Volume 5, No. 9, September 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
Rehman Sobhan: Untranquil Recollections (SAGE Publications India Pvt Ltd, 2016)
Muhammad Anisur Rehman: My Story of 1971 (Liberation War Museum, 2001)
This article focuses on how the Pakistani Army launched a full-scale crackdown against the intelligentsia, particularly the teachers of Dacca University, even more specifically those of the Economics and Political Science Faculty, which it accused of being the fountainhead of anti-Pakistan activities in East Pakistan. Their accounts are both readable and authentic as well as analytically incisive and politically insightful, resplendent with acts of courage, compassion and love for their language, culture and country, and yet not without a touch of wry humour in the midst of the grim circumstances they encountered.
Both Rehman Sobhan and Anisur Rehman, two prominent economists of East Pakistan – whose 1971 stories are discussed elsewhere in this article – were deeply involved in the last-minute negotiations with their West Pakistani counterparts to avoid the holocaust that they clearly foresaw as a slow-motion train wreck gathering momentum in case of their failure to reach a political détente. In their memoirs the authors touch upon the reasons for such a failure and their exasperation with their West Pakistani interlocutors at the lack of their understanding of the nature and extent of deprivation of East Pakistan and the measures necessary to overcome them. By ignoring their warnings as trivial and furthermore by demonising them as Indian agents, the ruling Pakistani military junta, in cahoots with an ambitious and emerging populist leader of West Pakistan, Z A Bhutto, fulfilled a prophesy that was written on the wall in bold letters in the tradition of Gabriel García Márquez’s novels.
The two narratives of the Bangladeshi ordeal traverse almost the same ground on parallel trajectories, from the beginning of their academic careers to the creation of Bangladesh. Rehman Sobhan locates the events as a part of his colourful life as a scion of the prestigious Dacca Nawab family, blessed with an embarrassment of choices. He not only chose two very career-oriented women from outside the family circle as his life partners, but also had the rare opportunity to choose to become a national of and lead his preferred and self-designed lifestyle. His career options were equally abundant, ranging from that of running a profitable family tannery business to becoming a CSP, a journalist or an academic. Anis’s story is less complicated and rather straightforward – though passionate and heart-rending. His account of how he, his family, his friends, colleagues and comrades braved the atrocities, the terror and intimidation of the Pakistan Army, which was ostensibly sent there to protect Bengali citizens against external (presumably Indian) aggression, is both harrowing and inspiring. The story reaches its climax on the midnight of May 25, 1971, when the Pakistan Army, after the failure of protracted negotiations with Mujib and Bhutto, decided to launch a full-scale crackdown in East Pakistan,which culminated nine months later with the surrender of the Pakistani troops in Dacca to the Indian Army.
The core of the story is centred around the fateful month of March 1971, when the Pakistan Army embarked on one of its costliest misadventures resulting in the loss of more than half of the country’s population and a sizeable swathe of its territory, within a year of the holding of the first general election in the country after 1947. The Army, which had taken over the country in a coup d’état in 1958 after more than a decade’s political instability was able to call the shots in all spheres of life. General Ayub Khan, the coup leader, ruled unchallenged for over a decade with the help of his military colleagues and a coterie of political allies and bureaucrats, predominantly from West Pakistan.
Anis’s association with the Bangladesh war of liberation stemmed from his academic interest in the consequences of Pakistan’s unbalanced development that underpinned Ayub Khan’s strategy for his Decade of Development soon after he took over the country in a military coup (the first of four such coups that have been staged so far – and counting). Anis wrote his PhD thesis at Harvard University critiquing the theoretical model of such a development paradigm, highlighting the consequences of uneven regional growth, under the supervision of Professor Wassily Leontief, a Nobel laureate.
Mujib, who inherited the mantle of the head of the Awami League (AL) from Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy – the only leader of an all-Pakistan stature from East Pakistan – was unable to face up to the challenge of filling the political vacuum of his leader, whom he fawningly called “the Boss”. To overcome this lacuna, he sought the help of the East Pakistani intellectuals, especially the economists, to help him prepare a strong case for East Pakistan’s autonomy. He needed to make the latter a basis for convincing both his own followers and the West Pakistani establishment – as well as the world at large – about the feasibility of his six-point programme. He entrusted Professor Nurul Islam, the eminent Professor of Economics of Dacca University who was on leave of absence to serve as the first Pakistani Director of the Institute of Development Economics (PIDE) in Karachi, to collect a group of dedicated East Pakistani economists to serve as an informal ‘thinktank’ and prepare an ‘economic manifesto’ for East Pakistan (and eventually for Bangladesh).
Anisur Rehman played an important role in this group, which also included PIDE’s younger economists Azizur Rehman Khan and Swadesh Bose, who had recently returned from Cambridge after completing their PhDs. Dr Akhlaqur Rehman and Rehman Sobhan also collaborated in the project, which was undertaken somewhat clandestinely in Karachi with the resources of PIDE and Anis’s summer vacation from Islamabad University.
After completing his PhD from Harvard (having obtained a First Class First MA degree in Economics before getting there) Anis returned to Dacca University and was appointed a Reader in a star-studded Department of Economics, which was among the strongest in the Subcontinent at that time. By interfacing with his economist colleagues in Dacca, including Rehman Sobhan and Professor Nurul Islam, Anis was able to articulate a well-argued case for an independent and autonomous economic unit within Pakistan’s federal structure. However, he kept his distance from politics and chose to accept in 1967 a professorship in economics at the Federal University in Islamabad (now known as QAU), one of whose aims was to promote cultural harmony and exchange between East and West Pakistan.
While in Islamabad, Anis witnessed the developing political crisis in Pakistan under Ayub Khan at first hand. His father, a retired civil servant, had served as Commerce Minister in the first Cabinet of General Ayub Khan and had returned to Dacca. He also knew quite a few bureaucrats and economists in the Planning Commission. From this vantage point, he started researching and writing on the emerging economic disparities between East and West Pakistan. In March 1969, just four days before the imposition of Yahya Khan’s Martial law after the overthrow of Ayub Khan’s tottering regime, Anis published a scholarly article on the subject of the unequal economic relationship between East and West Pakistan. The article published in Dhaka’s leading daily, The Pakistan Observer, entitled “Who Pays the Debt to Whom”, questioned the value of the “defence service” that the West Pakistani rulers were claiming to provide East Pakistan.
While the article went practically unnoticed in the West Pakistani press (although it probably went ‘viral’ in East Pakistan – though not quite in the same manner as it would today), it did not fail to catch the vigilant attention of the new junta, which had announced its intention to hold early elections in 1970 and give the country a new democratic dispensation by reversing Ayub Khan’s dictatorial presidential form of government. However, instead of inveighing him for writing the article, the junta decided to get closer to Anis who soon received a phone call from Air Marshal Nur Khan, one of the three Deputy Martial Law administrators. The ostensible reason for the call was to enlist Anis’s services for three months to help the new government in formulating educational reforms. Anis knew that the Air Marshal had other plans and his offer was only designed to trap him into a wider web. He tried to wriggle out by saying that his responsibilities at the University would not allow him to spare the time, especially in view of the forthcoming exams. For Nur Khan this was not a big deal and he instantly got in touch with the University’s Vice-Chancellor Raziuddin Siddiqui to seek his permission to release Anis for three months to undertake the assignment. The ageing and amiable Vice-Chancellor readily agreed. Anis had no option but to acquiesce. But the matter hardly ended there.
Anis met Sheikh Mujibur Rehman for the first time while the latter was allowed to attend the Round Table Conference (RTC) in Rawalpindi (Islamabad’s twin city). The junta tried – through the Chief of General Staff, General Pirzada – to gain access to Anis’s putative proximity to Mujib by making the gambit of offering him a two-year advisory post in the Army’s Advisory Board. (Similar offers were also made to other civilians, including Professor G W Chowdhri, Professor of Political Economy at Dacca University and Hamza Alavi, Fellow of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at Sussex). However, Anis, who had anticipated such an overture, firmly declined the offer.
Towards the end of 1969, the political horizon was becoming murky. Notwithstanding the preparations for the general election in 1970, it was becoming obvious that the military’s Plan B was off the drawing board and ready to be deployed in case a political stalemate persisted after the general election. The zero hour was fast approaching. According to information Anis had become privy to through his contacts in Islamabad, the junta had decided “that under no circumstances would autonomy be given to East Pakistan” and that it would not hesitate to resort to the kind of repression that was unleashed by General Suharto in dealing with the leftist rebels in Indonesia after the overthrow of the Sukarno regime. Anis began preparing himself to return to Dacca University, which welcomed him by creating a chair in Economics before the commencement of the 1970-71 session. He was mentally prepared to join the struggle for the autonomy and economic independence of East Pakistan, which was beginning to seem inevitable, though not without considerable bloodshed and human sacrifice.
Although the elections were almost a year away, its results were rather unpredictable. There was a range of predictions from the most optimistic to the most pessimistic (depending on one’s choice of preferred outcome). But even the most optimistic forecasts favouring Mujib did not give the AL more than 70 percent of East Pakistan seats, which would not have secured a majority for it in the National Assembly (NA). As a result, it seemed unlikely that Mujib’s six-point programme would be endorsed by the NA. The best it could hope for was to convince a substantial proportion of West Pakistani MNAs to support its demand, even if through a negotiated compromise (the prospects of which were rather bleak, in view of the minimal level of contacts between East and West Pakistan and the overarching influence of Punjab’s landed and military vested interests). In addition, both Yahya Khan and Bhutto were in favour of a strong Centre and were pinning their hopes on a good electoral showing by pro-Pakistani elements in East Pakistan. Even more so, the hawks in the Army wanted it to wield a firm upper hand in case there was any serious threat of secession by East Pakistan.
The results of the 1970 election turned out to be rather stunning with a landslide victory for Mujib’s AL, which won all but two (those of Nurul Amin, the Chief Minister and of Raja Tridev Roy, the Chakma leader) of the 164 National Assembly seats from East Pakistan, giving it an absolute majority in a house of 300 seats. Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) secured 81 seats – the second highest number, but all in West Pakistan. The nation had been polarised into two parts and it did not seem that the twain would ever meet again. It was also becoming apparent that in a free and unfettered session of the NA, which was to meet in the new capital Dhaka, Mujib will have no problem in getting his six-point agenda incorporated into the new Constitution. Even more unbelievable was the prospect that Mujib could become – against all odds – the first democratically elected Prime Minister (PM) from East Pakistan in a general election.
Faced with these unsavoury options, Yahya Khan and the Army junta began strategising their plans in dealing with Mujib and Bhutto. The results of the election proved unpalatable to both the Army and Z A Bhutto, the PPP leader from West Pakistan. Bhutto knew that it was impossible to get a transfer of political power from the military even in West Pakistan without being in cahoots with the latter and without openly opposing Mujib’s demands. Although Bhutto came to visit Dacca and meet Mujib after the election, the meeting proved infructuous and his effort to reach an agreement was put paid to by the military’s intransigence and suspicions about the two leaders colluding against the military. In desperation, Bhutto was reported to have come up with the formula Tum idhar, Hum udhar (You rule here, I’ll rule there). But for Mujib this was an unacceptable proposition in the face of military hegemony. After three months of back and forth ‘negotiations’ that were intended to camouflage its efforts for a massive build up to launch a decisive crackdown to crush the insurgency, the military made the final assault, which had been anticipated by Anis and his colleagues much earlier. To quote Anis, “The talks were a pretence merely to buy time for sufficient military strength to be mustered.” In other words, the objective was to set the military’s Plan B in motion.
Anis’s worst fear was that the student community and intelligentsia, especially in Dacca, would be the prime target of the impending military crackdown and tried to unsuccessfully convince the senior faculty to leave the campus well in time. Most of the faculty and their families, including Anis’s, lived on the campus and were most concerned about their young children getting caught in the crossfire.
Rehman Sobhan and Anis shared common goals and dreams for their utopia of an independent Bangladesh, even though their career trajectories and life storylines differed widely as they came from different social and economic strata. There was also a perceptible contrast in their personalities, with Anis being a modest, soft-spoken, introverted and deeply sensitive person, while Rehman Sobhan was a larger than life, high-pitched, outspoken and flamboyant figure, who could trance any audience –an advantage he learnt to leverage against his West Pakistani adversaries.
Anis, on the other hand, was an academic recluse, self-possessed and persuasive, who depended more on his knowledge and logic than on the power of his lungs to get his points across. He was extremely devoted to his family that consisted of his wife Dora and their two adorable daughters. Anis and Rehman Sobhan complemented each other in championing the cause of Bangladesh. Both showed exemplary commitment to their cause, from beginning to end.
Rehman Sobhan, despite being a Calcutta Muslim belonging to the upper middle class and not at all conversant in the Bengali language, had an instinctive attraction to his Bengali heritage and decided to make Dacca his home and Dacca University his intellectual base – even though he had been offered the post of Reader in Economics at Peshawar University soon after obtaining his Cambridge Tripos. He could, if he so wished, easily pass for a West Pakistani and given his multiple social and political connections, both inherited and acquired, including those while studying at Aitchison College Lahore – the ‘Chief’s College’, a bastion of scions of the West Pakistani landed elite – land up in a lucrative job or assignment in West Pakistan. But his Bangladeshi dream ruled out his succumbing to any such temptations. Instead, he chose to search and carve out his own destiny.
Rehman Sobhan’s narrative of the traumatic events culminating in the establishment of Bangladesh is enmeshed in his personal life, much of which was spent outside Bengal in what he aptly describes as an “improbable journey of a child born at an elite nursing home in Calcutta, with a British doctor in attendance, to a mother from the Dhaka Nawab Family and a father who was a member of the Imperial Police Service of India (who was once a contemporary of Field Marshal Ayub Khan at Sandhurst).” The underlying motivation for writing his autobiographical narrative is to explain the epiphany of why, how and under what circumstances his home in Dhaka was invaded by the Pakistan army with orders to take him into custody on charges of high treason to the State of Pakistan.
Rehman Sobhan entered Pakistan’s political discourse as an early dissenter of the ruling paradigm stridently trumpeted during Ayub Khan’s martial law in the late 1950s. Although he was a novice to the Pakistani political landscape, his studies at Aitchison College Lahore and later at Cambridge where he became friendly with many scions of the West Pakistani elite, including Arif Iftikhar, the son of Mian Iftikharuddin, a big landlord of Punjab with leftist leanings, helped shape the important role he was destined to play in the birth of Bangladesh.
Voices of dissent were few and far between, with those among the academic community – which had greater resonance in East Pakistan – being the most vocal. Rehman Sobhan was among the few and most prominent of these critics who were willing to stick their neck out on these subjects in the limited space available in public fora and the heavily-censored media in the praetorian Ayub period. Indeed his flirtation with journalism and inclination towards leftist politics predates his involvement in Pakistani political and economic debates and started with his extracurricular activities association with his Cambridge contemporaries from South Asia who included Amartya Sen, Lal Jayawardane and Arif Iftikhar. Apart from being active in the Cambridge Majlis and other student activities, he had started writing articles on the unfolding Pakistan crisis for the London Times and New Statesman among others. His journalistic experience held him in good stead in enabling him to champion the Bangladeshi cause, both before and after the defeat of the Pakistani military in 1971, in Pakistan as well as abroad.
To quote Rehman Sobhan, “During 1961, as the Bengalis became more restless over the denial of democracy, the escalating debate over economic disparity that was deemed to originate in the undemocratic and unjust nature of a Pakistan State ruled by an elite of West Pakistani generals, senior bureaucrats, feudal landlords and affluent businessmen, to the almost complete exclusion of East Pakistanis…” This continued marginalisation of the Bengali intellectual elite not only alienated them from the ruling power structure, but also brought a sense of cohesion among them, which was conspicuously lacking among their West Pakistani counterparts, who were receiving a windfall of privilege and power, based mainly on their ethnic and linguistic credentials.
In the event though, both Rehman Sobhan and Anis, along with many other Bengali intellectuals and activists managed to escape to India and later to the US and UK with the assistance of local leaders and activists. Both performed yeoman service to Bangladesh in gaining legal recognition of the Bangladeshi state and establishing its critical links with the outside world. On their return to Bangladesh they both served as senior advisers to the Bangladesh Planning Commission, Anis as a member of the Planning Commission and Rehman Sobhan as Director-General of the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) – a successor of PIDE, which had moved to Dhaka before the independence of Bangladesh.
Both narratives are rich in anecdotes that heighten the poignancy of one of the great human tragedies of our times. The one that takes the cake and captures the ethos of both narratives relates to their attempt to cross the Indian border incognito (to avoid the attention of Pakistani intelligence) to reach the border town of Brahmanbaria aboard a launch manned by students less than a week after the military operation on March 25, 1971. When some students tried to engage them in conversation on the boat, Rehman Sobhan kept silent and Anis told them that he was unwell. However, Rehman Sobhan’s untypical appearance and outlandish garb aroused the suspicion that they might be Pakistani intelligence agents. Bigger crowds surrounded them on the shore front as they disembarked to catch a bigger boat and confronted Anis to reveal their identity. Anis told them that they were Dhaka University professors and were close associates of Mujib and were trying to escape to India. This did not sound very convincing to the students and after some ‘pushing and shoving’ whose brunt was borne by Anis resulting in his broken jaw, Anis was able to convince them of their identity by giving them an enlightening lecture on the liberation struggle. Once the students were convinced, they both received a hero’s welcome in the nearby village and were treated as celebrities.
Another anecdote that marks the end of a fraught and unconsummated relationship relates to Anis’s parting words to his West Pakistani colleagues of the Panel of Economists for Pakistan’s Fourth Five Year Plan (1970-75). It illustrates the crucial role the East Pakistani economists’ team played, led by Dr Nurul Islam but ably assisted by Anis and Rehman Sobhan and others mentioned earlier, which strengthened Mujib’s hands in achieving his six-point agenda. During the discussions on the Draft Fourth Plan, the members of the Panel of Economists from East Pakistan in which Anis played a key role, vigorously argued for tilting the transfer of resources in favour of East Pakistan in a significant way. The East Pakistanis focused on two key targets: first, a significant deceleration of West Pakistan’s growth rate to 5.4 percent from the 6.8 percent achieved by it in the 1960s, along with a much sharper reduction in West Pakistan’sshare of net foreign inflows to 8.7 percent from the 91.3 percent it had been receiving during the Third Five Year Plan period – or almost a total reversal of fortunes of the two regions. The acceptance of such a dramatic reversal in the overall development strategy, at least in spirit, as impossible as it seemed, was the only way to prevent the oncoming national disaster.
In view of the very serious differences that had emerged between the members belonging to the two ‘wings’ in the Panel of Economists, it could not agree on a consensus report and the two groups decided to submit two separate reports. Anis writes: “I saw the writing on the wall and remember having said in the last session of the Panel to our West Pakistani colleagues while saying goodbye: ‘It is unfortunate that you did not yield. We shall need a visa to see you next time.’” (Italics original).