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-with-Bangabandhu








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.

Syed Badrul Ahsanis a columnist.

10 Responses to “Kamal Hossain . . . our elder statesman”

  1. golam arshad

    Dr. Kamal Hossain an iconic political figure, a perfect man; look around in today’s politics, who we can define a true politician. Politics has now become a profession of getting quick rich. Dr. Kamal Hossain may not have that edge to outsmart the current tide, but he is a solid rock in the domain of politics of dignity and wisdom! Thank you.

  2. Dipak Chowdhury

    I congratulate Dr. Kamal Hossain at his 80th birthday. I can remember that I entered the session at 1974 with the help of Mr. Gias kamal, renowned journalist. I was impressed and spellbound by his posture and personalities of Dr. Hossain as foreign minister, which I remember in years to come.

  3. Pranab Sarker

    At first, I pay my respect to Dr. Kamal Hossain who have been an inseparable part of our history. History of our efforts for attaining invaluable independence for the first time since our inception as a nation. Afterwards our days of doing the difficult and significant task as a newly born state through some unavailable impediments in domestic and international arena we find Dr. Kamal Hossain accomplishing his duties relentlessly. Here we dare to raise a question why could the people and politicians not keep him in the mainstream politics? Rather We do observe a continuous demand for incriminalization in politics. Who are to be liable for this? We are paying at present as well as will pay for this. It is our deep-rooted desire that Dr. Kamal Hossain may play his role — the role determined by the history for the well-being of our country.

    • Sarker Javed Iqbal

      Once Awami League as well as the whole country will repent when Dr. Kamal will no more.

  4. Anwar A. Khan

    Bangladesh’s history is packed full of influential people: statesmen, rebels and reformers, artists, dictators and entertainers. Living political legends like NAP President Prof Muzaffar Ahmed, Dr. Kamal Hossain and Barrister M. Amirul Islam…are of signified loveliness in the Bangladesh’s political canon. These iconic figures hold sway over the world of Bangladesh who, through their pre-eminence and influence, have come to define Bangladesh’s history.
    We should not only pay attention to the order in which they appear, but also focus on their achievements. Standing beside Bangabandhu, they also have played very significant roles to change our nation and create Bangladesh. The lush and verdant worlds they have created become an embodiment for the nostalgic longing that defines their works before and after 1971. Their Bangladesh is a correlative of their own melancholic reverence for the past, and is entwined in the present time.
    Still a towering presence of Dr. Kamal Hossain in Bangladesh’s politics, it is very sad that the nation has misted up to take hold of his worthful services. Prof Muzaffar Ahmed, Barrister M. Amirul Islam…are all high-principled public figures in shaping our history, but again, we have forgotten to remember them with ascribable accolade and get their contributions for the country’s betterment after Bangabandhu’s brutal murder in 1975. They are not afraid to speak truth to power, or to unflinchingly portray the murkier aspects of our own country’s society.
    I remember the famous words of Prof Dr. Sarwar Murshid, “Disremembering tantamount to betrayal.” These iconic figures inhabit unique places in the Bangladesh’s canon. We must write in their lingering shadows repeatedly.
    The writer has devoted his imputable and courteous expression of esteem or regard to Dr. Kamal Hossain in this brilliantly crafted piece. I express my attitude of admiration or esteem to both of them.

  5. Zahid Hassan

    A honorable man who remained loyal to his principal in spite of all adversities faced all through his life, both in good times and bad. BRAVO TO THE GREAT GENTLEMEN AND PATRIOT WHO WITHSTOOD THE TEST OF TIME.

  6. হিদ্দি Mohiuddin Ahmed

    Thank you Badrul for recording the contributions of Dr Kamal Hossain in different phases of Bangladesh and for offering him befitting tributes on this auspicious Day. I had the honour and opportunity to see him closely on some important occasions. I saw him, among his many other qualities, a perfect man. It was his dignity and upbringing that he never, ever retorted to the many abuses and indignities he was subjected to so many times by people who were once his friends and colleagues in the party. I consider him as a Role Model…

  7. Sarker Javed Iqbal

    People of Bangladesh will always remember the contributions of Dr. Kamal Hossain in nation building process with due respect. Bangladesh Awami League would remain stronger and would be able to uphold the spirit of liberation war more strongly if Dr. Kamal Hossain would not be away from Awami League. May Allah keep Dr. Kamal Hossain in good health with energy. Long live Dr. Kamal Hossain. You will always remain in our hearts.

  8. M. Emad

    So far, I know, Dr. Kamal Hossain never explained how he was arrested by the Pakistan Army after 25th March 1971 Military crackdown and detail of his prison life in West Pakistan. Whatever Happy Birthday to Dr. Kamal Hossain — a part of Bangladesh history!

    • Inam Khan

      You still believe in conspiracy theory. A lot of assumptions none of them are true.

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