In the early 1980s I was a young, and possibly callow, lecturer at Dhaka University. One day I was called on to be a discussant of a paper written by Professor Muzaffer Ahmad at a small seminar. I forget the exact topic now, but very possibly it was on a development issue. I was given the paper on the morning of the seminar, due to be held in the afternoon, and took it home to read. As I read it I realized that the paper discussed the topic only tangentially, and was actually a report prepared for a consultancy he had taken with the UNDP. At the seminar, in an injured tone, I said I could not discuss the paper, explaining that I could not take it “seriously” since it obviously was something that had been handed in merely for the sake of handing in a paper.
There was consternation among the members of the panel and those attending it, a distinguished coterie of the teachers of the university. I was maneuvered off the stage and the gnomic Dr Mosharrof Hosain of Economics Department, chairing the panel, papered over the cracks with a light touch. The seminar wound along its predictable course. Dr Muzaffer Ahmad sat silently through this, tight-lipped, and did not take the stage. He did not rebuke me, though he could have. Nor did he, in subsequent interactions with me regarding some publications of a research center of the university, ever refer to the incident, or behave with anything less than with his usual distracted politeness. It was a graciousness that was remarkable in the highly hierarchical Bengali world of Dhaka University with its strict gradation of ‘sirs’ and seniors and juniors.
Professor Muzaffer Ahmad was well-known to me by then. He was not only the “Professor of IBA” (not ‘at’ but ‘of’ since he was so tied in with IBA’s founding and functioning) on the campus, where he could be seen strolling out of the institute’s gates in well-tailored clothes towards the Registrar’s Office, but as the co-author with Professor Rehman Sobhan of Public Enterprise in the Intermediate Regime. Younger readers today necessarily will have no idea about the years immediately after independence, in the 1970s, when ideology mattered in public debates, when party manifestos were underpinned by positions taken for or against the Das Kapital. It was a time when the term ‘collective good’ was taken seriously. One of the most hotly debated topics was the kind and degree of socialism adopted by the then Awami League government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The most visible public face of this adoption was the ‘transfer’ of private sector assets to the public sector – springing not only from the necessity of disposing the abandoned assets of fleeing Pakistanis but also from the belief that it would be treasonous of the newly-minted Bangladeshi state to repeat the rampant capitalism of the Pakistani industrialists.
Professor Muzaffer Ahmad, heading the industries division of the Planning Commission of that period, was the sharp end of the policy stick. Having been in the East Pakistan Industrial Development Corporation (EPDIC) before that, an organization devoted soulfully towards building up not only an industrial base in East Pakistan but also a capitalist class, he was seen as gamekeeper turned poacher. That is however a simplistic picture of a wholly complex thinker and scholar. The brief romance of Bangladesh with socialism, as everybody knows, failed, and gave way with a vengeance to privatization, to today’s genuflection to the magic of the neo-liberal market, but Professor Muzaffer never ceased to be vitally alive to the full dimensions of that project and ideology.
It was this that drove him and Professor Sobhan to articulate the failure in the elegantly but comprehensively worded Public Enterprise. It is as solid a work of classical political economy of Bangladesh as has ever been written, the narrative laid out in the tightly wound spokes of Kalecki’s conceptual wheel of the ‘intermediate regime’. Used as I was to the dry and barren, as well as poorly written English, textual exegeses of my professors, this encounter with a book whose linguistic and intellectual standards matched the topic they deliberated on left an indelible impression on me. That book, and Professor Rehman Sobhan’s Public Works and Basic Democracy are the two books that have always stood out for me amid the welter of self-serving memoirs and sub-standard academic works that litter the textual landscape of our public policy. I recently re-read the book after all these many years, and again admired it; to those interested in the broad issue as well as the arcana of our socialist period it is an unforgettable chronicle of an unforgettable time.
There are many of those who deplore the fact that Professor Muzaffer Ahmad joined the Zia administration, but they would be sorely off the mark to attribute that to a yearning for power and status. What must have driven him was another chance to return to his area of personal and academic obsession, to revisit the policymaking associated with the topics of how to bring about large-scale changes in terms of social equality and economic redistribution, but this time from the opposite side. As the public sector was dismantled and the private sector returned triumphant, he must have pondered as he busied himself in the work, who won, one particular class, or society? It is especially remarkable given that his PhD was from Chicago University, famous for Milton Friedman and the monetarist bombing of Chile.
I left for the United States in the mid-1980s. When I came back in 2003 he had undergone a more remarkable transformation. Professor Muzaffer had become a public and institutional (with his chairmanship of Transparency International Bangladesh) force against not only the specific corruptions in our public sector, but a voice of dissent against the many social corruptions that pervaded our larger society. Back in Dhaka, I saw him again at a lecture on Freedom of Information Act by an Indian expert and activist in the field. He looked frail, and gone was the old sartorial sharpness; he was far more simply dressed in kurta and sandals. It seemed that he had shed everything extraneous in his life and manner except for his work and values – simple clothes, simple house, plain furniture, plain speaking. But the intelligence was keener than ever, the social conscience honed sharper than ever, a reminder of which was the depth and breadth with which he engaged the Indian speaker. At one point they veered off into a discussion of corruption and public accountability of the water sector in Kerala, and the not-so-young professor displayed an agility and nimbleness with an arcane topic that would have left many a much younger and ‘well-read’ academic eating his dust. The Prof who guided generations of IBA students through the maze of corporate and public sector ethics, I saw, had not lost his old reading habits.
I approached him after the talk and introduced myself. It had been a long time, but eventually he recognized me. I told him tongue-in-cheek that I kept meeting him in seminars. He smiled slightly at this, no doubt his memory now more fully jogged about that old seminar in the distant past, and said I was free to join him on the streets too. No doubt beneath banners and hot suns in protests and demos against the swift slide of our public life into theft, illiteracy, looting and small-mindedness. I said I would but I never did. It is too hard, too damn hot, and I am too lazy, my active civic sense too shrunken. But not Professor Muzzafer Ahmad, as I kept seeing on television, with his frail body and his steel mind, the simple clothes, the vigil under a hot sun, in mild-mannered protest against the depredations of the looters, the scholar with his sense that man is a social animal, and unless every woman and man cares enough about the society which she or he claims to be a part of, things fester and decay, and democracy and civil society and human rights and respect for each other then become the Orwellian slogans of the rapacious-minded.
Professor Muzaffer Ahmad’s like will not be seen again in Bangladesh.