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     Volume 4 Issue 15 | October 2, 2004 |

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In Retrospect

Glimpses from the Past

Conversations with two Leaders

M. Azizul Jalil

Thousands of Bangladeshis have met their national leaders. Since they were the people's leaders and easily accessible. I was also fortunate to meet and converse with some of them at various stages of my life, at home and abroad. From my memory of the distant past, I am writing about meetings with two of our great leaders.

Maulana Bhashani captured my imagination as a rebellious populist leader who would always champion the cause of the underdog through emotional and fiery speeches and mass movements. He was an iconoclast and; he would squarely criticise anyone doing any wrong or injustice to the common cause. I first saw him presiding at the just formed Awami Muslim League's inaugural public meeting in Armanitola maidan in 1949. I was a Dhaka College student then and witnessed the undemocratic and rough way that meeting was broken-up by the police under orders of the ruling Muslim League government. Afterwards, I saw him in action harassing the government ministers on public issues in the East Pakistan legislative assembly when on a few occasions I went to see the debates.

In mid-1954, Bhashani, accompanied by Khondaker Ilyas and Professor Muzaffar Ahmad was going to the World Peace Conference in Prague as leaders of the delegation from Pakistan. I was studying for my masters in economics at the Dhaka University. As the president of the Sanskriti Sangsad and a progressive student devoted to the cause of world peace, I decided to support and see-off the Maulana at the Tejgaon airport. I had taken our car and parked it at the airport, and went to the passenger's lounge. Bhashani in his simple dress of lungi, kurta and tupi was sitting in a sofa, looking serene and peaceful. Ilyas, senior to me in the University was sitting next to him. He introduced me to Bhashani. I had known Ilyas--a selfless leftist political worker who was jailed a number of times for his activities. He told me about the delegation's plan to visit several West European countries after the Prague Conference. On return from a long stay abroad with Bhashani, Ilyas wrote a book called "Bhashani Jakhon Europe" about the discussions on world issues and third world liberation that the Maulana held at the highest levels of governments and the political and intellectual world.

While I was sitting in the lounge, a tall, burly Bengali gentleman came, sat by my side and started a conversation by asking me why I was there and where and why the Maulana was going. He also wanted to know about the other members of the delegation. Little did I know that he was in fact a Major in the Army Intelligence! He had already noted our car registration number etc. After about a week, the DIG of police of central intelligence in Dhaka called my father, a government officer to his office. The DIG mentioned that there was a report against him from the army about involvement in opposition politics (East Pakistan was then ruled directly by the central government under section 92 A) and that his car was used to see-off Bhashani, an opposition politician at the airport. My father cleared up the confusion by explaining my interest in politics and occasional use of his car. Fortunately, the DIG was a relation of ours and he settled the matter with the army authorities.

I next met Bhashani in London in early 1955. Tassaduq Ahmed, a leftist political leader from Sylhet was hosting him and his entourage. The Maulana was all covered up in woolens due to the severe winter of London. He asked me the latest news of the country, and in particular the price of rice and daal (lentil). I somehow knew the prevailing price of rice but had no idea about the price of daal. Bhashani was unhappy and gave me a long sermon about not knowing 'your own country' and stated that western education in the absence of strong roots in own country was not very useful. He also told me about abject rural poverty and lack of rural infrastructure in East Pakistan and advised that the country's priorities be in rapidly developing agriculture and rural life.

In London he had met many important people, amongst them philosopher Bertrand Russel, editor of the famous weekly magazine New Statesman and Nation's Kingsley Martin, and ex-minister and fiery leftist labour leader Aneurin Bevan. Some of them came to call on him in the modest townhouse in which he was staying. Bhashani also spoke of his deep concern about ongoing liberation struggle and unrest in Algeria, Libya and in many African and Latin American countries and he hoped that the World Peace movement would be able to bring about justice.

In 1960, when I was the SDO (Sub-divisional Officer) Tangail, I made it a point to visit Santosh where Bhashani generally resided, and the venue of his famous Kagmari Conference. Unfortunately, he was not there when I visited Santosh. In the subsequent period, I followed his political actions and speeches, which were always motivated by the desire to bring about improvement in the life of the common man and the rights, economic and political, of the people of East Pakistan. He remained a true patriot throughout, and despite occasional anomalies in his political stance, he remained a respected and revered national leader until his death.

I had seen Sheikh Mujibur Rahman a couple of times in public occasions before I had the opportunity to be with him in person. That opportunity came in 1956, when he came to London on his way back to Pakistan after completing a month-long visit to USA under leadership exchange program of the US Government. He was then the general secretary of the Awami League. Zahiruddin Ahmed, an Awami League leader had accompanied him. My friend Ishtiaq had invited them for dinner in his small flat; I was also invited. Ishtiaq and his wife Sufia were students in London and I believe that Justice Ibrahim (Sufia's father), then Vice- Chancellor of the Dhaka University had requested Sheikh Mujib to look up his daughter. Sheikh Mujib spiritedly spoke about Pakistan's political situation. He was extremely unhappy about discrimination against East Pakistan, use of major portion of the economic and foreign exchange resources of the country in West Pakistan, and West Pakistan's near monopoly of senior civil and military appointments.

I enquired about Awami League's activities in West Pakistan as a political party so that it could exert more influence on national politics.

Sheikh Mujib said he had hung an Awami League signboard in Lahore through Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan but in reality, the party had no existence there. When I asked him about his party's position on self- determination for the Kashmiri people through a free and fair plebiscite as required in a UN resolution, he seemed very agitated. He dismissed the question by saying that Pakistan had violated the Kashmiri people and their rights in Azad Kashmir and if allowed to freely vote, they would not vote for joining Pakistan. Remarkably, he also said that we should not worry about the Kashmir question when in fact we cannot be at all be sure how long East Pakistan itself would remain a part of Pakistan. His statement remained vividly in my mind because it was many years before he made the famous six- point demand in Lahore, which was for an autonomous Bangladesh within a federal Pakistan. It was clear that as early as 1956, he was totally fed-up with the West Pakistani leadership and had in his vision an eventual independent Bangladesh. The whole of next day I, along with a friend took Sheikh Mujib and Zahiruddin to visit various sites like the British Museum, London School of Economics and the speakers' corner at the Hyde Park. Later he generously entertained us at lunch at a Sylheti restaurant on Tottenham Court Road and took our pictures with a camera he was carrying himself.

It was in 1969 that I had another opportunity to meet with Sheikh Mujib when he came to Pindi to attend the round-table conference called by President Ayub Khan to solve the political crisis. Sheikh Mujib had been released from imprisonment from Kurmitola cantonment after the withdrawal of the Agartala conspiracy case. I was then serving as a Deputy Secretary in the President's secretariat. In my personal capacity and as a Bengalee, I wented to receive him at the airport. Newspapermen and police were there in plenty. The plane arrived, but there was no sign of Mujib. From the back of the plane Mizanur Rahman Choudhury, a senior Awami League leader (I knew him when I was SDO in Chandpur) arrived and everyone ran towards him thinking that he was Sheikh Mujib (there was some similarity in look and build). Minutes later Mujib himself came down through the front door and we all went to East Pakistan House where he was to stay.

Sheikh Mujib was in a victorious mood and soon came out to talk to us in the veranda. Somebody tried to introduce me to him and he generously said that he knew my uncle (Abdur Rab) very well. Sheikh Mujib mentioned that on his way to Pindi he had gone to the house in Lahore of Justice Anwarul Huq (who was the presiding Judge in the Agartala conspiracy case) to express regrets about the unceremonious way the judge had to leave Dhaka due to unruly public demonstrations. We were proud of this forgiving and courteous gesture on his part, which would not have been possible for most people under the circumstances.

He said he went to meet people in the crowd after arriving at the Lahore airport and someone inflicted a small knife wound on his hand, which we saw. We became concerned about his safety because of the charged political atmosphere and requested him to be careful.

A few Sindhi and Baluchi leaders had come to see him and Sheikh Mujib assured them that he would not only champion the cause of East Pakistan, but simultaneously the cause of the people of the smaller provinces of Pakistan. They were delighted.

Rumours were rife at the time that President Ayub would offer the position of prime minister of Pakistan to Sheikh Mujib. He told us jokingly that before leaving Dhaka, Begum Mujib had told him that whatever happens he should not accept that position; she did not wish to live in West Pakistan as her heart would dry-up in its dry weather. She had advised that if Mujib did accept a high position, it should only be in East Pakistan. In fact, while in Brussels in March, 1971, I was told by a high West Pakistani official that during the fateful political negotiations of 1969, Tajuddin Ahmad's name was being mentioned as the future prime minister.

Sheikh Mujib enquired whether we wanted to join him in a car ride to see Islamabad (which he said was made mostly with transferred resources from East Pakistan), but then advised us not to accompany him because like the three CSP officers who were indicted in the Agartala conspiracy case, we might also be in trouble. That he did not want to happen. Later I came to know that in fact Mujib went to visit his friend Yusuf Haroon, a senior Sindhi politician at the Falletis Hotel in Pindi. Next day, when we visited East Pakistan House, the talks were breaking down but Ayub Khan had agreed, with the consent of Sheikh Mujib to remove the unpopular Governor Monem Khan and appoint Dr. Nurul Huda, then finance minister in East Pakistan as the Governor.

The next time I met Bangabandhu was in July 1973 as Bangladesh prime minister, in his office at Gano Bhaban. I was then serving in the World Bank in Washington and wished to continue there under my contractual obligations to the Bank. The prime minister held the Establishment Division and in any case, nothing could happen those days in Bangladesh without the direct knowledge and consent of Sheikh Mujib. Rafiqullah Choudhury CSP, secretary to the prime minister arranged for my interview in a day's time.

The two occasions when I had to go to Gano Bhaban, the situation was chaotic with all sorts of people hanging around in waiting rooms and corridors, and demonstrators coming in regularly to meet with Sheikh Mujib, either to greet him with loud slogans and garlands and/or to raise various demands. He would stand on the staircase and say a few words to the crowd below; this seemed enough to satisfy them. There were many senior politicians and government officials there also, all waiting (sometimes with files in hand) to get a few minutes of the prime minister's time and attention and to obtain his verbal instructions. Sheikh Mujib, then in absolute power, was a changed man from the man I had met in 1956 and 1969. It was obvious that he was overburdened with the responsibilities of office and problems then facing the country. He did find a few minutes for me though, appreciated my situation and came to a quick decision. He agreed to my continued stay in the Bank for a limited period for which I was grateful.

M. Azizul Jalil, a former CSP and a retired member of the World Bank staff, writes from Washington.




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