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My original name is Nurul Qader Khan. As of 1971, however, I have been calling myself Nurul Qader , having decided to drop the ‘Khan’ part.
My first personal contact with Mr. Tajuddin Ahmad was through a telephone call. It was at the Chuadanga Rest House that I had the good fortune of receiving a call from him. Quite a long conversation it was—for about 45 minutes. It was the 9th of April, 1971.
At that time I was the DC of the district of Pabna. Pabna had the distinction of being one of the first pieces of land in the country that had the courage to break out of the Pakistani rule and formally declare independence. We hoisted the flag of a free Bangladesh on the 3rd of April. Pakistan Army had about two companies stationed in our city. We engaged in 17 separate battles with them and succeeded in breaking through their resistance and wresting control out of their hands. The last encounter was on April 2, at a place called Muladuli, about 8/10 miles out of the city. We led a victory parade under cover of darkness in the night. Men and women from all walks of life came to greet us, absolutely jubilant over our success. That was a memorable moment of a great victory — we joined our voices to pay tribute to the freedom fighters, to the Bengali nation and to the new-born country called Bangladesh. I’d like add here that at that time we were completely unaware of the ‘declaration of independence’ announced by Mr. Ziaur Rahman from Chittagong.
It so happened that there was no EPR in Pabna at that time. There was the police force, of course, as well as the Ansars. The police superintendent was Mr. Abdul Gaffar, who, as a loyal civil servant, announced in no uncertain terms that “I belong to the armoured police brigade, I wear the uniform, and bound by a solemn oath to my service.” This rather disconcerting attitude of his, however, didn’t deter us from our resolve to continue our preparation for a showdown with the authorities, which started as early as February, making clandestine arrangements for necessary training exercises. In contrast to other places where it was the Army and the EPR that led the fight, the resistance in Pabna was organized by a civilian leadership. And it was a very important difference in that here the ordinary people, farmers and villagers, helped build the wall of resistance.
Buoyed with the excitement of win in the battle ground we led the victory march to the city of Pabna with the resounding cry of our patriotic slogan: ‘Joy Bangla.’ (Victory to Bangla) It was around 11 in the night. With me was someone called Mr. Abdur Rob (also called Mauga Mia) Collectively a decision was made that as of the following day we would establish the authority of the Govt. of Bangladesh in our area, vowing to carry out their directives, down to the formal ceremony of hoisting the National Flag. Following up on a decision to get hold of someone who could make rubber stamps, we delegated the task to Mr.Rob. This would help install an administration complete with a Bank of Treasury, and formal administrative machinery. It was probably around or on April 5. Up until that time the banks and office buildings were shuttered down thanks to Shaikh Mujibur Rahman’s declaration of non-cooperation with the Govt. of Pakistan. We figured that they didn’t need to remain closed anymore as the Pakistanis were gone and the area had been liberated. Our mission was then to proclaim the rule of an independent government under the leadership of Sh. Mujibur Rashman, and to spread the word of the new Govt. as widely as we could. The Flag was indeed hoisted in the appropriate manner of 21-gun salute. Bauga Bhai had the honour of performing the flag-hoisting rite. The President of Pabna Awami League at that time was Mr. Amjad bwho, however, was unable to attend the ceremony since he couldn’t get to the town in time from his home in a river-island(char).So the role of local leadership was taken over by our Mauga Bhai. Almost every important personality was present at the ceremony—the Police, the Ansars, the Freedom fighters. Others included Bakul Iqbal, Qadri, Waizuddin, Amjad—all very brave fighters, and totally dedicated to the Awami League.
Soon the offices, banks and courts started their normal work. We got into a steady rhythm. We had built trenches around the town hoping to avert the attacks by the Pak Army. But they outsmarted us by going around the town, then literally crawling into our area. The inevitable could no longer be prevented. Pabna fell to the invading army on April 8. I fled to Chuadanga, undecided whether to stay on this side of the border or seek refuge in India on the other side. Then Chuadanga also started getting bombed on the 8th, and the Army began surrounding the entire area. We knew our backs were against the wall, which was then only a metaphor for the Indian border. The enemy was advancing toward us from all sides. I drove out to check how close they were and up to what point they had advanced. Accompanying me was Mr. Twufiq Elahi, the divisional commissioner of Meherpur. It was he who told me about Mr. Tajuddin having crossed the border earlier. It was very important for us to get in touch with him. So we proceeded towards the border as we felt we must find a way to talk to him. We parked our car close to the border, then walked a few steps before we met a very cordial and friendly gentleman, apparently a Colonel. He treated us with a cup of tea, but was unable to enlighten us on any policy issues. We chatted for about an hour before we said to him: “ You see, a few of our leaders have crossed over to the your side of the border, and we just have to find a way to talk to them. If a face-to-face meeting cannot be arranged then at least a telephone connection would be appreciated.” He didn’t want to make any promises, but said: “Well, I’ll see what we can do. I’ll certainly try. Let me know where you can be found.” We gave the number of Chuadanga Rest House, adding that I’d wait there after 10:00 pm for the call.
The phone rang at around 11 pm. I grabbed the receiver.
“Is Mr. Nurul Qader there? “
“Yes, speaking,” I replied.
“Can you hold for a minute, please?” was the voice from the other end. So I held. And held, and held some more. After a long 15 minutes or so it was I could hear the voice.
“This is Tajuddin”. I was out of my wits in joy and excitement. I was barely able to mumble a nervous ‘salam’, telling him who I was.
“I know who you are and what your credentials are. Let me congratulate you for leading a successful resistance movement in Pabna. My colleagues here and I are mighty proud of your achievements. I also heard that you declared an independent Bangladesh Govt. there.”
I hastened to put the facts as they were: “No, sir, please forgive me for contradicting you. No, no, sir, it was not a Govt. that we declared in Pabna. All we did is hoist a flag and use a few rubber stamps to reopen the banks that had been closed down during the non cooperation.”
Mr Tajuddin was clearly quite pleased with that, then went on to inquire about the current situation there.
I described in detail the napalm bomb event, and how we were getting boxed in by the enemy Army, and how desperately helpless we were at the moment. We had everybody with us—Ansar, EPR, Police—- a little over a thousand strong. If we got attacked and defeated we’d be real trouble. All of us would be treated as traitors. I stressed the importance of declaration of an independent government.
His response was: “You see Mr.Qader, there is a certain structure in our organization. Our political party has to follow a protocol, a disciplined path. At the moment our people are scattered all over—we have no idea of who is where. In this situation it is not possible to act unilaterally.”
However, I kept pressing my point: “ But, sir, the morale and courage of our people is going to be seriously eroded unless there is a quick official declaration from a central government. We cannot afford to wait much longer. I plead with you, sir, please, please do something as soon as possible.”
Dr. Ashabul Haq, who was with me at the time, also echoed my views. Before Mr. Tajuddin took leave of us he spoke to me again to say: “ I have listened to you with great interest. I’m not promising anything at this moment, but I assure you we’ll keep these things on our agenda of discussion, and well keep trying to meet your requirements.”
Upon which I couldn’t help leaving with a parting statement: “ Forgive me, sir, but on the strength of the very fact that I’ve spoken to you we’ll take the liberty of making a formal announcement. We have no other option”.
Let me add here, and that is a very important point, that when I got more opportunities to watch him at close range I saw how strongly he believed in democracy, and what a wonderfully disciplined person he was. I realized later that it would indeed be a rather hasty decision on his part had he given in to my persistent appeals for a unilateral declaration. It was not in his character to do anything on his own without a thorough discussion with his colleagues and without the benefit of a well-thought out democratically decided plan. That must have been the reason why he balked at the idea of committing anything to me that day on plea.
We were in luck, thank God. The following day, 13th of April, at 10 in the morning on came the voice of Mr. Tajuddin, addressing the nation on the radio announcing the decision of forming a government. Right away we rushed out to trumpet the news all over the region. Accompanied, sometimes by Dr. Ashraful Haq, sometimes by Mr. Tawfiq Elahi Choudhury , we went around to spread the word of a formal Govt. of Bangladesh. And we have come to you on behalf of our government to ask for, in fact demand your cooperation. We want this bank, or this office to proclaim their allegiance to our government. We made it clear to them that we are engaged in a very serious war right now. And that their all-out support and cooperation was vitally important for us.
To continue our war efforts we needed money, supplies and a lot of other essentials. This is what I had in mind when I left Pabna with a trainload of food supplies. Now we needed some money, a lot of them. We told the banks that we would provide them with trunks, but they had to procure the locks. And that they must count the money very carefully, keep it under lock and key in those trunks. There should be four copies of the bank records with the name of the bank clearly written on top. The signatories on those documents should be the bank managers, on behalf of the accountant and cashier, Mr. Ashraful Haq, as well as of the citizenry, and one on my behalf. With these instructions I signed on the other sheet. We gave them a truck and told them that as of that moment their truck would be their bank, a mobile one. In the meantime the situation was getting a bit uncomfortable—-Chuadanga was under attack. We headed toward Meherpur.
Meanwhile I came to learn that two of my officers had just arrived. One was Hafiz, the other Salahuddin. They had fled the cantonment along with a few others. We started discussing what would be the appropriate time and way to take active part in the war, when someone came to inform us there were a couple of strangers in the guesthouse, and were looking for someone in the SDO’s office. Curious to find out who they were I stepped out and saw an Indian jeep standing at the door with the plain-clothed gentlemen sitting inside. I could guess they were pretty well-placed in their official ranks. When I introduced myself as Pabna’s DC they asked if I was also the SDO of Meherpur. They were clearly hesitant to reveal their full identity, saying only,” you must have guessed we are Indians. Just got curious when we saw the empty roads, then heard people joyously shouting ‘Joy Bangla’ ( victory to Bangla)”. But when I told him I was in contact with an Indian colonel on April 8 and that it was through him that I had sent a message to Mr. Tajuddin, with whom I in fact had a conversation on the 9th , they relaxed and came clean with their true identity. One of them was Golok Majumdar. I asked Mr.Majumdar to give my respects to Mr. Tajuddin and try to impress upon him the urgent need of his coming out of the bushes and openly declaring the formation of a government in exile under his leadership. And that this area of ours is still free and available.
It so happened that they were there exactly for the same purpose—to investigate the security and other issues related to the declaration. So we had a frank discussion on the subject. As far as I recall Tawfiq came to join us at that time. We made the following suggestion: “ There are about a thousand men in our company, so we can take care of the ground security. And we don’t think they’d dare try anything in the air since that would be a violation of the territorial air boundaries. So if you can arrange to have a couple of fighter planes patrol the air space then we think the Pak Army will think twice before trying to launch an attack on the Air Force.” We continued our discussions until Mr. Majumdar agreed: “Alright, we’ll covey your requests to the higher level” .Since we were talking in an open and friendly environment it was clear to us that, on the whole, they had accepted our ideas. So Tawfiq, Mahbub and I got back to the business of keeping an eye to ensure the overall security of the place.
17th April was the Day of Declaration. I was in charge of the ground security to make sure that no one from the Pak Army could penetrate the tight cordon we had set up around the entire area. During the Oath ceremony the following day someone came running to me to say:” You have been summoned to the declaration site”.
So I went. It was there that, for the first time, I was able to see Mr. Tajuddin in person. His face was a picture of deep worries and anxieties. I had a distinct feeling that he was finding it too much to bear the burden of running a government while waging a brutal war at the same time. Perhaps even a bit uncomfortable. The others, too, had equally gloomy faces. Mr. Syed Nazrul Islam happened to be a relative of mine. Mr. Mansur Ali was a charming man with a very congenial personality. I knew him from my Pabna days. And Mr. Qamruzzaman was known to me from grade 6 at junior school. He used to call me by my nickname. Mr.Osmani was another member of the Govt., whom I first met in 1953 at Rawalpindi, and had since been on friendly terms. So it turned out that I knew or met almost all of them sometime or other. We found instant warmth and camaraderie in each others’ presence in this dire national crisis. We embraced and cried. We were all torn away from our homes and friends and families, which we had gladly forsaken for the greater cause of freedom and independence our people and of our dear country. Individual hardship or sacrifice would pale to this big mission that lay ahead of us.
It was not the most ideal location or time to meet someone of the stature of Mr. Tajuddin, but nonetheless his extraordinary personality shone through in no uncertain terms even in those difficult circumstances. A nice, mild-mannered gentleman with softly spoken words that were delivered with measured wisdom and firmness. The others in the room were jubilant when they saw me there, but Mr. Tajuddin greeted me with his characteristic restraint and prime ministerial reserve. We shook hands, when with a graceful smile he said: “ So you are Mr. Nurul Qader! If you don’t mind I think you need to accompany us.”
“ To where, sir”? I asked.
“ In time you will find out.”
At one time during our discussion I said: “ Sir, I have a problem. I am in charge of my boys who have taken arms on my command. How can I desert them now”?
Mr. Tajuddin explained my duties and what he expected me to accomplish. I accepted, but felt obliged to add : “ But sir, I have a condition. When I took arms in my hand I vowed that I’d not let the Pak Army escape my watchful eyes. I took arms to liberate my country, not necessarily to keep hoping to stay alive. So I’m not willing to give up the weapon for any reason. Whenever I feel I’m needed on the battlefield I’ll go, come heaven or hell. When the land is free at last, it is then that I will return to whatever job you assign me”
So went my emotional rumblings for a while longer. Mr. Tajuddin listened quietly with no particular expression on his face. That was April 17th.
The following day Mr. Qamruzzanman was on the phone.
“ What’s up Jheelu( my nickname) ? When are you coming”?
“ To where”?
“ Why Calcutta, of course. It is in Calcutta where you will find us all.”
“ I’ll see what I can do”, is all I said.
Henabhai ( that’s how I’d call him) heard what I said and didn’t like it. He admonished me saying: “ What’s all this rubbish talk of yours? Just say yes, and come along right away.”
“ All right. Whatever you say, Henabhai”. I said meekly.
It was late afternoon, April 19, that our jeep reached the border. The sky was gloriously red with the setting sun casting deep shadows all over the landscape. There were other young men with me, who had also vowed not to let go of their arms until the enemy was driven out of our land. We stepped out of the jeep with our eyes fixed on the sun. It was going down in the Bangladesh side of the sky. Two of my boys became extremely emotional. They burst out crying, unable to control their emotions, and sprinted back across the border into their motherland. They seemed unable to accept two things. One, the Indian border guards’ apparent hint that we should surrender our arms; two, the sun setting on our side was a bad omen that they couldn’t live with. So they went back. It was not too long after we got word that both of these boys were killed in action.
Anyway, the return of those boys hung heavy on our hearts that day. I’ll admit there were flashes of some soul searching in our minds as well. Should we not go back also? We mused. Eventually we decided to stay where we were. We had a mission to complete. We had work to do, a lot of work. The Govt. had given us some jobs to do. We were entering a foreign country. Didn’t know anybody, or any thing. With the jeep’s wheel in my hands I felt we were on a never-ending path. We were homesick. Would this road take us anywhere? Our hearts were aching. Would we ever be able to return to our homeland? We had almost nothing on us to sustain our lives. No food, no supplies, no money, nothing. We were beginning to feel a bit depressed. We couldn’t help our emotions getting better of us. We had to take frequent breaks to calm our nerves.
At last we reached Krishnanagar—our destination. It was about nine in the evening. Soon we found ourselves surrounded by a crowd. They didn’t know us, but knew it had to be a jeep from Bangladesh. They were in a friendly and welcoming mood.
It may be mentioned here that the truckload of money that we had put in those vehicles on 17th April had been handed over to the Govt. immediately after the swearing-in ceremony . The crowd had, in the meantime, started piercing the air with their loud rendition of our patriotic 2-word song: “Joy Bangla”. A few of them came forward and introduced themselves as “ Members of the volunteer committee.”
“ We have formed a local Volunteer Committee to to provide help to the people of Bangladesh,” they said. Soon our dear old Boga Bhai came upon the scene along with a hundred-and-a half young men from our party. One of the men from the Volunteer Committee came to take us to the local DC’s guesthouse.
At around 11 or 11:30 Mr. Brojen Das came to see me—it was the very same Brojen Das with the rare distinction of having swam across the English Channel way back in the fifties. He had come to inquire about me in particular, because he heard from someone that I had been killed in the war. Apparently my name was mentioned on the BBC radio as one of the war casualties. So he was delighted to see me alive and well. It was he who led us to Calcutta.
It was quite a challenge to find the small house on 2, Lord Sinha Rd. Presently I was shown into a room where Mr. Tajuddin, Mr. Nazrul Islam and General Usmani were engaged in a private discussion. As soon as got in the room Mr. Tajuddin rose to greet me very cordially :” Please have a seat Mr. Nurul Qader”. Mr. Usmani added, in his well-heeled English style: “ How are you, my boy?”
As soon as I saw Mr. Usmani I couldn’t help blurting out: “ Sir, how come you are sitting here while our boys are getting killed or wounded, with no supplies, no medicine, no treatment ? What are going to do about it? “ I just couldn’t contain my sense of frustration.
“We are considering how to address this problem,” is all he could muster.
I wasn’t going to be put off that off-handed political response. I had by that time acquired full combat experience, so my only goal was to remove all obstacles, political or bureaucratic, in the quickest possible way. I talked to Mansur Bhai, then to Hena Bhai. I said to Mansur Bhai, straight on his face: “ Now you have a Govt., and you are a minister. Why don’t you come as a minister and join us in the battlefield?”
To Mr. Tajuddin I said: “ You have given us a Govt. It is an administrative Govt., so what we need now is an administrative infrastructure. Otherwise how can we ever achieve our goals?”
A touch of impatience in my voice didn’t escape him. So he must have thought, as a loving, caring mother would have, this young man has to be brought down to reality. In a tone of indulgent admonishment he said, in a calm voice: “ What Govt., what infrastructure you are talking about young man? Everything is in a state of flux now. Nothing is certain. We have no choice but to be patient. Especially now.” Yes, at that time, in my youthful exuberance, I did not understand a lot of things. It took a lot of time to get a good grasp of the whole situation. It was far from a clear cut story. I learnt the background story behind the formation of the Govt., of the existence of rival groups inside the Govt., and so on. I could well appreciate why Mr. Tajuddin would be ultra cautious about the possibility of some in one of the rival groups getting a cue from one Nurul Qader’s wild talk about an ‘ administrative Govt.’, and might proceed to do just that on their own.
The point Mr. Tajuddin was pressing on again and again was organization.
“What we need to do first, Nurul Qader, is organize ourselves. Right now we have nothing of any substance—no information, no news, no dates, nothing.”
“ I get your point, sir, but just think how we are going to be organized. Wouldn’t we need to set up a mechanism of how to collect information, to set communication lines, and kick-start a workable system? Perhaps you should get everybody together and delegate their individual responsibilities.”
He thought about it for a few moments. Then said quietly: “ I see your point. But let’s go for a little rest now. I’ll get on it tomorrow.”
It was obvious Mr. Tajuddin had taken the matter quite seriously, and indeed was giving a lot of thought on it. However, I could also see he was hesitant to make a single-handed decision before consulting his cabinet colleagues. Later I came to learn that they did go over the matter in a full cabinet meeting the following evening, and indeed a final decision was made to create an administrative system, somewhat along the line I suggested. Apparently, at that point he mentioned my name saying: “ Based on a reprt I had on Nurul Qader I had invited him to join us on April 17. I have talked with him. He may be young, bur having conducted himself with courage, order and discipline I think had earned that honor. I am convinced he is quite capable of taking the responsibility.”
My source of this inside information was Mr. Qamruzzaman. He said to me later: “ Nurul Qader, it seems you have become quite a trusted fellow to Mr. Tajuddin.”
“ Hena Bhai, my first meeting with Mr. Tajuddin was on April 17. Whatever he knows about me was through those reports from the field”.
“Yes, but now you seem to be the first employee of our Govt. Well done!” he quipped, half-jokingly.
Presently the house on 8 Theater Rd., was rented to set up a venue for the day-to-day business of the Govt. of Bangladesh. Mr. Tajuddin asked me to draft a work-order for the task. At that point in time we didn’t have a piece of paper to write on, nor a pen or typewriter. Somebody came forward with an offer of help. I asked: “ May I know who you are? “
“ Sir, I was an Accountant with the WAPDA. I know the short-hand too.”
He then went off to a local market and bought a rim of paper with his own money. So I made the draft of the first official work-order of the Govt. of Bangladesh, which read like this:
“ Following yesterday’s cabinet decision, Mr. Nurul Qader is hereby appointed by the Govt. of Bangladesh to prepare an administrative framework for the government. His designation will be: Secretary, General Administration.” Mr. Tajuddin put his signature on that piece of paper, which became the first official document of the new Govt. of Bangladesh.
This is how the administrative half of the Govt. of Bangladesh was born.
Mr. Asaduzzaman was in Calcutta at that time. I also found Wali, Komol and Kamal. Twafiq as well, who was in Agortola at the time. Rashedul Hassan, who had been once the DC of Rajshahi, was given the post of Cabinet Secretary. Unfortunately he had an unpleasant encounter with Mr. Zahur, that was disturbing for all of us. In fact Mr. Tajuddin’s mind was so distracted that he couldn’t function properly for days since that incident.
What was happening behind the scene was the brewing of a “ palace plot” between Shaikh Moni and a few others, Mr. Zahur being the middle man in the whole idea. Their plan was to set up a parallel government. I had a wind of it earlier , so I suggested to Mr. Tajuddin: “ Sir, why don’t you use a different tactic?”
“ Like what?”
“ Like, say, I take a sick leave, and stay home a few days. It will create a little problem in the office. Likewise Mr. Mansur is also going to suffer a bit if Mr. Asaduzzaman is not in his office. Similarly, you may keep moving other personnel from one job to another, thus disrupting their sinister plans a little bit.”
It looked like Mr.Tajuddin had taken my idea to heart. Soon we began implementing our own little plan. I left Calcutta, then started assigning different people to different tasks. To Mr. Mullick I said:” What on earth are you doing here wasting time? Let’s go. We have a lot of work to do.” Mr. Siddique was also moved from his regular job. Dr. Mullic, k, Mr. M.R. Siddiqui, and many others were shuffled from one job to other. Slowly it began to pay dividends. The earth seemed to be shifting a bit from under Shaikh Moni’s feet.
While this clandestine power play was going on at 8 Theater Rd., Rashedul Hassan, who had just been appointed Cabinet Secretary on my recommendation, came to me with a plea:” I need to go visit my family whom I left during the invasion.”
Reasonable request, I thought. So I agreed. In fact I personally took him up to the Farakka Bridge, and instructed a few Freedom fighters to ensure his safety inside Bangladesh. To Hassan I said:” These are the boys who will escort you back here. So you may cross the river with them and reach Rajshahi.”
What Rashedul Hassan did, however, as soon as he got across the river was simply unbelievable. He got on the airwaves and declared that there was no such thing as a “war of liberation”, that it was all a made up story. It was such a shameless betrayal on his part that I was dumbfounded, embarrassed and on the defensive. I was utterly crushed when, on top of my own discomfort, Mr. Tajuddin made the comment:” I thought you knew your colleagues well.
Anyway, life had to go on. We needed a replacement for that traitor. I remembered what Tawfiq had told me in Agortola:” Jhilu Bhai, you’ve got to give me something at your place.”
So, after this unpleasant episode with Rashedul I suggested Tawfiq’s name to Mr. Tajuddin. This is how Tawfiq found a place at 8 Theater Rd.
Apart from my usual Secretarial duties I was also the secretary of the “ Youth Camp” for the training of youngsters. So I needed to travel from one camp to other, and frequently. The camps were divided into 11 zones, with 11 zonal offices, that I had to oversee. There were umpteen other miscellaneous jobs also. So Tawfiq’s joining the Secretariat helped give me some welcome relief from my daily routines.
Meanwhile yet another drama was about to unfold, that involved training and disbursement of weapons. Mr. Moni Singh, the Chairman of the Communist Party, summoned me to demand that his boys be given weapons separately. Yet the Cabinet decision was to give weapons only to followers of the Awami League and the Student League. The big question was: what would happen to these weapons if non-Awamileaguers were holding them after the eventual liberation of the country?
However, I was also aware of what was in Mr. Tajuddin’s mind. He always insisted that this war not just Awami League’s war, it was a national war, it was a war of survival for every Bangladeshi, whether or not he/she belongs to this Awami League or Student League. So I was confident enough to say to Mr. Moni Singh:” Any Bangladeshi, who is willing to fight, give blood and life, for the cause of the freedom of our country, is entitled to receiving training from us. This war may have started under the Awami Leadership, but this has now escalated into an all-out national war. Every Bangladeshi has a right to take arms.”
However, Mr. Tajuddin didn’t seem to be without a concern.
“All right, what you said, has been said. But I’m not sure if everyone in the Govt. will want to go along with it.”
“ But, sir, we are fortunate enough to have got a Prime Minister who knows right from the wrong, who has a broad, liberal and reasonable mind. Surely you can convince the Cabinet of the argument of a just cause,” I offered.
Later in the evening, I found out later, Mr. Tajuddin was quite forceful in his argument of liberalizing our policy of weapons distribution.
“ This war is everybody’s war. If we restrict the distribution of arms to our boys only, then why should we deprive all other freedom fighters the opportunity of joining us in the war efforts? If at this critical juncture of our struggle we become too parochial and turn a blind eye to the overall national picture then it will only help erode the force of unity and universality that is vital to our ultimate objectives. We cannot afford to jeopardize the interests of our war effort and follow a narrow path that may do just that.”
In the end they all had to give in to the power of persuasion that was a god-given gift of Mr. Tajuddin. But it was also because they too believed in the central cause of the liberation of the country.
In my childhood and adolescence I used to see my mother mango jelly during the mango season. There were a lot of helping hands to smash the mango strips, and roll them over with a rolling pin on wooden boards. During those months of the war this is what appeared to be happening to Mr.Tajuddin. He was being cut into pieces by everybody, then made into a pulp by repeated strike of the rolling pin. There was not a single thing they would let him do without creating some problems. The ministers were divided into multiple camps. Through this Mr. Tajuddin had to tread his course very carefully, tactfully, with his head cool, and his mind fixated on an ultimate national purpose. With great patience, fortitude and understanding he proceeded to carry out his mission, overcoming all obstacles and soothing all divisions. There was just one goal that kept him going: win the war. To liberate his motherland. To lead his homeless fellow Bangladeshis back to their homes. To create an independent, sovereign Bangladesh.
On many occasions it used to be that I was sitting on a stool or a chair, while he was sitting on a small wooden chowki washing his clothes, at the same time in serious discussions about the affairs of the state. Maybe I’d read to him the contents of a file, and he’d stop me to go over some points more carefully. We discussed, we listened, discussed some more. An hour, an hour-and- a half would easily go by, like this, in discussions, in note-taking, note-reading, while Mr. Tajuddin would have his washed, rinsed, and cleaned. To see the prime minister of a country wash his own clothes with his bare hands, while conducting his official business was a humbling experience for me. A great lesson in humility and in what was the stuff that makes a true leader. Mr. Tajuddin was truly a great man, a wonderful human being.
Throughout the entire war period there was one recurring theme in the way he spoke. He would always begin by saying: “ under the responsibility I have been given” or “ the responsibility entrusted on me”—in other words never trying to usurp the authority of higher powers, always eager to remind people that he was only doing a job that he was assigned to. I never heard him saying: “or I will do this, or I am going to do this.” His position was I’m only doing my duty as a deputy. His loyalty and dedication to his leader and friend, Shaikh Mujibur Rahman, was as solid as a rock. I think the “ I “ word never entered his speech because he genuinely believed he was carrying out his “ Mujib Bhai” ‘s wishes, doing exactly what he would have wanted him to do. As if all he was doing was carry out the orders of his commander-in-chief.
When I went to Agortola my pressure of work eased a bit. Let me digress a little bit to tell the story of how I got involved with the youth camp. On the first week of the month of May Mr. Hussain Ali called up at the Bangladesh Mission. Dr. Triguna Sen waiting to see me. Apparently he had gone to Agortola at the request of Mrs. Gandhi to investigate the Bangladesh situation firsthand. It related to the youth camps—how to train the freedom fighters, who will get the arms, how much, at what stage, under what protocol,—these were the questions that had to be ironed out before a policy decision could be made. The delicate question of distribution of arms inside the Indian territory was one that couldn’t be made light of. India itself was not without a bag of her own problems. Then there was the question of how many fighters could be trained. Mr. Sen’s original idea was to start with two to three hundred, which might grow eventually to, say, a full division.
At this point I couldn’t help interjecting: “ But how long are you planning to keep us here? I don’t think this is a practical idea Dr. Sen, because, suppose we need a hundred thousand fighters and you are going to train no more than 3-4 hundred at a time, then by the time the training stage is over some of the trainees will reach old age. This is not possible.”
Dr. Sen looked incredulous.
“ What are you trying to say?”
“ This is not a slow build-up situation. We need a crash program.”
Later I got a call advising me to go to an address for further discussion on this issue in the evening. So I went. There I found myself in the company of Hena Bhai (Mr. Qamruzzaman), Professor Yusuf Ali, Dr. Triguna Sen, and two or three more Indians. A lot of discussions ensued. Both sides exchanged their views. At one point I heard myself saying, rather sharply I’m afraid, “ If you really wish to help us then help us in a way that will be useful. You want to train 3 to 5 hundred at a time. Do you think this is some kind of a war game? “
Following day Mr. Tajuddin took me aside to ask me to be more discreet : “ Nurul Qader, you have watch your words. Everybody is complaining Nurul Qader said this or said that”. He chastised me, reasoned with me. He knew I had a tendency to flare up very quickly, and say whatever comes to my mind, and whatever language suits my mood. So he tried to calm me down with gentle counseling.
Three days after that incident Mr. Tajuddin asked me to “ rush to the Dim Dum airport right away.” From there I flew to New Delhi the same night. Dr. Triguna Sen showed me into the office of Mrs. Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India. We talked at length on various issues. She poured tea for me with her own hands. In the end she said: “ I appreciate your spirits, and I will keep that in mind. On my return to Calcutta I found out that I had been appointed Secretary of the Youth Camp. From the Indian side Lt. col. T.N. Luthura was to be my partner.
As indicated earlier the Cabinet ministers were split into several factions. Khondoker Mushtaque was a constant pain in the neck—-creating a problem at every step of the way. Then there was the ever present threat of the Mujib Army. As if that was not enough of a distraction, there were personal bickerings and namecallings. At one point it boiled over to a stage when anti-Tajuddin elements proposed a no-confidence vote against him. So there was a meeting at Shiliguri to resolve the matter. Mr. Tajuddin was always on the side of truth, so in the end, he prevailed. The verdict was in his favor, hands down. Following the resolution of the contentious issue, he gave a long 2-hour speech, a very inspiring one, in which he tried to bring home the message:” My intention is not to become a prime minister, but to liberate the country, nothing more, nothing less. Bangabondhu Shaikh Mujibur Rahman has entrusted me with the job aimed at winning our independence, so my only mandate is to carry out his wishes. Whatever it takes to achieve that goal I’ll not hesitate to pursue no matter what.”
Someone raised a question on the role of the bureaucracy. He spoke on that issue also.
“ In this war even a watchman or a torchbearer has a role to play. The fellow who does the cooking for the fighters, or sweeps the floor makes a contribution. The one who stands back and nurses the wounded is to be reckoned as well. So firing the gun is not the only useful function in a war. The actual firing occurs but in a flash, however, the preparations that must precede the firing—cleaning the guns, having supplies ready on hand, making sure every instrument is in top condition, —takes much longer. Likewise, the ones behind the front whom we seem to be bent on deriding today, the “bureaucrats” also play an important role. So whenever we gather to pay our respects to the freedom fighters who had held arms and risked their lives, we must not forget to honor these other kind of fighters at the same time, the bureaucrats, who stayed behind to keep the conditions ready for the fighters to go on fighting.”
That was our Tajuddin. The people’s leader.
Let me recall another incident in this context. On Dec. 16 the Pak Army surrendered. On the 17th the Prime Minister called me in his office to say:” Tomorrow morning you are going to Dhaka. You are carrying with you the entire Govt. of Bangladesh. You have to exercise extreme caution and composure as you conduct your duties. No flare-ups, no temper tantrums. You are entering an new, independent Bangladesh, so you have to be the picture of the highest ideals and principles of a new government. You must always remember, at no point credit should be given to anyone other than Shaikh Mujibur Rahman. It’s an order, not advice. You’ll always keep I mind that all these war-efforts, movements and struggles, everything that happened so far, were under his leadership and guidance, in his footsteps and following his ideals. I, too, have done nothing other than obeying him as my leader. So whenever you speak of the Govt.’s official policies you’ll never deviate from this central point—all credit goes to him. All glories, all accolades, belong to him and him only. You will carry the flag Bangladesh. We are giving you that privilege. History will acknowledge this contribution of yours. Now you go.”
I remember the day I was sitting beside the desk of Mr. Tajuddin in the Bangabhaban. The telephone rang. As I lifted the receiver the voice on the other end said:” Please give it to the PM. It is from Bangabandhu in London”.I screamed out in excited disbelief. From far away in London a deep familiar voice rang out:” Tajuddin!” I handed over the phone to Mr. Tajuddin immediately. I kept my eyes trained on the man. A truly great man, this prime minister of ours, I kept thinking in my mind. As he started speaking with his friend and leader tears were rolling down his cheek in uncontrollable streams. Even unable to speak coherently. Perhaps the emotions were just as strong on the other end as well. As their conversion ended he handed over the receiver to me asking to transfer it to Bhabi (Mrs. Mujibur Rahman), which I did. He didn’t utter a word for quite a while, perhaps trying to regain control over his nerves. Watching his burst of emotion I sat there stunned and speechless. Then, suddenly, he snapped back to his usual self, and instructed me to call up everybody to share the good news. What followed was nothing but a joyful pandemonium. Screaming and laughing and crying and hugging, everywhere. Everybody was talking about how to arrange a grand reception for Bangabandhu. What to do, how to organize, whom to invite, and all the other details. Through all this spontaneous outbursts of emotions and euphoria, through all this noise and hoopla I couldn’t help feel an undercurrent of disappointment ( perhaps a touch of resentment as well?) in more than a handful of faces, that in this hour of national glory and celebration, Mr. Tajuddin was like a forgotten figure, ignored to the point of becoming irrelevant.
Overshadowing the topic of state reception for the Great Leader a thorny question started looming large in the minds of many: should Bangabandhu take over the PM’s job or should he retain the Head of State’s position, namely, the President?
The endless discussion raged well into the night. I was losing patience. At one point I rose to suggest:” We don’t have much time on our hands. We must get on with the task of preparing for the reception. So why don’t we postpone the discussion about the PM and President until later. Let Bangabandhu first come back. He may have an opinion too.”
No sooner I finished my sentence Mr. Tajuddin gave a hard tug on my hand and pulled aside to an adjoining room. Then gave me a severe tongue-lashing, which he never did before. After he cooled off a bit, I asked:” Sir, what did I do wrong?”
“No, you didn’t do anything wrong. It is they who will take it in a wrong way,” is all he said.
Bangabandhu returned . Mr. Tajuddin told me the following day in half English half Bengali:” He has expressed his wish to be the Prime Minister, so I’m relinquishing the job to him.”
I can see him, in my mind’s eye, in front of the Darbar Hall of Bangabhaban, on the right side of the sitting row, a happy cheerful man, quite content in his new position.
I heard the news of Mr. Tajuddin’s death on a flight to a foreign assignment. My father was still alive at that time. But reading that news I felt I had just lost a parent. He was my political father, of course, but much more than that. I do not have the language to describe the feeling. Mr. Qamruzzaman and Mr. Nazrul Islam I knew from my childhood, Mr. Mansur Ali was not a stranger either. But what Mr. Tajuddin gave me in political wisdom, in values, ideas and ideals, do not compare with anything else. He was incomparable. He was my guru, my idol.