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The glory and the agony

8By Syed Badrul Ahsan

Sometime at the end of July 1975, Tajuddin Ahmad came by ominous news. Elements in the army were busy conspiring to remove the government of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Worse, they planned to assassinate the Father of the Nation. Tajuddin, at that point outside government, having resigned in October of the previous year, rushed to Bangabandhu’s home at 32 Dhanmondi. He walked part of the way, then took a rickshaw. When he reached Bangabandhu’s residence, he found the President (which Bangabandhu was at the time) planning to go to bed. Surprised to see Tajuddin, he asked him if anything was wrong. Tajuddin told him. Bangabandhu, as was his wont, laughed it off and asked his estranged colleague not to worry. A deeply depressed Tajuddin Ahmad went back home. It was late in the night.
A couple of weeks later, Bangabandhu and most of his family lay dead in a pre-dawn coup that would cause a long stretch of darkness to descend on the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. Less than three months later, Tajuddin Ahmad and with him Syed Nazrul Islam, M. Mansoor Ali and A.H.M. Quamruzzaman — all leading lights in the 1971 Mujibnagar government — would be murdered in prison by soldiers at the directive of Khondokar Moshtaq Ahmed.
Were he alive, Tajuddin Ahmad would be a grand old statesman of ninety today. And he would be a statesman because of the cerebral qualities which defined him in all the fifty years he walked the earth. He was the strategist to the visionary in Bangabandhu. In Tajuddin and Mujib was chemistry that was destined to change, for the better, the fortunes of Bengalis in pre-1971 Pakistan. Both men believed that Pakistan needed to depart from this part of the world. Through the 1960s and early 1970s, but especially in the five years between 1966 and 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Tajuddin Ahmad caused a huge transformation to come about in Bengali political life. They forged the Six Point charter of demands and then softly yet boldly let the Six Points converge around a single point: the demand for national sovereignty. On 7 March 1971, as he mounted the steps to the dais at the Race Course, a brooding Bangabandhu knew the course he would take in the gathering crisis with Pakistan. After 25 March 1971, an intellectually driven Tajuddin Ahmad had little doubt about the need for him to carry on from where Bangabandhu had left off.
Tajuddin Ahmad, like Bangabandhu, like his three fellow prisoners at Dhaka Central Jail, was not destined to live to a ripe old age. Any chances he might have had of taking charge of the country after the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and any possibility of his eventually transforming himself into an elder statesman were ruined the night he and his political associates were murdered in jail. Those who caused the tragedy of August-November 1975 knew what they were doing. They did away with Bangabandhu and they had to do away with Tajuddin, for Tajuddin had been the one man who had, in his leader’s absence, shaped resistance to Pakistan through forging a provisional government into shape, which government then planned and executed battlefield strategy through raising the Mukti Bahini. Tajuddin did not have an easy time of it, for there were those in the Awami League forever ready to bump him off. They tried stripping him of authority through a vote of no-confidence. They challenged his authority through setting up the Mujib Bahini in direct opposition to the more broad-based Mukti Bahini. Through all this malevolence, Tajuddin remained undeterred. The focus, his focus, was on the liberation of the country. Not for him the comfort of family life or the luxury of drawing-room philosophising on the idealism associated with freedom. He was always out in the battle zone, injecting inspiration in the young men and women come from rural Bangladesh to wage war against Pakistan. The foreign media spoke to him, and went away impressed. As the night deepened, Tajuddin washed his shirt, hung it out to dry, for he would need it the next morning. The national struggle demanded austerity. Spartan was the way in which Tajuddin Ahmad conducted himself.
Tajuddin was fifty when the soldiers killed him. He was as young as Syed Nazrul Islam and A.H.M. Quamruzzaman and younger than M. Mansoor Ali. Bangabandhu was a mere fifty-five when the soldiers mowed him down. Tajuddin Ahmed was five years younger. And yet in that brief space of life, he had become an essential cog in the wheel of Bangladesh’s history. To those who knew Tajuddin in the 1960s, the man was destined for a bigger role than what his demeanour chose to reveal. You only have to go looking for some of the men who once enjoyed the reputation of being young, educated Bengali idealists responsible for much of what subsequently came to be known as the Six Points. They will inform you, perhaps to your great surprise and then to your usual expectations, how on a moonlit night on the Sitalakhya it was Tajuddin Ahmed who put the toughest questions to the men gathered to explain the core of the Six Points to a yet to be Bangabandhu. Mujib was happy with the explanations, but did anyone of his colleagues have any questions? A quiet man is always the keenest of observers. The quiet man on that moonlit night was Tajuddin Ahmad. His silence revealed his eloquence. He proceeded to ask a question here or seek a clarification there. The young idealists knew it was no run-of-the-mill politician they were dealing with.
In the rise and expansion of Bengali nationalism, Tajuddin Ahmad’s role was as pivotal as Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s. If Bangabandhu was the inspirational leader, Tajuddin was the theoretician of the party. The relationship between the two men was in a very important sense akin to the ties that bound Mao Zedong and Zhou En-lai, each to each. Tajuddin’s courage was of the quiet kind. It rested on a perception of hard realities. Just how tough an interlocutor he could be was known by none other than Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Soon after the announcement of the Six Points in early 1966, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, soon to depart as Ayub Khan’s foreign minister, challenged Mujib to a public debate at Paltan Maidan on the points. Tajuddin Ahmed accepted the challenge on behalf of his leader. In the event, Bhutto never turned up. It was an early sign of the dread in which he held Tajuddin Ahmed. In the remaining years of united Pakistan, Bhutto would remain conscious of the power that Tajuddin exuded in political dialectics. He squirmed every time Tajuddin chose to speak at the eventually abortive political negotiations in March 1971. He would warn General Yahya Khan and his team to watch out for Tajuddin.
When the Pakistan army cracked down on Bengalis on 25 March 1971, Tajuddin lost little time in making his way across the border and linking up with Indira Gandhi. He had the foresight to comprehend, even at that embryonic stage of the War of Liberation, the need for outside assistance in an armed struggle he envisioned developing for Bangladesh’s freedom. The man of substance in Tajuddin saw little alternative to the formal shaping of a governmental structure for a struggling nation. The whereabouts of his colleagues remained shrouded in mystery. That was a stumbling block, but he did get around it by doing the necessary thing of announcing the formation of a government, the first ever in the history of the Bengalis.
Tajuddin’s enemies pounced on him the moment he made that historically necessary move. The younger elements in the Awami League, typified by the likes of Sheikh Fazlul Haq Moni, thought they had been upstaged. Tajuddin, they thought — and thought wrongly — and indeed spread the word, had gone beyond his remit. He did not, protested these angry young men, possess the authority to establish a government because Bangabandhu had not given him that authority. Tajuddin remained unfazed. He was alone, lonely. Even so, the socialist in him was unwilling to cave in to fate or human machinations. The intellectual in him was ready to repulse the blows his fellow Awami Leaguers were throwing his way. He emerged from the experience a sadder and clearly wiser man.
In a free Bangladesh, Tajuddin Ahmad ought to have played a bigger role in the transformation of society. That role could have come through his holding on to the position of head of government. As minister for finance, though, he demonstrated a tremendous degree of courage in warding off the vultures, both in the form of international donor agencies and local opportunists. It was his conviction that a development strategy for Bangladesh did not have to include thoughts of aid from nations which had opposed its birth. Such a position, naturally, did not endear him to the right-wingers in the government; and these men kept up their noisy complaints against him before the Father of the Nation.
But what hurt Tajuddin Ahmed more than the whispering campaign against him was his sad, shocking realization that Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was listening more to men like Khondokar Moshtaque and Sheikh Moni than to him. Decent almost to a fault, Tajuddin never complained in public. In private, though, he found it inexplicable that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the leader and political soulmate with whom he had shaped the political course of the Bengali nation, never once sought to ask him about the events leading up to the formation of the provisional government and the War of Liberation that such a government waged.
By late 1974, the differences between these two giants of Bengali history would only grow wider. Tragedy was bound to follow. Tajuddin Ahmad was telling everyone by October that he would leave the cabinet. The academic Anisuzzaman listened to him, saddened by the thought. In the end, he could not resign on his own. He quit when Bangabandhu instructed him, in the larger national interest, to do so.
Tajuddin Ahmed was a principled man, one inclined to self-effacement and extraordinary humility. Not many were or have been able to command the intellectual heights of political leadership that he so easily was symbolic of. And few have been the individuals in our history who have so effortlessly cast the personal to the winds in the interest of the welfare of a toiling, battered nation. Self-abnegation was part of his character. After October 1974 and till his murder in November of the following year, he went into exile of a kind. ‘Take it (as) forever’, he told Zohra Tajuddin when she asked him how long he thought he would be gone, as the soldiers took him away in August 1975. He internalised his pain, brooded in loneliness over the future of a country he had guided to freedom. He kept a diary in prison, recording his thoughts day after day. That diary eventually went into Korban Ali’s hands. And then was seen no more.
And then Tajuddin Ahmad paid the price.
(Tajuddin Ahmad, Bangladesh’s first prime minister, was born on July 23, 1925. He was murdered in prison on November 3, 1975).
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a bdnews24.com columnist.