So the family of Abdul Monem Khan would like people to believe the late governor of erstwhile East Pakistan is a martyr! That is indeed interesting. One could in the same breath suggest that the Vichy regime in France was a team of patriots, that those who upheld apartheid in South Africa were guided by love of country, that Ian Smith of Rhodesia and Kurt Waldheim of Austria were men who loved their countries and their people in immeasurable manner.
Monem Khan, we have been informed by his family through the school it runs in Mymensingh, was murdered by dacoits, bandits in proper English, in 1971. You are reminded here of the times when the Nationalists ruling China under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek — and that was before they lost everything in 1949 — routinely referred to Mao Zedong and his dedicated communists as bandits out to destroy everything in the land. In the Monem Khan case, the sheer audacity and the absolute shamelessness of his family are remarkable. Where the families of other collaborators of the Yahya-Tikka junta have largely remained contritely silent over the dark doings of their loved ones in 1971, the children of Monem Khan have continued to spew the bad notion that their father was a great man done in by lawless brigands.
Let us, once again, set the record straight for the young and also for those of our generation — we were politically aware teenagers during the War of Liberation — who may be tempted to fall prey to selective amnesia or go for a sudden ‘reappraisal’ of history. Abdul Monem Khan was among the many little known or absolutely unknown politically inclined Bengalis who in the early 1960s became enamoured of the self-styled Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan, enough to find berths in his regime. Monem was appointed a minister in the central government led by Ayub and on the removal of Ghulam Faruque from the governorship of East Pakistan was chosen as the new satrap of the province by the military ruler.
Monem Khan was, in comparison with others who preceded or succeeded him in the governor’s mansion in Dhaka, hugely lucky. His fawning nature paid off. He remained governor of East Pakistan all the way from 1962 to 1969. In his endless efforts to remain in the good books of Ayub Khan, he routinely made sure that a goodly part of the budgetary allocation for East Pakistan was returned to the centre because, in his view, all that money was not necessary. Ayub Khan loved him, as a father would love an extremely obedient child.
Viciousness towards the foes of the regime was a hallmark in Abdul Monem Khan. He was obsessed with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, with dark thoughts about the future Bangabandhu. His infamous remark that Mujib would remain in prison as long as he was governor has not been forgotten. Throughout his term as governor, Monem Khan made sure that the future founding father of the state of Bangladesh was compelled to move from one town to another, from one city to another, obtaining bail from a variety of courts as the authorities clamped one arrest order after another on him. Monem Khan dreaded Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. In the event, Bangabandhu emerged free from incarceration more than a month before Ayub Khan was forced to find a new governor for an increasingly restive East Pakistan. At the public rally Bangabandhu addressed at the Race Course on 23 February 1969, a day after his release, he demanded that Ayub Khan take his ‘patwari’ Monem Khan to Rawalpindi. Dr. M.N. Huda replaced Monem Khan on 24 March 1969, but could serve as governor only for two days. Late in the evening on 25 March 1969, General Yahya Khan replaced Field Marshal Ayub Khan as Pakistan’s new military ruler.
There are other reasons why Monem Khan will not be forgotten in the history of our part of the world. He belonged to the generation that included the myopic Khwaja Shahabuddin, Ayub Khan’s minister for information and broadcasting instrumental in convincing his president that a ban on Rabindranath Tagore would go a long way in quelling rising Bengali nationalistic aspirations. Monem Khan went along with the idea, in the false belief that forbidding Bengalis from listening to Rabindrasangeet would inculcate in them the ‘necessary’ Pakistan ideology as they prepared to step into the future. Tagore was banned in 1967. The consequence was, ironically, a reassertion of his poetry and music in Bengali homes and social gatherings. In effect, the ban served as a renewal of the Tagore spirit in East Pakistan, soon to be — in four years’ time — the sovereign republic of Bangladesh.
Abdul Monem Khan, never losing an opportunity to demonstrate his arrogance as governor, once reportedly tried to be smart with a Bengali member of the Pakistan civil service. When he informed the gentleman that he would not be a member of the CSP cadre if Pakistan had not come into being, the officer swiftly put him in his place thus: ‘Governor, if Pakistan had not come into being, I would be part of the Indian civil service. But if Pakistan had not come into being, you would not be governor.’
The ban clamped on Tagore music did not unduly worry Monem Khan. He asked a reputed Bengali composer if he could not compose Rabindrasangeet rather than depend on Tagore. The composer, with an evident smirk at the governor’s ignorance, retorted that in that case it would be sangeet in his name, not in Tagore’s.
Monem Khan was never a loved figure in power or out of it. The extent to which he was held in contempt by his fellow Bengalis was demonstrated all too well in 1964 when, despite warnings from his staff and the intelligence services, he turned up at the convocation of Dhaka University. The predictable happened. Students refused to accept certificates from him. In no time, pandemonium was let loose, with chairs being thrown about and slogans being raised against Monem Khan by the students. Security personnel and university officials quickly hustled an angry and defiant governor out of the campus.
Abdul Monem Khan was among those Bengalis who cheerfully lent their services to the genocidal Pakistani military regime in 1971. All of them were to pay the wages of their sins, in their different ways. Monem Khan was liquidated by the Mukti Bahini at his home in Dhaka’s Banani area as the tempo of the War of Liberation rose. The day was 13 October 1971.