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Life and times of Mirza Nurul Huda

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Mirza Nurul Huda - or Dr M N Huda, as he is widely known at home and abroad - was undoubtedly a prominent and illustrious Bangali of the 20th century. With a career rooted in Dhaka University as an outstanding scholar and professor of Economics, he occasionally ventured outside the academic arena from time to time but left behind indelible imprints of an accomplished technocrat serving the government at the highest levels. In British India, he had served as a deputy magistrate as member of Bengal Civil Service after topping the list at both bachelors and masters level in economics from Dhaka University. Then while working as a Member of the Pakistan Planning Commission during 1962-65 on deputation from Dhaka University, he passionately espoused the 'two-economies in two provinces' theory that to a large extent laid the basis for the 6-Point demands floated by the Awami League in 1966. He then served as the finance minister of East Pakistan from 1965 to 1969, and later became the Governor of the province in March 1969 after the ouster of Monem Khan, but only for a couple of days.  Following the independence of Bangladesh, Dr. Huda again played a pivotal role as the planning and finance minister of Bangladesh from 1976 to 1981 and finally served as the Vice President of the country for four months from November 1981 to March 1982.

The above paragraph, in a nutshell, encapsulates the salient features of Mirza Nurul Huda's lifelong journey and career over seven decades through the British Indian, Pakistani and Bangladesh eras. Although Dr Huda had expired in December 1991, it was through the painstaking efforts of his wife late Professor Umme Kulsum Siddiqua Banu (passed away in 2008), elder daughter Simeen Mahmud (expired in 2018), younger daughter Zareen Ahmed, and the editor of the book Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed that the memoir could finally see the light of day.

Dr Huda's preferred choice for the title of the book was 'Stray Thoughts', and he justified it by saying: "Because formally and technically, these articles, speeches, notes etc. of mine do not form parts of an integrated whole; they represent my ideas and thoughts at different times in my life on important challenges facing the country - Pakistan, East Pakistan and Bangladesh. The explanatory notes accompanying each seek to explain some of the environmental circumstances under which each was contemplated". In fact, what makes Dr Huda's memoir immensely rich and insightful has been a parallel narrative on the chronological unfolding of sub-continental history specifically related to the territory and population of Bangladesh. The editor of the memoir further elaborates, "His memoir is based on his own writings and a few interviews he had given. This book is foremost a memoir, although Professor Huda does delve into some topics of economics in depth which will surely whet the appetite of economists".

The memoir is broadly divided into three parts or chapters. These are: My Early Life in British India (1918-47); My Life during the Pakistani Period (1947-1971); and The Bangladesh Period of My Life (1971-91). The highlights of the first chapter include birth and schooling in Tangail, college education at Rajshahi College, and graduate studies at Dhaka University. Despite losing his father in 1933 when he was a student of class nine, Mirza passed the matriculation examination held in 1935 in first division with overall star marks (above 75%). Then he earned another first division in the Intermediate examination held in 1937 from Rajshahi College by topping the list in the whole of Rajshahi division under Calcutta University. At Dhaka University, he once again demonstrated his academic brilliance by topping the list in both the bachelor's and master's degree examinations in economics and bagging the Raja Kali Narayan Scholarship in 1940 through obtaining highest marks among the bachelors' level examinees of all departments.

After the conclusion of his Dhaka University chapter, Mirza briefly served as a lecturer at Karatia Saadat College of Principal Ibrahim Khan that helped him hone his teaching skills. He subsequently went back to his alma mater Rajshahi College as a Lecturer of Economics in November 1942, but appeared at the BCS (Bengal Civil Service) examination in Calcutta towards the end of 1943 amid the rumblings of the Second World War as well as the Bengal famine. He passed the exam with flying colours and subsequently joined the civil service as a deputy magistrate at Alipore, the headquarters of 24 Parganas district, on 19 May 1944. In 1945, Mirza got married to Umme Kulsum Siddiqua Banu - the elder daughter of Maulvi Tamizuddin Khan, who was then serving as the education minister of Bengal (later served as the President of Pakistan Constituent Assembly after the partition of India). The very next year, Mirza was selected for a PhD course in the subject-area of rural and agricultural economics at the prestigious Cornell University of Ithaca, USA. Interestingly, he left Calcutta for the United States as a citizen of British India in June 1947, but returned in April 1949 as a citizen of Pakistan after completing his PhD within a record time of two years.

When he returned to Pakistan, the then Vice Chancellor of Dhaka University and his former teacher Dr Sayed Moazzem Hossain successfully persuaded Dr Huda to join the university as a Reader of Economics Department. As teaching was his passion and preferred profession since his youth, he gave up the civil service job at Dhaka district administration and joined the Dhaka University in September 1949. By then, the city had transformed itself into a bustling provincial capital from that of a sleepy university-dominated district town. In the backdrop of mass exodus of Hindu teachers to India after the partition, it was mostly the foreign educated former Muslim students of Dhaka University who were rebuilding the university.

At that time, students revered their teachers and treated them like parents. Conversely, the teachers also treated their students like own sons and daughters. Apart from tutorials, pupils were encouraged to see teachers after classes if they faced any difficulty in understanding lessons. Good students were encouraged to even visit them at home. Dr Huda noted that up to the end of his teaching days at Dhaka University in 1975, he never saw any university or college teacher offering the students private tuition for money. He lamented that teachers did not teach seriously in their classes at the present juncture, and did so only in their private coaching classes that required the students to pay.

The 1950s also saw Dr Huda serving in various panels of economists for tasks like advising the Planning Board and Planning Commission for preparing the five year plans of Pakistan. The economists of East Pakistan held a special conference of Pakistan Economic Association at Dhaka University in August 1956 on the First Five Year Plan, where a group of Bangali economists including Dr Huda, Dr Mazharul Huq, Abdur Razzak and Dr Nurul Islam drafted and issued a report that for the first time called for the necessity of 'Two Economies' in Pakistan. Its essence was: "Pakistan was a unique country. Its two wings were separated by a thousand miles of India. The resources and the development history of the two wings of Pakistan were different. Pakistan had to be developed recognizing the fact that it had two different economies in its two wings". Therefore, "The planning in Pakistan should be such as if the country consists of two economies, and two producing and consuming areas".

However, the regional perspective was kept in view by the Pakistani government only in drawing up the provincial development programmes, not in respect to the central plans and the huge outside-the-plan expenditures like the Indus Basin Project in West Pakistan. The outcome was a half-hearted attempt by the central government to accept the regional basis of development plans and attach priority to regional development in national plans. As a consequence of this biased and skewed approach, over 70 per cent of resources in the central budgets of Pakistan were spent in West Pakistan, whereas less than 30 per cent were spent for East Pakistan during the decades of 1950s and 1960s. This has been clearly shown by Dr Huda in the appendix of his memoir by citing official statistics. 

After General Ayub Khan came to power following promulgation of martial law in 1958, the Bangali economists including Dr Huda were still propagating the 'Two Economies' theory for East and West Pakistan. But Pakistanis at the helm of affairs including Ayub construed this to be an indication of East Pakistanis conspiring for independence from Pakistan! General Ayub invited some local economists including Dr Huda when he visited Dhaka in May 1961, but Dr Huda could not attend as he was away in Tangail. Then a group of Bangali economists including Dr Huda, Professor Mazharul Huq, Professor Nurul Islam, Professor Rehman Sobhan and Dr Abdullah Faruouk were asked to write a paper on the 'two economies' by the president, which they duly submitted. The report highlighted the need for framing development plans in Pakistan so as to address the country's peculiar geography that did not allow free movement of men and material from one wing to the other owing to prohibitive costs.

Dr Huda and Dr Mazharul Huq went to meet Ayub the next time he visited Dhaka in late summer of 1961. The president was sitting along with the Governor of East Pakistan General Azam Khan at a room of his guest-house. On seeing the Bangali economists, he exuded fury and hurled insults without referring to the paper. Ayub called them anti-Pakistan and Indian agents, and accused them of subversive activities by seeking to divide country or join India. Then he asked them what they had to say. Finding an opening, Dr Huda dwelt on parts of the paper that he had underlined to make Ayub understand its gist. Then he boldly said, "Mr President, this is what we have actually said in our paper. What your advisers told you is something completely different … We are fortunate that you have given us this opportunity to explain. Otherwise your impression about us and our theory would have remained as negative as what your advisers told you … In that case you would have formulated policies for Pakistan based on false and dangerous assumptions … ".

There was a huge change in President Ayub's demeanour and he appeared a changed man. The Governor Azam Khan, who was present, literally jumped up and down and said, "I know my people. My boys cannot be like this". The he asked Ayub, "Who is the person who told you all this? Why did he suspect us of something like this". Azam Khan's use of the word 'us' was quite noticeable. Despite being a West Pakistani, he behaved as if he was an East Pakistani, and he actually proved to be the most popular Governor of East Pakistan because he identified himself with the local people. The meeting ended amicably after some further exchange of ideas between the economists and the president for improving the situation.

The very next year, Dr Huda was appointed a Member of Pakistan's Planning Commission in July 1962, where he had open disagreements again with the West Pakistani Members including the Deputy Chairman. But Mirza kept up his fight in favour of the 'two economies theory' until he was appointed the finance and planning minister of East Pakistan in March 1965. Then four years later - in the wake of a mass upsurge, he had to accept President's Ayub offer of provincial Governorship. The memoir describes in detail the circumstances leading to Dr Huda's oath-taking as the Governor on  March 23, 1969, quickly followed by the imposition of martial law by General Yahya in the evening of March 25 despite his pledge of allowing the Governor at least one month for restoring order in the province. Dr Huda noted, "Developments during the two days of my Governorship of East Pakistan had filled my heart with optimism and high hopes for re-establishing democracy in Pakistan. But all those hopes of mine and others' were ruthlessly crushed to the ground by the military junta".

Dr Huda returned to his Dhaka University job the very next month and resumed teaching at the Economics department. His memoir narrates the turbulent times in East Pakistan during 1970 and 1971 leading to the military crackdown 'Operation Searchlight' launched by the Pakistani army against the unarmed Bangalis on the fateful night of 25 March. At that time, Dr Huda, his wife and two daughters were residing in a university bungalow adjacent to Jagannath Hall, while son Najmul was away in Germany. He recounts in his memoir the gruesome savagery perpetrated by Pakistani troops at Jagannath hall and surrounding areas on that dreadful night: "The army attacked Jagannath Hall around 11 pm on the night of March 25. Shells were being fired from the University Officers' Training Corps (UOTC) Headquarters across the road towards Jagannath Hall. All one could hear were shouts and shrieks from the hapless, unsuspecting student residents of the Hall…".

"The army went in and killed many residents of the Hall, as well as men, women and children living in the bustees (slum dwellings) and servants' quarters nearby. This I saw with my own eyes. I also heard piercing sounds of pain, groaning and death from all sides. It was obvious that the story was being repeated all over the campus; that all other students' halls of Dhaka University, as well as the residences of the teachers and university staff were being attacked. Other areas of Dhaka outside the campus were also attacked with equal vengeance. It was clear that the attack had been meticulously planned to inflict maximum casualty, and instil terror into the hearts of the average East Pakistanis in order to bring them to their knees in submission".

More horror was to follow for the Mirza family in the morning of 26 March, as five Pakistani troops arrived at dawn with the intention of killing him. They broke open the front-door and entered the drawing room forcibly. Their leader asked Mirza in Urdu: "Are you a Bengali or a Bihari?" When Dr Huda replied 'Bengali Muslim', he jeeringly retorted, "Can a Bengali ever be a Muslim"? Although the Bangladesh flag was removed earlier from the room by his daughters, a black flag was still flying on the rooftop that infuriated the soldiers. They ordered Dr Huda at gunpoint to accompany them towards the UOTC. As they stepped out of the bungalow, his wife and two daughters also came out of the house and said in broken Urdu they would also accompany him wherever he went. This rattled the soldiers and they decided to go inside again. This time they took away several valuable items from the bungalow and left for the UOTC building without Dr Huda. However, a second batch of Pakistani troops returned after only two hours and one soldier thrust a gun at Mirza's chest. But as his wife clung to him and the elder daughter bravely pushed the barrel of the gun away from his chest, the soldier was unable to pull the trigger. The troops then left without killing anyone. The Huda family left the bungalow the very next day when curfew was lifted for a few hours, and took refuge at a relative's home at Hatkhola. They stayed there for three and a half months before moving to their own residence at Dhanmondi in July.

The Bangladesh period has also been covered by the memoir. But it is quite short, although it mentions the role Dr Huda played as Adviser in charge of planning, commerce and finance ministries from November 1975 to November 1981, as well as his four month-long stint as the country's Vice President from November 1981 after Justice Abdus Sattar emerged victorious in the presidential polls following President Zia's assassination in May 1981. However, it is the elaborate description of the British and Pakistani eras in Dr Huda's memoir that is bound to carry much weight for the inquisitive readers. The memoir is a must-read for academics, economists, politicians, and history buffs alike. 


Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly. [email protected]



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