Published in Dhaka Tribune on Monday, 26 March 2017
‘I wanted to be part of a process which … would shape the course of the struggle for self-rule for the Bangalis’
At Peelkhana and the Police Line in Dhaka, in Brahmanbaria, Chittagong, Joydebpur, Jessore, and Rajshahi, where Bangali members of the armed forces, EPR, and police could take up arms, they could take on — and in some cases defeat — the Pakistani armed forces located there
Rehman Sobhan is a noted Bangladeshi economist and freedom fighter. He was educated at St. Paul’s School, Darjeeling; Aitchison College, Lahore; and the University of Cambridge. He was one of the economists whose ideas influenced the 6-point programme of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, which became the basis for the struggle for self-rule for Bangladesh. He served the first Government of Bangladesh as Envoy Extraordinaire with special responsibility for Economic Affairs, during the Liberation War in 1971. He was a member of the first Bangladesh Planning Commission, and in the 1980s headed the premier development research facility, BIDS. In 1993, he founded and became the Chairman of the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), a civil society think-tank in Bangladesh. He also headed the South Asia Centre for Policy Studies (SACEPS) from 2000 to 2005, one of the leading think-tanks for promoting regional cooperation in South Asia. He has authored numerous books and articles on various developmental issues. The most recent of these, Challenging the Injustice of Poverty: Agendas for Inclusive Development in South Asia, was published by Sage Publishing in 2010.
This interview is largely based on his memoir, Untranquil Recollections: The Years of Fulfilment, in which he lucidly described how his life got inextricably entwined with the political struggles of the Bangalis. In what follows Sobhan talks about the watershed events of our history as well as the role he and his economist and activist friends had played in providing an intellectual foundation for the case of Bangali nationalism.
In your memoir, Untranquil Recollections: The Years of Fulfilment, we see you got deeply involved with the political struggles of the people of Bangladesh, which were taking a new turn in 1969. Is that why you came back from London in 1969, abandoning your PhD thesis?
Yes. I was always a politically oriented person, rather than just an academic. With the imminent downfall of the Ayub dictatorship and the release of Bangabandhu under mass political pressure from the Cantonment jail where he was under trial for the so-called Agartala Conspiracy case, I deduced that the political climate in Pakistan was undergoing a seismic transformation. Having challenged the agenda of the Ayub regime for nearly a decade, I wanted to be part of a process which would emerge after his fall and which would shape the course of the struggle for self-rule for the Bangalis.
In the years preceding the Liberation War, alongside a successful teaching career at Dhaka University, you founded the weekly, Forum, along with Hameeda Hossain and became a journalist. Tell us something about that experience.
I had for many years aspired to establish a journal of ideas. As far back as 1957/58, I had joined hands with one of our more respected journalists, SM Ali, who later founded The Daily Star, and Professor Mosharaff Hossain, to set up a weekly journal, on the lines of the New Statesman, published in London. But this project was frustrated by the declaration of Martial Law under Ayub Khan, in October 1958. With the downfall of Ayub in March 1969 and the re-emergence of Bangabandhu at the vanguard of the struggle for self-rule, the entire environment for independent progressive journalism stood transformed. Hameeda Hossain, Kamal Hossain and I were keen to track this process of political transformation in a publication where we could contribute to the battle of ideas which may help to shape the future of a self-ruling Bangladesh.
We were keen to draw in the best, progressive minds, not just in Bangladesh but in West Pakistan to participate in the debate within our columns. Respected senior journalists such as Mazhar Ali Khan, MB Naqvi, ABM Musa and AL Khatib were our regular contributors. We also drew in a variety of younger political figures from Dhaka, progressive thinkers from around the world such as Amartya Sen, Hamza Alavi, Tariq Ali and Arjun Sengupta, among many others. Forum’s most important role was to provide a forum for discussion by Bangali thinkers, such as Nurul Islam, Anisur Rahman, AR Khan, Professor Muzaffar Ahmed Chowdhury (MAC) the political scientist, Akhlaqur Rahman, Sirajul Islam Chowdhury, Razia Khan Amin, among many others, who fed us with a rich trove of ideas on constitutional, political, economic and cultural issues critical to the shaping of Bangladesh.
The two-economy theory, put forward (at a conference in Curzon Hall of Dhaka University in June 1961) by you and Nurul Islam, among others, was a solid contribution to a scientific understanding of the economic imbalance between West Pakistan and East Pakistan. What was the reaction of Bangali politicians and the military junta to it?
The two-economy theory had many fathers. Bangali economists such as Dr Sadeque, Nurul Islam, Anisur Rahman, Habibur Rahman and Akhlaqur Rahman wrote on this and related issues. I was one of the contributors to this debate but perhaps received more public attention than my colleagues as an advocate of the idea because I wrote on this and related subjects in the newspapers, particularly during a period when Pakistan was experiencing its first Martial Law. At that time all politicians were gagged and few academic economists were inclined to proclaim their views on controversial issues in the public media. In those circumstances my views attracted public attention because newspapers in Bangladesh publicised them. As a result, politicians such as Bangabandhu took notice of my writings and sought me out to learn more about these issues.
One of the many illuminating points you make in the book is: It was from March 5 that Bangladesh attained self-rule, for the first time since the Battle of Plassey in 1757, when Yahya had concurred with his local Corp Commander that the Pakistan Army be withdrawn into the Cantonments from 1971. Would you elaborate on this point?
The reason why the Pakistan armed forces were withdrawn into the barracks by the Chief Martial Law Administrator and Corps Commander, Lt. General Yakub Khan was explained by him in his letter of resignation to Yahya Khan, sent on March 5, 1971: the control of the administration has passed on to Sheikh Mujib, who was now de facto, head of government and controlled all public life… I am convinced that there is no military situation which can make sense … a military solution would mean large scale killing of unarmed civilians and would achieve no sane aim. It would have disastrous consequences.
This historic message from the commander of the Pakistani force in Bangladesh at that time provides a more eloquent answer to this question than any I could offer. Bangabandhu who initiated the movement on March 1 as a massive programme of non-cooperation, found by March 5, that the programme had graduated well beyond this to one of a pledge of cooperation from all the echelons of governance across Bangladesh. At that time, all administrators, law enforcement personnel, business houses even the judiciary had formally pledged their allegiance and looked to him for orders. Bangabandhu took the movement to a level never before witnessed in any struggle for national liberation, anywhere in the colonised third world.
In the book you discuss at some length the speculation about whether independence could have been achieved “at a lower cost in blood”. Either Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman could have gone for a unilateral declaration of independence or he could have compromised on the six points during the negotiations with Yahya Khan after the landslide victory of his party in the December 1970 elections? Would any of that have ensured a better outcome?
After the massive electoral victory of the Awami League in the December 1970 election to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, where the party commanded an absolute majority, there was no question of Bangabandhu compromising on the 6-point demand which was the core manifesto of his election campaign. However, all such debates, four decades after the event, remain speculative. The answers to these questions remain buried with Bangabandhu and his principal colleagues, all of whom, as far as I know, fully endorsed his strategy of seeking a peaceful resolution to the crisis. Long after such events it is easy for anyone who never had to face any such responsibility at any stage of their lives to assume the mantle of a political sage or a military strategist.
Following the historic March 7 speech of Bangabandhu, the spirit of non-cooperation prevailed among people from all walks of life. However, words got out that an army crackdown was imminent. What was the common people’s reaction to this apprehension before and during March 25?
When the army launched its genocide on March 25, 1971 the common people of Bangladesh, peasants, workers, students, administrators, police and, significantly, those serving in the Pakistan armed forces, prepared to resist the armed might of the Pakistan army. This explains how in many areas across the Meghna river in the east and all areas in the west of the Padma/Jamuna, popular resistance by peasants, workers, students using primitive weapons, could join hands with the trained Bangali soldiers to confront and defeat the Pakistani forces, at least temporarily, and take control of these areas. Most of these mobilisations all round the country were largely spontaneous, inspired by the high level of political conscientisation realised through the election campaign of 1969/71 and taken to its peak during the month of self-rule in March 1971.
You mention seeing some resistance during your journey from Dhaka to Brahmanbaria before crossing into India?
The sort of resistance I witnessed depended on levels of military training of the forces. In the rural areas across the Meghna peasants were prepared to fight for Bangladesh with lathis, daos and sharpened bamboo staves. At Peelkhana and the Police Line in Dhaka, in Brahmanbaria, Chittagong, Joydebpur, Jessore, and Rajshahi, where Bangali members of the armed forces, EPR, and police could take up arms, they could take on — and in some cases defeat — the Pakistani armed forces located there. All such areas, at one stage in April, were part of a liberated Bangaldesh until they were recaptured, often after heavy fighting, by a far better armed Pakistani army using air support in some areas. These same forces of the resistance emerged as the nucleus of the Mukti Bahini which was reinforced through the course of the Liberation War by an unending stream of youth coming forward to seek training and arms to fight the Pakistani army.
After crossing into India, you dedicated yourself to mobilising international support for the cause of Bangladesh’s independence. What are the most remarkable memories from this period that come to your mind?
There are quite a few such occasions. The high points in my campaign would include:
- Meeting along with Anisur Rahman with PN Hakser, the principal secretary to Indira Gandhi and reportedly the second most powerful figure in India. Our briefing of Haksar, on the evening of April 2, 1971 at his residence in New Delhi, was one of the earliest briefings of an Indian, at the highest level, from a Bangladeshi. Tajuddin Ahmed subsequently met with Indira Gandhi on the evening of April 3 and was in a much better position to provide a definitive briefing to her and seek support for our liberation struggle.
- Meeting next day with Tajuddin and Barrister Amir-ul-Islam in New Delhi was no less important for me. It was Tajuddin who commissioned me, on behalf of the liberation movement, to go abroad and challenge Pakistan’s international campaign for foreign aid which would underwrite their genocide on Bangladesh. During this encounter I was also privileged to draft Tajuddin’s historic address to the world, delivered on April 11, 1971, explaining the circumstances leading to the emergence of Bangladesh and setting the course of the liberation struggle.
Once abroad some of my more memorable encounters, include:
- Meetings with some of the senior journalists in Washington DC in May 1971, just prior to the arrival of Pakistan’s principal envoy MM Ahmed, to publicise the Bangladesh case. I had the satisfaction of seeing editorials appear in the leading papers – the Washington Post, the Washington Star, the Baltimore Sun, the New York Times, the Washington edition of the New York Times and the New Republic – demanding that the US government withhold aid to Pakistan till they stopped their genocide in Bangladesh.
- The lunch hosted for me by Senator Saxby at the US Senate, to explain the Bangladesh case before a gathering of major political figures from both the Democratic and Republican Party such as Senators Church, Fulbright and Scott, the leader of the Republic Party in the Senate.
- Invitation to address the National Press Club in Washington DC, a privilege offered mostly to visiting heads of state and eminent international political personalities, to explain the Bangladesh case and appeal for stoppage of US aid to Pakistan.
- Meeting with Robert McNamara, the president of the World Bank, the leader of the Pakistan aid consortium, to present before him the demand of the Bangladesh people for stoppage of aid to Pakistan.
- Meeting with Dennis Healy, the shadow foreign minister and Judith Hurt, the shadow minister for overseas development for the Labour Party in the UK.
- Meetings in Paris in June 1971 with key figures of the Pakistan Aid Consortium to persuade them to stop aid to Pakistan and my subsequent briefing by vice president of the World Bank, Peter Cargil, that the Consortium would not pledge new aid to Pakistan till they stopped their genocide in Bangladesh.
- My participation in the campaign in the US to persuade the US Senate through the Saxby-Church amendment to stop aid to Pakistan and its eventual passage in the US Senate.
- Secret meeting in Paris in August with my uncle KM Kaiser, then Pakistan’s Ambassador to People Republic of China, who informed me that I should pass on a message to Tajuddin Ahmed that China had refused Pakistan’s request to intervene on their behalf in the event of a war with India.
- Finally, meeting with French Nobel Laureate, Andre Malrux, in November at his residence outside Paris, where he reaffirmed before me his pledge to lead a group of French resistance fighters to extend support to the Mukti Bahini.
What impressed me at the end of this campaign was the total support across the world of the probashi Bangali community for an independent Bangladesh and the large scale support we received from the democratic opposition, the public and media for the Bangladesh cause in most countries. This support pressured their governments to stop new aid to Pakistan. Most important, it seriously constrained the support of the Nixon administration in the US, to the Yahya government.
How did you feel when you returned to an independent Bangladesh?
A sense of extraordinary exhilaration. It is rare in anyone’s lifetime to be part of a political campaign which culminated in the emergence of an independent nation state. Few Bangladeshis or anyone else expected this dream to be realised anytime soon. That I could arrive in a liberated Bangladesh within nine months from the day I crossed its border, not knowing what the future held for us, is an indescribable emotion. This may explain why I have titled my memoir, Untranquil Recollections: The Years of Fulfilment.
Thank you very much indeed for your time.
Thank you too.
Rifat Munim is literary editor at Dhaka Tribune.