There is little question that Dr Kamal Hossain is the only elder statesman we have in our midst today. As he arrives at the age of eighty today, it is only fitting and proper that we go back to a study of the life and times of a man who deserved a whole lot more from a country to which he has given much and given in substance. In November 1981, there were millions of us who expected Kamal Hossain to become president by beating Justice Abdus Sattar at the election. In that event, he did not manage to overcome the hurdles before him. But when he was nominated for the presidency by the Awami League, we believed that change was in the air, that the tragedy of August-November which had engulfed the nation six years earlier would finally be behind us through the process of justice being served as Kamal Hossain was inaugurated the leader of the country.
That was not to be. But, despite the impediments in his way, Kamal Hossain’s has remained a moral voice for the country. It was a voice which was heard in early 1981 when Kamal Hossain proposed that the Awami League, at that point split into three factions, be reinvented and reorganised under the leadership of Bangabandhu’s elder daughter. The proposal was carried, unanimously, and Sheikh Hasina arrived back home in triumph in May 1981 to take charge of a party that had long been in the woods in the face of military rule. But that is not the only reason why Kamal Hossain’s place in Bangladesh’s history is guaranteed.
There is the role he played, as a young lawyer, in Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s defence during the Agartala Conspiracy Case trial in 1968. That was the beginning. What came later promised an elevated place for Kamal Hossain in some of the more momentous times in the history of this country. He was with Bangabandhu at the Round Table Conference in Rawalpindi in February-March 1969. It was Bangabandhu’s confidence in Hossain’s mastery of constitutional issues that brought the two men closer, a bond that was never to be severed. The surgical attitude Kamal Hossain brought, on behalf of the Awami League, to the fateful Mujib-Yahya-Bhutto negotiations in March 1971 remains a well-documented aspect of subcontinental history. It was to Kamal Hossain and his associates that Bangabandhu entrusted the task of informing the junta that a solution to the crisis lay in the reconfiguration of Pakistan as a confederation.
The junta responded in the only way it could, through a massive crackdown which soon became a genocide. For the subsequent nine months following the Pakistan army’s repudiation of the election results of December 1970, Kamal Hossain was out of circulation. He would not or could not be part of the Mujibnagar government. Arrested in early April 1971, he was whisked away to West Pakistan, where he would remain till the end of the war, indeed, as he tells it, till he was freed from Haripur jail and brought on a December night before Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, himself a prisoner of Pakistan at that point. During the course of the war, much malicious propaganda was carried on against Kamal Hossain, the core of which was that he had surrendered to the Pakistanis and was living in relative comfort in West Pakistan. That this was far from the truth was revealed for the first time when Bangabandhu and Kamal Hossain, along with the latter’s family, travelled from Rawalpindi to London on a cold January day in 1972. Bangabandhu had us know that much pressure had been put on Kamal Hossain to testify against his leader before the secret military tribunal constituted to try the Father of the Nation on charges of waging war against Pakistan. Kamal Hossain, said Bangabandhu, had refused to do the junta’s bidding.
We who recall the evening when news of the arrival of the Father of the Nation in London came through on news networks around the world heaved a sigh of relief that Bangabandhu was alive and well, that we had not lost Kamal Hossain. A higher, seminal role in Bangladesh’s history remained for him came through his contribution, as minister for law, to the drafting and enactment of the Constitution in 1972. The Constitution he framed, with his colleagues, is today recalled, despite the many assaults it has gone through, for the clarity of purpose and promise of parliamentary democracy it offered as its themes. In a very broad manner of speaking, the 1972 Constitution can, with all justification, be termed as Kamal Hossain’s biggest legacy within the broad parameters of Bangladesh’s history.
Kamal Hossain presided over the foreign policy establishment of the country at a critical point in its history. His role in steering Bangladesh to the United Nations in 1974, on the basis of the foreign policy goals outlined by Bangabandhu and despite the opposition of Pakistan’s friends on the Security Council, pointed to his diplomatic skills. Those skills had shown themselves earlier through his intense negotiations with India’s Sardar Swaran Singh and Pakistan’s Aziz Ahmed on the normalisation of relations between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in the aftermath of the war of 1971. And yet the final result of the talks — the tripartite agreement of April 1974 — could not have made Kamal Hossain happy. Diplomatic exigencies compelled him and Prime Minister Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, into agreeing to let the 195 Pakistani prisoners of war earmarked for trial as war criminals in Dhaka go home to Pakistan. Bangabandhu, as Hossain puts it, sadly made it known to him that of all the promises he had made to his Bengali nation, the one he had made on having the 195 POWs face justice was the only one he had been unable to keep.
Kamal Hossain’s loyalty to Bangabandhu never wavered. As foreign minister in 1975, he was uncomfortable with the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. But pragmatism had him stand beside Bangabandhu, at least in the arena of foreign policy. On an official visit abroad when the Father of the Nation was assassinated in August 1975, Kamal Hossain spurned all offers of a continued role in government by the usurper Moshtaq regime. It was an act that was not to be emulated by so many others, men who had revered Bangabandhu and yet did not call forth the courage to say ‘No’ to Moshtaq’s blandishments.
Should Kamal Hossain have been more assertive in Bangladesh’s politics? Have his politics been governed more by elitism than popular interaction with the masses? Should he have stayed on in the Awami League despite everything?
These are questions that researchers and scholars of Bangladesh’s history can try answering as time moves on. For those of us who have observed the making of history in Bangladesh, though, two episodes in our national chronicle have left us terribly pained. The first was the falling out between Bangabandhu and Tajuddin Ahmad in 1974; the second was the parting of ways between Sheikh Hasina and Kamal Hossain in the mid-1990s.
This morning, as Dr Kamal Hossain moves into his eighty-first year, we remind ourselves of the large swath he occupies in the history of this People’s Republic. As elder statesman, he is today the repository of wisdom that nations like ours often aspire to.
He is our link to a tortuous and yet glorious chapter in Bangladesh’s history.