leader at the time, to continue working towards the development of Barisal and to especially look after the minorities (Hindus). With that Jahangir took his leave and departed. It was 3 am. He would narrowly escape his uncle's bitter fate. Colonel Farook and his cronies had begun mobilizing their tanks and gotten them beyond the Cantonment checkpoint where sentries failed to stop them from entering the city. Farook then neutralized the Rakkhi Bahini by bluffing them into believing the empty tanks had ammunition. Abdur Rob, unaware of the sinister machination of disgruntled military officers, was finally ready to retire to the confines of his bedroom and to the comfort of his family's embrace after a long day and long night.
Abdur Rob's family was his anchor and safe haven. Away from the hustle and bustle of active politics, his wife and children provided him much needed solace. He would pamper his beloved wife Amena with all the affection in the world, never allowing her to endure hardships of any sort. He made sure not to spoil his children. After he assumed ministerial responsibilities, he made it known to them that they would be provided with coarse food and coarse clothing and that they should expect nothing more. He would continually stress to them the much greater importance of accumulating knowledge and education as opposed to accumulating wealth and property, and never particularly encouraged or discouraged his children when it came to entering politics. Characteristically mild-tempered, he would quietly cast his eyes downward when angry with anyone so as to calm himself and regain composure. It was not all about discipline with his children though. He would rarely go to bed without speaking to Arju, his eldest daughter and friend. He would converse at length with his son Khokon about history, his son's field of interest. He would hum national songs around the home and was heard mirthfully singing as he waltzed into his daughter Sheuli's room the day she was born.
Anyone with a heart will have great difficulty in juxtaposing the image of the man just described with his brutal murder. Abdur Rob, his wife, and his children were terrorized by the sound of gun fire and shattering glass in the early morning hours at their home. Phone calls went out to Sheikh Mujib's and Sheikh Moni's residence to no avail. Most of Abdur Rob's family would be rounded up like cattle downstairs, under false assurances, and blitzed by a torrent of bullets from just an arm's length away. Beginning 4 am on the 15th of August 1975, Colonel Farook and his mutinous cohorts, with the political backing of Khondakar Mushtaque, would mercilessly stain the golden-hued aspirations of a fledgling nation with the red blood and the deaths of innocent men, women, and children of three homes including Sheikh Mujib's, Sheikh Moni's, and Abdur Rob's. The tragedy marked the beginning of a downward slide into over 15 years of dictatorial military rule and the disintegration of once cherished Constitutional values. Abdur Rob would die along with three of his nine children; his daughter Baby, son Arif, and Arju who died alongside her husband Sheikh Moni. Abdur Rob's grandchild Shukanto Babu, Rintu (a relative of Amir Hossein Amu), and Lokkhir Ma (the house maid) died in Abdur Rob's household as well. Many of his surviving children were critically wounded and forever robbed of their innocence. His eldest son Hasnat who remained successfully hidden throughout the assault, would go on to witness, dumbfounded, the police cleanup of his father's and siblings corpses. Abdur Rob had left behind nothing more than his share of his ancestral village home in Sheral, Barisal, and a 314 tk bank balance. On the 35th Anniversary of Bangladesh's darkest day, we, the grandchildren of a generation of patriots and martyrs, call out to our fellow citizens in demanding the justice that has long been overdue for men like Abdur Rob Serniabat. The stench of yesteryear will continue to suffocate present and future generations so long as justice is not served.
Serniabat Priyanka Taj is the Grand Daughter of Abdur Rob Serniabat; and Taj Iman Ahmad is the Grand Son of Tajuddin Ahmad. Photo Credit: Family Collection