I have just said farewell to Muzaffer Ahmad, my friend and comrade for 55 years. At our age such farewells are becoming more frequent. Muzaffer had been seriously unwell for nearly a decade. But he managed to lead a full and committed life which even those of lesser age and more robust health would have found hard to maintain. His last ten years were a triumph of the spirit over the physical deterioration of the body. Upto the last hours of his life his opinion was being sought by the media on some issue of public significance. Muzaffer never sought such publicity. But his integrity, non-partisan standing, along with his wisdom and commonsense made him an iconic figure whose opinions were sought on a variety of subjects of public importance.
In his last years, at considerable cost to his deteriorating health, he served as the chair of three major civil society organisations, Transparency International, Bangladesh (TIB), the Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon and Shujon. This engagement was not just a commitment to preside over Board meetings and seminars but took him on to the rivers to symbolically protest the capture of our waterways and onto the streets to stand in silent protest at various acts of injustice.
In this strange world of ours, where good people are a favoured target, there would be no shortage of people who would ask why this Bengali Don Quixote is tilting at windmills in his old age! Alas, they would never understand that people of Muzaffer's character do not view the world in utilitarian terms where every action is measured out in table spoons against its eventual outcome.
Muzaffer did what he did because he felt it his moral duty to challenge wrongs and confront injustice, and not because he presumed he could end such wrongs by his action. He did what he could, and this sense of duty sustained him down to his last day on earth. It could be argued that it was his determination to remain engaged in a life committed to public purpose which extended his life beyond the three years that the Singapore doctors vouchsafed him 10 years ago when they initially diagnosed the terminal nature of his illness.
I, however, run ahead of my tribute by presenting the final chapter of his rich life as my introduction. When I first encountered Muzaffer in October 1953, I had little idea of the heights he would scale in his life. Our colleagues who joined the Economics Department with us on that day included Prof. Anisur Rahman, Dr. Maqsood Ali, Dr. Mahfuzul Haq and Dr. Mohiuddin Ahmed.
I remember Muzaffer as a rather quiet, reticent person who was always neatly dressed but could express his views quite firmly. He went abroad for graduate studies to the Sorbonne in Paris from where he moved to the University of Chicago to do his PhD. The Chicago school was under the influence of Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman. However, Muzaffer's subsequent economic thinking was quite far removed from the worship of the free market associated with the Chicago school.
By the time Muzaffer returned to Dhaka University with his PhD in 1965, he had matured as an economist, was more sure of his views, more articulate and immediately engaged with the raging debates of the day where the Economics Department was at the forefront. Whilst he soon established himself as an inspirational teacher of economics, his views immediately brought him into contention with the Dhaka University administration where the vice chancellor was strongly patronised by the then Governor, Abdul Monem Khan, the principal overlord in East Pakistan of the Ayub dictatorship. In the Economics Department, Abu Mahmood, Anisur Rahman and myself were already known for our anti-establishment views and Muzaffer placed himself in the same camp with us. This confrontation with the administration came to a head when a group of NSF hoodlums physically assaulted the then Chairman of the Economics Department, Dr. Abu Mahmod just moments after Justice Murshid had ruled in his favour in a contempt of Court suit filed by him against the vice chancellor. Such was the nature of the political regime of Monem Khan that even though Mahmood was grievously injured, his assailants were not even charged and were left free to terrorise the campus.
In this period the lines in the campus were sharply drawn. At a time when the Ayub raj and its local satraps looked secure, with Bangabandhu and much of the opposition leadership in jail, Dhaka University was no place for either serious scholarship or independent thought. Abu Mahmood was eventually forced to resign from the University as was Prof. Abdur Razzaq. I opted to move abroad on study leave as did Anisur Rahman. Muzaffer felt isolated within a politically servile University administration with the campus then under the complete hegemony of the NSF mastaans.
Muzaffer, along with Prof. Sarwar Murshid in the English Department, decided to withdraw from this suffocating environment and handed in their resignations. Muzaffer was immediately invited by Prof. Akhlaqur Rahman to join him at United Bank as a senior economic advisor, at its headquarters in Karachi. However, working for the private sector was rather alien to Muzaffer's world view. Thus, when he was offered the position of director of planning by the East Pakistan Industrial Corporation (EPIDC) he readily accepted this assignment and moved back to Dhaka around 1968.
At EPIDC Muzaffer was in his element where his professional skills could be deployed in the service of his economic philosophy of building up a strong public sector. During his tenure the EPIDC emerged as the vanguard of a strong, publicly-driven attempt to build up a Bengali challenge to the prevailing hegemony of a non-Bengali industrial bourgeoisie which was dominating the urban economy of the then East Pakistan. In this role Muzaffer became deeply knowledgeable about the workings of public enterprise and could play a major role in planning for the industrialisation of Bangladesh.
In the post-liberation period, when Bangabandhu entrusted Nurul Islam, Anisur Rahman, Mosharaff Hossain and myself to set up the Planning Commission, it did not take us more than a minute to decided to invite Muzaffer to join us as the chief of the industries division. In this capacity, as I was the member in charge of Industry, Muzaffer worked closely with me in building up the Division with some of the best talents drawn from the EPIDC. The Division under his leadership did heroic work in the design of industrial policy and preparation of the industrial sector of the 1st Five Year Plan.
By the end of 1974 all the original members had left the Planning Commission to return to their academic pursuits. Muzaffer also decided to return to the University as a professor at IBA. At that time, I had joined BIDS as its chairman. Muzaffer and I decided to join hands and draw upon our first hand exposure to policymaking and governance to work on a substantive study of the political economy of public enterprise. Out of our research emerged our joint magnum opus, Public Enterprise in an Intermediate Regime: A study in the Political Economy of Bangladesh. This 600-page volume was written jointly by the two of us, in the course of just two months, in the peaceful surroundings of the Christian Michelsen Institute in Bergen, Norway, where we had been invited as Visiting Fellows, in the last quarter of 1976. This work, which was rich in empirical detail, was subsequently published by BIDS.
Such a substantial work could be undertaken in such a short period because much of the enormous background research had already been completed under the leadership of Muzaffer, over the previous two years, at BIDS and IBA. In Bergen we used to work for 10/12 hours a day in a completely synchronised way to finish the work. One month of our stay coincided with the month of Ramzan but Muzaffer did not miss out on a single fast.
In this two month period of enforced intimacy I came to know much more of Muzaffer the human being as distinct from Muzaffer the dedicated professional and scholar. I found him to be a deeply religious person but he practiced his faith without ostentation and believed that the practice of his faith was not just a matter of observances but was measured by the integrity of his public and personal life. He was deeply devoted to his family and took on the responsibility of supporting his mother and siblings after his father passed away before Muzaffer could reach the age of 40. Much of this burden of taking care of his joint household devolved on his devoted wife, Roushan Jahan, an outstanding student of English literature, who also did her higher studies at Chicago University. Roushan sacrificed a promising academic career to take on the responsibility of not only raising her own family but also looking after Muzaffer's extended family who shared the joint household.
In 1977, Muzaffer agreed to join the government of Gen. Ziaur Rahman, as an advisor. I wrote to him saying that of all those who had joined Zia, his was the only appointment which surprised me. In his tenure in office, Muzaffer believed he could do something worthwhile for the jute and textile industry which were his portfolios. I do not know if he did improve this sector but it is recognised by those who know of his work that he worked enormously hard with complete integrity, in this task. Muzaffer eventually left the government the moment Zia decided to perpetuate himself as a political leader. A number of his professional colleagues in the cabinet stayed on to join politics through the BNP. Muzaffer was never very comfortable with this phase of his life. Nor did he have any taste for party politics so he had no hesitation in returning to the IBA.
After our joint academic enterprise we did not directly work together but kept in close professional and personal contact after I returned from spending 4 years at Queen Elizabeth House, Oxford. I rejoined BIDS whilst Muzaffer was the Director of IBA which he had built up into one of the few faculties of distinction at Dhaka University. At BIDS and later at CPD I regularly invited him to contribute papers in the areas of education and health where he had become particularly involved and informed.
During the period of the 1980s I was elected president of Bangladesh Economic Association in 1983 and Muzaffer succeeded me as president in 1985. Our tenures were quite eventful and managed to ensure that the entire economics profession, drawn from the University faculties, research institutions and government service could come together, thereby giving greater visibility to the views of the economists as a community. In those days of autocratic rule our views tended to be critical of the policies and malgovernance of the regime which did not enhance our popularity with them.
In the last two decades of his life, after Muzaffer had retired as Director of IBA, he moved more comprehensively into the public domain as a citizen activist. Muzaffer had always held strong views on politics and society, drawn from his corpus of firm convictions and his principled approach to life. These values were mostly expressed through his writings and presentations at seminars. But in this final chapter in his life he felt both more free and more strongly compelled to publicly advocate his views and concerns on the major problems facing Bangladesh.
In his advocacy Muzaffer was indefatigable and conspicuously courageous. Ironically post -1991, after the return of electoral democracy, Bangladesh was entering into a phase where strong expressions of non-partisan opinion were not particularly appreciated. Muzaffer was, thus, castigated and occasionally threatened by both sides of the political arena. But such was the transparency of his conduct and the public esteem in which he was held that he was eventually left untouched.
In this final phase of his life Muzaffer was associated with the Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA) where, as chairperson, he could lead the fight against the human and politically patronised depredations of the environment. He was particularly vocal in drawing attention to the encroachments of our rivers by rapacious land grabbers. Muzaffer was equally active as the chair of Transparency International, Bangladesh, where the organisation became the principal and most informed voice against the endemic corruption which has come to pervade the country. Finally, as chair of Shujon, Muzaffer became a bold and non-partisan voice in favour of better governance, and the holding of genuinely free and fair elections which could be kept uncontaminated by the power of money and violence.
All these public involvements took a toll on his health. It was not widely known that for the last decade of his life he had been diagnosed as being afflicted by with a rare blood disorder which severely weakens and eventually kills a person. As his disease took its toll, it became increasingly more exhausting for him to address public meetings or stand in manob bandhans on the streets under a hot sun. But he continued to do so out of a sense of loyalty both to the cause and his organisation.
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.
What could Muzaffer show for a life, lived on the edge, where he found little time to enjoy some of its pleasures or to even give more time to his family? I believe that what he finally took on board on his final journey was an awareness that he did what he was capable of doing to demonstrate to his fellow citizens that there was a possibility of a better life for all rather than just the few. For his endeavours he earned the respect and love of large numbers of his fellow citizens. In his life Muzaffer established that a person who lived most of his life without power or influence, without the capacity to distribute patronage and buy loyalty, could be recognised by all and respected both in his person and for what he represented. In celebration of his life we can all echo the sentiments of Marc Antony in his eulogy to Brutus, "This was the noblest Roman of them all … his life was gentle, and the elements were so mixed in him that nature might stand up and say to all the world, 'this was a man.'"
I am deeply saddened at the passing of a life long friend, a good, decent and honourable man and grieve with his family. But I rejoice in his life just as I grieve for my country that the likes of Muzaffer Ahmed are progressively becoming an extinct species.
The writer is Chairman CPD.