On April 17, 1971, in the midst of a genocidal operation by the Pakistani forces, a quiet voice of sanity reminded the world what was at stake, and went on to lay the groundwork for an independent Bangladesh. In a message sent out to the “people of the world,” Tajuddin Ahmad, the prime minister of the government-in-exile formed earlier in the month, said: “Bangladesh will be the eighth most populous country in the world. Its only goal will be to rebuild a new nation from the ashes and carnage left behind by Yahya’s occupation army. It will be a stupendous task because we are already one of the world’s poorest nations. But we now have a cause and a people who have been hardened in the resistance, who have shed their blood for their nation and won their freedom in an epic struggle which pitted unarmed people against a modern army. Such a nation cannot fail in its task of securing the foundation of its nationhood.” (Tajuddin Ahmad: Glimpses from History, edited by Simeen Hussain Rimi)
The grit and candour that painted Tajuddin’s picture of a yet-to-be-born Bangladesh speak of a leader whose love for his people was underpinned by a deep sense of duty and an awareness of their collective strength. He took to nation-building even before the birth of the nation. To speak of Tajuddin is to speak of these lofty ideals as well as his revolutionary spirit, which found its most potent expression during the nine-month war of independence. But Tajuddin as a visionary was matched equally by Tajuddin as a pragmatist. His timely rise to the leadership challenge during the war (after Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s arrest in 1971), his organisational acumen, political and diplomatic wisdom, and his ability to navigate the complex challenges of nation-building suggest a blend of vision and pragmatism inherent to great leaders.
Fanon identified the disenfranchisement of the masses by the elites as one of the perils of post-independence politics which, in Bangladesh’s case, came through the creation of BAKSAL, in 1975—of which Tajuddin was a reluctant member.
Tajuddin’s career can be divided into three distinct periods: the time between 1949 (when Bangladesh Awami League was established) and 1970, the 1971 war of which he was the key organiser, and his post-1971 stint as finance and planning minister. The first period was marked by exemplary grassroots activism. If Bangabandhu was the face of our decades-long independence struggle since the creation of Pakistan, Tajuddin was the one relentlessly providing him with backstage support. Their friendship—and eventual falling-out—acquired mythical stature partly because of the expectations surrounding the magic they could create together.
But there is no doubt that the four years between December 7, 1970 (when Tajuddin became a member of the National Assembly of Pakistan after Awami League gained a historic parliamentary majority to form a government) and October 26, 1974 (when he resigned as the minister of finance and planning in independent Bangladesh) marked his golden time in politics. M Matiul Islam, the first finance secretary of Bangladesh, provided a valuable insight into Tajuddin in a tribute published in 2017. In that, he recounted some personal anecdotes before praising his former boss’s judiciousness, “human quality” and his ability to distance himself from politics when it came to administrative decisions.
But unfortunately for Tajuddin, his stint as a statesman came at a time when Bangladesh was grappling with what Frantz Fanon called “the pitfalls of national consciousness”— problems faced by all formerly colonised countries.
In his book on the dehumanising effects of colonisation upon newly independent nations titled The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon argues that in the aftermath of independence, the “native bourgeoisie” of former colonies fail to do the necessary nation-building as they are not genuine visionaries, but bureaucrats and technocrats anxious to obtain for themselves the wealth and prestige that once went to the colonial overlords. Imperialism thus leaves behind, he says, “germs of rot” that we must “clinically detect and remove” from both our land and our minds.
Bangladesh had its land rinsed off the Pakistani presence but it still had a mind moulded in the colonial furnace. Fanon identified the disenfranchisement of the masses by the elites as one of the perils of post-independence politics which, in Bangladesh’s case, came through the creation of BAKSAL, in 1975—of which Tajuddin was a reluctant member. He found himself increasingly isolated, mostly because of the corrupting effects of the top-down system that the country inherited from its Pakistani and British masters. There was, evidently, a yawning gap between the Bangladesh of his dream and the Bangladesh that was unfolding. His tragic death on November 3, 1975, shortly after the assassination of Bangabandhu and his family, exemplified, in its most diabolical form, the shattering of that dream.
But leaders like Tajuddin—and, of course, Bangabandhu—have too great an impact on their nations to be overshadowed by their less glorious moments. Tajuddin, in his long, illustrious career, showed that a leader can be both an out-and-out politician and a great statesman at the same time, and it is somewhere in the vicinity of these two highlights of his career that his legacy lies. Bangladesh is still the world’s eighth-most populous country, faced with innumerable challenges including poverty, a toxic political culture and a bureaucracy-ridden system that only grew in intensity over time. There are so many things that today’s political class can learn from Tajuddin: his triumphs, the examples he set through his work and, not to mention, his gems of political wisdom.
Tajuddin once said: “Too much dependence on foreign loan and assistance erodes the moral confidence of a nation.” On another occasion, he said, “For the economic progress of our nation, we need austerity, regulated distribution mechanism, production maximisation, disciplined and well-coordinated fiscal activity.” His development vision was built on the principles of self-esteem, self-actualisation and patriotism. He worked quietly, kept his feet on the ground, and was harsh on himself when it came to assessing his performance and that of his administration. Some of his opinions about parliamentary democracy, opposition politics and national unity are particularly relevant for today’s Bangladesh.
“For 23 years,” he said, “we had played the role of an opposition party but never did we make indecent comments about our opponents nor did we bring imaginary allegations against them.” He also said: “The opposition party is an alternative government. Tolerance and respect for diverse opinion are the bedrock of democracy.” Importantly, Tajuddin believed in the politics of hope rather than the politics of fear.
In the final analysis, however, his legacy remains unfinished as the lofty ideals that he held close to his heart remain unfulfilled to date. Any biography of Tajuddin Ahmad inevitably illustrates examples of his failure to cut through the politico-bureaucratic tangle of his day to execute some of his more ambitious projects and schemes. He was misunderstood during his own time, and made all but irrelevant in later years. Tajuddin, as Professor Sardar Fazlul Karim has rightly said, “came much before his time and we are not yet ready to understand him properly.”
So how should we remember a man of such an illustrious and multifaceted career? I recall a sermon that Martin Luther King delivered in 1968, just a month before his death. In it, he related the story of Kind David from the Old Testament. David wanted to build a great temple for his people. But, despite all his efforts, he couldn’t finish it. So the Lord told him, “Whereas it was in thine heart to build an house unto my name, thou didst well that it was within thine heart.” By telling this story, Martin Luther reminded his audience of the many leaders who mounted the challenge of building temples—the things they believed in—but failed ultimately. What we should take away from this example, Luther said, is that they “tried” and that building the temple was foremost on their minds.
Tajuddin set out to build a great temple of hope on the ashes of a war, a temple of peace and justice that would shelter the common man. And he made great strides in building it but in the end, it was left unfinished. The challenge to finish building this temple is up to us—his ideological descendants.
Badiuzzaman Bay is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star. Email: email@example.com