a year ago

Tribute to Professor Rehman Sobhan on his 88th birthday

A beacon of inspiration for future nation-builders

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Professor Rehman Sobhan is undoubtedly one of the few living legends of Bangladesh, who has contributed greatly to the development of the country and its people. He is the most influential member, leader, mentor, friend, philosopher and guide of the academic-economist community in Bangladesh. Above all, he is truly a public intellectual extraordinaire. Last Sunday (March 12) marked his 88th birthday. Warmest birthdaay wishes to him.

Rehman Sobhan was born on March 12, 1935, in Calcutta into a noble Muslim family which played a major role in shaping his values and outlook. His mother, Hashmat Ara Begum was an enlightened member of the Nawab family of Dhaka. His father, Khondker Fazle Sobhan, was a retired officer from the colonial Indian police department and later served as an ambassador. His father was also a first-generation entrepreneur of the post-Pakistan era who pioneered the establishment of the first tannery in Dhaka.

Though Rehman Sobhan was born in Calcutta, he spent most of his school life in Darjeeling. Between the ages of 7 and 15, he was a student of St. Paul's School, Darjeeling. The school, established in 1823, is considered as one of the best boarding schools in West Bengal, India. He was not only a brilliant student but also very skilled in sports. He was the school's long-distance running champion and one of school's best football, hockey, and cricket players. He also took part in boxing. He completed Senior Cambridge from St. Paul's School in 1950 and then moved to Aitchison College, Lahore for Higher Senior Cambridge and went on to Cambridge University to study Economics.

At the age of 22, Rehman Sobhan joined the Economics Department of Dhaka University in 1957. In the 1960s, many have spoken about the 'inequality theory' and their discourse on the regional disparity between West Pakistan (Pakistan since 1971) and East Pakistan (Bangladesh since 1971) played an important role in fomenting nationalist aspirations of the people of Bangladesh. However, no one had articulated the "Two Economy Theory" based on regional disparity as emphatically as Rehman Sobhan. It was because of him that this theory was widely propagated and reached the common people. He, with a number of other nationalist economists, contributed to the drafting of the six-points programme that became the basis for the struggle for autonomy in the then East Pakistan. This made him a close associate of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (1920-1975), father of the Nation and the architect of independent Bangladesh. He was the executive editor of the pre-independence 'Weekly Forum' where he wrote fearlessly about the economic deprivation of East Pakistanis during the Pakistan era. As an icon of the Bangladesh independence movement, during the liberation war, he played the critical role of a spokesman of Bangladesh in the United States when he was only 36 years old.

Rehman Sobhan returned to independent Bangladesh in 1972 and became a member of the Planning Commission to formulate the first Five Year Plan of the newly-built country. The plan was formulated to address the major challenges of rehabilitating hundreds of thousands of people and reviving the devastated economy. He remained in this position till the end of 1974. In the wake of the August 15, 1975 assassination, Rehman Sobhan left the government and went to Oxford University for economic research and writing. He came back to Bangladesh in 1979 and joined Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) as research director. In the meantime, he retired as Professor of Economics at Dhaka University in 1977. He headed Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) from 1983 to 1989, first as (Acting) Chairman and later as Director General. Meanwhile, he was the President of Bangladesh Economics Association (BEA) between 1983 and 1985. After retiring from BIDS in 1989, he became its Emeritus Fellow. In 1991, he was in charge of the Ministry of Planning as a member of the Advisory Council of the Caretaker Government. In 1993, he founded the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) with the aim of creating an open discussion platform for economists, political leaders, business and industry representatives, and government policy makers. He was awarded the Independence Award, Bangladesh's highest civilian honour, in 2008.

The above, in a nutshell, encapsulates the salient features of Rehman Sobhan's career spanning more than six decades through the Pakistan and Bangladesh eras. Now on this very auspicious occasion, as a representative of the under 40 population, in this short essay, I would like to highlight some aspects of his illustrious career which he achieved before he reached the age of 40 so that the future nation builders of the country can draw inspiration from his life and works and learn some lessons to contribute to the economic freedom the country is still trying to achieve.

Since his father was a government official and later a businessman, it was only natural that Professor Sobhan would be interested in either a government job or inheriting family business.  There might have been  pressure from the family to do so.  But he was determined to pursue the career of an academic or teacher. For this, ignoring family pressure and through sheer determination, he secured a place to study Economics at Trinity College, Cambridge University. As Barrister Dr. Kamal Hossain, known as the "father of the Bangladeshi constitution", noted, Rehman Sobhan's interest in Economics stems from the belief that Economics is a science that can bring about change in a society plagued by massive poverty, inequality and overall underdevelopment.

It needs to be mentioned here that despite being from a wealthy family background and not facing the kind of financial hardship that poor people usually face, he had a tender heart for the underprivileged poor people of the country. Therefore, as an economist, he spent his entire life in search of socio-economic thinking, which can truly free the people of this country from the menace of ignorance, poverty and insecurity.  Many complained that there was some bias in his intellectual pursuits. In this context, CPD Distinguished Fellow Dr. Debapriya Bhattacharya mentioned, "Yes, of course he (Rehman Sobhan) was biased! His bias was towards marginalised, deprived, neglected voices and disenfranchised people of this country."

Professor Rehman Sobhan was very brave in expressing his thoughts as he never ran after success or applause. After reading some of his articles in the 'Weekly Forum' published in the pre-independence period, one may be surprised to think how he wrote so boldly about the economic deprivation of East Pakistanis during the Pakistan period! Even in the twilight of his career, Professor Sobhan has maintained his strong and courageous voice. Economist Dr. Hossain Zillur Rahman has rightly pointed out that while today's development debate is shrouded in biased rhetoric towards the ruling class, Professor Sobhan is admirably fulfilling the professional responsibility of economists by explaining the deep spread of inequality in the development process with theory and data.

Before concluding, I would like to quote Professor Rehman Sobhan's recent advice to future nation-builders. He said, "Freedom of thought, freedom of expression is nobody's gift to you. It will only come if you assert your rights to exercise that freedom". He advises them to always speak up and assert themselves in sufficient numbers to gain freedom.

We pray for his long and healthy life. Hope, he will live many more days and do much more work. There is still much to be done and there are not many people like him who can provide the necessary leadership. May God bless our beloved personality, Rehman Sobhan.


Dr Foyasal Khan holds a BSS and MSS in economics from Dhaka University and a PhD in Economics from International Islamic University Malaysia.  [email protected]

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