The tragedy of Tajuddin Ahmad is part of our history we can overlook at peril to our future. He remains ignored, or even sidelined, in our assessments of the evolution of this Bengali state through the autonomy movement of the 1960s and the War of Liberation of 1971. His was a role pivotal to the emergence of the republic, for it was as chief lieutenant to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman that he devised strategy for the formation of the State through the nine months of the war for freedom. It was a war Tajuddin waged in Bangabandhu’s name. Yet it was also a war when many in the Awami League tried desperately to bring him down. It remains to his credit that Tajuddin Ahmad was able to withstand the relentless pressure brought to bear on him by the Young Turks in the Awami League and by the likes of Khondokar Moshtaque, to give in and walk away.
In terms of history, Tajuddin did what visionary leaders have always done. He struggled bravely on, refused to throw in his hat and go off into the twilight. The whole war was a manifestation of the way he envisioned the future of his fellow Bengalis. On his watch was established the very first Bengali government in history. It was his understanding of politics, which convinced him that resistance to the Pakistani occupation army needed to be concrete and defined by a wellshaped programme of guerrilla strategy.
Ever a man not willing to be in the spotlight, Tajuddin worked quietly, in line with the intellectual principles he lived by, convinced that the emergence of a free Bangladesh would be a socialist haven for its people. He toured the guerrilla camps, disseminating his inspirational message to the thousands of young men and women who had made the long trek from their villages and towns to be part of the national freedom train. And his visits to the refugee camps reassured their inmates that the present was well on its way to the future.
All of this is history, inseparable from and integral to our political heritage. And history is also embedded in the tale of how Tajuddin Ahmad was slowly pushed into irrelevance once freedom had arrived at the nation’s doorsteps. His dreams of a socialist society, of a nation engaging in a mighty effort on its own and without the looming presence of the Bretton Woods institutions to build its institutions were carefully pushed aside as the new nation’s diplomacy embraced newer dimensions. Tajuddin was not happy with the changes. Neither was he comfortable with what was to come later, on the national political stage. He saw the country coming under the influence of the World Bank and the likes of Robert McNamara but was powerless to pull the train to a stop.
If that was an early blow to his political intellectualism, another came in the form of his departure from the cabinet. Bangabandhu, in a terse note, asked him to resign. Loyal to his leader to a fault, Tajuddin Ahmad complied. It is said Bangabandhu subsequently asked him to return to government. Tajuddin thought better of the idea. He stayed away.
Independent Bangladesh’s tragedy remains a searing tale in our collective consciousness, for it is a tale of two great men, pioneers in the struggle for freedom, waging a long struggle against colonial rule and then falling out with each other. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was the articulate symbol of our aspirations for independence; and Tajuddin Ahmad was the engine that drove those aspirations into reality. The Mujib-Tajuddin team, in that era of idealism, was a reminder for many of us of the dreams that once had powered the Mao-Zhou and Gandhi-Nehru and Castro-Che machines in their unique national perspectives.
But the Mujib-Tajuddin combination, in the troubled post-war conditions that tested Bangladesh’s resolve to take its rightful place on the global landscape, was not to last. It was the earliest of signs of the rocky road that lay ahead for the country. The chasm between the Father of the Nation and the leader of the Mujibnagar movement widened in those three and a half years following the war, while men determined to overturn the socialist-secular national spirit made sure that Bangabandhu and Tajuddin did not come together again.
That is our legacy. And legacy too is the consistent loyalty Tajuddin Ahmad demonstrated toward Bangabandhu, spurning all efforts to have him mount political opposition to his leader. The union of souls that brought the two men together in the early 1960s was for Tajuddin Ahmad an enduring political relationship, despite the fissures which developed in the aftermath of independence.
Toward the end of July 1975, Tajuddin was made known about a vast conspiracy to destroy Bangabandhu’s government, to have him removed from the scene. Tajuddin walked part of the way, traveled by rickshaw part of the way, until he arrived at Road 32 in the nocturnal hour --- to warn his leader of the dangers before him. A supremely confident Bangabandhu asked Tajuddin not to worry and go back home.
Tragedy struck a fortnight later. It struck again, barely three months later. (Tajuddin Ahmad, wartime prime minister of Bangladesh, was born on July 23, 1925 and assassinated on November 3, 1975)
Syed Badrul Ahsan is the Associate Editor of Asian Age