Recalling our first prime minister | The Daily Star
11:00 PM, July 22, 2009 / LAST MODIFIED: 11:00 PM, July 22, 2009

Recalling our first prime minister


Tajuddin Ahmed

THROUGHOUT 1971, Mr. Tajuddin Ahmed, the first prime minister of Bangladesh, led the war of liberation on behalf of the country's undisputed leader Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, then in Pakistani jail. The whole of the Bengali nation remained united and able to fight the unequal war with so much confidence and heroism only because it was led by someone like Tajuddin and his able comrades.
He led the war from a small office room no bigger than ten feet by ten feet with very modest furniture, a table, a few chairs, an iron chest, a steel cabinet, and, of course, a photograph of Sheikh Mujib hung on the wall in front of the desk. Indeed, Tajuddin never let us feel that he was leading the war all by himself. He always had Sheikh Mujib in spirit with him. Everything he did was on his behalf.
Once the die was formally cast in the early hours of March 26 by Bangabandhu, just before being arrested, Tajuddin assumed the leadership of the war of liberation as an almost natural continuation of his capable administration during the days of non-cooperation. Besides preparing and then presenting the proclamation of independence on April 10, 1971, and forming a small cabinet to run the government in exile, he also led the war with utmost commitment.
Unfortunately the complementary leadership between Tajuddin and Sheikh Mujib did not last long. Besides whispering by the Young Turks against Tajuddin's efficient leadership during the war, conspirators like Khandker Mushtaq and his gang were equally active in dividing the two. Finally, they were able to separate the two leaders and it was then quite easy to make the final onslaught on both Bangabandhu and Tajuddin and the other three senior members of the high command.
Had they all remained alive for some more years, Bangladesh would have surely prospered and started moving towards its ultimate goal of becoming Shonar Bangla. But destiny had other plans and we are still mired in failures and frustrations of paramount dimensions despite many signs of creativity by ordinary people in many areas. Had the country benefited from the committed leadership of the architects of the country, including Tajuddin, we would have perhaps by now reached the stage of development achieved by Malaysia.
What were the leadership qualities of Tajuddin? He was an intelligent person, and yet very close to the masses. Born in a middle-class rural family, he could feel the pulse of the peasants. At the same time, he studied economics and had acquired all the qualities of a modern intellect. His involvement in organisational activities gave him an extra edge over others in dealing with ordinary people as party workers, and at the same time running a multi-class party under the guidance of the charismatic leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Tajuddin was not a leader by chance. He systematically prepared himself day by day for leading the process of formation of a nation, along with his other political colleagues. All of them participated in the language movement during the early years of Pakistan and helped prepare the ground for germination of the seed of Bengali nationalism.
When he became the general secretary of Awami League in the sixties, he was able to articulate more clearly against the wrong kind of development policy followed by the then Pakistan. In one of his political speeches back on December 27, 1969, Tajuddin said 95 percent of the people of the country earned such a meagre income that they were not able to make both ends meet. He also emphasised that the monopoly and cartel promoted by Pakistan's ruling elites were pushing the country towards greater inequality and that the price of commodities was therefore increasing abnormally high.
That he was a great crusader against income inequality was vividly reflected in his first speech given to the nation as the first prime minister of independent Bangladesh. On April 11, 1971, he told the fighting nation: "Let there be a new world for the hungry and suffering millions of Bangladesh where there will be no scope of exploitation. Let us pledge for freedom from hunger, disease, unemployment, and illiteracy. Let 75 millions of brothers and sisters of Bangladesh engage themselves to realise their goals through their collective will and strength. Let there be a newly democratic society out of the blood and sweat of martyrs of new citizens of free Bangladesh."
He was fully confident about the outcome of the 1971 war. He said on April 17, 1971, after the swearing in ceremony of the cabinet, that the only goal of the struggle was to build a new and prosperous Bangladesh out of the ashes left behind by the occupying forces.
While it became clear that Bengalis were winning the war, he immediately started speaking about peace. On December 8, 1971, he said: "After winning the war, we will have to win peace as well. Shonar Bangla has to be erected on the ashes of a war-ravaged economy. All the sons and daughters of Bangladesh have to engage themselves in the joyous efforts of reconstruction and development."
And he did not wait a minute after returning to Bangladesh before moving fast to reconstruct the countryside and to wage a diplomatic war for the early release of Bangabandhu. He, of course, started sending useful directions to the administration even before coming to Dhaka from his Calcutta office.
On December 20, he already passed some orders encompassing stoppage of any financial transaction including revenue with Pakistan either through post-offices or banks. He also made it clear that Bangladesh would follow a self-reliant economic policy and avoid US aid.
As soon as he came to Dhaka, his first consideration was to improve the law and order through the help of Indian army. His next concern was how to bring back ten million refugees quickly and help them readjust. He then quickly moved into establishing bilateral economic and diplomatic ties with countries that recognised Bangladesh.
The cabinet came to Dhaka on December 22. On December 23, Prime Minister Tajuddin, in his first cabinet meeting in Dhaka made Bangla the state language. He also passed government decisions to provide salaries to government officials of up to Tk 1,000 as the highest ceiling, nationalisation of jute, textile mills, and tea gardens. He also ordered Bangladesh Bank to function as a central bank by December 1971.
Tajuddin always dreamt of a prosperous Bangladesh which was free from poverty, inequality, hunger, and foreign dependence. He indicated this bent of his mind through his various early actions as prime minister during the difficult days of post-independence. But his three budgets are even better testimonies of his pro-poor development thinking. His emphasis on improving the lot of the working class while formulating land and industrial policies was also very straight-forward.
His enemies, however, were able to create a distance between him and Bangabandhu under the pretext of events like price-hike, food insecurity, and economic "mismanagement" that were essentially by-products of a very unstable global economy following oil crisis and beyond the capacity of a finance minister.
Tajuddin resigned on October 26, 1974, at a time when the country was facing a very difficult time including a famine. Before resigning, he was, however, able to present his third budget and first Five-Year Plan. His thoughts of self-reliant development were adequately reflected in this plan. This plan envisaged the use of voluntary mobilisation of resources including the educated youths and students for poverty eradication through development of physical and human infrastructures.
The subsequent events, particularly the oil crisis, food shortage, deteriorating law and order, high inflation and all kinds of conspiracies, both within and outside Bangladesh, did not allow Tajuddin to stick to his guns and promote a nationally owned pro-poor development strategy.
His was an era of national assertion for self-development and poverty reduction. Destiny did not allow him to pursue this development policy of pro-poor growth. After many years of his departure from this world, we are once-again talking about "pro-poor growth" and "poverty reduction strategy." The difference is that this time it is being pushed by outsiders. Once again, we are talking about "nationally owned" development policy. Again, this slogan has not originated from within.
We can indeed learn a lot from the development thinking of Tajuddin if we genuinely want to go for a nationally owned pro-poor development policy in Bangladesh. Tajuddin Ahmad's life and actions can indeed be inspiring for the policy makers who are genuinely committed to establish the Shonar Bangla we all fought for.

Atiur Rahman is Governor, Bangladesh Bank.

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