There was integrity about him. There was in him the committed soul of a socialist. In him lived and breathed a leader in the real sense of the term, for he was mild in manner, humble in his attitude and firm in his views. Had he not been around in 1971, in the absence of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, history would be different – and not necessarily for the better – for this country. Where others were worried about their safety, were perhaps vulnerable to fears that were a consequence of the genocide launched by the Pakistan occupation army, Tajuddin Ahmad knew what needed to be done. In a terrible present, he was already shaping a glorious future.
Tajuddin Ahmad would be ninety one 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. That was in November 1975.
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 Ahmad was five years younger. And yet in that brief space of time, he had become an integral 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 Ahmad 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 Ahmad that betrayed his eloquence every time he decided to ask a question here or seek a clarification there.
In the growth of Bengali nationalism, Tajuddin Ahmad’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 and also members of the Yahya Khan junta to watch out for Tajuddin.
Once Pakistan let itself loose 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 authorized by Bangabandhu to do so. It was an unfazed 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 Ahmad 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 Ahmad more than the whispering campaign against him was his sad, shocking realization 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 soulmate 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. One of the saddest tales in Bangladesh’s history comes encapsulated in Bangabandhu’s note to Tajuddin Ahmad, asking him to submit to him his resignation from the cabinet. Tajuddin did as asked and went home. It was October 1974, the very month when Henry Kissinger, principal 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. And it did pass into that orbit. Tajuddin Ahmad’s socialism was pushed aside by unbridled capitalism, by the emergence in the dark of robber barons. These robber barons, since that October day, have multiplied in number many times over.
Tajuddin Ahmad was a principled man given to self-effacement and extraordinary humility. Not many 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. Self-denial mattered to him. As prime minister in 1971, he kept thoughts of family aside as he shaped battlefield strategy for the freedom fighters. 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 Ahmad, pre-eminent political leader and Bangladesh’s first prime minister, was born on 23 July 1925. He was assassinated in prison on 3 November 1975).