Vol. 5 Num 57 Fri. July 23, 2004  

Tribute to Tajuddin Ahmed on his 79th birth anniversary
A civil servant's homage

This humble birthday tribute to one of the greatest sons of Bangladesh is so titled because I knew and admired him essentially from the point of view of a civil servant. Mr. Tajuddin Ahmed's cowardly jail murder, along with that of three other national leaders, created a void in the political arena of Bangladesh, that to this day, remains perceptively unfilled. Born on July 23, 1925 he would have been seventy-nine today.

As a civil servant, I had the occasion to see Mr. Tajuddin Ahmed from close quarters, in Dhaka as well as in London, where I served as the Deputy High Commissioner.

Had he been alive today, even with the achievements he would have most certainly had to his credit, I do not think he would have "celebrated" his birthday, in any public manner. We have admittedly only circumstantial evidence to go by, but the one I refer to, I think is a conclusive one. In the two volumes of his published diary of 1947-1948 and 1949-1950 (Papiras, July 1999 and February 2000 respectively), against his daily diary entries recorded on Wednesday, July 23, 1947 and Sunday, July 23, 1950 (there are alas no July 23 entries for 1948 and 1949), there is no mention whatsoever of his birthday.

On July 23,1947 (three weeks before the birth of Pakistan), besides recounting his daily activities, the better part of his day was apparently spent on discussing student politics with a close friend. On July 23, 1950, his primary concern, ironically in contrast to the flood of July this year, was the lack of, "significant rainfall . . . which was essential for a good crop." In his published diary he appears as a politically conscious, perceptive, and knowledgeable young man in a hurry, who clearly did not have the time to write too much about himself.

Here I cannot help recall his January 4, 1948 entry, (on that day I turned fourteen, but he had, of course, no reason to mention this!) -- a day when he rises at 3:30 a.m. and studies from 3:30 a.m. to 4:30 a.m., from 7:30 a.m. to 10:00 a.m., and from 7:

30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., and in the afternoon in the "party meeting" (which party, I know not) he proposed, "(I) that we should put forward our programme appealing to reasons only -- in no way we will try prove it by Scripture, and (II) we shall recant all antithesis put forward by Ulemas by Scripture, no more than that."

Incidentally, Mr. Tajuddin Ahmed, who kept his diary in English was a brilliant student, a scholarship holder, and knew the Holy Quran by heart (hafiz). On that busy day of January 4, 1948 he went to bed at 8:00 p.m. but had the time to mention that Burma had on that day become independent! As he went early to bed he would have hardly known of the central role he would be called upon to play twenty-two years later in the creation of Bangladesh, Burma's immediate neighbour.

From all published accounts of our Liberation War, (including two authentic and brilliant books Mool Dhara 71 by Moidul Hasan and Bangladesh Sarkar 1971 by H.T. Inam) we have a blow by blow account of Mr. Tajuddin Ahmed's leadership role in our War of Independence -- a role which happily not even the long and far-reaching hand of the so-called "authorities" can ever touch and distort. Here, one fervently hopes that the present national pastime of distorting history will one day pass.

Now, back to the personal recollections of this remarkable man by a civil servant.

My first close glimpse of him was in the evening of December 22, 1971, the day he arrived from Kolkata to Dhaka to take over, in the absence of Bangabandhu, the reins of the government in Dhaka. He came to what is now known as Bangabhaban wherein along with some other offices we had, in a couple of rooms temporarily set up the Foreign Office. A rough English rendering from my Bangla book, Desh Deshantor brings out my sentiment of the day.

"On that day," I wrote, "Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmed met each and every civil servant present one by one and went around shaking hands with them. For many of us, this was our first meeting with him. This leader-like approach of his was of considerable significance. On that evening of the seventh day of our 'Victory Day,' Mr. Tajuddin Ahmed established the role of political leadership in that nerve-centre of governmental activities. This he did, not with any post-war roughness, but through the initial demonstration of his habitually polite, deliberate, and self-confident personality. A man of few words that he was, this knowledgeable, intelligent, and efficient political personality left a deep impression on many of us."

Another incident I recall was on the evening of January 4, 1972 (coincidentally on that day I was a thirty-eight-year old keen civil servant), I accompanied the then Foreign Minister Abdul Samad Azad to the residence of Mr. Tajuddin Ahmed, the Acting Prime Minister of Bangladesh. The purpose was to get his approval of the brief for the Foreign Minister's visit to New Delhi in which I had accompanied him and which was to commence the next day. As I sat and listened with admiration, the Acting Prime Minister's one and a half hour discussion of the brief, I could appreciate his grasp and deep understanding of the socio-economic and political problems that we were then facing.

As we stood up to take leave, I recall his parting words on that occasion. He said, "Remember, the most important duty for you is to impress upon the Indian government to help us build up international pressure for securing Bangabandhu's release from Pakistan. We need him urgently for keeping the nation together." Mr. Tajuddin Ahmed represented Bangabandhu, (who had, on his return from Pakistan, taken over as Prime Minister by then) at the Indian Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi on January 26, 1972. On his return to Dhaka from Delhi he was confronted at the airport with a protocol mess up, when his car did not turn up in time to receive him. Later when I, as the Chief of Protocol regretted this incident, he looked up, smiled and said "I know it was not your fault, but that of my Ministry. But never mind, we learn from experience." I say to my young civil servant friends of today, maybe, we in our time served superior political masters!

I recall that in London at a dinner given by a High Commission colleague in honour of Mr. Tajuddin Ahmed, a very highly placed academic holding an important government appointment tried to publicly pull me up for having placed an Audi 100 car at his disposal instead of a Mercedes, (which incidentally, was not available for him). I could not take his behaviour in the presence of my junior colleagues. I knew that I was not at fault. The illustrious academic had raised his voice above permissible decibel limits, and so I did too, saying, "Sir, please do not raise your voice. Go ahead and dismiss me if you please."

Again, I say to my young colleagues, I would not dare do this under the present circumstances! However, on that occasion an ominous silence (for me, that is) fell all around. This academic traveled back from the dinner to his hotel with Mr. Tajuddin Ahmed, this time in a Mercedes. The latter's Private Secretary, sitting in the front seat of the car reported to me the next day that the academic had indeed tried to raise the subject with Mr. Tajuddin Ahmed, who changed the subject by saying, "Never mind these small things. Now tell me what was your visit to the United States like?" Happily, I did survive to recount this story!

But then Mr. Tajuddin Ahmed, sitting in that famous Mercedes, pulled me up alright on another occasion, in his inimitable gentle and soft style. I was accompanying him to Heathrow Airport and the car had the national flag flying. At one stage, Mr. Tajuddin Ahmed said, "Mr. Choudhury, I want to point out to you an impropriety in the manner that the flag has been flown. The flag is fitted into the flag pole with a strong piece of white cloth border. This is not permissible, as the color white is not prescribed in the approved design of our national flag. Please make sure that this is corrected." I must have blushed in shame, accepted my responsibility and said, "Sir, I'm sorry this will not happen again." "I know," he said reassuringly.

On this, his seventy-ninth birthday, I pay homage to an extraordinary man and a remarkable leader. It was not my good bureaucratic fortune to see too much more of him, but the more I saw of him, the more I admired. This unfortunate nation was indeed just a little fortunate in having the stamp of this man's personality in the formative years of our nationhood. Perhaps right at this moment this is not evident. But I have this conviction that it will one day show up.

The writer is a former civil servant.

In London with the author (right) and S A Sultan, Bangladesh High Commissioner to UK