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Birth of a Nation – Review on Rehman Sobhan’s Untranquil Recollections

Published in The Statesman on Monday, 24 April 2017

Birth of a Nation – Krishnan Srinivasan

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This autobiography by Rehman Sobhan covers the years from pre- 1935, when he was born, to 1971, when Bangladesh emerged as an independent sovereign country. Accordingly, it has to be considered the first of more parts of the Sobhan story.

Autobiographies are written by those well-known enough to presume that their lives are of interest to others or by those who have lived through momentous times, to which their first-hand accounts add value to what is already known. In other words, those that are born famous, and those who have fame thrust upon them. Sobhan is in the second category; he will be recognised by prospective readers as a leading public intellectual, a firm believer in South Asian identity and unity, an economist with expertise in development economics and political economy, and an author of more than 20 books.

Less well known will be his role in the intellectual content of the movement towards Bangladesh’s independence, first through his contributions to the documents that formed the basis for the eventually fruitless negotiations by the Awami League under Mujibur Rahman with the Pakistanis, and later to the proclamations that heralded the actual dawn of independence. Because he was dispatched to Europe and USA by Tajuddin, acting as Prime Minister-in-exile in the absence of Mujib, then in detention, Sobhan’s profile in India as a lobbyist for Bangladesh was inevitably overshadowed by his peers in Mujibnagar/Calcutta during the axial year of 1971.

This is not the first memoir that deals with the human tragedy that led to Bangladesh’s independence, and no viewpoint is identical to others. This work may be the last eye-witness account of that period 46 years ago but it will not be the final word since future records may yet reveal additional information. But Sobhan’s book will remain valuable, being by someone who was present in the struggle from the creation, so to speak. And throughout those years, his passion, energy and sincerity are characteristic of his ebullient personality.

The book can be considered in three parts; chapters one to six cover Sobhan’s education, with Cambridge comprising the longest one in the book; seven to 11 deal with his excursion into the leather business and university lectureship; and 12 to 17, his connection with the AL and the break from Pakistan. Each segment will appeal most to a different readership but the entire text is easily accessible for the generalist.

Sobhan was born with many silver spoons in his mouth, being related by blood or marriage to the Who’s Who of the sub-continental Muslim community, ranging from the Nawab of Dhaka to the crown prince of Jordan. That he spent one summer holiday in the house of the Governor-General of Pakistan and another with the Prime Minister speaks for itself. The book’s first segment will appeal to the declining numbers who recall the golden days of Calcutta society, public schools and elite British universities with delighted nostalgia, while others might find tedious the lengthy lists of names, places and procedures. It comes as a surprise that he departed for London from Pakistan in a second class four-berth cabin below deck.

Sobhan’s entry to Cambridge after the start of term was not quite as fortuitous as BK Nehru’s, whose memoir records his admission being facilitated by the lodge porter at Balliol. At university, Sobhan’s“political perspectives were given shape … my move to the left had already begun”, though he remembers his college “without much nostalgia” and is “not sure what Cambridge itself did for my intellectual development.” He claims as “improbable” his deliberate choice to base his home and career after 1956 in East Pakistan, an area he had only visited once before for one month, and did not speak Bengali. But this was hardly unique in the 20th century; many in India and Pakistan heard the same siren song to return from abroad and assumed leadership positions.

In the second segment, as leading shareholder of Dhaka Tanneries, Sobhan endeavoured to learn the craft, but the kow-towing of business circles to mediocre Pakistani bureaucrats planted his commitment to a self-governed East Pakistan. Of 22 families that dominated the private sector, there was only one Bangali; at liberation, only three per cent of industrial assets were owned by Bangalis. The relationship between West and East Pakistan was patently unequal and unjust, and the disparity of the two economies became a focus of Sobhan’s attention. He joined Dhaka University and it was there that “I forged a political identity that continues … even today.”

Again, the reader is given much detail of the personnel and development of the Economics Department, even to the layout of rooms.But Bangladeshi faculty and students, then as now, were a potent factor in shaping political events, and were given exposure that exceeded their years and experience. Sobhan’s political mentors were HS Suhrawardy, Mujib and Tajuddin. Under pressure from Pakistan’s local administration, Sobhan found refuge at the London School of Economics from 1966 to 1969. Leftinclined economists of that time seemingly constituted a formidable mutualhelp cohort and Bangladeshis of that tribe who needed a break, whether voluntary or imposed, found ready congenial employment in the West or international organisations.

The two economies theme motivated Sobhan in drafting AL’s negotiating positions urging maximum autonomy, including raising taxes and control over export earnings. He also assisted in preparing the election manifesto of 1970, the first direct franchise poll held in Pakistan, the independence proclamation and the eventual Constitution. Sobhan’s narrative is an insider’s account of the predictable Greek tragedy of failed negotiations between AL and West Pakistan, when “global sympathy was gained at a heavy cost in Bangali lives.” His escape from the Pakistan army to Tripura is gripping, and contacts with the Delhi government revealed a remarkable lack of information by the latter, which says much to the detriment of Indian intelligence, which apparently failed even to peruse the Dhaka press.

Mandated from April 1971 as envoy extraordinary (probably by coincidence the exact use of this technical term), Sobhan was dispatched to Europe and USA to lobby against aid to Pakistan by the principal donors, an assignment in which he displayed boundless energy, combined with zest for music, academics, sports, cinema, and culture both demotic and refined, as well as with networking skills aided by accurate powers of recollection — “my multidimensional role as media star, journalist, diplomat, academic and political rabble-rouser came quite easily to me.” He never lacked in self-confidence; even on leaving school, he notes his own “intelligence and academic achievements”. He mentions his position in the “UN delegation” but does not clarify what credentials this delegation possessed. Since Bangladesh was not then a UN member, presumably he was attached to the Indian delegation. The book is marred by repetitions, lamentable copy-editing and the poor binding commonplace with Indian publishers, and a wholly unsatisfactory index, a grave defect in this genre of history. For example Kaiser Morshed, Haroun er-Rashid and Khondkar Mushtaq Ahmed are altogether missing, and Mujibur Rahman himself is bestowed one page as reference. The disposition to use shorthand is irritating; Mujibur Rahman is Bangabandhu; then we have Boss, Sir, MAC, which require backtracking through the pages.

With these reservations, Sobhan’s book is a delightful read, leavened with gentle humour, often of a self-deprecating nature; Amartya Sen’s initial anonymity at Cambridge was due to shyness, which “may (now) appear rather unimaginable.” He justly praises the unfailingly support of then wife Salma. He has the ability to retain names, places, dates, times, and people, even the lowly individual who received him at Waterloo in 1953. He retained his London account of expenditure and notes from Cambridge lectures, but implausibly cannot recall if he used the “coloured” or “whites-only” toilet in Southern USA. The narrative concludes when he returned to Dhaka at the still-young age of 36. He hints broadly at dissatisfaction with the contemporary political scene, but for details, we have to await, expectantly, the remaining part or parts of Sobhan’s memoir.

The reviewer is India’s former foreign secretary.

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