Rehman Sobhan's memoir centring on the short-lived second phase of his life is now in the market (UPL, March 2022). It is the second volume in the Untranquil Recollections series. The very title speaks of some events signalling the dawn but ultimately shrouded in darkness. His memoir on first phase of his life was produced when he was 81, the second arrived at 87 and we are told that the third one is in the offing. We think this fully satisfied man should recite Rabindranath Tagore: "Endless, you have made me/ Such is your divine play/Emptying, you fill me/Again with life anew."
ABOUT THE BOOK: The author mentions in the preface that this volume is "a memoir of an activist who was himself a part of the historical process". The book mainly covers the cruel and divisive part of our national life spanning nearly three years especially during the course of his engagement with the Planning Commission (PC) and his attempts of reconstructing the war-ravaged economy while building institutions from scratches. Bangabandhu's regime started with hopes and Professor Rehman Sobhan discusses why those hopes never came to fruition. Both in terms of content and coverage, the book is worth buying and we shall pick up a few features. By and large, the beauty of the book lies in the following attributes: (a) contains a critical analysis of the PC and the party in power and opposition; (b) provides three in one - history, economics and politics of a particular period; (c) remains as a riveting memoir with shafts of whimsical humour; (d) brings unheard of and unsung persons (e.g. Lt.Gen. Khaja Wasiuddin, M. Syduzzaaman) on board; (e) removes some of the confusions in circulation at that time between (for example, Bangabandhu vs Tajuddin Ahmed, socialism and nationalisation, the killers and the healers, unexposed famine in 1972 and the exposed one in 1974).
The book is divided into 16 chapters featuring various phases of Professor Sobhan's life till 1975. The chapters are: (i) Introduction; (ii) First Days in Liberated Bangladesh; (iii) My First Exposure to government; (iv) The Political Leadership of the Planning Commission; (v) The Workings of the Planning Commission; (vi) Discovering the Political Economy of Policy making; (vii) The Challenge of Delivering the Five-Year Plan; (viii) Making the State Effective; (ix) The Challenge of Improving the Performance of the Nationalised Sector; (x) Outcomes from Our Efforts to Improve the Performance of the Nationalised Sector; (xi) My Return to Aid Diplomacy; (xii) Laying the Foundations of Indo-Bangladesh Economic Relations; (xiii) Re-entry into Civilian Life; (xiv) The Gathering Storm; (xv) Darkness at Noon; The End of an Era; and (xvi) Recollections in Tranquillity.
Rehman Sobhan could not imagine that within three years and ten months, he would be moving towards another phase of self exile for next four years. He sadly writes: 'In this time, the newly independent nation of our dreams would languish under cantonment rule while its founder, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, his family and his closest political comrades lay silent in their graves.'
The memoir spans from his arrival at Dhaka airport to an independent Bangladesh to the unanticipated departure into exile from the same airport. This phase began in hope but ended in frustration.
The book is a personal story attempting to capture challenges of building institutions. But it is also a story of four comrades in the the then PC and the "task rendered more challenges as an elected government where none of its leaders including PM, had any experience of serving in a national government".
For 24 years after killing of Bangabandhu, in the era of cantonment rule and its political heirs, Bangabandhu was erased from pubic memory until 1996 when Sheikh Hasina Wajed was elected PM.
TWILIGHT PHASE: In a friends' house at Dhanmondi, he woke up on a cold new year morning of 1972 'with sunshine streaming through my windows, suffused with a sense of wellbeing and optimism.' However, his friend Tulu, said, 'the bright sunshine of new year's day may obscure some darker aspects of the newly independent state.' As he mentioned, since surrender of General Niazi on December 16, the country was passing through 'twilight phase.' There are some critical incidents to mention: (a) Six ministers constituting government were attempting to establish their authority with no functioning administration, no harmony, coordination so much needed at that critical juncture; (b) Alternative centres of power like 16th division comprised of'armed youth of uncertain antecedents, taking over vacant houses, hijacking cars, and extorting money at gun point from unwary citizens; (c) Iqbal Hall emerged as the centre of power under four Caliphas having own autonomous administration with own bahinis; (d) Mujib bahini provided another centre of power; (e) 'the nights in Dhaka had become a fraught moment where people preferred to lock themselves at home or moved around within their own neighbourhood'; (f) Complications arose with arrival of officials working in Mujib Nagar.
UNSUNG PERSONS: Lt General Wasiuddin, highest ranking Bengali in Pakistan army, on March 25, 1971, wrote a strong letter to Yahya khan denouncing actions, advised to release Bangabandhu and resume political negotiations. In consequence he was rendered inactive, confined. He was a completely apolitical, professional soldier with allegiance to Bangladesh. After the independence of Bangladesh, General Osmani suggested him as Chief of Staff, or at least defence advisor. But three Muktijoddhah Brigadiers (Shafiullah, Ziaur Rahman and Khaled Mosharraf) advised Bangabandhu not to do so. Bangabandhu complied with their request. "It is not clear if Bangabandhu ever speculated that an army led by ambitious officers with their own sense of political empowerment, earned through their role in liberation war, was preferable to a more professional force, led by an apolitical general who had no political identity but was widely respected by the entire force who recognised his seniority," observes Rehman Sobhan.
During the first meeting with Bangabandhu on January 12, 1972, Sobhan informed that Nurul Islam would be Deputy Chairman of PC, and Rehman Sobhan and Anisur Rahman as members. Later Mosharraff Hossain was on board. After many twists and turns, M Syeduzzaman was selected as Secretary of PC who at some risk to himself and his family managed to escape from Pakistan with the help of smugglers.
In the very first year Bangabandhu proposed Tajuddin as Chair of PC although in Pakistan and India the PM holds the post. It was, what Rehman Sobhan calls, 'Laissez-Faire Chairmanship' with infrequent meetings. He never shared his socialistic and progressive ideas with the PC members.
FEW LINES ON THE FOUR MEMBERS OF PC: According to Rehman Sobhan, Deputy Chair Nurul Islam was a non-ideological person, but a democrat, liberal and progressive all in small castings. Anisur Rahman was an idealist and argued for austerity among leadership to set examples and suggested that the PM, his colleagues, and PC members ride to office on bicycles. Before leaving out of frustration, he left behind policy papers for the PM titled as 'Lost moment'. Mosharraf Hossain was a strong critic - at no stage he believed that the ruling party would commit to any significant reforms. Rehman Sobhan himself was the incurable optimist but turned out to be a frustrated activist. He used to believe that objective conditions dictated that a process of social transformation could be carried through despite odds. From February 1972 to September 1974, 75 per cent of the papers from the PC to the PM, the cabinet and ministers were sent from the division under his jurisdiction.
SOME OTHER THINGS: Curiously, Prof. Sobhan writes, the nationalisation programme was more a product of the situation offered by the departure of non-Bengali industrialists after liberation, than an ideological prelude to socialism.
END NOTE: The features of a good memoir include humour with relevance, authenticity, dramatic events, well-written prose etc. By all of these criteria, the book appears to me as an excellent piece on history, economics and politics of a particular period. However, the book could have been in Bangla to reach wider audience. A shorter title would have been suitable. Memoirs should avoid statistical tables and the last chapter could come in his next endeavour. By and large, all Bangladeshis should read the book to glean the truth at a time of wild rumours.