Bangabandhu, Tajuddin … and our sad history

Syed Badrul Ahsan
Thursday, October 26th, 2017


There is a whole raft of reasons why Tajuddin Ahmad will not be forgotten by this nation. And it is particularly in October when memories of the man who led the battlefield struggle for national liberation are reignited, enough to make us ponder whether the chaos we wallowed through between August 1975 and June 1996 would have come to pass had Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Tajuddin Ahmad not fallen out with each other.


And yet there is a need to rephrase that statement. Did they really fall out? Or was their parting of ways more a result of the machinations against the alliance of two of Bangladesh’s historic figures by self-seekers than a conscious divergence of opinion between the Father of the Nation and the wartime prime minister? One needs to look back at history, to understand the nature of the winning combination that was the Mujib-Tajuddin team as the Awami League hit the highway seeking broad political change for Bengalis even as the state of Pakistan militated against such change.


In Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Bengali nation for the first time perceived dedicated and principled leadership. Not in him was there anything of the pointless pragmatism of his mentor Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawady. Neither was there any of the flip-flops that Sher-e-Bangla A.K. Fazlul Huq demonstrated, particularly in the post-Jugto Front period in Pakistan. Mujib was never willing to compromise. And he did not compromise. His soulmate in that gigantic task of reinventing Bengali politics and turning the nation away from Pakistan towards a new, liberal secular goal was Tajuddin Ahmad. More than anyone else in the Awami League, it was the Mujib-Tajuddin team which powered the drive for political change.


Of course, there were some fundamental differences between the two men on how the state, post-liberation, ought to be administered. To a very large extent, Bangabandhu remained convinced that the country could not go all the way towards socialism. His understanding of foreign policy was a rational acceptance of the idea that the country needed to engage with all nations, even with those that had opposed the armed struggle for liberation from Pakistan. With Tajuddin, perspectives were clear. A firm believer in socialism, he was extremely uncomfortable with any idea of Bangladesh taking a path to capitalist or semi-capitalist development. His mistrust of the Bretton Woods institutions was deep, a matter of conviction.


But in the 1960s, these differences were a thing of the future as Bangabandhu and Tajuddin Ahmad shaped political strategy for the nation. Mujib was the philosopher and Tajuddin was the interpreter of the philosophy. Both men knew that Bengalis could not afford to be part of the Pakistan state any longer. They came together, along with their colleagues in the party, in the formulation of the Six Point plan for regional autonomy. The format of the plan convinced the discerning observer that the Awami League had fired the first shot for Bengali freedom. It was unlikely that the civil-military establishment of Pakistan would agree to an acceptance of the Six Points in East Pakistan, let alone in the rest of the country. But, again, Bangabandhu and Tajuddin had their focus on the future of East Bengal. The rest was immaterial.


It took these two men of foresight only five years between 1966 and 1971 to plan and implement their revolution. In those five years, the Awami League soared in public acceptance, and not even the threats held out against it by Ayub Khan and the innuendos emanating from other politicians could hold the tide back. It was Tajuddin Ahmad who accepted Z.A. Bhutto’s challenge to Sheikh Mujib for a debate on the Six Points at the Paltan Maidan in Dhaka. Bhutto, yet to quit as foreign minister and nearly two years away from forming his Pakistan People’s Party, did not respond, did not turn up for the debate. It says something about Tajuddin that when General Yahya Khan, having triggered the political crisis in early March 1971, planned to visit Dhaka to negotiate with Bangabandhu, Bhutto warned him about Bangabandhu’s right-hand man. Watch out for Tajuddin, said Bhutto to the general, for he is the most dangerous man in the Awami League. Bhutto was in dread of Tajuddin Ahmad.


There has been and there will be much academic debate on whether Bangabandhu, having returned home from incarceration in Pakistan, should have gone for a position a la Gandhi and let Tajuddin carry on as prime minister in independent Bangladesh. But there is little question that between 1972 and 1974, the chasm between the two men widened. An ideological battle was underway between them by early 1974. Henry Kissinger came to Dhaka, to an effusive welcome from the government. In Washington, the Tajuddin who in February 1972 had refused to let Robert McNamara approach him at a meeting in Delhi found himself in the World Bank headquarters, engaged in negotiations with the very same McNamara.


One of the saddest moments in Bangladesh’s post-liberation history came on 26 October 1974, when Bangabandhu instructed Tajuddin Ahmad, ‘in the greater national interest’, to resign from the cabinet. An hour and twenty two minutes later, Tajuddin submitted his resignation and went home.


The rest is heart-breaking history, for the people of Bangladesh.

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