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A tale of two economies: Review on Rehman Sobhan’s Untranquil Recollections

Published in Dhaka Tribune on Saturday, 30 April 2016

A tale of two economies

Deb Mukharji

untranquil_recollectionsRehman Sobhan needs no introduction to civil societies in the Indian sub-continent. In Bangladesh his is a deeply respected name. An economist and teacher by profession, he has been intimately involved with social, economic and political issues, maintaining his objectivity and remaining above the fractured politics of his country. Acknowledged worldwide as a development economist, Prof Sobhan has written many books which both educate and illuminate. The three volume collection of his essays (Centre for Policy Dialogue:2007) covered not only his own intellectual odyssey but also the history of the last years of erstwhile East Pakistan and the first decades of Bangladesh.

Untranquil Recollections ends with the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971 and is a book of quite a different genre. It is part autobiography, shared with candour and humour, and part a biography of East Pakistan, the two often intermixing. The author had lived through “interesting times”.

His own family connections (leaving aside descent from the first Caliph, Hazrat Abu Bakr Siddiq) were with the non-Bengali ruling elite of East Pakistan who were ever at odds with the Bengali nationalists. He went to St Paul’s School in Darjeeling and the Aitchison College in Lahore; he obtained his bachelor’s degree from Cambridge University. He had all the qualifications to become  the staunchest supporter of Pakistan’s upper crust. Yet, for reasons he is not quite able to explain, he chose Dhaka instead of Peshawar for a teaching post.

“At that stage of my life, my adopted homeland was for me, an idea – not a place … chose Dhaka not out of compulsion or circumstance, birth or ancestral inheritance, but an ideological decision to proclaim myself a Bangali”.

While it was true he made friends among the Punjabi elite at Aitchison, the overweening attitude of their superiority displayed towards East Pakistan (“ East Bengal was viewed as a remote colony in the same way as students of Eton must have viewed the Indian empire”) might have rankled with him.

As the young lecturer took up his assignment in Dhaka, he had no distinct political ideology or affiliation, though he held progressive ideals since Cambridge where he acquired the “capacity to challenge received wisdom, pomposity or authority established by virtue of age”.

But the political environment in Dhaka was such that issues had to be squarely faced. While East Pakistan was suffering from blatant economic discrimination, Rehman Sobhan stated that there were in fact two economies in Pakistan. His statement was carried in the media beside Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s statement to the contrary. It was the dark period of Governor Monaem Khan’s tenure in East Pakistan when laws were openly flouted and goons were let loose on teachers at Dhaka University. This was also the period when Sobhan wrote trenchantly and passionately about the discrimination against Pakistan’s eastern wing, as his collected works testify.

The early 1960s were also the time when Dhaka was seething with anger towards the establishment’s efforts to curb cultural activities. Tagore songs had been banned and Monaem Khan was said to have instructed that the government should find people to compose “Tagore” songs appropriate to the ethos of Pakistan. Sobhan, however, does not dwell on these developments at any length. His attention was on the economy and the cultural-linguistic upheaval did not have a direct impact on him. There is no pretence in him of writing a history of events that he had witnessed but with which he was not actively involved. He writes about the areas he understood and was involved with.

Even though Sobhan was not involved in politics, it was inevitable that as East Pakistan demanded its economic rights, his contribution to the cause would be required. He denies his personal authorship of the Six Points demand of the Awami League, voiced by Sheikh Mujibur Rehman in 1966, but there is little doubt that he left a stamp on the economic aspects of the demand, which led to its final formulation.

The Six Points was to continue to resonate both in East and West Pakistan. The 1970 election was fought by the Awami League with the Six Points as its charter. The East saw it as the gateway to autonomy and emancipation from the dictatorship of the West while the West saw it as the first step to secession. Prof Sobhan’s comment that Sheikh Mujib may not have appreciated the full implications of the Six Points is noteworthy.

The author provides an invaluable insider account of the discussions within the AL, following its sweeping victory in the 1970 elections, and of how its demands could be accommodated within the constitution to be framed. Sobhan was among those assigned to discuss possible areas of convergence with the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and was dismayed to find that PPP stalwarts, many of them well known to him, despite their liberal pretensions, retained their primary loyalty to the welfare of Punjab.  He must have been reminded of the Punjabi arrogance towards East Pakistan that he had witnessed in his Aitchison College days. Years later, he was to receive confirmation of the Faustian deal that Bhutto in his thirst for power had struck with Yahya Khan at a Larkana weekend when he had advised the president that Bengali pretensions could be disposed of by a whiff of grapeshot. As Yahya remained reticent in convening a new parliament, the control of the administration passed into the hands of the AL from early March 1971. In Islamabad at the time, I had listened in wonderment as Radio Pakistan Dhaka, transmuted to Dhaka Betar Kendra, broadcast rousing “nationalist” songs.

These were deeply turbulent times. As Yahya and Bhutto kept up the charade of negotiations with the AL, Pakistani troops with modern weapons and ammunitions flowed into East Pakistan. And the charade went on till the army was let loose on the people to contain resistance.

The author had met Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib only hours before the crackdown and recalls him saying, “Yahya thinks he can crush the movement by killing me. But he is mistaken. An independent Bangladesh will be built on my grave.”

There are questions that may still remain with regard to the hours, weeks and years that preceded the fateful night of March 25, 1971. Mujib had committed himself to the Six Points, limiting the space for manoeuvre. How did he or his advisers expect this to play out in the realm of politics? Mujib had been an ardent believer in Pakistan, though issues of discrimination had frayed his loyalty at the edges, as his Unfinished Memoirs indicate. It was as prime minister of Pakistan that he had wished to deliver justice to the East. When did he decide that a parting of ways was inevitable? As Sobhan points out, his speech at the Race Course on March 7 was a masterpiece, calling on the people to be prepared for a final battle, and yet leaving open the possibility of a negotiated settlement. Some recent memoirs confirm that Sheikh Mujib had been cautioned about the Pakistani troop building up and the certainty of a crackdown. Yet he had not agreed to a preemptive move by the Bengalis in the armed forces, preferring the constitutional route and, hence, legitimacy. Besides, his message read out over the radio in Chittagong, had no instructions on how the struggle was to continue. His comments to Sobhan on the evening of March 25 display confidence about the final outcome, but do have a tinge of fatalism. The author does not claim to have all the answers and, as he rightly says, “it is always possible to be wise after the event – and amateur historians can sit at a safe distance and pass judgement”.

The author’s comment that “few Bangalis at the time retained any sentimental attachment to the Pakistani concept” could be open to debate, given the important role Bengali Muslims played in the creation of Pakistan as well as post-liberation developments in the polity of Bangladesh itself. It is arguable that while 1971 was the final stage in the East’s quest to be free from the West, it did not negate the ‘Pakistani concept’ (or the two nation theory).  Abul Mansur Ahmed was to say it was the “‘end of a betrayal and the restoration of the Lahore Resolution.”

Sobhan was a prime target of the Pakistani forces. He fled to Agartala after many adventures, where his non-proficiency in Bangla, and wearing his lungi with a belt, could have had dire consequences as he ran the gauntlet of freedom fighters on the way. In Delhi, his past connections with the fraternity of economists gave him access to the highest echelons of power where he recounted the trauma to which his people were being subjected. Later, in the United States, he was to play an important role in creating public opinion against Pakistani actions and ensuring the curtailment of World Bank assistance to Pakistan, despite the best efforts of Nixon and Kissinger.

Untranquil Recollections could well stand on its own as a candid autobiography .The author has had the courage to admit to his brief training as a cobbler. Prowess in sports and continuing fondness for pulsating forms of western dance reveal a personality going much beyond the public image of the professor. But its lasting merit would lie in the extensive insider’s view of the internal processes that led to the emergence of Bangladesh. In conclusion, the author speaks of “moments of infinite possibilities earned through enormous sacrifices” and wonders how far they have been realised. That question remains.



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