Raja Tridiv Roy's death in Pakistan takes us back, yet once more, to the question of what men like him ought to have done for Bangladesh back in the year when we were battling the state of Pakistan for freedom.
The Chakma chief, like a good number of others whose homes were, and are, in Bangladesh, chose of his own volition to offer his services to Pakistan once the Pakistan occupation army had surrendered to the joint command of Indian and Bangladesh forces in December 1971. He had everything to lose by opting to be a citizen of truncated Pakistan in that year of bloodletting. He was a raja, a powerful symbol of authority for his Chakmas. He was more. At the Pakistan national assembly elections held in December 1970, he was one of only two men (the other was former chief minister Nurul Amin) who survived the Awami League juggernaut to be elected to the assembly. That election was a patent demonstration of Tridiv Roy's powerful appeal to his constituency. It was popularity that even Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman acknowledged.
And yet, when the moment of reckoning came in March 1971, Raja Tridiv Roy made it clear that he was not with us. He tells us in his memoirs, published nine years ago in Pakistan as The Departed Melody, that when Bangabandhu waffled on the question of separate, distinctive rights for Bangladesh's tribals, he knew that a triumphant Awami League would do nothing for his Chakmas. Throughout the terror-driven months of 1971, Tridiv Roy saw little reason to condemn the Pakistan army over the genocide it had launched against the Bengalis. He honestly believed that the Chakmas stood a better chance, where acquiring political rights were concerned, with Pakistan staying intact than with a soon-to-be Bangladesh. In late 1971, as General Yahya Khan went ahead (and he did not see the writing on the wall) with drafting a constitution for a Pakistan that was rapidly coming to an end in its eastern province, he reassured Tridiv Roy about a grant of autonomy to the Chittagong Hill Tracts region. The Chakma chief believed him and probably supposed that that indeed was what would happen. Surprisingly, he did not foresee Pakistan's impending doom. The Pakistanis sent him off to New York to argue their case.
That every individual has his political views to express and persuade others into accepting is something that has never been disputed. Had the state of Pakistan not resorted to the murder of Bengalis and a subverting of the election results of 1970, it would be easier to understand and accept the argument by a section of Bengalis that Pakistan needed to be preserved as a state. Tridiv Roy and everyone else from "East Pakistan," coming forth with expressions of support for a united Pakistan, would then have a case to make. But once the Pakistan army took recourse to genocide, it became the moral responsibility of every inhabitant of Bangladesh to resist Pakistan. Tridiv Roy did not resist. Neither did Mahmud Ali, who made even Pakistanis roll with laughter when in 1996 he told them that "East Pakistan" would someday return to being part of Pakistan. The scholar Syed Sajjad Husain, in clear defiance of logic and common sense, went abroad to spread the lie that no Bengali intellectuals and students had been murdered by the Pakistan army.
In the case of Tridiv Roy, as his memoirs make it clear, there did not appear to be a genocide at all. He says little or nothing about the conspiracy by the generals and the West Pakistani political establishment to undermine the majority party elected in December 1970. But he does go into a narration of what he calls the rampant killing of Chakmas by the Mukti Bahini in the first few days of the armed conflict. It is all based on hearsay. At a time when Bengalis all over the land were scrambling for shelter in the face of an advancing marauding army, they would have had no time to kill. Tridiv Roy disappoints on this score.
The disappointment comes full circle with our realisation that Tridiv Roy spent four decades after 1971 in the loyal service of the state of Pakistan. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto made him minister of minority affairs and tourism in his cabinet. In 1972, Roy was sent to the United Nations, where he argued against Bangladesh's admission into the world body. On his return to Rawalpindi, President Bhutto, casting protocol aside, welcomed him along with Tridiv Roy's colleagues in the cabinet as a hero. It was an eerie instance of a man coming back to a place not home, happy in the knowledge that he had prevented a country that was home from getting into the world body, with not a little support from a veto-casting China. Tridiv Roy believed in Pakistan and not even his mother, who had been sent by Bangabandhu to New York to persuade him to return to Bangladesh, could influence him into forsaking Pakistan.
But a day came when Bhutto dropped Tridiv Roy in a cabinet reshuffle, placing him in the new position of special envoy. With Bhutto dead and gone in the late 1970s, it was General Ziaul Haq before whom the Chakma Raja's services were placed. He would serve a record fifteen years as Pakistan's ambassador to Argentina, with concurrent accreditation to a few other South American countries.
In the end, Raja Tridiv Roy died a sad, lonely man. In interviews with the Pakistani media, he complained about his neglect by the Pakistani establishment. In the Pervez Musharraf years, few would pick up his calls at the foreign office. Inquiries were made into certain medical expenses he had incurred as Pakistan's envoy abroad.
Raja Tridiv Roy's chance to make history came and went in 1971. He could have identified with the oppressed, which Bengalis were. He chose to be with the oppressor, which Pakistan was. In the final forty years of his life, he was on the wrong side of history. The sadness is that he refused to see it that way.
The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.