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Interview with Abu Sayeed Choudhury, private secretary of Finance Minister Tajuddin Ahmad
“What posting?” I asked.
“You are going to be Mr. Tajuddin’s private secretary.”
What? Private Secretary? I shuddered at the thought of it.
“But I don’t want to be a private secretary, I never did this job before, and I haven’t got the foggiest idea how to do it. Besides, why will Mr. Tajuddin even accept me? He doesn’t know me. I think he needs to know the person before accepting him as his personal secretary,” I protested.
Mr. Khan was unmoved. From the other end of the phone I heard him saying: “That is my responsibility. You just go and see him. Right now, I’m going to call him up to let him know who is coming. He is going to see you and your task will be to find out when and how to start doing your job.”
In a last-ditch effort to make him change his mind I said: “Perhaps you are doing a mistake, Sir. I’m sure Mr. Tajuddin is not going to accept me when he knows all the facts. I never left this post of mine during the entire nine months of the Liberation War. Why are you sending me to him?”
I could hear him getting very angry at that. He said, rather sharply: “Abu Sayeed, I’m telling you again and again, go and see him. Still you’re arguing with me. Listen, there are just two options ahead of you. One, report immediately for this private secretary’s position. Two, immediate suspension from active service. Which one do you wish to accept?
I felt hurt. Disappointed. But what could I do but obey this order from my superior officer? Unhappily, I went to meet Mr. Tajuddin at his office. It was January 13, 1972¾the same day I got news of my mother’s death. She died on January 10, but it took full 3 days for the news to reach me because of the severe damages the communication system had suffered during the war.
I sent a note to him announcing my arrival, making sure to mention the name of the person who sent me to meet the Minister. From the waiting room I could hear voices in his office, so I assumed I’d have to wait a while to be called in. But, to my surprise, the call came almost immediately. As I entered the room, a bit uncertain of my steps, he greeted me in such a manner as if he knew me a long, long time. I felt at ease almost right away.
In front of him were seated two of the most influential officers of the government. Mr. Tajuddin was speaking to them in a voice that I thought was not rude, but firm and direct. I couldn’t help but listen. I distinctly remember him saying:
“You were on this side, continued doing your jobs¾which can happen for various reasons. I understand that, which is why I’m not going to make an issue of your roles at that time, I’ll ignore them. At the very least I’m not going to entertain any suspicion that you might have a hand in the war. What I expect of you, however, is that from now on you will be fully committed to Bangladesh. I do not want any political support from you. I have enough political strength. You do not have much to contribute in that area, anyway. But I do need your administrative support. I hope I will get that from you. I can assure you that what I just told you now is the whole truth. Now, if you’ll excuse me, there is no point wasting any more time on this.” Then, pointing at me he added: “Mr. Abu Sayeed is here to see me. I need to talk to him.” I was dumbfounded. I was just a puny officer compared to those two giants, and yet he asked them to leave so that he could talk to me!
I was sitting in a chair a bit far from him. “Mr. Chowdhury, won’t you sit closer, please?” Let me not forget to mention here that he never addressed me without a “Mr.” in front, and always called me “apni” (in contrast to “tumi”. which is more customary for a senior officer to address a junior one). Anyway, I moved to a closer chair.
“Where were you during the Liberation War?” was the very first question he asked.
“The first months of the war, Sir, I was in Beirut. I was on a USA scholarship to study at the American University there. I came back in June¾during the war. I was posted in the Establishment Department.” I said in a calm matter-of-fact manner, secretly hoping that he finds me unacceptable. I really didn’t want the job that Mr. Nurul Qader seemed intent on forcing on me. I thought Mr. Tajuddin would argue in his mind that this man was totally disconnected with the war-efforts, so he’s not going to be a suitable person to work with. I added: “I took that job as a compromise with my conscience. I had been away for a long time. I came to know from abroad that my immediate older brother had been killed in Pakistan, but no further details were available. Then I came home, but could not communicate with my wife and boys right away. All these little things contributed.” As I was giving a brief account of a certain period of my life I noticed Mr. Tajuddin quietly chuckling (which is what he used to do, as I found out later, when he was in a very good mood, and would look quite fearsome when he was not. I always loved to see him chuckle, it was so incredibly charming). I thought he would say: “All right Mr. Choudhury, you may go, I’ll let you know later.” But, instead, he said: “So Mr. Choudhury, are you here to join your job right away?”
“No Sir, just now Mr. Nurul Qader asked me to come and see you. I was at my desk, with my files open; didn’t wait to close them up”, I offered.
“OK, I’ll call up Nurul Qader over the intercom. You please get your files brought over here. And yes, you may report for work right away.”
“But Sir, I need a couple of days to think things over. My mother passed away, and I need to go there.”
“All right, you take a leave of absence for two days¾right after you join the job here,” he said. Which is what I did, and set out for Jessore the following day.
All my life I followed the principle that if I had to do a job that I didn’t particularly like, I’d do it with everything I had once I started it. During the job I’d allow no other thoughts in my mind. Anyway, on my return from Jessore, and after I joined my new job, he asked me to look for an Assistant Private Secretary for him. That was quite natural since he didn’t know everybody in the Civil Service. I picked Mazharul Islam as his Assistant Private Secretary.
Mr. Tajuddin would come to the Secretariat on both shifts¾morning and afternoon. We’d work till 8 or 9 in the evening. Sometimes even beyond that. At noon we’d go home for lunch. At times Mr. Tajuddin would have his lunch brought over from home which he’d eat in his office. On his official trips outside the country I’d have to accompany him. Inside, it was Mazhar’s duty. Except in Kapasia where he insisted that my presence was necessary.
Mr. Tajuddin was a man of great discipline. He did politics all his life yet was extremely meticulous about discipline. He’d say: “When I’ve allotted a certain amount of time to somebody, no one else will be allowed to come near me during that time. X will be with me on X’s time, Y on Y’s. While I’m working in my office there will be no political business, no interviews. I’ve told the Prime Minister never to call me on my office time, unless it is an extreme emergency. I even told him not to schedule any meetings during office hours. We simply do not have time to spare. We have a country to build”.
This business of building the country was the most recurring theme in his everyday talk.
“We have to do a lot of work to build this country,” he’d keep saying. And he’d tell his officers: “You see gentlemen, it is time to build a nation; time for a lot of work, and definitely not for waste.” His standard instruction to Mazhar was: “You’ll allocate different slots of time to different people who want to see me, and you’ll be very vigilant about who gets how much. If you face any problems there, just talk to Mr. Chowdhury; whatever he decides, will be final.” Mazhar would indeed come to me at times for help, and I’d sort things out for him. Mr. Tajuddin had a great deal of affection for Mazhar. But even Mazhar was an “apni” to him (and not a “tumi”).
A few days after I joined his office I offered this tidbit of my personal life to Mr. Tajuddin:
“There was a certain time in my student life when I was the Secretary of Dhaka University Central Students’ Union. I was majoring in Political Science and I had a lot of academic interest in politics. But I never aligned myself with any political party. So I would hope that as long as I’ll be working for you, you’ll not involve me with any party politics.” To this his unequivocal reply was:
“All right Mr. Chowdhury, so be it. At the same time, I’ll expect you never to express any interest in my political activities.” This agreement of ours remained in effect as long as we were together.
There was something else in Mr. Tajuddin’s character. Idling away time chatting with buddies in his office¾no, that he’d never do. If he was with the Secretary of Finance, for instance, he was with him alone, on official business. Sometimes he would call me in. Then there would be 3 of us, but no more. At that time not even a Minister would be allowed to disturb¾he’d have to wait for his turn in my room. It’s only after the conclusion of the first meeting would be the next person’s turn. The same would apply to the next person¾no third person allowed. Mr. Tajuddin was a true master of time management.
He had devised a very efficient system in his office. The first 1-1½ hours was for him to read the official mail and look over the files. The first set of files would be the ones marked “Urgent” by me. He would continue working alone, and I’d never disturb him until he called for me. Once done with reading mail he’d normally ask me in: “Will you please come in Mr. Choudhury. We can get things done better if we work together.” So I’d walk in through an inside door connected to his office, and together we’d dive into the files. No other person would be allowed to disturb us during that session. My instruction to Mazhar was to leave him alone until specifically asked to do some errand. His usual duties included receiving the Minister at the entrance every morning, ushering him to his office, and leave promptly afer he takes his seat and starts looking at the papers. On these working sessions with the Minister I’d often read his mail while he’d write down his decisions. Sometimes he would raise some questions, put a marker here and there, or I’d be the one to point out something to him. Then we’d discuss, and he’d make his decision.
He had a very neat calligraphic style of writing. His decisions would always be written in beautifully crafted clear Bengali sentences. He took utmost care in keeping his files in perfect order. He was keenly aware of the historical significance of official files, which explains why he was so picky about not having any room for error in them. Sometimes I’d alert him to a certain file: “Sir, I think there is a problem here. I bet once it leaves this office, it will never return, or will, with extreme caution, even if it does. I think it should be sent to the Investigation Department.” Mr. Tajuddin was an extremely intelligent man, and a very sharp nose for things that might go wrong. And yet he never questioned my judgment. He trusted my instincts completely. And, by the grace of God, no one ever found anything in his files that might embarrass him in any way.
Between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., was time for appointments with visitors. From then on till dusk was for uninterrupted official business. After dusk once again it would be time for appointments.
Shortly after independence Mr. McNamara, the President of World Bank, came for an official visit to Bangladesh. Mr. Tajuddin didn’t have very warm feelings for the Government of the United States of America because of its strong opposition to our independence movement. So it was only too natural that he’d not be too keen to see any representative of the U.S. Government, not even the World Bank president, on Bangladesh soil. A question was raised as to who would go to the airport to receive Mr. McNamara. The normal protocol required the Minister of Finance to do the honours. In some countries the tradition is to send the deputy minister instead. But Mr. McNamara was not an ordinary dignitary¾he was the Chief of the World Bank, and a former Secretary of Defense in the United States government, so he deserved special attention. In any underdeveloped country it would be natural for the Prime Minister himself waiting at the line of reception with the broad smile. However, in this case, it was decided that it would be the Minister of Finance who would present himself at the airport to receive the guest, host a formal dinner for him later, then see him off at the airport when it is time for him to leave. In the meantime, of course, he would have to arrange a courtesy meeting of the guest with the Prime Minister. Easy said than done, though. Problem is that Mr. Tajuddin simply refused to do any of those things.
“No, I’ll not go. There is no question of my going to meet him. I do not accept that the protocol compels the Finance Minister to go and receive Mr. McNamara. Besides, the role they played during the war, the memory of that role is too strong for me to even acknowledge him as an official guest, let alone receive him at the airport. This is my reason for not going.” His stubborn refusal to go along with a collective decision caused a lot of uproar in the upper circles at the time. Finally the task fell on the shoulders of the Governor of Bank of Bangladesh.
Not too long before that incident Mr. Tajuddin was in New Delhi as an invited guest at the Republic Day Ceremony of India on January 26. Mr. McNamara was there as well. At a reception in honour of the foreign dignitaries the officials of the host government had cleverly arranged for the two of them to be seated next to each other. They were together for sure, but Mr. Tajuddin completely ignored him, avoiding even an eye contact. Needless to say it didn’t go unnoticed. It was obviously deliberate on the part of Mr. Tajuddin to give his neighbour in the next seat a cold shoulder.
It so happened, however, that Mr. Tajuddin had to be in Washington in September 1972 to attend the Annual Meeting of the World Bank. In the meantime, of course, he had the benefit of 8-9 months’ life in the pressure-cooker of the economic ministry, which might have helped soften his attitude somewhat toward the U.S. He had a better understanding of the role of World Bank in the economics of developing nations, as well as the extent of progress a nation can hope to achieve with help from the Bank. By that time, of course, we had been accepted in the World Bank family as a full-fledged member. So it was necessary for him to see a lot of important people in Washington, say, the Treasury Secretary, the Secretary of State, and, of course, the President of World Bank, Mr. McNamara. He also met a few key members of the Congress, some high-profile Senators like Ted Kennedy. There were a few more influential people in Washington that he’d have liked to meet, but they were not available at the time.
The most significant meeting of Mr. Tajuddin, and the longest, was with Mr. McNamara. Assisting him at that meeting was Mr. Matiul Islam, the Secretary of Finance; Professor Nurual Islam, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission; Mr. Hamidullah, the Government of Bangladesg Bank; Mr. Hussain Ali, the Ambassador of Bangladesh to USA; Mr. Abul Maal Abdul Muhit, and myself. Mr. Muhit and I were in charge of keeping the minutes of the meeting. Mr. Tajuddin opened the proceedings with an elaborate and eloquent presentation of the state of Bangladesh economy, and a complete list of our immediate needs. Mr. McNamara raised a number of questions about how he planned to make use of the loans while aiming to nationalize the industries and institutions at the same time, about how he wished to coordinate the help from the World Bank with his overall socialistic ideas. Mr. Tajuddin was well-prepared for these questions, so was able to handle them calmly, and in a very professional manner. He even pointed out some of mutual benefits that the aid package could have for both Bangladesh and the World Bank, on top of the tremendous boost that it could give to the struggling economy of a fledging nation towards its goal for self-reliance and eventual prosperity. Mr. McNamara seemed impressed. His question then turned from concern about policies to specifics of needs. Mr. Tajuddin had no problem at all with that part of the question. We had already prepared our detailed plan for the sectors where immediate help was needed. For instance: energy, agriculture, water, and a few other sectors could use some immediate infusion of funds. The meeting concluded in, what appeared to be, high spirits all around. Mr. McNamara seemed more than satisfied. He looked cheerful.
There was an official dinner in honour of the Finance Ministers of all countries, hosted by the Chief of World Bank, followed by another one for the Planning Commission heads and the Secretaries of Economic Affairs. Prof. Nurul Islam and Mr. Matiul Islam represented Bangladesh in the second one. The rest of our delegation were in our hotel room, discussing various things. Mr. Muhit joined us later. Mr. Tajuddin told him: “Mr. Muhit, you are a local in this country. Why don’t you order for dinner?”
So he did, by phone. Dinner was delivered in the room. We ate, then waited for the Deputy Chairman and the Secretary to return from their dinner party. We needed those two for further discussion about a meeting scheduled for the following day.
They came after their dinner. As soon as they entered the room Mr. Nurul Islam looked at Mr. Tajuddin and said in a very excited voice: “You seemed to have cast a spell on Mr. McNamara. He was all praise for you. Most of the time at the dinner the talk was about Mr. Tajuddin. He was commending you for having so much clarity and depth in your thoughts, and your ability to present them in such a beautifully articulated manner, even without being a professional economist. He is confident about your becoming a highly successful economic minister of Bangladesh.” Hardly able to contain this elation, he added: “You know how careful he is about his speeches, and how stingy he is about choosing words of praise even when he wants to compliment somebody. But what he said about you today, and in the present of everybody, made us feel so proud.”
So, considering everything¾the meetings and discussions, the dinners¾one could say it was a highly successful trip.
While in Washington Mr. Tajuddin and Mr. Muhit would often find themselves engaged in discussions about the present and future directions of the country. These discussions were not always tame academic ones confined to scholarly curiosities, but could become quite heated and loud at times. During one of these discussions Mr. Muhit landed a blistering attack on Mr. Tajuddin’s nationalization policy. Mr. Tajuddin retorted by asking what he would have done had he been the economic minister. Not to be fazed so easily Mr. Muhit laid out his own plans that he’d have tried to implement if he were in power. Mr. Tajuddin’s response to that was blunt and brutal:
“You are saying these things because you were never in politics. But I was, all my life, and that is the big difference between your point of view and mine. You have read a few books of Economics, learned a few standard phrases of big scholars, which you are regurgitating here very faithfully. But I’ll understand which policies are going to work in the field because I have spent all my life on the field, with the people, so I know what they think, how they feel, how they breathe. You have no way of knowing that.”
Mr. Muhit, of course, was no less of a fighter than Mr. Tajuddin. So their never-ending debate would go on and on, for quite a while. The tone of the verbal attacks and counterattacks led me to conclude that Mr. Muhit’s tenure in Washington was probably not going to last too long. As soon as Mr. Tajuddin was back home something was going to happen.
On our return flight, however, Mr. Tajuddin asked me to take the empty seat beside him, then enquired how long have I known Mr. Muhit personally. That made me even more nervous¾I smelt trouble. So I thought I should do my best to highlight some of the things about Mr. Muhit that would please the Minister.
“Sir, I have known him since our student life. He was one of the Foreign Service officials who defected to join the Liberation Movement. He even organized a community association to raise money for Bangladesh.”
Mr. Tajuddin said: “I know all that Mr. Chowdhury. I like that young man very much. He is a truly brilliant fellow.”
What a relief!
“And I thought you’re going to dump him or something. Now I see it’s quite the opposite, Sir.”
“You should all be proud of Muhit. He is only an economic minister now, but he should be used in higher places. Yes, I’m going to put his talents to better use for the country.’
It appeared that he had made up his mind already where to place him in the bureaucratic chain of command. And indeed he did, for a few days later I found Mr. Muhit in the ADB. It was obvious that Mr. Tajuddin had a hand in it. There was, of course, a lot of opposition to it in the upper circles, and a lot of controversy. Mr. Muhit would later talk about those controversies, and remark: “Sayeed, I never saw a minister more brilliant than this man.”
Mr. Tajuddin always had a very clear idea about which way the country’s economy was moving. His instruction to the Governor of the Bank of Bangladesh was: “I want a precise 1½ page report every day about the economy of Bangladesh. And I want the complete picture. Please do not try to hide anything from me. A true and honest report from you will be the work of a friend, because it is only when I get the correct picture of the state of economy can I take the correct steps to respond to it. Do not try to cover up just to please me. You’ll never paint a rosy picture for me while, in fact, the economy is bleeding profusely at some point or other. I’ll instead expect you to alert me as soon as something goes wrong, so that I can take appropriate steps to mend it.”
So the reports would keep coming to him regularly, which he would read carefully and prepare periodical policy papers, identifying the problems, and making recommendations to rectify them. In practice, however, his efforts, no matter how sincere they were, would often be met with resistance from all quarters. He was a very pragmatic man; never hesitated to change his decisions if he felt it was in the interest of the country. He even toyed with the idea of privatization in some sectors of the economy. He’d say that, yes, a promise was made to the nation that nationalization would be the way they’d take. “But”, he’d add, “the reality seems to indicate that changes are needed, so I think it is more important to think of the good of the people than to worry about breaking those promises.” Mr. Tajuddin had told Shaikh Mujib that “…We’ll go to the people once again, as we did before, we’ll tell them what actions we took, with what results, good and bad, and what steps we’re going to take now to change the course for a better future. We’ll go all over the country to talk to people, explain to them where we’re going to do, try to give a rationale.”
Possibly this sort of revisionist thinking on his part led to a number of changes in the economic policies, for example, investment in the private sector was extended from a limit of 25 lakhs to about 3 crores (can’t remember the exact figure); all but a few of the industries were denationalized¾at least that was his recommendation. However, a few of Bangabandhu’s close associates twisted the whole thing, and tried to convince the Shaikh that the real intention of Tajuddin was to embarrass him in front of the nation, by showing that the leader had reneged on his earlier promises. Most of the ideas that Mr. Tajuddin had for economic development of the country could not be carried out. It was clear that every action he took would be met with opposition.
There was one thing about Mr. Tajuddin’s personality that whenever and wherever in the world he went on a tour he would make an impression on the other side by his wit, intelligence, depth and simplicity¾they’d look visibly taken by his charm. He had a gift for putting his arguments in a very convincing manner. In 1973 we went on a goodwill tour of a few countries in the Middle East. Kuwait had given us recognition a short while before. Our Ambassador there was Lieutenant-General Khwaja Wasiuddin. He had a lot of contribution for the Liberation War, despite the fact that he was Urdu-speaking, and his wife a Punjabi.
As we landed at the Kuwait airport we saw just a handful of people waiting to receive us, that included the Ambassador, some members of his staff, a few local Bangladeshi residents, and two junior officers of the Government of Kuwait. It was obviously a deliberate snub that Mr. Kafiluddin Mahmud, the Secretary of the Finance Ministry, and I, felt very bad about. But Mr. Tajuddin, the veteran politician, took things in stride, made no fuss about it, as if he didn’t even notice anything, and spoke to those two officers in his normal jovial manner. Clearly, those poor fellows were feeling very embarrassed about the whole thing. They tried to sweeten things a bit by offering an explanation: “Your Excellency, a sister or a close relative of our Minister passed away, which is why he couldn’t be here personally, and sent us instead. But he is definitely going to see you later.” It was clear to us that that was just a bad excuse. Mr. Tajuddin said: “Don’t worry about it. I have a scheduled meeting with him, where I’m sure I’ll see your Economic Minister. If necessary I’ll extend my visit by a day so that he gets enough time to recover from his grief. We can get together after that”. He didn’t want to make any fuss about it.
We got off the airport. Our hotel arrangements, however, were absolutely flawless¾each member of our delegation had a separate suite. Mr. Tajuddin was in a royal suite. The four of us¾the Ambassador, the Secretary, myself and the Minister, of course, had a lot of room and opportunity to talk things over. It was clear that the cold reception we got at the airport was the effect of heavily negative propaganda of Pakistan against Bangladesh. The Finance Minister of Kuwait did give us a bit of time, but squeezed between the A’sr and Magreb prayers, in a not-too-subtle effort to get it over with as an obligatory formality in the shortest possible time. Our Ambassador did his best to make maximum use of the available time, very careful that our mission does not end in dismal failure.
The very first question the Kuwati Minister threw at us was a blunt “why did you guys split with Pakistan?” We were already in a bad mood, so this rude question simply pushed us to the boiling point. Mr. Tajuddin had been in politics all his life, but we found out that day how good a politician he was. He kept his cool, and replied in a very calm, composed voice: “You see Mr. Minister, the fundamental problem between us was economic. You are an economic minister, as I am, so you’ll be the one to understand the whole thing once I explain.” Then he gave a brief overview of all our problems with Pakistan which slowly created a gap between the two wings. “It has nothing to do with religion. As Muslims we are just as good as they are. In fact we’re the ones who created Pakistan. Without the Bengali Muslims there would be no Pakistan.” But the honourable minister from Kuwait kept hammering on the same print: why did you have to separate?
Mr. Kafiluddin Mahmud couldn’t take it anymore. He blurted out quite forcefully: “Your Excellency, it was very easy for you to say all these things on our face sitting on your fast-growing economy in a cool cozy airconditioned room. But had you known what hell our people had to go through, what opposition we faced in our struggle for freedom, had you have a true picture of all that, I don’t think you’d have put that question to our Minister today. So please allow me to give an account of the unspeakably barbarous acts the Pakistanis did in the name of Islam. I am a practising Muslim, I say my prayers five times a day, I follow each and every law of Islam, as does my Minister, and my other colleagues in this delegation.”
He continued to describe in gory details the atrocities committed by the Pakistan Army in Bangladesh, interrupting himself at times, for further effect, by putting the blunt question to the Kuwaiti Minister: “What would you have done, Sir, in this situation?”
Mr. Tajuddin made no attempt to stop Mr. Mahmud. He let him vent his mind as much as he wanted. A true politician as he was he knew when to let whom to say what. As soon as he thought Mr. Mahmud has spoken his mind, he took over: “We shall try to maintain good relations with Pakistan. We are already in the process of establishing diplomatic relations with them, and we are going to attend the OIC meeting.”
It worked! Like water poured on fire. The Kuwaiti Minister immediately came down to the “brother” level, uttering the magical word at every breath, then extended a hand of friendship¾a typical Arab gesture signifying warm brotherly feelings with each other. Right on the spot he proposed a state dinner in honour of the guests the following day.
The dinner was fabulous. It is not too often that so many guests, so many important guests, meet at a dinner party hosted by a Finance Minister. The whole thing had completely turned around¾from a not-too-welcome guest to the most welcome guest. As far as I remember Kuwait committed a substantial amount of aid to Bangladesh.
Our next two stops after Kuwait was Saudi Arabia and Baghdad. The issue of religion was raised in Saudi Arabia also, but the reception there was reasonably courteous. Mr. Tajuddin had met with King Faisal. But Saudi Arabia did not recognize us yet. So we had to wait in a Beirut hotel while Mr. Muhit, on the strength of his World Bank passport, went to Saudi Arabia as our emissary to sort out our visa problems. At that point Honourable Tunku Abdur Rahman of Malayasia gave us a lot of help by putting a word or two on our behalf to the Saudi authorities. Without his help the visa might not have come through. In Iraq there were not too many questions about Pakistan and religion. However, they held the position that they themselves were not in a good financial situation, so how could they help others. Nevertheless, they too came up with a pretty large donation in the end. We returned home with that cheque in my briefcase.
On the whole, considering everything, we got good response from the Arab countries. Saudi Economic Minister eventually became a good personal friend of Mr. Tajuddin, who did a fantastic job exposing the despicable falsehoods and lies that Pakistan had spread about us. But the cruel irony is that the cooperation he got from his own country was far less than what he got from abroad.
Mr. Tajuddin was not to be taken in easily by unnecessary adulations. In fact, he used to loathe flattery. If anyone came to his office trying to gain his favour by empty words of flattery, there were times when I saw the person thrown out. Overt praise just to get things done wouldn’t work with this man. He’d be immediately cut off by Mr. Tajuddin, and asked: “Just say what you came to say. There is no need for the other things¾you may utter those words somewhere else.” People, of course, knew what a disciplined man he was, so hardly anybody who knew him tried that approach.
Once I was confident that he was not the kind of boss who would do any harm to me I took the liberty of confronting him, if I felt necessary, with sharp critical comments. He’d encourage me to make those comments by saying: “Mr. Choudhury, please do not try to hide anything from me just because it may not be very pleasant. You must tell me frankly and bluntly what I need to know.” My response to that was: “Sir, the kind of stuff you allow me to say to you would be enough to get myself fired for insubordination, had I been working with somebody else. You have given me that freedom so why shall I hide anything from you!”
What a strange man he was that he appreciated the criticisms more than the compliments!
I’d often tell him: “Sir, there is a general impression out there that you are too close to India, that you have sold off your country.” Usually he’d just shrug it off with his characteristics smile. However, once he told me: “Mr. Choudhury, I’ll confess to you one weakness that I have in my character. It has been a lifelong principle of mine not to betray my benefactors. I’ll not be ungrateful. Nobody can say Tajuddin had forgotten this debt to them. I’ve been harsh with people, yes, I’ve admonished a few at times, but never betrayed anybody. You really do not know the horrors of those days of 1971, Mr. Choudhury, under what conditions I sought refuge in India, what chain of events forced me to go to India, and we were finally able to witness the emergence of a free, independent country. The kind of help they gave us during those times, gave us shelter, fed our 10 million refugees for one full year, don’t you think they deserve a bit of gratitude from us? Some honest acknowledgement? I do have that sense of gratitude, Mr. Chowdhury. If that is what means to be pro-Indian, then yes, I’m exactly that.”
He then took out a file from his cabinet drawer, opened it for me, and said: “Please see what is in here. The exchange of notes between me and Mrs. Gandhi, it’s all here. Please read them carefully, and tell me if indeed I’m what I’m supposed to be, pro-Indian.” He took it as a challenge to prove otherwise. I read the whole file, then said: “Sir, I’m completely satisfied. But I’m only your Private Secretary, my role is quite insignificant compared to yours. I cannot change your image with my personal satisfaction. It is not even possible. What I can do, at best, is to point out your negative sides, your apparent pitfalls. Only occasionally I may add a complimentary word or two. My hope will be to help you to steer your course accordingly.” Sometimes I’d feel a bit nervous about talking to my boss this way. Did I do the right thing? Did I hurt his feelings? Would he be mad with me? But again, it was he, wasn’t it, who gave me the freedom to talk to him like that. After all, haven’t I seen with my own eyes how strongly he feels about gutless flattery?
How he evaluated me for all these blunt talks of mine I found out much later. By that time he had already resigned from the Cabinet. One day Mr. Hamidullah, the Governor of Bangladesh Bank called me up, saying: “Mr. Choudhury, would you come to join me for a cup of coffee? I have something very interesting to tell you.” He didn’t want to say what it was, over the telephone. So I went to see him. This is what he said: “I went to see Mr. Tajuddin at his residence last evening. I was there for quite a while, and discussed a lot of things. He discouraged me to visit him at his home anymore.”
“He told me the same thing. You shouldn’t come to see me here, it may land you in trouble. They keep an eye on all comings and goings in this house, he said,” I added.
Mr. Hamidullah continued: “At one point of our discussion he asked me about you. Did I see you, how you are doing, etc. I told him, yes, I did see Abu Sayeed quite often and he was doing well. Then he started praising you profusely. I never heard a Minister praising an officer so much. Do you know what he said? He said, an officer like that was worth more than ten officers. If Shaikh Sahib had an officer like Abu Sayeed in his office then he wouldn’t do those mistakes. And the history of Bangladesh would be quite different today.”
Once a file was sent over to our Ministry. It showed that Mr. Khondokar Moshtaq had once taken a loan of 12-14 thousand Takas during the Pakistan time. Now, as a Minister, he has appealed to the Economic Ministry to cancel that loan. As soon as the file was brought to Mr. Tajuddin’s attention he called up Mr. Moshtaq and said: “Moshtaq Bhai, you want me to forgive your loan, but it is such a small amount of money. And, do you think it would look good if one Minister asks another to just forget about a loan of his? Besides, you may have to face criticism for this afterwards. If you were not a Minister, nobody would bother making an issue out of it. But you are a Cabinet Minister of Bangladesh, so naturally a question may be raised that you have used your ministerial influence to have your loan cancelled. Even though a recommendation has come from the lower levels, I’d think it over again if I were you.” It appeared that Mr. Moshtaq wasn’t too pleased with his comments. I wasn’t privy to their conversation, of course, but I could gather the tone of it from what he later said to me: “I’d never have made a petition like that. First, the amount is so insignificant. Second, these little hardships are a common lot for many of us. At the time of independence our family car was stolen. Our village home was burnt down. Did I ever mention any of this to the government, or demanded any compensation? During a war, suffering is a common fate, everybody has a share in it, including ourselves. I don’t think it would be right for him to do this as a cabinet minister.” He was right, of course, but I thought I should put a word of caution to him: “But, Sir, he wants this little favour, and it has been favourably recommended at all levels¾I think you should approve it. Also, he was pretty upset on the phone, it seems.” As far as I remember, he did sign the file. But I heard him saying:
“You don’t know this man, Mr. Choudhury. He is a veritable viper, which you’ll not know from outside. But I’ve seen his true face¾he is more dangerous than the most venomous snake.” While talking about the war he’d make other comments to other people about Khondokar Moshtaq, about the treacherous role he played in ’71, about why he had to be removed from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He also said a few things about Mr. Mahbubul Alam Chashi. We never pressed him for full details, and he never gave any.
The Liberation War was a very touchy subject for Mr. Tajuddin. He’d get quite emotional at the very mention of the word. It was quite obvious from the way he talked how deeply and totally committed he was to the war efforts. His standard phrase was: Liberation War is our pride, our inspiration.
Mr. Tajuddin had tremendous respect for people. Never too slow to recognize one’s potential or acknowledge one’s contribution. Every time there was a meeting with other officials at the ministerial level he would emphasize the need to be always in touch with people. Without those precious children of the land how can you run the country? You cannot build a nation by alienating its people. Nowhere in the world has anyone ever succeeded by doing that. He would cite a lot of examples from world history. If anyone does anything to sabotage our efforts then there are rules in our books to deal with him¾we’ll bring him to justice based on those rules. But I’ll never accuse anybody in a blanket judgment with no legal basis. This is how Mr. Tajuddin would deal with people, friend or foe, but there were not many around him who shared or cared for his views.
About the war criminals his personal position was this: if the accused was in the Pakistan Army then he should be tried under international laws, and we’ll make sure that it is done. However, if a Bangladeshi has committed the crime then he should not be stripped off his citizenship, but tried under our own laws. This was his position on Golam Azam, which he expressed in the context of a certain incident.
There was a government officer called A. Z. Shamsul Alam. He had written a number of newspaper articles against the six-point movement and in favour of Pakistan. At the time Bangladesh became a reality he was in Washington on some training. His Bangladeshi citizenship was revoked. When Mr. Tajuddin went to Washington for the World Bank meeting I went to Mr. Muhit’s place as a house-guest. Shamsul Alam came to see Mr. Muhit pleading with him to set up an appointment with Mr. Tajuddin. Mr. Muhit declined by saying: “How can I take you to Mr. Tajuddin? I fight with him every day. Sorry, I can’t take you there. You better talk to Sayeed.” Then he came to me.
“Sayeed Bhai, I’ve a request to you. As you know I’m in a tight corner now. My scholarship expired. My family is in Bangladesh. My citizenship has been revoked. I don’t have a passport, I cannot return home. I’m on the brink of starvation here. Would you please arrange a meeting for me with Mr. Tajuddin? I want to go home.”
“Do you realize you may be put to trial if you go home?”, I pointed out.
He replied: “I’m willing to take that risk. Whatever happens will happen, but I want to be with my folks. Yes, I now regret the position I took before.”
“It is a very sensitive matter. I can take you there, but I’ll make no recommendations for you. Let me tell you something about this man. He is extremely sharp. He’s going to scan each and every word you’ll say¾he has that ability. And he gets very mad very quickly,” I added.
So I went to Mr. Tajuddin and stated the case: “Sir, there is a fellow here who is in a real jam. He wants to see you.”
“What is his name you said?”
“A. Z. Shamsul Alam.”
“Ah, that fellow!” he almost cried out, “he is in Washington, isn’t he?”
Then he said: “Do you know the amount of harm he did to us? We were fighting a war while he kept writing those articles against us.”
“Yes, Sir, I know everything. But now he is in trouble. I think you should give him a hearing. I’m not going to recommend one way or other. The decision is all yours.”
He thought for a while, then said: “All right, bring him in.”
There was a 15-20 minute window in the evening. I told Shamsul Alam: “You have 20 minutes to put your case, no more.” So he put his case, while Mr. Tajuddin listened.
“When did you lose your nationality?” asked Mr. Tajuddin.
“I was one of many whose names were in the Gazette Notice.”
“It is a very different matter¾not in my jurisdiction. It belongs in the Home Ministry, but in this matter the decision is made by the Prime Minister himself. You can do one thing: leave an application with Abu Sayeed, addressed to the Home Minister, with a remark ‘through the Finance Minister currently visiting Washington.’ You leave it in my office. I cannot promise you anything. But I’ll hand it over to the Home Minister, and maybe put a word or two. That’s all. Now you may leave.” The whole appointment was over in 10 minutes. After Alam left this is what Mr. Tajuddin told me the same night:
“Mr. Choudhury, please file his application with special care when he comes to submit it tomorrow. This is not right for our government. If he is guilty, try him in the court, why take away his citizenship? After the Second World War did the German Government revoke the citizenship of all their war criminals? No, they didn’t. They were tried by an international tribunal. Then they were sentenced in accordance with their proven guilt. If Golam Azam has to be hanged after his trial then it should happen on the Bangladeshi soil.”
I couldn’t help interjecting: “Do you mean, Sir, you want to let Golam Azam enter the country?”
He said quite emphatically: “Of course. As a citizen of Bangladesh let him get in. Then we shall try him as a war criminal. If he is acquitted then we’ll let him free, if convicted then he will face the punishment. The main point is that the people will know what crimes he committed. They will have an aversion for the criminal, and that will help raise their love for their country. Law of the land must be upheld at all costs.”
Soon after we returned from Washington Mr. Tajuddin called up the Home Minister, Mr. Abdul Hannan, talked about Shamsul Alam’s case, then said: “This is my recommendation. Give him back his citizenship, let him come back. Then if the Home Ministry feels he should be tried, let him be tried. Would you please take the case to the Prime Minister?”
Couple of days later I was sitting in his room, when the red phone rang up, indicating that the Prime Minister was calling. After listening for a while Mr. Tajuddin said: “Mujib Bhai, I need to have a discussion over this with you. The matter of Shamsul Alam’s application is giving me that opportunity. First of all, I don’t think we have any right to withdraw the citizenship of a person who was born in Bangladesh. I think we should reverse this unjust decision as soon as possible. Secondly, this application of Shamsul Alam that I forwarded to your attention, please look it over, then bring him back home, try him for the wrongs he did according to the laws of the country.” Then he added: “We have to bring back even Golam Azam. If these people are forced to stay out of the country then how are they going to get punished for their crimes? How are our people ever going to know exactly what despicable crimes they committed during the War of Liberation?”
Hearing my boss talk like that to our Prime Minister made me feel like bowing my head in deep respect and pride. What a great man he was, I thought. The unwavering respect and faith he had for the Rule of Law was unbelievable. He wanted to bring the criminals to the Court of Law, and hand out a judgment that would be visible and transparent to the entire nation, and be permanently engraved in their collective memory. This way people would learn to abhor what is unjust, which in turn, would fill their hearts with renewed pride in their country, and give them strength to stand with their heads high to live meaningful lives.
Mr. Tajuddin was a man full of enthusiastic optimism¾robust optimism. Sometimes I might be in a mood of despair for our country seeing gloom and doom everywhere. He’d then try to brighten me up by saying: “Mr. Choudhury, what you should do is read. Get hold of a few books of history. Then you’ll understand how badly damaged a country can get after a bloody, armed war of liberation, and what happened to other countries in similar situations. This is temporary, Mr. Choudhury. Believe me, we will get out of this one day. But it will all depend on ourselves, how we deal with our law-and-order problems, and our other problems.” Clearly, he was well aware of the monumental problems the nation faced, but he never gave up hope. He always exuded courage and confidence.
About Bangbandhu Mr. Tajuddin always spoke in deeply emotional and effusive terms. He really loved that man. Even when it appeared the two were moving apart he’d speak of his old friend with nothing but utmost respect. He had an unshakeable faith and trust in Bangbandhu. And I believe, Bangbandhu had great respect for him as well.
Mr. Tajuddin normally wouldn’t ask me to go to his home unless there was a pressing need. If I did go it would be on my own, on Sundays, maybe (in those days Sunday was the weekly holiday). One Saturday night when we finally finished our work at 10 p.m. and were about to head home, he said: “Mr. Choudhury, we need to do some official work tomorrow. I have instructed the PA to leave a pack of files in my car.”
But I protested: “Sir, we work all week till 9-10 in the night. Tomorrow is our only day off. I do have a family, you know.”
He understood, but said: “Mr. Choudhury, you’ve to take a bit of trouble, if you don’t mind. I must release a few files by tomorrow. You know quite well which files I’m talking about.”
So I reported for work early in the morning at his residence on Hare Road. He had already started working on those files by the time I arrived there. I pulled up a chair beside him. He was intently poring over one particular file while scribbling notes at the same time. After putting his signature at the end of a nearly 2-page long note he called out for his wife (Mrs. Zohra Tajuddin): “ Lily, Lily.” As she came out of her room he cried out: “I just approved that promotion case.” Mrs. Tajuddin replied in a casual voice: “You are the Finance Minister. It is your business whom you’ll promote in your Ministry, and whom you won’t. Why should I have anything to say in this matter?” Mr. Tajuddin laughed: “You are quite right, Lily. But I wanted to tell you anyway because this case has a direct connection with you.”
I was intrigued. Connection with Mrs. Tajuddin? Sounds mysterious. I looked up at him. With a magnificently benevolent smile on his face he handed over the file to me.
I read the whole file, from A to Z. It was about the promotion of a Customs Officer. It had reached the Minister’s desk after having successfully crossed a number of bureaucratic layers with favorable recommendation at each level. Looked like a fairly straightforward case, except for a small question about his controversial role during the War. “Needs some attention,” says the report. Mr. Tajuddin’s notes read like this: “I’ve looked at his ACR’s. On the strength of his service records he ought to be promoted. His role during the War may have been questionable, but there are no concrete cases to implicate him. I don’t think it is proper to accuse somebody on the basis of suspicion alone. If there is a specific allegation against him then he should be brought to justice in the courts. In view of the absence of any proofs or any documents to substantiate these suspicions I don’t think this matter should be prejudicial to his promotion.”
Seemed quite reasonable to me. But it didn’t explain the mystery.
“It doesn’t explain, Sir, what possible connection this could have with Bhabi,” I said. Then he told me the whole story.
“On the night of March 25, a few minutes before the Pakistan Army started the carnage in Dhaka, I left home. But Lily couldn’t, so she pretended to be the tenant of the house, which enabled her to wiggle out of immediate danger, with two small children. However, looking for a safer place to hide she ended up at a house by the side of the lake in Dhanmondi Road #13, owned by a gentleman we knew. With her was our 5-year old daughter Mimi, and 1-year old son Sohel. The gentleman wasn’t home at that time. When he returned he wasn’t too happy seeing the unwelcome guests. So he cooked up a plan. He convinced Lily that his was not really a safe place to hide, because it was right on the main street, so always a target for the Army, therefore she would be better off at another place down the street, across a few houses in the neighborhood where he would be happy to take her along. So she followed him out of his house, presumably in search of a safer place. As soon as they stepped out, however, he pretended to have left a key or some such important little item in the house. So he asked her to wait outside while he would dash in to retrieve that article, and be back in a moment. But he never came back. As soon as he entered the house he bolted the wooden door, and didn’t answer the frantic calls that poor Lily was crying out from outside the door, or the ringing of the bell, or the repeated knocks. Left stranded all alone in the middle of the night, with two little children, on the hostile street manned by a brutal Army ordered to kill all Bengalis on sight, Lily was forced to seek refuge behind the heaps of bricks and dirt at a construction site, and spend the entire night there.
“You wanted to see the connection Mr. Choudhury. It is the same gentleman whom I approved for promotion today. I do not think this incident in our life should have any bearing with this man’s service career. Somebody may have had a wind of what happened to my family on that night, maybe that’s how it appeared as a vague reference on his file.”
I sat there absolutely stunned, mesmerized; couldn’t believe my ears. All I could say was: “Sir, you are a great man.”
Then we closed that file and went on to other business.
On matters of justice Mr. Tajuddin’s approach was uncannily impersonal. His attitude was this: no harm must come to anybody because of me. If someone perhaps doesn’t deserve something nice, still does, let him. But let me not be the one to cause anything bad to him.
Once he came to his office in a very bad mood. I generally used to avoid him at such times unless he would call me himself. That day he did, and asked:
“Mr. Choudhury, did you see the morning papers today?”
“Yes Sir, I read some. Seems to be one big news today¾the Red Army. With their red scarves wrapped around their heads they captured officer Fazlur Rahman.”
“What’s your reaction to that?” he asked.
“Very simple, Sir. You cannot run the administration by breaking the morale of the civil servants.”
He agreed: “You are perfectly right; exactly what I expected from you.” Then he took the red phone and called up Bangabandhu.
“Mujib Bhai, what’s going on in the country? All those sycophants around you seem to be determined to destroy the country. They are giving you a completely false picture. This land of ours is now down the path of ruin. I warned you about it many, many times, but you didn’t listen to me. I’m coming over right now to see you. I need to talk to you face-to-face, and come to some understanding about it.” He hung up and stormed out of his office.
Bangbandhu’s Private Secretary Dr. Farashuddin and I had been on very good terms. A short while after Mr. Tajuddin left his office, Farashuddin called me up: “Syeed Bhai, we are having a full-fledged battle here. Your boss seems to be really mad.”
When I told him about the Red Army he said: “When Mr. Tajuddin entered Bangabandhu’s room he was boiling in rage when he saw the two operators of the Red Army sitting there: Hannan and Shaikh Moni. He demanded that in order to speak to Bangbandhu he needed complete privacy. So the two left the room quietly; looked like your boss was trying to defend the civil servants.”
After this incident it appeared that the Red Army had suspended its activities. This is how Mr. Tajuddin was. He was never afraid to speak up if he thought it was in the interest of the country as well as for the good of Bangabandhu. But there were always some in Bangabandhu’s close circle who would ceaselessly pour falsehoods in his ears. Slowly but surely that helped erode the bonding between the two.
Then a time came when Mr. Tajuddin would appear to be a little downcast, brokenhearted. I’d talk to my colleague Mazhar about it sometimes: “Why does he look so sad, Mazhar? He’d always have a smile on his face when he spoke. But now he seems too withdrawn. Even his smiles look sad.” Mr. Tajuddin was drowning in a sea of deep thought.
He had a habit of touching the tip of his index figure with the thumb, on both hands. When he was worried for something, or anxious, the pace of this touching would accelerate. One day he called me in. Seeing his fingers working at furious pace I knew there was trouble. Something must have gone wrong really bad. I decided that it was not a good time to speak. So we sat there in dead silence, until about 5 minutes later he broke it: “Mr. Choudhury, it looks like we have reached the end of the line. I can’t go on like this. It’s becoming practically impossible to continue standing by this man. Most of the people in the Awami League seem to have lost their humanity. The kind of policies they are following, the path they are taking¾no, I can’t take it anymore.”
I tried to play the devil’s advocate just to light up the room a bit, but it didn’t work.
“You don’t have any idea what’s going on inside. Impossible! I can’t work with them.”
Meanwhile the meetings of the Finance Ministers of the Commonwealth and the World Bank were coming up in September-October. In addition, there were invitations from the USSR and a few European countries for a delegation of a maximum of 4 from Bangladesh, including Mr. Tajuddin. I reminded him about the invitation and asked: “Sir, have you decided on who will be the other three?”
“Give me a day’s time, please,” is all he said. The following day I found a note on my desk. It read: “Please inform the State Government that their Minister of Finance Affairs Mr. Tajuddin and his Private Secretary Mr. Abu Sayeed Choudhury are going to represent Bangladesh. You may go ahead with the necessary arrangements.”
As soon as I read the note I almost ran to his room in panic: “Sir, what did you do? You are going to be a sworn enemy. You are not taking anybody from the Party, they are going to be raging mad against you.”
He just shrugged, saying: “There are reasons, Mr. Choudhury. If I had taken anyone from the Party, I’d create more enemies.” But I continued protesting: “Please, Sir, sleep on it one more day, then decide.” He did, but remained unmoved on his decision.
Throughout the entire trip we sat in adjacent seats. He talked at length about the country, about the Party. He’d raise an issue and ask for my opinion. Sometimes I’d speak for his position, sometimes against. He was turning on to so many different topics, it was hard to keep up with him; as if he was in a race with his own thoughts. I was only a conduit between his mind and himself. All he was doing was clear up some of his deeper thoughts and conflicts by bouncing them on me.
We travelled around quite a few countries. Everywhere we went we heard the same lament from our Ambassadors: Sir, we can’t take it anymore. The papers here are buzzing with all those negative news from Bangladesh. They are making fun of us, asking questions, making enquiries, which we are finding increasingly difficult to cope with, to give satisfactory explanations. These complaints seemed to have sunk Mr. Tajuddin into a state of depression. He was concerned, very concerned. He became quite non-communicative, even with me. All that I’d hear him mutter: can’t take it anymore, can’t.
At one stage of this trip we were visiting Moscow where Mr. Shamsur Rahman Khan (one of the accused in the Agartola Conspiracy Case) was our Ambassador. We were having dinner at his residence¾Mr. Tajuddin, the Ambassador, his wife, and myself. Suddenly the phone rang. It was from Bangladesh. The Prime Minister wanted to speak to the Minister. From the adjoining room I heard Mr. Tajuddin say: “Mujib Bhai, I’ve already told you what I need to tell. I have nothing more to add. The decision is yours.” Of course, there was no way of knowing what was being said from the other side, but the next thing Mr. Tajuddin said is this: “I advised you against going to the U.S. this way. If they had invited you formally at the State level then, yes, you could have gone as a State guest. But you are going to the UN, and I think you should go straight back home from there. However, if you insist on going to Washington with no formal invitation then go ahead. I have nothing to say.” With that Mr. Tajuddin dropped the phone in disgust, visibly upset; had nothing to say but utter the words of exasperation: impossible to stay together anymore.
At the conclusion of our trips we reached Washington for the World Bank meeting. Bangabandhu had, in the meantime, arrived in New York, and arrangements had been made for a 15-minute session with President Ford. This was the point of Mr. Tajuddin’s disagreement: why should Bangabandhu demean himself by going to see the US President without a formal invitation? He didn’t want the prestige of the office of the Prime Minister of Bangladesh compromised in any way. As I said before, he was fiercely protective of the good name and honor of Bangabandhu. This was the reason why he was so upset with that arrangement.
Mr. Tajuddin was by nature a very truthful man, as well as very frank and open to his close friends and associates while talking about his country. Paramount on his thoughts was always the good of Bangladesh. At the same time he had this remarkable quality of loyalty that whenever he’d represent the country he’d place the honor and prestige of Bangbandhu ahead of everything else. He made detailed notes and recommendations for Bangbandhu in preparation for his scheduled talk with Mr. McNamara in Washington. Even though he was opposed to the trip he, nonetheless, was forthright in giving him all possible help and cooperation.
To receive Bangbandhu at the airport we were all there. His meeting with the President didn’t go well. That saddened Mr. Tajuddin very much, because he didn’t want that meeting to happen at all.
On our return to Bangladesh Mr. Tajuddin gave a very strong speech at the airport, saying that the nation can no longer hide its head in the sand like an ostrich.
A few days after we came back from our 37-day trip abroad Mr. Tajuddin told me in his office: “Mr. Choudhury, I’m going to tell you something today, and you’ll be the only witness to that.” I was alarmed. “Sir, what’s the point of my being the witness? I’m only a Government Officer. If you leave this office tomorrow I’ll be somewhere else the day after. So, I’ll be of no use as a witness. You should choose one of your trusted political friends instead.”
Mr. Tajuddin wouldn’t listen to me: “No, it is you who has to listen.” Then he took up the red phone to call Bangbandhu, and this is what he said: “I think I should talk to you on a few urgent matters. In your office there is hardly any opportunity since you are always surrounded by your people. There is no environment there for a heart-to-heart talk, so I’ve chosen the red phone to express my views. You have been trying to establish a one-party system, and I have been trying to argue against it. Today I’m going to give you my final opinion. I’m not in agreement with this one-party track of yours.” Mr. Tajuddin took a pause at that point. Obviously Bangabandhu said something at the other end, upon which Mr. Tajuddin shot back: “First of all I’m not convinced with your argument. Secondly, –it’s not a question but a statement¾as the Prime Minister of Bangladesh you have so much power in your hands that I do not think there is any need for more power in a one-party or any other system. You already have a tremendous amount of power, so all those arguments you are giving in favor of a one-party system seem pretty hollow to me. Third of all, before the Independence, over a span of 24-25 years, there is no field or meadow anywhere in this country that you and I didn’t cover together. Every time we spoke to our people we gave them hope for a happy prosperous country, whose basis would be democracy. The democracy we had extolled all our lives, we had vowed to pursue at all times, is now being totally erased by just one stroke of your pen for the sake of your vision of a one-party system of government. I very strongly and unequivocally express my opposition to this decision of yours.”
Then there were a few other things they talked about. In the end what Mr. Tajuddin said was startlingly prophetic: “By taking this step you are closing all the doors to remove you peacefully from your position. (This sentence in English was his own). I’m telling this based on a lifetime experience of mine. People will have no alternative. If anyone wants to remove you from power you’re not leaving any democratic means for them to do it. There will be but one course for them to get rid of you¾and that is going to be the gun.”
At the other end of the phone Bangabandhu was obviously very upset at that, for his shouting voice was clearly audible to me. Mr. Tajuddin responded by saying: “But Mujib Bhai, do you know what will be the most unfortunate thing? The gun is not only going to find you, it is going to find us as well even though we are the ones who pleaded with you not to go ahead with it. Ultimate victim is going to be our country.”
A few days after that conversation I just blurted out: “Sir, if the situation has become so unbearable that you are unable or unwilling to stick around anymore, then why don’t you just go to Bangbandhu and say that you don’t want to be in your position anymore?”
“You don’t know Mr. Choudhury, I have a little problem saying that to Mujib Bhai.”
“What is that problem, Sir, can you explain?” I asked.
“Before Independence we have been together a long, long time, either he was beside me or I was beside him. The only time we were apart was when one or both of us were in prison. So our relation has a very deep root, and that has created a kind of loyalty that is not easy to explain. Now, if he asks me to quit I will. But for me to tell him is very hard, even though that is what I very much want to do “.
The following few days, I could feel, were pretty tense. Then, on October 26th he came to the Secretariat in a very upbeat mood. Only later I realized that he already knew what was going to happen.
He called me in his office and said: “I’m not going to see anyone today. Please cancel all the pending programs, and notify the affected people. I’m going to be in Nurul Islam’s (Deputy Chairman, Planning Commission) office. There will be a call for me from a very high place. Please let me know when that happens.”
After a while I saw two gentlemen at my door: the cabinet secretary Mr. Towfiq Imam, and Joint Secretary Habibul Haq. They were looking very solemn, carrying two sealed envelopes. Mr. Towfiq asked: “Where is Mr. Tajuddin?”
“He is downstairs in Mr. Nurul Islam’s room. Is it very urgent?” I asked.
“Very,” he replied.
“What could be so urgent?” I persisted.
“You’ll find out in a short while. Let us not be the ones to divulge that.”
They left for Mr. Nurul Islam’s room. Within 10 minutes Mr. Tajuddin came back to his office. Then he asked me to call Secretary Kafiluddin Mahmud. As Mr. Mahmud came in Mr. Tajuddin handed him a letter. It was a short letter from the Prime Minister to the Finance Minister. It read: Best wishes to you. In the greater interest of the country you should no longer remain in charge of the Finance Ministry. This is why you are being asked to offer your resignation (or something like that). Attached please find a letter of resignation awaiting your signature. Yours truly, Shaikh Mujibur Rahman.
Mr. Kafiluddin Mahmud read out the letter before handing it to me. Then he burst out crying, tears rolling down his face. He took it very hard, bemoaning a few times: “Oh Allah, Oh Allah!”
Mr. Tajuddin put his signature on the letter of resignation. The Secretary and his Assistant collected the letter, then said: “Sir, please don’t take any offense, but we had to carry out this unpleasant job.” Bangabandhu had scheduled a press conference. All the Ministers were waiting as was the press. Important officials were also invited. The two gentlemen left off with the letter in their hands.
Mr. Tajuddin then told me that he heard from his sources that the Army and the Police have been kept on alert. They have been ordered to keep an eye on the whereabouts of Tajuddin. The Army had gone as far as surround the Secretariat. Mr. Tajuddin said: “I will go around the Ministry to say goodbye to everybody, and then go home.” To Mazhar he said: “Please call Arham Siddiqui (his friend) to send his car. I won’t use the official car anymore.”
At the moment he was about to leave the Secretariat for the last time I asked: “Sir, what are you going to do now? Do you have any plans?” He was very clear in his reply: “I’m never going to sacrifice my principles. And I’ll refrain from taking any step, or doing anything, that may remotely cause any harm to Mujib Bhai.”
At that time the Chief of BSS, Bangladesh Information Service, was Mr. Jawadul Karim, who happened to be a relative of mine. He told me later: “You know Sayeed, at the Press Conference following Mr. Tajuddin’s resignation, Bangbandhu looked very grief-stricken, very downcast. His face was a picture of great loss. The only person who wore a crooked smile all the time was Khondokar Moshtaq. He didn’t even try to hide his obvious sense of glee and satisfaction. If he could he’d have embraced everybody out of sheer joy. It couldn’t have escaped anyone’s notice. He was bouncing around everywhere.” Mr. Karim even told me this: “This friction between Bangabandhu and Mr. Tajuddin, it had to be the work of Khondokar Moshtaq. I bet that man is going to ruin Bangabandhu some day.”
In the morning of August 15, 1975 I put a call to Mr. Tajuddin. He said: “Mr. Choudhury, my greatest regret is that Mujib Bhai may have died believing that I was the one behind the plot. He didn’t even realize that the whole thing was engineered by the one closest to him.”
I knew only too well how much love this man had for Bangbandhu. I felt a bit of the pain he must have been feeling that morning.
Around the middle of October that year I was working in my office (I was then an Additional Secretary, Finance Ministry, World Bank Desk), when a bearded gentleman with a file in hand came to announce that he was from Bangabhaban. The mention of the word “Bangabhabn” put me on alert instantly. He claimed to be an Inspector from the Department of Investigation and said he was here to collect some information about Mr. Tajuddin.
“What do you want to know about Mr. Tajuddin?” I asked.
“You were his Private Secretary. So you must know if he was involved in any irregularities or did anything wrong.”
The man then mentioned a few names from the Bangabhaban, saying: “They warned me that if I fail to find anything against Mr. Tajuddin they’ll just shoot me on the spot. Since then I’ve been looking for something, anything, to implicate him, but I’m not getting any.” Poor man was on the brink of tears. I told him: “You look like a God-fearing man, as I am. So one God-fearing man is talking to another. Take it from me: Mr. Tajuddin never did any corruption. He was far above that. And even if he did I’d not tell you about it.”
“I understand, Sir, but what can I do? They are going to kill me.” Then the man dug up a letter from a file and laid open for me: “Sir, please verify if this was written by you or not.” Yes, it was, and I remember the context. I had written this letter to the Chairman of Dhaka City Corporation on behalf of the Finance Minister Mr. Tajuddin Ahmad. In that letter I quoted a passage from Corporation Law, and said that Mr. Tajuddin did not live in the house on 751 Sat Masjid Road between 26 March and 16 December in 1971, nor was it rented to anyone, which is a historically verifiable fact. So, in accordance with the above clause the burden of tax on the owner should be lowered. I said: “So, do you smell any irregularities here?”
“No, no, Sir,” he hastened to say, “I’m not saying that. All I need to know if this letter was written by you, and what you have to say about this.”
“What I have to say is already clear in the letter. I don’t have anything new to add. I was once an administrator with the City Corporation, so I was well-acquainted with all the rules and regulations. I wrote that letter because I knew about the clause. Mr. Tajuddin didn’t ask me to do anything. It was I who pointed out the tax rule to him and advised him to take advantage of it, since he or his family didn’t live in that house for a considerable length of time. I even read that section to him from the rule book. Then he said, ok, I understand, but there must be written proof. That is why I wrote that letter, emphasizing his historically proven absence from the house in 1971.
I kept a copy of the letter. The man left.
I miss Mr. Tajuddin tremendously. I think he would have played a significant role in Bangladesh if he were alive today. Perhaps this is why Khondokar Moshtaq had to have him killed.
I remembered that prophetic statement of Mr. Tajuddin to Bangabandhu on two occasions: once on 15th August, then after the assassination in the jail.
The Date of Interviews:October 5,1996/October 7,1996
The interview is published in Aloker Anonto Dhara.2006
Translation from Bangla by Dr.Mizan Rahman April 10,2008