The son of one of the largest landowners in Gazipur, Tajuddin Ahmad could have lived a life of carefree comfort. Instead, in 1971, with a lifetime of service and sacrifice already behind him, he found himself saddled with the extraordinary weight of revolutionary war on his shoulders as the first prime minister of the fledgling nation of Bangladesh.
With no clear directives from the larger-than-life leader Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and with an imminent military crackdown, the then General Secretary Tajuddin had come to terms with a few hard realities as he escaped with his life minutes before his home was raided.
Ever the pragmatist, he realised that West Pakistan's brutal suppression would continue unabated. A government was needed to legitimise and represent the cause and aspirations of the more than 70 million Bengalis living under subjugation. Ever the man of action, Tajuddin would cross the boarder into India and form Bangladesh's first ever government in Mujibnagar.
Tajuddin, who as a boy single handedly arranged for food and relief to victims of a cholera outbreak in his village, would come to oversee the relief efforts directed towards the millions of refugees pouring into India during the War of Independence. Tajuddin, who as a forthright young man challenged the anachronistic politics of the aristocratic elite in pre-partition Bengal with the guidance of Abul Hashim, would come to challenge in 1971 the machinations of a genocidal Pakistan military. Nurul Qader, who was charged as a roving ambassador with the unenviable task of reaching out to leaders for international recognition and support at the time, contends to this day that so capable was Tajuddin at running the wartime administration that, had it been anyone else at the helm, Bangladesh may never have won the war as quickly as it did or even achieved independence.
West Pakistan's Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, during the days of debate over Awami League's famous Six-Points programme, had cautioned those close to him to “watch out for Tajuddin.”
During the '71 war the United States' Nixon-Kissinger administration and CIA, while turning a blind eye to the ongoing genocide, had correctly assessed that Tajuddin's commitment to an independent Bangladesh could not be compromised.
They turned instead to Tajuddin's Foreign Minister Khondokar Moshtaque. Moshtaque began to push the notion that Tajuddin had to choose between either ensuring the safety of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman by dropping the fight for independence, or continuing the fight for independence whereby their party leader's life would be placed in jeopardy. Tajuddin retorted that the two aims were not mutually exclusive and that in fact the safety of their leader in Pakistan's captivity depended upon Bangladesh's success in its bid for independence.
Tajuddin's political acumen and foresight during turbulent times aside, the quieter moments really give us insight into the essence of the man's soul. The Theatre Road government headquarters would double as his office and makeshift home. He had sworn not to return to family life until the country was liberated to demonstrate solidarity with the men out on the battlefields. During an odd occasion when Tajuddin could not be found in his office, he was tracked down to the home of his office peon who had come down with a bad fever. Tajuddin was by his bed with a wet towel nursing him back to health. On another occasion Tajuddin would lose an entire night's sleep during a storm. His agitated heart bled that night for the refugees who had no shelter.
The sincerity and sheer grit of this man would see the nation through its most turbulent times into victory in 266 days. Shortly thereafter, Bangabandhu was released and returned. Tajuddin's jubilation, however, would soon be tempered by a lasting sadness. His plans to disarm, feed, educate, train, and employ the still impassioned freedom fighters in specially designed camps, to absorb them into a National Militia and government posts, and channel them towards reconstruction efforts were met with cool disinterest. Nor was he queried as to his war efforts.
Bangabandhu and Tajuddin had been inseparable as a pair as they rose together to the helm of Awami League's leadership through the Six-Point movement. After the war, while their personal friendship remained, the political rift between them would deepen. While his keen intellect secured him praise for being "the best finance minister in the world" by the World Bank president, despite Tajuddin's aversion to such lending agencies, he would become sidelined at home. Moshtaque and the faction of young student leaders who caused Tajuddin grief during the war were taken into Bangabandhu's confidence and trust.
Against a backdrop of increasing cronyism, decay in law and order, and plans to increase state power, Tajuddin finally resigned from the cabinet in October 1974, paving the way for Henry Kissinger to visit Bangladesh a few days later for the first time since its independence. As a dear friend, Tajuddin would continue to prognosticate to Bangabandhu of the dark days that lay ahead and warn him to be on the lookout for army plots.
Less than a year later Moshtaque would succeed in carrying out the assassination of Bangabandhu with military help. Tajuddin was placed under house arrest and later jailed along with three of his colleagues from the Mujibnagar government. Tajuddin Ahmad, along with his colleagues, was shot to death shortly after performing ritual ablution in the early morning hours of November 3, 1975, on the orders of President Khondokar Moshtaque.
The lives of men like Tajuddin, who toiled for their fellow man with nary a thought of receiving adulation, deserve reflection. His legacy entails standing up to friend, foe, party or even the entire world when principles are at stake. He saved potentially millions from genocide that could have lasted years, and helped establish a much needed political identity for his people. His legacy is one from which every one of us can derive hope as Tajuddin's narrative is a testament to the inner strength we all have lying within to make even mountains move.
The writer is grandson of Tajuddin Ahmad.