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      Volume 11 |Issue 22| June 01, 2012 |


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Ode to a Vanguard of Noble Ideals

Public intellectuals are hard to come by, and one who is generally liked by all is even rarer in a country wrought with partisan politics

Sharmin Ahmed

To have an intellectual who believed in and fought for noble ideals in a country like ours – impinged with shallow political kudos and corruption – is rare. Thus it was inspiring to have Professor Muzaffar Ahmad, who could cut across the malignant nature of politics and society. However, his passing on May 22, 2012 has created an intellectual vacuum which will be difficult to fill.

Professor Muzaffar Ahmad, Photo: Star File

The candid and plain-spoken Professor Muzaffar Ahmad, who was born in Kolkata on March 27, 1936, completed his Honours and Masters degrees in Economics from Dhaka University. He started his career at Govt Haraganga College, Munshiganj, as a lecturer of economics. He later did his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and became an emeritus professor at the Institute of Business Administration of the University of Dhaka, where he is fondly remembered as a teacher par excellence.

One of his students at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), Fatima Yasmin says, "He was not a traditional teacher, he was a mentor to each and every student. I remember asking him to write me a recommendation letter as a referee for my admission for higher studies abroad. He wrote a very elaborate and personalised recommendation letter, which both honoured and amazed me, given he wrote it 10 years after I was his student."

However, his greatness was not limited to his teaching career of three decades, as he was admired as a civil activist and environmentalist. He chaired the three major civil society organisations, Transparency International, Bangladesh (TIB), the Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon (BAPA) and SHUJON, almost single-handedly bringing social ideologies to the forefront.

Professor Ahmad was an economic planner and a political economist in the traditional sense. During the late 1960s he was the director of planning of the East Pakistan Industrial Corporation (EPIDC). There, Professor Ahmad, aware of the restrictions of markets and those of capitalism, worked in the area of industrial economics, as well as in building up a resilient public sector eventually contributing largely to the industrialisation of Bangladesh.

After the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, Professor Ahmad was made chief of the industrial division at the Planning Commission, where he played a key role in formulating the country's first five-year plan, advising governments and briefing donors on different public issues.

Notably, he wrote a book in 1980 on state enterprises co-authored with Professor Rehman Sobhan, Public Enterprise in an Intermediate Regime: A Study in the Political Economy of Bangladesh.

Habibullah N Karim, an entrepreneur and policy activist, says, "I have known him for sixteen years, he was a man of tremendous integrity and honesty, he literally practiced what he preached, and it was visible in his social and moral activities." Even with the trivial issues he made sure he was not getting more than others. Karim explains that during his flight as a representative of the Bangladesh government to a climate change seminar, he was given tickets for Economy class. Later when the flight attendants wanted to upgrade his seat to that of Business class, he refused to take the benefit.

Professor Ahmad became the president of Bangladesh Economic Association (BEA), in the early 1990s, and he displayed exceptional leadership qualities as one of the organisers of in the anti-Ershad movement (against the then President HM Ershad's dictatorship in 1990s).

After the return of electoral democracy and the end of Ershad's dictatorship, Bangladesh faced an era of partisan politics. Professor Ahmad did not welcome such an infested system of democracy, but rather stood-up against it and was thus threatened by both sides of the political arena. That did not stop him from being critical of them. As he lobbied against continuous series of hartals, he blamed both the government and the opposition parties, “It's the violent hartal we should stand against. Forcing the general people into a strike is unacceptable; using Governmental forces to subdue the protestors is deplorable as well.”

On the other hand, when he felt it was necessary, Professor Ahmad took to the streets and called for hartal, as he once did to resist the move of the government to explore the country's gas and coal fields in an environmentally hazardous and costly way.

He, in defiance of corrupt political systems, along with other like-minded people founded the Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) in 1996 and officially began an anti-corruption drive. Always representing the ordinary people and upholding democracy, when the care-taker government took over in 2008, he said with anguish, "People are losing this hold on power due to terrorism, militancy and corruption. A non-elected government has now assumed power due to the failures of political parties."

Iftekharuzzaman, Executive Director of TIB, says, "He taught all of us how to fight corruption with courage and confidence in a place where one could make many enemies. Focusing on a comprehensive base of knowledge, research and reaching out to the ordinary people, he advocated the establishment of transparency and accountability. Our greatest tribute to him will be carrying his legacy forward."

Professor Ahmad was a valiant environmentalist; he initiated and catalysed the movement for Bangladesh's survival against the negative effects of the environment and climate changes caused by political and human corruption. As chairperson of BAPA, he challenged the encroachments of our rivers by greedy land grabbers. Along with Tipaimukh Badh Protirodh Committee and Sylhet Bibhag Unnayan Sangram Parishad, he inaugurated the long march from the capital to Sylhet to protest India's planned construction of the Tipaimukh barrage on the Barak River in Manipur where he said, "The nation's sovereignty goes neither with the lawmakers nor the parliament, let alone the government. I inaugurate this march with a call that the parliament upholds the people's welfare."

Moreover, he continuously fought to save the rivers surrounding Dhaka and elsewhere in the country. “Buriganga Banchao Andolan” by BAPA under the leadership of Professor Muzaffar Ahmed, had been protesting against the polluters and grabbers of Buriganga, Turag, Shitalakhya and Balu for more than a decade.

Determined to do everything in his power to improve the condition of the state, Professor Ahmad also spear-headed the watchdog for good governance: SUJON. Particularly critical of the Government's education policies, he would remark: "The target of education has been deviated due to evil politics and policies, which has led us to consider education to be like any other buyable 'commodity'. In present times, the students buy certificates from the institutions, but don't acquire knowledge, which is the aim of education. Teachers are the part of this evil 'change', without much concern; the guardians have accepted it and the civil society members do not bother much about it. If the ongoing trend continues, it will never be possible to build a progressive society capable of competing in the era of globalisation."

It is needless to say, that Professor Muzaffar Ahmad's efforts made him many enemies who lashed out at him, but he never retorted with the same ferocity; he was always candid in his words and measured with his voice even with some of his worst enemies.

As Professor Rehman Sobhan, chairman of CPD, in tribute to his “departed comrade” wrote, “Muzaffer did not seek fame or fortune. By nature he was a very shy and private person. Unlike many of his compatriots he opted to stay in Bangladesh rather than enjoy the comforts and security of expatriate life. His austere life style sustained his incorruptibility which, in turn, gave him the strength to challenge the more powerful.”

He eventually retired as director of IBA in 2004, as he became more involved with the public sphere as a citizen activist. In the year 2008 he was awarded the Ekushe Padak for his contribution to promoting good governance.

Professor Muzaffar Ahmad was a torch bearer of honesty and integrity in the otherwise corrupted and polluted political environment of our country. As such, he stood up for the general people whom the political parties have often conveniently forgotten. In his passing away, the country has indeed lost a vanguard of noble ideals.


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