Industrialising Bangladesh: The pioneering role of A.K. Khan

Muhammad Abdul Mazid | Published: March 31, 2018 21:20:35 | Updated: March 31, 2018 21:22:19


Abul Kasem Khan (April 05, 1907- March 31, 1991)

Abul Kasem Khan, popularly known as A.K. Khan (1907-1991) was a federal minister of the then Pakistan in charge of industries, works, power and irrigation from 1958-1963. He was a distinguished member of the civil service, a luminary in the legal profession, a great scholar, a prominent businessman and an industrialist of outstanding repute. He was a pioneer in industries and shipping, an educationist and a public spirited leader of great repute. He was also a philanthropist who had served his country and humanity through his numerous charitable activities.

Mr. Abul Kasem Khan came from a reputed family of Chittagong. His father Abdul Latif Khan was a respectable government officer. Mr. A.K. Khan was born at Mohora of Chittagong in 1905. He received his education first at Fatehabad High School, Government College, Chittagong and then at the Presidency College, Calcutta, wherefrom he graduated with distinction in English language and literature in 1927. He then joined the University Law College, Calcutta, and stood first class second in order of merit in the final B.L. Examination in 1931. Mr. Abul Kasem joined the Calcutta High Court as an advocate in 1934 and practised as a close associate of Sher-e-Bangla A.K. Fazlul Huq. 

In 1935, A.K. Khan was selected as a member of the Provincial Judicial Service and was appointed as a Judicial Officer. As a judge, he was uncompromising and thrived to establish justice. Eminent historian Tapan Raychaudhuri  in his memoir titled 'Bangalnamah' mentioned that his father, Congress activist Amiya Raychaudhuri, was accused in a criminal case by the British government. Tapan Choudhuri recalled, "the name of the fearless judge who dismissed this case was Abul Kasem Khan…" In that particular case, Mr. Khan had ruled against a British police officer named Cottam for assaulting a local politician. During the British rule, it was rare for a local judge to pass judgement against a British official. By taking such a stand, Mr. Khan's reputation as a courageous judge was established. As a result, in order to punish him, the British authorities transferred him to a remote area of East Bengal where Mr. Khan faced a period of extreme hardship. Realising the increasing difficulty in dispensing proper justice under British rule, he resigned from his position in 1943 and initiated his business in Chittagong with his father-in-law late Abdul Bari Chowdhury, a renowned business magnate of Rangoon. Soon, he gained fame in the business world by becoming a prominent industrialist of the then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh.

He established the A. K. Khan and Company limited in 1945. Between 1945 and 1958, Mr. Khan set up a match factory, a plywood factory, electronic motors factory, jute mills, a cotton textiles mill and a docking and engineering plant, tea estate, cold storage, rubber plantation and started a shipping company (Pakistan National Steamship Company) in Chittagong. All these establishments hired thousands of technical and entrepreneurial manpower who later became investors and industrialists.  He also founded the Eastern Insurance Company and the Eastern Mercantile Bank, the first Bengali-owned bank to be based in the country.

A.K. Khan was a member of the first Constituent Assembly of Pakistan from 1946 to 1954. He ably represented Pakistan at several international conferences like the Asian Regional Conference of I.L.O. at New Delhi in 1947, the International Trade Organisation Conference at Havana in 1948 and at the International Labour Conference at Geneva in 1949. He was the leader of the Pakistan delegation at the meeting of the Transport Committee of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in 1951 and at the Maritime Conference in London in 1956.

That he truly loved the less-fortunate people is revealed by the fact that just one day before his death on March 31, 1991, in his own handwriting he bequeathed: "I have donated 30% (thirty per cent) of the profits only of the companies to A. K. Khan Foundation as per registration for the benefit of Education and Health Services and Scholarship, subject to 30% donation of the profits only of our Companies."

 A.K. Khan always treated people equally, whether rich or poor, powerful or weak. Often he used to quote the dictum of Emperor Akbar, "Be high and mighty with proud and powerful and low with the poor and lowly".  Mr. Khan was always humble, tried to follow the "Siratul-Mustaqueem" and had a firm belief in Allah. In times of adversity, he advised his worthy sons and daughters to have "Tawakkul" and patience. According to him, in life any goal can be achieved through hard work and determination. The core inspiration for this determination should be, "Knock and ye shall enter, seek and ye shall find", he used to say.

As an industrialist, Mr. Khan noticed the feeling of alienation and a worker's lack of feeling for the industry he worked in. He firmly believed that this could only be removed if the workers were given a stake in the industry in which they worked in. His radical statement raised a hue and cry amongst the Pakistani industrialists. Pakistani industrialists were pondering on this statement. What Mr. Khan proposed nearly 57 years ago, has been introduced in many countries in Europe and even in America today. This concept of worker equity participation should be considered seriously and there should exist a three-way partnership between the Entrepreneur, the Worker and the Financing institution, which essentially is an Islamic Model of Industrial enterprise.

The partition of the subcontinent in 1947 had placed the truncated East Bengal (Bangladesh) in a very difficult situation with its shortages of materials and trained manpower in almost all spheres of life. There was no outside source from which substantial assistance could be obtained for reconstruction of the new country. Shortage of resources was worldwide after the end of Second World War. Nevertheless the country was able to tide over such enormous difficulties through its own effort and determination. There was no famine or pestilence, the usual consequence of disruption of organised life caused by war or civil commotion. Public administration and economic activities could be revived within a short time. When in 1949, England as well as India found it necessary to devalue their currencies, the Pakistan government did not find it necessary to follow suit. Needless to say, what was going wrong in the country was political management. Unfortunately, it failed to attract the notice of those who were presiding over the destiny of the country.       

Justice Muhammad Ibrahim, who was law minister in the same cabinet of General Ayub Khan with Mr. A. K. Khan, wrote in his diary dated January 1, 1960:

"Mr. A.K. Khan arrived from Rawalpindi this morning. Soon after his arrival he rang up to say that he would call on in the evening. I thought that it was one of the usual courtesy calls. I had no idea that he had some pent-up tormenting feelings. He came at 7 p.m. He started talking about the Economic Committee which the Governor of East Pakistan came to attend with his Chief and Additional Chief Secretary. This meeting of the Economic Committee was important, for the main topic of discussion was the proposed Second Five Year Plan. Zakir Hussain (Governor, East Pakistan) has prepared notes for this meeting showing his demands. In his note there was a reference to the underdevelopment of East Pakistan and there was also therein a suggestion for devaluation by way of remedy. 

"The draft plan prepared by the Planning Commission also stressed the fact of underdevelopment in East Pakistan. When the committee sat on the first day, Akter Hussain (Governor of West Pakistan) objected to the statement regarding underdevelopment of East Pakistan and special consideration on that ground. But the President did not continuance this objection.

"When the talks began it appeared that the President was somewhat inflamed. He asked Zakir, 'who had prepared this note?' (Mr. A.K. Khan's comment is that the President suspected that this was made by some East Pakistani)…The president was at the height of his temper. He said something like this "that there should be no talk of disparity in development; that East Pakistans' allegation that their foreign exchange was utilised at their cost, for the development of West Pakistan was nonsense; that the foreign exchange earned by East Pakistan (more than two-third of the total foreign exchange) was of no use of them, as they have no money to supplement or support building industries; that the foreign aid that come from other countries is given because West Pakistan has a strategic and geo-political position; and Pakistan army may be useful to the aid giving countries etc." (Diaries of Justice Muhammad Ibrahim ( 1960-1966)" Edited and annotated by Sufia Ahmed, Academic Press and Publishers Library , Dhaka, March 2012, Page 4)

On May 31, 1960 Justice Muhammad Ibrahim noted another incident:

"Periodical officers' meeting was held at the G.H.Q. General Headquarter Lecture Hall at 5 p.m. The President attended. Mr. A.K. Khan and Mr. Hasnie, and also the President addressed the gathering. Mr. A.K. Khan began by stressing that our economy was vulnerable. Since the termination of the Korean war, the price of our agricultural products is going down, while the price of the capital goods, which we import, is going up. He stressed the need of foreign aid. Prejudice against foreign aid must go. We cannot do without foreign aid. 'Encourage foreign aid' said he. In fact 52% of the total investment is American money. Our want of raw material is not a handicap. P.I.D.C. has set up 52 industries. The criticism that our industries are over-capitalised is right. This criticism that our industrial products are more costly although our labour is cheap, forgets that unskilled or inefficient labour, makes labour costly."  (Page 24)

Dr Muhammad Abdul Mazid is a former Secretary to the Government and former Chairman of NBR. He is currently Adviser, A K Khan Company Limited.

mazid.muhammad@gmail.com

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