Tajuddin Ahmad's moment of glory came through the rattle of Pakistani gunfire in March 1971. The saddest part of his brief life was arrived at in the few minutes the men who had only months earlier murdered Bangabondhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman took to pump their bullets into his heart and in the hearts of three of his political fellow travellers in the darkness of incarceration. He was a mere 50 when he died. Yet in those five brief decades of his life, Tajuddin Ahmad achieved a feat rare in the history of political men. He rose to the peaks of leadership in the brilliance emitted by Bangabondhu and remained there till almost the very end. In between, he managed to pull off what was certainly the most significant success for the Bengali nation, which was the formation of the very first Bengali government in history and the liberation of Bangladesh.
In recent years, a necessary revival of interest in the life and career of Tajuddin Ahmad has served to add the missing links to Bangladesh's national history. Much of the revival is again a result of the strenuous efforts put into the story of the wartime leader by his daughter Simeen Hussain Rimi. She has been instrumental in having Tajuddin's diaries transcribed in Bangla and published in immaculate form. She has, in effect, been doing work that ought to have been done by historians, indeed by the Awami League of which he remains a paramount historical point of reference. Beyond Moyeedul Hasan's Muldhara '71 and Faruk Aziz Khan's Spring 1971, not much has emerged to expand on the contributions Tajuddin Ahmad made to history in South Asia, indeed around the globe. Rimi has served as the driving force behind an anthology of essays on Bangladesh's first prime minister and has, additionally, come forth with a moving work of her own on her father. It is a touching tribute to the humble man who has, especially since his assassination in 1975, become an icon for students of history.
Now that Simeen Hussain Rimi has, with the history-driven Tanvir Mokammel, emerged with a biopic on Tajuddin Ahmad, a certain new intensity has come into the job of retrieving the late leader from the shadows and offering his legacy anew to a nation that might well have been blown off course had he not been around to take charge. Back in March 1971, the risk for Bengalis was double-edged. On the one hand, there was the spectacle of a captive Bangabondhu. On the other, there was no clear sign of anyone else in the Awami League hierarchy, at least up to that point, taking control and reassuring the country that everything was on course, or soon would be. The call of duty was one that Tajuddin Ahmad heard loud and clear. By the time he found himself on Indian soil, he knew that exile, his and that of everyone else in those times of horror, would need to be purposeful. He lost little time in meeting Indira Gandhi and setting out before her his plans of freeing Bangladesh of its murderous Pakistani presence.
Tajuddin Ahmed: Nishongo Sharothi (Tajuddin Ahmad: An Unsung Hero) is in broad measure the tale of a man who consciously abjured the limelight. He was clearly not happy at being relegated to the job of finance minister once Bangabondhu took charge as prime minister, but his acute sense of loyalty precluded demonstrating any hint of his displeasure. Discipline was a lesson he had learned early on in life. He was not inclined to verbosity. He was not an orator. It was his organisational abilities which complemented the inspirational leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. These two men, more than all those others in the party, were the reason why Bangladesh needed to be. On their watch in the early 1960s were the Six Points formulated. In early March 1971, as Yahya Khan and ZA Bhutto resorted to chicanery, it was elemental Mujib-Tajuddin strength that kept them at bay, until they let loose the dogs of war.
And yet, somewhere between cobbling the Mujibnagar government into shape in 1971 and making his way out of government in 1974, Tajuddin became a lonely traveller. Sheikh Fazlul Haq Moni and his band of Mujib loyalists took it upon themselves to undermine the nation's first prime minister even as he defined military strategy for a nation at war. There were other troubles as well. Tajuddin had constantly to look back, behind his shoulder, for there was a smell of conspiracy in Khondokar Moshtaque. Tajuddin's loneliness took on newer dimensions in early 1972. The men who had never forgiven him for taking control of the liberation struggle now drove a wedge between him and his leader. Bangabondhu never sought to know from Tajuddin how he had organised the armed struggle. It seared the soul in the battlefield leader to know that the Father of the Nation had little time for him. Worse was his feeling that Bangabondhu had opted for a definitive shift in foreign policy. A clear trend towards developing ties with the United States and towards closer association with donor institutions such as the World Bank left Tajuddin perturbed. He had studiously ignored Robert McNamara in Delhi in early 1972. And yet it was to McNamara he turned to in 1974, a time when famine stalked the land and socialism did not appear to hold out much promise for Bangladesh.
There was something of the abrupt about Tajuddin's departure from government. Mokammel tells the story of how the shrewd politician in Tajuddin refused to quit on his own and thereby embarrass Bangabondhu, with whom he had already gone through a divergence of views. He waited for Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to ask him to leave. On a day in late October, the call came from the Father of the Nation. Tajuddin Ahmed was as good as his word. He left quietly. Between that low point in his life and the end of life itself, he would lapse into silence. The assault on pluralist democracy, through the rise of the one-party BAKSAL system of government in January 1975, appalled him. It was the statesman in him that informed him of the tragedy ahead. Bangabondhu would destroy himself, he reasoned. And with Bangabondhu gone, Tajuddin and everyone else would be pushed towards doom. And that was precisely the way things happened. As he went down the stairway of his residence in August 1975, a man in army custody, Tajuddin told his wife he might be going away forever. He was to return in November, shot and bayoneted to an ugly death.
An Unsung Hero recaptures the quiet legend of the man that was Tajuddin Ahmad. It is a warning that airbrushing him, or individuals like him, out of history is inevitably fraught with danger. Tajuddin was the one man who led the nation, through danger, to freedom. But danger lurked once again when he and Bangabondhu fell out in 1974. It assumed a darker, sinister shape in the nocturnal hours of 3 November 1975.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.