Kamruddin Ahmad | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 06, 2015 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:53 AM, March 08, 2015

Kamruddin Ahmad

Kamruddin Ahmad

Contra commemoration

It’s more than thirty years since Kamruddin Ahmad (1912-1982) died, and apparently forgotten by all except perhaps a few. For some of us for that matter it has not been easy to forget him either. The thirty-second anniversary of his death (February 6) is perhaps a good excuse to spell out why we find it so hard to set him aside. Clues to the political impasse in Bangladesh today, we would suggest, are to be found scattered like seeds in a field left behind by this passionate man, though now sadly lying fallow.

Kamruddin Ahmad, contrary to his own protestation, was a pioneer among our historians of the ruling class, or 'Muslim middle classes' as it is more often dubbed. In one of the prefaces to his magnum opus A Social History of Bengal (3rd ed., 1970), Kamruddin Ahmad declares: “This book is, by and large, a history of the struggle and rise of Muslim middle class intelligentsia.” It is, as we will see, a trifle more than that truism.

Kamruddin Ahmad came from a Muslim landed family from Bikrampur, Dhaka, who had enjoyed the patronage of the Mughal emperors since the days of Jahangir, but he also enjoyed reckoning himself a member of the middle class. He read English and law at the new Dhaka University in the 1930s and 1940s, and supported the Muslim League. After 1947, he made a common cause with the Awami League and in a while left it to join diplomatic services. After a stint as Pakistan's deputy high commissioner in Calcutta and then as ambassador in Myanmar he retired. He practiced law from 1962 and had also been active as a trade unionist. In other words, he was not involved in politics as a vocation.

So when the Pakistan army launched its mission of conquest in Bangladesh in March, 1971, Kamruddin Ahmad thought he was at an advantage. “The Pakistan Army,” he observes rightly, “made their initial mistake by making the police their target because without police help they could not identify who was an Awami Leaguer or a political force to be reckoned with.” They had then to settle in the end for published reports in newspapers to identify the people who issued statements or whose pictures came out in the press. Kamruddin Ahmad, in his own words, “had clear advantage in this respect, he had not issued any signed statement since his return since his return from foreign assignment in 1962 on any issue and had not joined any political party.”

His hopes in the event proved simply illusory. “By the last week of August,” he was almost convinced that he was not in danger because Tikka Khan was to be replaced by Dr. A.M. Malik, a turn of events described as a step to civil government. One fine day, he found himself in the Martial Law headquarters of Dhaka Zone. As perhaps a consolation he found himself in the company of Sardar Fazlul Karim too sitting in the military jeep by some army personnel. They both were as a matter of fact coupled with the same handcuff.

The man, Kamruddin Ahmad, nevertheless attained some notoriety as a social actor or a writer at any rate in his last incarnation too. To wit, until his book was published in 1967, as The Social History of East Pakistan first and then in 1970 as A Social History of Bengal, almost all books on Muslim middle classes were written either from the Muslim League (i.e. a communal) point of view or from that of the 'nationalist' Muslims of India and the Hindu historians who invariably failed to appreciate the 'feelings' of the Muslim middle classes or 'the bourgeoisie' if you will.

That Kamruddin Ahmad's book, a treatise on social history of mostly modern Bengal, which together with his autobiography in three volumes, may be labeled his magnum opus, aroused the ire of the ruling classes of Pakistan should be no surprise, given the level of intellectual development in Pakistan. An incident related by Kamruddin Ahmad illustrates the situation well. On November 21, 1969, a notice was served on his publisher asking her to show cause to the government as to why the book should not be forfeited. After a couple of months, however, in the author's words 'good sense prevailed' and the government by a communiqué withdrew the order.

It is interesting to see if the order was called for. Kamruddin Ahmad locates, rather courageously, the birth of Bangladesh's present day ruling classes, warts and all, in 1911. “The Muslim (masses) in Bengal,” he writes, “passed through a dark period of history until the annulment of the partition of Bengal as a result of which a great social change came among them.” “Fascination for aristocratic leaders,” in his view, “gradually dwindled away and the middle class leadership began to occupy the political scene.”

“The creation of new Bengal in 1911 as a Muslim majority province,” Kamruddin Ahmad adds, “contributed to the rise of Muslim middle class intelligentsia in the province under the leadership of A.K. Fazlul Huq, an advocate by profession.” Fazlul Huq, according to Kamruddin Ahmad, for “all his faults and contradictions in political life,” alone inspired the Muslim masses. “He fought against the landlords of Bengal who were mostly Hindus and was greatly responsible for creating political and social consciousness among the common men.”

Kamruddin Ahmad also makes it a point to make it plain why, in the long run, Fazlul Huq too failed to deliver. Fazlul Huq, according to our author, “could not withstand the onslaughts of new mercantile capitalists of Calcutta.” They hounded him out of the political arena in 1941 and drove him to a political exile of sorts in which enterprise they were copiously aided by All India Muslim leaders, i.e. leaders of other provinces. Until 1954, when the United Front defeated the Muslim League, Fazlul Huq had to perforce remain there, in wilderness. Muslim League after all was the party of the mercantile and industrial capitalists. Unfortunately by then the old tiger was no more his good old self, that 'idol of Muslim Bengal' of 1920s and 1930s.

A second thesis of Kamruddin Ahmad's also goes against the grain today. It too is perhaps part of the reason why he is not too warmly if at all remembered in the orthodox circles. For Kamruddin Ahmad, the demand for Pakistan was in the beginning not a 'communal movement' at all, though it eventually became one. “The Pakistan movement,” he writes, “was a movement of the Muslim middle class(es) against Hindu middle class(es). (The) Muslims wanted improved opportunities of employment in government, commerce, trade and industry.” “The Pakistan movement was intended to be a democratic national movement,” argues Kamruddin Ahmad, but, he adds, “it took the shape of a communal movement because the reactionary Hindu press used religion to frustrate the secular side of the movement.” In support of his argument he cites the fact that orthodox Muslim organisations, such as Jamiaat-e Ulama-e Hind and Majlis-e Ahrar, “bitterly opposed Pakistan movement. They declared that Jinnah, a westernised Shia could not lead the Muslims of India who were predominantly Sunni. The Muslim League, therefore, remained till the partition a preeminently Muslim middle class political organisation.”

The outcome, as all know today, is legion. In the last days of colonial rule a Cabinet Mission visited India early in 1946. It conducted long and painful consultations with all concerned but could not come to a conclusion, accepting the idea of two entirely sovereign states in the wake of decolonisation. They proposed, instead, the idea of grouping certain provinces together with limited powers and that to be made effective for a transitional period only. One of the factors which resisted their reconciliation to the idea of Pakistan, as Kamruddin Ahmad mentions, was the geography; namely the fact 'that the two halves of Pakistan State were to be separated by some seven hundred miles and communications between them both in war and peace would be dependent on the will of Hindustan.' The other was the sheer absurdity of partition itself. “The Pakistan demanded by the Muslim League would contain a non-Muslim minority of 37% in the West and 48% in the East.”

Both Congress and the Muslim League accepted the proposal of the Cabinet Mission as a basis for settlement, but rancour soon revived over a press conference addressed by the Congress President Nehru in Bombay on July 10. He said as reported: “Congress would enter the Constituent Assembly completely unfettered by agreements and free to meet all situations as they arise. Congress had agreed only to participate in the Constituent Assembly and considered itself free to change or modify the Cabinet Mission plan as it thought best.”

On account of this the Muslim League withdrew its acceptance of the Cabinet Mission plan on July 29 and declared August 16 as a “Direct Action” day, for whatever it implied. On the day, the Congress and Hindu Mahasabha extremists unleashed a communal riot unprecedented in recent history. In the ensuing mayhem, in the estimate of Lord Pethic-Lawrence, member of the Cabinet Mission, there were some five thousand dead and fifteen thousand injured in the first four days in Calcutta riots, making it 'the blackest chapter of the history of the sub-continent' before 1971. Two consequences followed. The communal riots left, on the one hand, the left political forces alone and the reactionary right elements assumed leadership in both Hindu and Muslim communities. Partition of not India alone but of Bengal and Punjab was by then a foregone conclusion.

For the middle classes, mostly Muslim, in East Bengal the struggle however took a new turn in 1947, and it culminated in the War of Liberation in 1971. People of East Bengal, as Kamruddin Ahmad aptly notes, seldom made a mistake since 1937. Muslim League bagged 96.6% of parliamentary seats in 1945-46 as did the United Front their 97% in 1954. True to the tradition, the Awami League too made it with 167 seats out of 169 in 1970-71. It took even the winners by surprise.

It was a coup de grace for many. Kamruddin Ahmad recalls not without a little pleasure, a discussion over dinner which Dr. Kamal Hussain and himself had with some foreign dignitaries, including the British High Commissioner in Pakistan, at the house of one S.K. Lakha right before the parliamentary elections in 1970. “I was surprised,” Kamruddin Ahmad writes, referring to his host, “to find the lack of his understanding of the aspirations of the people of East Bengal. He was convinced that the Pakistan Democratic Party was sure to win at least 40% seats another 20% seats by two Muslim Leagues and Jamaati Islami.”  Awami League, that gentleman thought, could get about40%. “He could not believe,” Kamruddin Ahmad remarks, “that the people of East Pakistan, who were predominantly Muslims, could be inspired by the secular ideal of national patriotism.”

Equally surprised were the leaders of the Pakistan army. By mid-January 1971 they decided their course of action and found a willing instrument in Bhutto, who won the majority of seats in Punjab and Sind provinces of West Pakistan. They waited on a few weeks before unleashed it all on its protectorate. International forces became involved, as a matter of course. Kamruddin Ahmad is at pains to explain the position of China, for instance. Referring to a letter of his son's from the front, he writes: “In course of his analysis he says that China had informed the groups led by pro-Peking boys that she supported the liberation movement but what she did not want was the victory of the Awami League bourgeois leadership. China was interested, therefore, in protracted warfare on the calculation that the leadership would pass into radical hands. Pro-Peking workers agreed with Chinese views.”

Archer K. Blood, the US Consul in Dhaka, one day surprised all by calling on Kamruddin Ahmad before he left the city. He explained his differences with the US Ambassador Farland. In fact, as he told Kamruddin Ahmad, his views were diametrically opposed to those of Ambassador Farland's. Farland had a strong personal dislike of Sheikh Mujib, whereas not only Blood himself but his wife too harboured a moral empathy to the cause of Bangladesh. Since March 25, Kamruddin Ahmad incidentally notes, Mrs. Blood began to put on black and she continued doing so until her departure.

Kamruddin Ahmad is a witness, a man of great introspection. He is a historian who writes in full spotlight of the other's gaze. “A man who was himself involved in the political turmoil for more than a quarter of a century,” he admits, “cannot pretend to be aloof.” He nevertheless betroths objectivity of sorts: “I have, however, tied to be as objective as possible because I am conscious that I might become a source for future historians.” It's not too much to say that he partly succeeded.

In May 1971 one of his sons, the youngest one belonging to one of the Communist Party groups, left home for the guerilla bands fighting for the cause of the nation and the Pakistan army arrested him in October. He was kept in jail till the liberation of the country. He was released on December 17, the morning after the Pakistan Armed Forces surrendered.

The writer is Professor, General Education Department, ULAB.

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