'Untranquil Recollections': Reviewing the memoir of Rehman Sobhan, an incurable optimist
The second volume of Rehman Sobhan's memoirs, Untranquil Recollections: Political Economy of Nation Building in Post-Liberation Bangladesh (University Press Limited, 2022) deals primarily with the years of 1972 to 1975, which comprise probably the most complex period of the nation's history. Titanic battles were fought over the policy direction of the country. Over a short period of about three and a half years, the epochal triumph of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman ended in a tragedy. Sobhan's memoir begins with his return to liberated Bangladesh and ends with his going to exile (at the end of December, 1975) after the coup of August 15. The heart of the story lies in the narration of his experience as a member of Bangladesh's Planning Commission (BPC).
As we know from the first volume of his memoirs, Untranquil Recollections: Years of Fulfilment (2015), Rehman Sobhan was one of the Bengali economists who, with Nurul Islam in the lead, developed and articulated the economic rationale for the struggle of the people of Bangladesh against discrimination within Pakistan and for national self-determination. They helped Bangabandhu and Tajuddin formulate the Awami League manifesto for the 1970 election in light of the 6-point and 11-point charters; work out the implications of these charters for the future constitution of Pakistan; and finally conduct the negotiations with the Yahya team in March 1971. Following the crackdown of March 25 and the onset of the Liberation War, they crossed the border to India and made themselves available for the service of the government-in-exile; most of them went abroad as its envoy to mobilise international support for the independence of Bangladesh. Given this history, one can well imagine the excitement with which Sobhan and his colleagues returned to Bangladesh and how eager they were to help build the new nation.
Regarding this basic task, the four professors differed on two levels. The first was regarding their belief in socialism. In this regard, Mosharaff Hossain, Anisur Rahman and Rehman Sobhan—all had sympathies for socialism. Nurul Islam, however was the skeptic. The second was regarding the capacity of the Awami League government in implementing socialism. In this regard, the most skeptical seemed to be Mosharraf Hossain, who actually led the Planning Department of the government-in-exile, while Islam, Sobhan, and Rahman served as envoys abroad. Hossain, therefore, had the opportunity of seeing from close-quarters Awami League in action during the Liberation and hence was more aware of its limitations. Anisur Rahman had serious doubts and was not eager to join the BPC but allowed the possibility of "educating" the ruling party through their joint efforts. Islam also had misgivings on this account but could not decline Bangabandhu's invitation to help him in the effort. It was only Sobhan who not only shared Bangabandhu's commitment to socialism but also "genuinely believed that the objective conditions dictated that a process of social transformation could be carried through."
The knowledge about these initial differences helps us to understand the various modus operandi that the four professors adopted subsequently. For example, Rahman wanted to test the commitment of the political leadership to the goal of socialism. Accordingly, he wrote "visionary papers" and wanted the Cabinet to react to them. He emphasised the need for the leadership to practice austerity (such as riding bicycles to their offices) to set an example to the people of shared sacrifice. Unless this basic commitment issue was sorted out, Rahman was not interested in developing detailed policy papers and plans. Seeing that the political leadership was not responsive to his broad suggestions, he concluded that socialism was not possible with such a leadership and, accordingly, was the first among the four professors to leave the BPC.
It was Sobhan who was, in his own words, the "incurable optimist," who took "Bangabandhu's statements at their face value" and worked earnestly to develop plans and policies that were necessary to follow up on those statements. He "assumed an activist role," and went "beyond [his] areas of responsibility." This of course led him into conflict with many line ministries whose officials thought that he was overstepping and encroaching into their domains.
Among the divisions that Sobhan was in charge of was industries, and given the nationalisation policy of 1972 (March), it was also the main theatre where the fate of the socialist way of development was being decided.
Whether or not the nationalised industries could function efficiently became the litmus test for the efficacy of the socialist development strategy in Bangladesh. Sobhan put his heart and soul into making nationalisation a success. He shows that the record of the nationalised enterprises was not as dismal as was portrayed by certain sections of the press. As he informs, the output of the nationalised sector as a whole by 1973-74 had gone well beyond the 1969-70 level, and by 1975-1975 surpassed the pre-Liberation levels. Thus, he does not agree with the widespread notion that nationalisation failed in Bangladesh—a notion that was reinforced later by the collapse of the centrally planned economies.
It is well-known that Bangabandhu was quite welcoming to prominent intellectuals joining his party and becoming political ministers. Kamal Hossain is a prominent example. As Nurul Islam informs in detail in his Making of a Nation, Bangabandhu repeatedly urged him to become a political minister. We know that Islam declined the offer, because, in his words, he did not have the necessary "fire in the belly." Rehman Sobhan definitely did. He could not pursue the course, in part, because it would have required him "to become fluent in Bangla." As he puts it, "my failure to do so remains one of the most unforgivable mistakes in my life, and I have paid a heavy political price for my irresponsibility." Indeed, one wonders what a positive difference it would make for the nation if Rehman Sobhan had emerged as a political leader of Bangladesh.
Dr. S. Nazrul Islam is former Chief of Development Research, United Nations and Visiting Professor, Asian Growth Institute.