Oral history interview with Anissuzaman
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Anisuzzaman, interviewee (male)
Iftekhar Iqbal, interviewer (male)
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I.I.: This is 20th of October. I am sitting with Professor Anisuzzaman at the Arts Faculty building of Dhaka University in Dhaka. May I start with some information about your place and date of birth, sir?
I was born in Kolkata, then known as Calcutta, in 1937. The exact date of birth was 18th of February 1937. My father happened to be a homeopathic doctor. He had started practicing his profession back in 1917 in our sub-divisional town of Basirhat in the district of 24 Parganas. Then he moved to Calcutta in 1936. I was his fourth child and the first son. I went to school in Kolkata. I attended the Park Circus High School between 1943 and '47. I studied in the classes 3 to 7 in those days. Then the partition took place in 1947, and we moved to Khulna, but before that, I guess, you have other questions to ask?
I.I.: What circumstances led you to come to Khulna? Why was Khulna the choice?
You see, when the partition took place, my father, like many of his compatriots, thought that Calcutta would go to Pakistan. It was a vain thought but it was there. Then when he realized that Bengal was going to be partitioned and Calcutta was going to be included in Indian part of Bengal, he really didn't want to come to Pakistan because he had his own option
to choose, but my mother was very insistent.
By that time another brother had come to the family He was born on the 13th of August 1947, just --
I.I.: Just on the eve of --
on the eve of partition, and we had moved to Jessore for his birth.
I.I.: Sorry, your mother is from West Bengal?
Yeah, from the same sub division. My mother comes from the sub-divisional town and my father from a remote village. My mother's family claims to have descended from somewhere in Arabia.
I.I.: from central Arabia.
But my father's family doesn't have that kind of a history. So, I mean, I take it that basically my father's family was local converts. My grandfather Sheikh Abdur Rahim, he was born in 1858 and died in 1931. He was a journalist and an author. He was first among the Bengali Muslims to write a biography of the Prophet
and he also edited weekly's and monthly's, and most of his weekly's had called for looking after the Muslim interest in Bengal, so in a way, he had that separatist sense. Anyway.
so my mother in 1947, she insisted that the future of their two children lay in Pakistan and not in India. My three older sisters had been married by then. So it was at the insistence of my mother that my father decided to come to Pakistan. He chose Khulna because it was closer to Calcutta. In case Pakistan doesn't stay, he could always come back, and then we had relations in Khulna whom he knew, so it was easier to fall back on them.
I.I.: So you stayed back in Khulna for some years after that?
For a year and a quarter, 15 months to be exact, and then we moved to Dhaka. My father had great fear of crossing the river.
So I mean to come to the other side of the Padma was something very uncomfortable for his thoughts. He kept asking his friends, Do you have bread in Dhaka? Is the electricity running?
I.I.: He had never been to Dhaka?
Running tap water? - no -- Running tap water and all that sort of thing. So having been in Khulna for 15 months, we moved to Dhaka in December 1948 and then on we have been in Dhaka.
I.I.: So you went to -- so your schooling was in Dhaka?
Yes, yes, I matriculated from Priya Nath High School which is now known as Nawabpur Government High School. We were the last batch of that private school before it was taken over by the government. Then I studied at the Jagannath College then at the university [Dhaka University].
I.I.: So in the course, I mean, did you... of course, you were very young when you crossed the border. You didn't have any friend who became influential or intellectual regarding -- in West Bengal, you...
No, not really, not really. You see, I mean --
I.I.: but, your intellectual relationship developed at a ... in a different...
At a later date, yeah. In school we had friends both Muslims and Hindus, but when the great Calcutta killing took place 1946, the school was closed for a brief period. At the reopening, I found that all my Hindu friends had fled away.
I.I.: Ok, from East Bengal?
No, from our locality, Park Circus in Kolkata. So I was talking about my Calcutta school.
So we almost -- I mean we had very little connection with my school days friends, but then having come over to Dhaka I met some of my old schoolmates later on, but not that they became very well known in public life, but some of our contemporaries I mean those that were in the same school or in the area, they are quite well known. Justice Mustafa Kamal was a few years senior to me. Then there was Abid Hussain who died in London and used to work for BBC. He was in the same school, one year senior to me. Then the poet, Al Mahmud, whose real name is Mansur, he became a civil servant. He was Home Secretary to the Government of Bangladesh. There were some young contemporaries. I studied one year in Khulna then in Dhaka. It so happened that in 1946 we had lot of disturbance due to the riots. In '47 because of the partition, we moved away
I.I.: Do you remember any important events during the - [phone rings]
I.I.: Do you remember any incidents from the riot?
I.I.: You were still in Calcutta?
Yes, in 1946. You see what happened -- I mean, you must have read about the Direct Action Day, and the meeting that was taking place in the maidan in Calcutta. My father took me to that meeting. He went to it, and he took me along. In the midst of the meeting some people -- we went by hackney carriage, so we were sitting on the transport and listening to proceedings, and somebody came and whispered -- not quite whispered. He said loudly that there's troubles in the city. You better get back. So we returned and as we were returning the looting had already started. We lived in a predominantly Muslim area, so Hindus were the victims.
I.I.: Which area of Calcutta?
I.I.: Park Circus, yeah. It's a very upper [class] area, now.
I saw two killings before my own eyes. One was the non-Bengali hefty man who used to supply us with our daily milk. He was hacked to death.
Two of our neighbors and my father, the three elderly people, they went to stop it and tried to save him but in vain. Then I saw another stabbing that led to killing. These created a great deal of impression on me [phone rings]. amake korte bolle ami parini korte eta. You see, I mean...the impression created on my adolescent mind was the futility of the communal divide. You see, if man can kill a man only because he belonged to another religion, I mean, this is not a good criteria to live by. A very well known person lived in our area. That was the actor Chobi Biswas. He left a day after the riots had started under police escort, and we had a building very close to our house which had many, many apartments -- small flats, and there it had mixed occupants Hindus and Muslims. So quite a number of Muslim families they got together, I mean, protected the Hindus as they were leaving under police escort. Those Muslim families came under abuse, not attack, but abuses were hurled at them.
Then we received some relations who used to live in Hindu areas. They had come and taken shelter as well. So it did make an impression on my mind, you see, and in 1947 I suffered from malaria for a period.
I.I.: West Bengal was famous for that.
Yeah and as I had high fever and high broken delirium I was shouting, the Sikhs are coming!
because I -- we had heard that Sikhs were coming to attack the Muslim area, and we were ready to fight them with soda water bottles and brickbats stored on our rooftop. So it was not a very, I mean, comfortable thought, although we were not attacked but the fear was there. So then -- but in 1947 we chose to migrate, so we didn't face any trouble, but there were other people who had faced it and we had heard stories from them. In 1950 there was a riot in Dhaka. One of my school teachers got killed.
I.I.: By this time you were in Dhaka?
Yes, I was in Dhaka. One of my school teachers got killed, and the school turned into a refugee camp.
I.I.: Which part of the -- which area your school was in?
This was in Captain Bazar near Nawabpur Road
Old Dhaka. Mostly Bihari refugees from Calcutta but also some Bengali refugees too. So these were my impressions of the riots and partition. I think I saw some of the ruthlessness that the partition caused and also
I.I.: Then you ... what attracted you to this field of literature, Bengali...?
You see, I mean, in Dhaka we used to live in Shanti Nagar during the first three years. One of our distant neighbors was Abdur Rashid who was retired Principal of Dhaka College. He lived with two of his elder brothers. They had a very fine family library I used to borrow books from, and that attracted me to Bengali literature, and I thought that as I grew up that I would study Bengali. I mean it's purely from reading Bengali literature.
I.I.: You are telling that your father was also literate?
I.I.: Grandfather and he had a very -- family background kind of
I.I.: cultivation of literary...
I.I.: So that might also have --
Yes, my elder sister used to contribute poems to various journals at young age, so there was a literary atmosphere in the sense that my father used to get lot of books from his friends and acquaintances, and I also made an equal friendship with a number of writers in those days.
I.I.: After your graduation you went to Chittagong University, right?
No, no, I joined the Dhaka University as a teacher in 1959. I took my Honors in '56 and Masters in '57. Then I got the Bangla Academy Scholarship for research. I enrolled in the PhD program. In '59 I became a lecturer here.
I.I.: In Dhaka University?
In Dhaka University, then completed my PhD in 1962, went on a postdoctoral fellowship to the University of Chicago in 1964-65, came back, rejoined. In 1969 I moved to Chittagong. So after having taught for nearly ten years --
I.I.: What actually led you to go to Chittagong from Dhaka?
I think there are clear two or three reasons. Number one, in Chittagong the department was headed by Professor Ali Ahsan [Syed Ali Ahsan], who was my teacher in Dhaka. He sort of --
asked me to join him. That's reason number one.
Number two, by that time I had spent ten years in Dhaka, and I saw no possibility of being promoted to a senior position. So he had offered me a readership, what we call an associate professorship now, and thirdly I thought I was getting so much involved in various activities in Dhaka that there were very few...I left with very less time for my own studies and interests but that if I moved away from the crowd maybe I should be able to --
Yeah, so these were some of the thoughts that led me to --
I.I.: By the time you moved to Chittagong, you probably -- you were in Dhaka in the fateful months of February in 1952 you were an Honors student.
In 1952, no I was a College student.
I.I.: Ok, do you have any recollections of that?
Yes, of course. You see, I mean, I was a very active participant of the Language Movement [Bengali Language Movement].
I was associated with two organizations. One was the East Pakistan Youth League, which was founded some years ago. Its office was very close to our house. We were living in [unclear] in those days. So I --
I.I.: It was the Awami League's student wing?
No, it was a non-political
I.I.: Non-communal, yeah.
East Pakistan Youth League so we had Oli Ahad --
I.I.: It was not the Students' Union [Bangladesh Students' Union] left wing?
No, no Students' Union was yet to be established. The President was Mahmud Ali who in 1971 went over to Pakistan and the General Secretary was Oli Ahad, who was one of the staunchest of leaders of the Language Movement. So since I lived very close, he asked me to become the office secretary, which I accepted, and in '52 when the Language Movement had started, the All-Party Committee of Action had asked Mr. Mohammad Toaha to write a pamphlet on the Language Movement. Mr. Toaha was very busy with organizational activities. He was also in the Youth League. So Oli Ahad asked me to write one. I was only a first-year student, so I said, I don't know enough to write about this. He said, whatever you write down, I shall correct it. So I did. Rashtrabhasa Andolan: Kiyo Kano, The State Language Movement: What is it and Why is it? Oli Ahad corrected it and had it printed. That was the first pamphlet that was published in 1952.
I.I.: When exactly was it published? In early February?
It was published in around mid February, second week of February.
Second week of February, to be exact.
So I can claim that distinction, although I was very young, you see, and then at College also we had formed this committee of action, the College Committee of Action, and on the fateful night of 20th February when the All-Party Committee of Action met at the Awami League office in Nawabpur Road, my friend Syed Ahmed Hussain and I attended that meeting as observers. We were not allowed to take part in the proceeding but as representatives of the Jagannath College Committee of Action we were allowed to stay. So I was witness to the whole debate of whether the 144 section [Criminal Procedure Code] should be violated or not.
I.I.: Yeah, yeah, so your -- this East Pakistan Youth League was in favor or against the --
It was very much in favor of violating 144. Oli Ahad voted for it. Mohammad Toaha was ambivalent. He didn't vote on either side.
I.I.: The Chhatra League was against it.
It was very mixed. You see, I mean, there were only four members of the Action Committee who wanted to violate it. One was Oli Ahad. The others were -- I would not be able to name them: the General Secretary of the Dhaka Medical College Students Union, the VP of the Fazlul Huq Hall Students Union, and another.
Just four, and there were eleven who opposed it. There were abstentions, and Mohammad Toaha was one of the absentees, because he was waiting for the Communist Party to decide on which way should he vote. So, he wanted to violate the 144.
I.I.: But was this very dilemma of whether to violate or not, do you think it was ideologically informed?
I.I.: Or a kind of strategy?
Debate was carried out from a very practical point of view. See, everyone thought the imposition of Section 144 was abject, but those who did not want to violate this I mean this...
Section 144 argued that if we did let some sort of law and order problem develop, then the Islamic government would use this as an excuse for delaying the general elections which were due to --
I.I.: So it was a kind of liberal, constitutional act?
Very constitutional, you see, and we did not have an election so far in the last seven years -- last five years. This should not spoil the chance of having an election. The others said if we do not violate then the government would go on imposing unfair laws on us. So we must fight it to say that --
I.I.: Kind of revolutionary?
Yeah, a very constitutional approach and a sort of more of a populist approach. I wouldn't say revolutionary but populist. Then it was decided that if the students do not accept the decision of the All-Party Committee of Action, then it will automatically stand dissolved. So, you know, I mean when on the 21st of February we decided to violate the 144, Committee of Action had stood dissolved.
I.I.: So after the bloodshed, you know all the stories, so you had also seen the legacy of...now if we want to go back to Chittagong days, how long you were there?
I was there for sixteen years.
So I went there in 1969 and returned to Dhaka University so to say in 1985.
I.I.: And in Chittagong did you have any intellectual collaborators, intellectual...
Yes, we had a more or less intellectual atmosphere there. You see, I mean Syed Ali Ahsan was a very well known poet. Then in the city lived Abul Fazal, who was also a very well known writer, and there were other not so famous but active writers. So we had an atmosphere of -- an intellectual atmosphere, but the great problem was the city and campus was...had a distance of about 14 miles. so it was not easy to --
I.I.: Get the heat of the...
Yeah, I mean we could go occasionally to the city and city people would not come to the campus almost at all.
I.I.: Now among the intellectuals in Pakistan like you know in the 60's after the temper of the Language Movement had a little subsided, there was a kind of discourses about the whole fate of Pakistan maturing in the 60's. Who do you remember like Abul Mansur Ahmed was also active in 60's, but he was also part of some mainstream, and how did you see the establishment was working within the broader political prospect of Bangladesh?
You see, in the 1950's we had a small literary organization called the Pakistan Sahitya Sangsad [Pakistan Literary Society].
Quazi Motahar Husain was our president and we had several secretaries successively like Faiz Ahmed, Hasan Hafizur Rahman and others. We used to meet at the Saogat office, first Saogat press and then Saogat office. So we were left oriented writers. We had quite a number of people, and the most prominent among the younger ones were Alauddin Al-Azad, a fiction writer, and Shamsur Rahman, a poet, but Hasan Hafizur Rahman was the key figure amongst us. Among the painters who were with us were Quamrul Hassan, Bijan Choudhary, who later left for India, and Murtoza Bashir. So we had quite a number of writers who had joined our group. We were opposed to what was known as Tamaddun Majlish in those days. We saw them as Islamists and --
I.I.: They were also in favor of Bengali.
They were in favor of Bengali. I mean, we did not have any debate on that, but then what sort of polity Pakistan should shape into and what sort of a literary tradition that we should accept as our own was something that we differed on.
I.I.: Was this representative of Akram Khan?
No, Akram Khan was not there, but their, I mean, most vocal activist was Abul Kashem who used to teach in the Department Of Physics.
I.I.: Principal Abul Kashem.
Principal Abul Kashem he later became, but their most eminent writer was Shahed Ali who was a fiction writer of great repute. There were others too and initially even in those days our good friends Serajul Islam Choudhary and Muzaffar Ahmad, they also belonged to Tamaddun Majlish.
I.I.: Ok, but things have changed a lot. In those times I mean how do you differentiate between these two cultural milieus, cultural trend centered around Tamaddun Majlish and centered around Pakistan --
I.I.: Was the secular and Islamist debate was maturing up --
It was maturing up yeah --
I.I.: in terms of a kind of post-Pakistan -- was there any kind of post Pakistan discourses?
Yes, in 1951 we were already taking about a secular polity and the Language Movement gave us a big fillip. You know as soon as the Language Movement took place the Muslim Chhatra League became Chhatra League, the Students Union was formed, Ganatantric Dal as a political party came up as a secular Pakistani political party. So there were some forces of secularism working in the country, and then we had this great debate about the literary tradition, cultural tradition. I mean because Ghulam Mustafa and others were already writing that we should -- I mean, he went to the extent of saying that most of Nazrul's [Kazi Nazrul Islam] work should be banned because he made reference to Hindu gods. So we were saying that no we accept the entire Bengali cultural tradition.
As a whole and no divide, but after '47 West Bengal and East Pakistan were going their way, but we have a common ancestry that was a great point, attitude towards Tagore [Rabindranath Tagore] and attitude towards Nazrul Islam. These are small things, but we are differing on those and then we are very much talking about amity with India, peace and not war, that kind of thing, you see. So we would say that we should be more mindful of the local tradition rather than the Islamic tradition, that sort of thing.
I.I.: Right, then you went to Chicago [University of Chicago] you said after...
I went to Chicago in 1964-65, yes.
I.I.: While you were still in Chittagong?
I.I.: Ok after returning to Dhaka then?
No, this was, this is my first time in Dhaka. I stayed in Dhaka between '59 and '69.
I.I.: So how long you were there?
One academic year, one academic session.
I.I.: I saw in your biography one name was Abdel, Abdel somebody...
I.I.: You must have become good friends.
Yeah, yeah, we became very good friends in the '70s but much later. In 1964-65, I worked with Professor Edward Dimock who headed the South Asian Studies program in Chicago. He was a Bengali scholar. I worked on the Young Bengal, Derozio [Henry Louis Vivian Derozio] and his associates, but then I also collaborated with Dimock in translating some other things. I was also very active in Pakistan Association of Chicago because even in those days I had my unshaken faith in Pakistan. So we had started talking about separation. I remember that one of our fellow East Pakistanis there, he was saying that we can't ... the two wings can't stay together, and I was arguing --
I.I.: So some others were --
Yeah, they were beginning to give their opinions, you see. So I was arguing that one partition hasn't solved the problem. Another may not do the same, and then we had the division by religion, now we may have a division by language, but what about the class division and all that? Now those were my questions. So my faith in the unity of Pakistan was badly shaken in 1969. Actually it had started --
I.I.: The student movement?
After the, yes the '69 -- I mean people's uprising, you see, the Agartala Conspiracy Case and all those started shaking it, but when the second martial law came -- I mean I was removed for martial law -- that day I openly said that there is no justification of our staying together after this because I thought that the imposition of the second martial law had throttled whatever hopes we had of a better future because we thought that this martial law will also continue for quite some time. So I went to Chittagong after this '69 uprising. I was a Joint Secretary of the Dhaka University Teachers Association in '68-'69.
I.I.: So you must have had a very important role.
We had some role to play, yeah, because after the killing of Dr. Shamsuzzoha [Mohammad Shamsuzzoha] in Rajshahi [Rajshahi University] all the University Teachers Associations got together. We went on strike. We went to see the Chancellor and said that unless Zoha's killers were brought to book we won't be going back to our classes. So that way we had taken part in that, and by that time I was subscribing to the Six Point Program, and although I was Left to start with, I thought that unless we join this nationalist fervor, we won't be able to make any headway.
I.I.: How do you feel the relationship between the more broader Awami League-led nationalist movement and to say liberal constitutional movement and the Left --
because we developed a leaning towards the Left, so we are thinking in terms of class differences, etc. etc., and we are openly saying that I mean what we need is to organize the working classes throughout Pakistan and all that. Even we had talked of having one student organization for the whole of Pakistan. It was called APSO, All-Pakistan Students Organization. We debated about its formation --
I.I.: Including the west wing?
Including the west wing, then we gave up, because we found that the Chhatra League was not going to join this. But by the time Sheikh Mujib [Sheikh Mujibur Rahman] published his Six Point Program, we were feeling that...I mean, nationalism is something we debated quite a lot, Language Movement and other intellectual movements, cultural movements, etc. These were taking the people to a definite direction, and unless the Left would join this stream, nobody would listen to us. So despite my left background, left leaning, I thought that presently it was our duty to join them. So in 1970 when the elections were coming, I voted for the Awami League instead of the National Awami Party.
I.I.: Yeah, yeah, to join the broader stream?
To join the broader stream, but I thought that, I mean, if we could achieve something for East Pakistan it would be through the Awami League at that point in time.
I.I.: Yeah yeah of course. One point struck me at the beginning that your father used to think that there was a kind of perception that Calcutta might be in Pakistan and how -- was there any particular rumor or anything that was going on there?
You see, after the Mountbatten [Viceroy Louis Mountbatten] declaration June the 3rd 1947, it came as a shock that Bengal was going to be partitioned because people like my father who had supported the great cause of Pakistan never thought that Bengal was going to be partitioned.
So it really shook them up, and then there was the boundary commission and Muslim League had appointed a Bihari lawyer to plead for the East Pakistan geographical limits, and I distinctly remember that my father and some of his friends used to say the Muslim League got injustice for us because this Bihari lawyer, he does not know the geography of Bengal. The Muslim League should have allowed Fazlul Huq [Abul Kashem Fazlul Huq] or Suhrawardy [Huseyn Suhrawardy] to plead for Pakistan. So in there, there was rumor actually that if the Muslim League tried hard, Calcutta could come to East Bengal because East Bengal had jute and jute mills here and Calcutta was the only outlet. Chittagong was still undeveloped port, but it was utterly impossible that East Pakistan and Calcutta could come under one administration. So it was realized later, but that sort of rumor was there.
I.I.: So within the broader secular worldview that you developed over the years, how do you fit your own works your own research and writings?
You see from the '50's, I mean when I got myself into the university, I was thinking of the communal division in the country and also about the communal import into literature. So some of my very early - I won't say researches, but inquiries -- were in the works of Bankim Chandra [Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay] and 19th century Muslim writers. I was trying to see, I mean, the Hindu nationalist view and the Muslim nationalist view, try to understand each other's point of view. So this would be in the year '53-'54, so this was --
and when I started formal research for my PhD I took the subject, I mean, thoughts of the Bengali Muslims as reflected in Bengali literature. This was because I tried to -- I wanted to understand the process of partition and the process of thought that went with it. So I thought that literature would be a great tool to understand that, so I had done that. My second book was also on the period led by the Bengali Muslims from 1830 to 1930, and if it would have been possible I would have brought it to 1947 in another volume, but then things changed. So I didn't see the kind of research I was engaged to, engaged into had any conflict with my secular view or my growing nationalist view.
I.I.: And in Calcutta you also had in more later years you had very developed good friendship and you were awarded some prestigious award.
Yeah, you see it all started in 1971 when I moved from Chittagong to Calcutta via Agartala as a refugee. Then I joined the Government as a member of the Planning Commission.
I.I.: Interim Government, first interim Government.
Interim Government, we say first government.
I.I.: First Government, yeah.
I made friends with Calcutta University teachers and that was a small beginning of a number of acquaintances. I knew some before people like Gopal Haldar and Subhas Mukherjee but then I acquired more friends and this sort of relationship persisted during the following years. So the Rabindra Bharati gave me an honorary D.Litt., the Calcutta University gave me a medal and Viswa Bharati asked me -- invited me as a visiting professor. All these honors I thought was something much more than I deserved.
I.I.: No of course not, you deserved, well-deserved.
In the '50's and '60's is very interesting period because there hasn't been lot of research in Pakistan period as much as you do in terms of Bangladesh in post '71 and pre '47 colonial times, particularly in terms of intellectual history. So how this very idea of Pakistan that was a kind of utopian notion in 1947, and then the way it eroded, the whole dream was eroding and how different intellectual strands were having their input in this process of erosion and you have witnessed...
Yeah, to some extent I have, yeah.
I.I.: Do you remember among your friends and colleagues those who were not opposed to independence? Like you, they probably wanted a kind of liberal environment, a new country, no more Pakistan but some of them who were not against the idea of a free independent Bangladesh, but you had some difficulties in for instance probably Syed Ali Ahsan. You probably all wanted a free Bangladesh, but possibly you had differences. How do you -- can you shed some light on these differences?
Yeah, if I go back to the '60's for instance, I will tell you some stories. I will give you the names of some persons who had played very key role, I mean. One was Professor Abdul Razak of Dhaka University. He was a staunch Muslim Leaguer during the Pakistan Movement, and he remained so for quite some time.
He was a great admirer of Jinnah [Mohammad Ali Jinnah], but then he started talking about the disparities between the two wings of Pakistan. I guess, Pakistan, he said -- he began slowly he converted himself to separatism in that sense he thought that no I mean it will not be possible to be together. So I remember I had told him once that we divided the country once, and we don't know if that division had been quite logical, so we can't think of another division, but that was one. Now, let us take the case of Ali Ahsan. Syed Ali Ahsan was a Pakistani supporter throughout, I mean, in the 40's, in the 50's, even in the 60's he had edited the Bengali version of Ayub Khan's autobiography and all that. So his faith in Pakistan shook up only in 1971, I would say after the elections and when the Pakistan Government refused to transfer power. Then he went with us to Kolkata and all that, and Syed Sajjad Hussain, his cousin, he had told Ali Ahsan's brother that Anisuzzaman must have brainwashed Ali Ahsan to have taken him to Calcutta.
And Syed Ali Ahsan did contribute to Sadhin Bangla Betar Kendra from where he used to broadcast regularly for Bangladesh, but then that religious element in him never died. So he also found it possible to work together with Ziaur Rahman who brought back religion into politics.
I.I.: So in that context do you see that as the kind of seedbed of two streams of Bengali nationalism and Bangladeshi nationalism --
I.I.: taking place in that context?
I mean, looking back I should think that even in 1971 although we are talking of Bengali nationalism the shades were .... there were differences of shades. I mean, some would still cling to their religious identity as well very, much a part of their own, and some would put it behind the linguistic or cultural identity, and since the onslaught of Pakistan was so heavy and so great, those different shades mingled into one, but when the opportunity raised itself they opted for different courses. The other person I would like to allude to is Abul Mansur Ahmed. In a way Abul Mansur Ahmed is also an enigma because even in 1946 and '50 he was talking of, I mean, what may be called three nations. He was saying that the West Pakistanis are different from the East Pakistanis, and Bengali Muslims are different from Bengali Hindus.
from Bengali. So he was moving on to separateness at two other levels. So this was also a part of essential debate in the '60's, and what took wind out of the sails of people like Abul Mansur was the Pakistan Government's continuous onslaught on Bengali culture, particularly on Tagore.
I.I.: Banned Tagore in 1962.
Yeah, actually Tagore was not banned. Let us put it correctly. What happened Khwaja Shahabuddin told the parliament that he has asked the radio and TV stations to gradually eliminate, gradually eliminate Tagore's songs from the center because much of Tagore's works were against the ideas of Pakistan. That was the stand he took. So we protested. I was the one who collected the signatures of 19 intellectuals that was published very next day. Munier Chowdhury drafted the statement. I collected all the signatures, nobody else did, and gave it to the press. I went to every press person. Then we found that Ali Ahsan escaped. Munier Chowdhury talked to him on the telephone saying you must sign this. He said, send Anis [Anisuzzaman]. So I went to his home. They said he was out. I believe he was still in, but he wouldn't sign. Then Abul Mansur Ahmed came out with another statement saying that he didn't subscribe to our ideas that Tagore was an integral part of our culture. So I mean, he didn't support West Pakistan Government, --
I.I.: Neither did he support --
but he couldn't go with us either. So these were, I mean, pluralism within pluralism.
So I would say that Abul Mansur Ahmed was seen by most West Pakistanis as a very epitome of Bengali seperateness. I cannot slander him, but we knew that he would not go as far as we were ready to go.
So these were various trends that were developing, and all these had an impact on society. So in a way we were still debating but then the Agartala Conspiracy Case and the mass movement of 1969, these two incidents almost sealed the debates and gave Mujib an absolute leadership of the Bengalis.
I.I.: Yeah that was the sweeping tide. That's true.
And when Mujib said in February -- on the 21st February 1969, that if we come to power, we would introduce Bengali as the state language overnight. We won't wait for the scholars to make all the preparations. We appreciated that. We thought that was the course of action universally.
I.I.: Your position must have been informed by your own reading and your affinity with major intellectual trends. In that context what was your like -- what were you reading in your early university days or college years?
I.I.: Any foreign writers or national writers?
You see, I mean, I tried to read almost all the major authors. This I had started after I sat for my matriculation exams.
I mean, we had this so throughout my college days and university days I tried to read the major Bengali authors, then a little bit of western literature, mostly English. A little bit of left-oriented literature both in Bengali and English, more in Bengali than in English, but both. So I was trying to test many, many cases. For instance we had heard about Bankim Chandra's communalism. I tried to read Bankim Chandra very mindfully, very devotedly so that I could read between the lines and see the inner meanings of the... I mean. Then I started to understand the complexities of the communal question, I mean that you can't portray someone entirely black or white or, the grey areas are very prominent, and I mean one looked at one way and said something looked at the other. So I mean Bankim Chandra didn't accept Bengali ...Muslims as Bengalis. I mean this was one point of view, but then I saw many Bengali Muslims were not calling themselves Bengalis.
They said we are not Bengalis, so how can I think of Bankim Chandra or for that matter a Hindu writer. Sarat Chandra [Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay], for instance, [unclear] which I admire very much. [unclear] these are two different I mean categories.
I.I.: So from both sides there was this categorization, religious categorization?
All this started to reveal itself because I paid lot of attention, I paid lot of attention, I tried to see that, I mean, given that position I mean how would we look at society?
So I think these things did... in a way, I would claim that I was able to develop a more objective view, a more liberal outlook, non-communal it was, of course, to some extent left-oriented, and you see, I mean my reading leftist literature helped me to connect the social trends with the cultural ones. That was something that I learned from there. So I think I did develop this. To give you a personal story, some of my father's friends like Abul Kalam Shamsuddin who was the editor of the Azad and possibly Benazir Ahmed, the poet, they told my father that your father was the biographer of the Mohammad and he wrote books on Islam and Muslim history
I.I.: What was the name of your father?
My father is Dr. Atihar Moazzam, and my grandfather was Sheikh Abdur Rahim. So Sheikh Abdur Rahim wrote on Islam and Mohammad and all that. So my father's friend said your father had written about Islam and the Prophet, and your son is going the other way. So my father, I mean, my father was a believer, but he was not a very practicing Muslim, but he was a believer all right. He said something that also touched me. He said, you know my father was brought with the support of a Brahmo family. If he could have found his way and wrote about Islam and Muslim and then Mohammad, I would like my son to find his way.
I.I.: Yeah, that was really quite very liberal, yeah, and afterwards I mean I was a bit interested about your reading of external...scholar from liberal and left you must have read, I mean in the '60's who were the main intellectual companions or the texts that you would have read or would have read in the '60's or in the '50's?
In the '50's, I mean apart from prominent Bengali authors I read Bernard Shaw [George Bernard Shaw] very well, I had read more than half of his works. Then I read among the little...yeah that was also in the 50's, Somerset Maugham for instance. So I mean, then there used to be published a lot of left-leaning books from West Bengal.
Devi Prasad Chattopadhyay was one of the leading authors. His books on Marxism his books on science, those moved us very greatly. There was this journal Notun Sahitya and Parichay from Kolkata where we were reading not only about literature but also about biological sciences and things like that, on the question of evolution, etc, etc, Lysenko [Trofim Lysenko] etc etc. These had -- I mean, we did not comprehend it fully I must admit, but then it had an impact. I was reading the Bengali version of Marx's [Karl Marx]- some of Marx's -- or Engels's [Friedrich Engels] Family, State, etc. etc. [The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State], the Bengali version. This had some impact. Actually it put this inquiring spirit in us, I would say that. We didn't master anything, but we started asking questions.
I.I.: Yes, now about a few issues relating to - I'm not going beyond '71. I am actually within this confine. About the constitutional development of Pakistan leading to Bangladesh, I mean you were part of -- you were one of those who created the -- wrote the constitution in a way or probably you were...
Yeah, actually in 1972, there was a constitution drafting body. My support was enlisted for the Bengali language part, you see, because it was already decided that the basic text would be Bengali, although it was a translation. So I was asked to do it. I took the responsibility of looking after the language, which I did, but then this issue of constitution really became familiar to us from the '50's because we had from those days in 1950 we had report of the Basic Principle Committee, BPC.
So from then on we were reading about the provisions of the constitution. Then we had the '56 constitution and the '62 constitution, etc. In 1971 when I was made a member of the Planning Commission, Professor Muzaffar Ahmed Chowdhury, he drafted a constitution for Bangladesh which was never put into action, Professor Muzaffar Ahmed Chowdhury
'71, during the liberation war.
He drafted a kind of constitution, but then what we came up with -- I mean let me go back a little. I came to know Tajuddin Ahmed in 1952 in the Youth League, and we had contacts off and on since then. So he wanted me to join his secretariat in Kolkata during the war ,which I didn't, but then I, Professor Khan Sarwar Murshid and I used to draft his speeches. So we knew the ideas of Tajuddin, which were basically, I mean, democracy, I mean secularism and socialism. So in '71 when we ... when I started working with the drafting committee, I used to sit with the drafting committee, but I was not a member of the drafting committee. Only the members of Parliament's Constituent Assembly were in it,
but then I went through the whole debate because I was there. You see there were significant differences of opinion about socialism or to put in more practical terms about nationalization. There were a great number of members of the drafting committee who opposed nationalization and then consider saying, well if you must nationalize then you must give adequate compensation. The provision was there to nationalize even without paying compensation, so this was something that was debated. Then the article about which now we talk a great deal, the limitation of freedom on the part of individual members to decide on various issues. This was entirely Sheik Mujib's idea. He called Kamal Hossain. Kamal Hossain was the chairman of the drafting committee. Kamal took me along. I remember the Sheikh's arguments. He said, look, one of the problems that Pakistan faced was due to frequent change of law by members of the legislature.
So I mean we had seen a cabinet whose life was only a fortnight. So we must stop that sort of uncertainty, so do something so that members can't easily cross the floor. So in that context it did sound very regular. I mean, it did sound very appropriate, but then it could be interpreted now with lapses of time that that did interfere with the free views of the members of Parliament, which it did. This was one. The second issue which was the Sheikh's contribution was about banning the religious parties. He said that if we put secularism as one of the objective principles of the state, this won't be adequate. We must also prevent religious organizations from getting into politics. These are two things which came from the Sheikh. It was not very popular. Neither was the first one that I talked about, but the members accepted each finally.
I.I.: But even in the election in 1970 was not -- was talking about these four issues, that was not explicit in the 1970 elections in which Awami League had the landslide. So how was this tension -- how did you see this tension?
But you see before the elections of 1970, before the elections of 1970 if you look at the Awami League manifesto, you will definitely find they're leaning towards socialism, whatever they might have understood by socialism, but that word samajwad was there. So in 1971 when the Planning Commission, I mean, the Planning Commission with which I was associated and then Planning Commission that came into being after we became independent, they opted for nationalization. It didn't come as a surprise.
Even during 1971 liberation war, Syed Nazrul Islam, Tajuddin Ahmed, even Khandakar Mushtaq Ahmed in their speeches, they were saying that these were our aims. We want democracy. We want secularism. We want socialism. And given the ground realities, I mean, Pakistanis have left their industries, but the Bengalis didn't have enough capital to buy those. It had to be taken over by the state, but then what personally I didn't expect was the taking over of industries owned by the Bengalis. There were quite a number of those, but I guess it depended on the size of the industry, so you could not really distinguish.
I.I.: So you thought of mixed economy, like --
Yes, of course, because what we expect from the 1950's political parties were claiming for nationalization of banks, insurance, tea gardens, etc. etc. You find this all documented. So it didn't come as a surprise, but it hurt quite a number of people. So they started claiming that you are not protecting the rights of the Bengalis when you take over their industries, and then after Bangladesh came into being people of the middle class started amassing some wealth, so they were qualifying to become industrialized on their own rights.