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Syed Badrul Ahsan
HAD Tajuddin Ahmed been alive, he would be eighty-eight today. He was not destined to live to a ripe old age. Any chances he might have had of taking charge of the country after the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and any possibility of his eventually transforming himself into an elder statesman were ruined the night he and three of his political associates were murdered in jail.
Tajuddin was fifty when he was murdered. He was as young as Syed Nazrul Islam and AHM Quamruzzaman and not much younger than M. Mansoor Ali. Bangabandhu was a mere fifty-five when the soldiers mowed him down.
Tajuddin Ahmed was five years younger. And yet in that brief space of time, he had become an indelible part of Bangladesh’s history. To those who knew Tajuddin in the 1960s, the man was destined for a bigger role than what his demeanour chose to reveal. You only have to go looking for some of the men who once enjoyed the reputation of being young, educated Bengali idealists responsible for much of what subsequently came to be known as the Six Points. They will inform you, perhaps to your great surprise and then to your usual expectations, how on a moonlit night on the Sitalakhya it was Tajuddin Ahmed who threw the toughest questions at the men gathered to explain the core of the Six Points to Bangabandhu. A quiet man is always the keenest of observers. It was the silence in Tajuddin Ahmed that betrayed his eloquence every time he decided to ask a question here or seek a clarification there.
In the forging of Bengali nationalism, Tajuddin Ahmed’s role was as crucial as Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s. Where Bangabandhu was the inspirational leader, Tajuddin was the theoretician of the party. The relationship between the two men was in a very important sense akin to the ties that bound Mao Zedong and Zhou En-lai to each other. Tajuddin’s courage was of the quiet kind. It rested on a perception of hard realities. Just how tough he could be came through almost immediately after the unfolding of the Six Points in early 1966. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto valiantly challenged Mujib to a public debate at Paltan Maidan on the Six Points. Tajuddin Ahmed accepted the challenge on behalf of his leader. In the event, Bhutto never turned up, an early sign of the dread in which he held Tajuddin Ahmed. In the remaining years of united Pakistan, Bhutto would remain conscious of the power that Tajuddin exuded in political dialectics. He squirmed every time Tajuddin chose to speak at the eventually abortive political negotiations in March 1971. He would warn his party men as also members of the Yahya Khan junta to watch out for Tajuddin.
Once Pakistan went on the rampage in Dhaka on 25 March, 1971, Tajuddin lost little time in making his way across the border and linking up with Indira Gandhi. He was perspicacious enough to see, even at that early stage of national predicament, the need for outside assistance in an armed struggle he envisioned developing for Bangladesh’s freedom. The man of substance in Tajuddin saw little alternative to the formal shaping of a governmental structure for a struggling nation. The whereabouts of his colleagues remained shrouded in mystery. That was a stumbling block, but he did get around it by doing the necessary thing of announcing the formation of a government, the first ever in the history of the Bengalis.
He came under political assault the moment he took that considered step. The younger elements in the Awami League, typified by the likes of Sheikh Fazlul Haq Moni, thought they had been upstaged. Tajuddin, they thought and indeed propagated the message, had gone beyond his remit. He was not, said these angry young men, qualified or empowered to establish a government because he had not been authorised by Bangabandhu to do so. It was an unfased Tajuddin who went ahead with what he saw as his historic mission of bringing Bengalis together. The socialist in him was unwilling to cave in to fate or human machinations. The intellectual in his being was prepared to withstand onslaughts of the kind his fellow Awami Leaguers were throwing his way. He emerged from the experience a sadder man but a necessarily stronger man.
In a free Bangladesh, Tajuddin Ahmed ought to have played a bigger role in the transformation of society. That role could have come through his holding on to the position of head of government. As minister for finance, though, he demonstrated a tremendous degree of courage in warding off evil spirits, both in the form of international donor agencies and local opportunists. It was his conviction that a development strategy for Bangladesh did not have to include thoughts of aid from nations which had opposed its birth. Such a position, naturally, did not endear him to the right-wingers in the government; and these men kept up their noisy complaints against him before the Father of the Nation.
But what hurt Tajuddin Ahmed more than the whispering campaign against him was his sad, shocking realisation that Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was listening more to men like Khondokar Moshtaque and Sheikh Moni than to him. Decent almost to a fault, Tajuddin never complained in public. In private, though, he found it inexplicable that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the leader and political soul mate with whom he had shaped the political course of the Bengali nation, never once sought to ask him about the events leading up to the formation of the provisional government and the war of liberation that such a government waged.
The differences between these two giants of Bengali history only grew wider. Tragedy was bound to follow. It remains a curious, almost macabre tale in Bangladesh’s history that Tajuddin Ahmed was instructed by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to leave the cabinet in the very month — October 1974 — when Henry Kissinger, prime architect of the Nixonian policy of backing Pakistan in its repression of Bengalis in 1971, came calling. That visit was a sign that Bangladesh was ready to pass into the American orbit. We as a people are still paying the price for the rudeness of overturning Tajuddin Ahmed’s socialism and replacing it with unfettered capitalism. The robber barons in our midst, since that October day, have multiplied in number many times over — and do so every livelong day.
Tajuddin Ahmed was a principled man, one inclined to self-effacement and extraordinary humility. Not many were or have been able to command the intellectual heights of political leadership that he so easily was symbolic of. And few have been the individuals in our history who have so effortlessly cast the personal to the winds in the interest of the welfare of a toiling, battered nation. Self-abnegation was part of his character. As prime minister in 1971, he kept thoughts of family aside as he shaped the tortuous map of battlefield strategy. After October 1974 and till his murder in November of the following year, he went into exile of a kind. He internalised his pain, brooded in loneliness over the future of a country he had guided to freedom. And then he paid the price.
(Tajuddin Ahmed, Bangladesh’s first prime minister, was born on July 23, 1925. He was murdered in prison on November 3, 1975).
The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.
“In the forging of Bengali nationalism, Tajuddin Ahmed’s role was as crucial as Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s”, Mr Ahsan writes but what EXACTLY Bengali nationalism is? Does it contain Bengali race as a whole or Tajuddin was building Bengali Muslim nationalism only (the result of which was Bangladesh)? It would be most appropriate if Mr Ahsan explain it to us without any ambiguity.
Out of context it may sound but I take this opportunity to ask Mr Ahsan another important another question once again (I asked this question before).
There was rumour in 1971 in some quarters that Yahya was about to make a compromise with Mujib under American pressure and learning it Indira Gandhi hurriedly arranged the invasion of Bangladesh. Except Tajuddin she took no other Bangladeshi leader (who took shelter in India) into confidence for this invasion. And Mujib was very annoyed with Tajuddin for this reason and that is why he never talked to him properly or asked for his advice on any important issue after returning home from Pakistani jail.
Readers and writers who may have some clue about this rumour may kindly through some lights so that our young generation may know the truth and not the half-truth or the constructed history.
Regarding compromise with Mujib by Yahia under American pressure was nothing but a propaganda by anti liberation elements in Bangladesh.
Mrs. Indira Gandhi had visited United States on November 11 to 13th 1971 and found out that President Nixon was adamantly supporting the brutal crackdown the legitimate elected leaders of East Pakistan.
On November 13, 1971 group us secretly met Mrs. Gandhi and she assured us that our nation will be freed from the occupation forces soon.
As soon as she arrived in New Delhi she decided to support the Mujib Nagar government with her Armed Forces and asked Mr. Taj Uddin Ahmad, General Osmani and Abdus Samad Azad to meet with her to make final decision to go against occupation forces in Bangladesh. It was Taj Uddin Ahmad who signed the joint operation action agreement with Mrs. Gandhi. Prior to that agreement India was only supporting the training of Mukti Bahini
There was no truth to the propaganda that Yahia wanted compromise by American pressure. It was concocted by the anti liberation in Bangladesh to malign Taj Uddin Ahmad who was no doubt a great leader of Bangladesh Liberation War next Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Reason Taj Uddin was not much talking with the Bangabandhu after Bangabandhu became Prime Minister had to do with something else. Mrs. Johra Taj Uddin Ahmad can tell about it before her passing.
Mr Bari, first part of your statement is understood as nobody knows exactly what the truth was. But why Mujib ignored his number one buddy after returning to Bangladesh is a serious matter. Indeed Mujib dumped him totally and completely, didn’t he? He didn’t get even a fraction of attention from Mujib that Moni (a low-level politician and nephew) always had; actually Moni was the crown price for him, was he not? Why Bangladeshi intellectuals don’t bother to know the reason of this behaviour of him towards Tajuddin is something that puzzles me very much. Why are we so shy to know the truth? Again, what is that “something else” reason for which Mujib dumped Tajuddin?
Mr. Husain, if you have knowledge of Awami League during liberation war, you would know what had happened after the war and return of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Tajuddin Ahmad was not dumped by Bangabandhu. Tajuddin Ahmad himself left the cabinet once he realized he no longer could prevent Bangabandhu moving towards different directions.
Bangabandhu was most determined individual. He did not need advises from Mustaque and Moni to do anything. Moni and Mustaque were merely excused for his actions. They were simply sounding boards for his decisions.
I have personally overheard many times during Cabinet meeting at the 32 road house, Bangabandhu asked ‘Taju kisu bolona keno’? At that time Tajuddin Ahmad was disheartened with the affairs of State of Bangladesh. So he left the cabinet of Bangabandhu.
I hope some day in future you will read full story about the period of difficult times 1972-1975 of Bangladesh. Lets not duel about it any more.
I have seen a copy of the letter where Bongobondhu fired PM Tajuddin and the reason was a make believe corruption against him. please check out the book written by PM Tajuddin’s daughter where she published that letter. I could have cited the page # but some one borrowed the book from me.
I am a Mujibnagar boy and I met both of them; interestingly enough, while cabinet meeting were taking place Tajuddin came out with the tennis ball in his hand which went under the table from our kids game of cricket. It was such an extra ordinary event in my life. I met gen. Osmani later at his DOHS house and the treasure that I have is one of his golf wood which is a precious gift from the strong man. They were both men of high principle and values to an undiminishing level. there are not many these days unfortunately. The nation will miss them forever.
What a country we could all have if they all survived till this day; the nation must regret what an opportunity we all have lost. It is a missed opportunity and it is a shame too. The eminent Jurist of the country Dr. Kamal Hossain in his recent memoir “Bangladesh: Quest for Freedom and Justice” has laid out in simple language the history of the unfolded events. It left me with nothing but cry and cry. Thank you Dr. Kamal Hossain for writing such a brilliant piece of work. The book should be declared as text book for every student at high school level.