Akhtar Hameed Khan's life blossomed in phases, going through several transitions to shape the empathetic man that everyone knows.
Born in 1914 in undivided India, Khan admired German philosopher Nietzsche in his early life, as he aspired to be a someone who goes beyond conventional good and evil, self-restraint, humanity and compassion.
After completing his university education, Akhtar Hameed Khan (PhD) joined the Indian Civil Service (ICS), the most prestigious job in British India. He began his life as a civil servant at the Comilla Collectorate School and College in 1938. Curiously enough, destiny brought him back to Comilla after 12 years to begin his second career as the Principal of the Comilla Victoria College in 1950, and later as Director of the Comilla Academy in 1959.
Khan, a well-read person, acquired knowledge on various disciplines and devoted his knowledge towards social change for emancipation of common people. His innovative ideas were cradled by his integrity and moral values.
As an officer of the ICS, Khan had power and authority, and he also had seen the abuse of power and misuse of authority. He saw the famine of 1943 in India. Since then, he thought of doing something for the poor and by the poor. The World War II experience shocked him. He saw the atrocities of the British rule and the suffering of poor people during the famine created by the imperial power. As he believed that he could not be of fruitful service to the people for whom he was engaged, he resigned from imperial service in 1945. After his resignation from the prestigious ICS, he was able to totally surrender his body and mind to the service of the common people.
After resigning from the ICS, Akhtar Hameed spent around two years in the village of Mamolla near Aligarh. There he lived like a pauper. His wife and he rented a small house in the village along with a herd of livestock, living like any other poor peasant family. When living like that did not fulfill their needs, Khan worked as a day labourer, a printing press worker and even as a locksmith apprentice. After the partition in 1947, he migrated to Karachi to begin a new life.
Because of his past links with the ICS, Akhtar Hameed Khan was able to quickly find a job at the Comilla Victoria College as its principal. He remained at Victoria College until 1958, taking a break in 1954-55, when he was on deputation as Director of the Village Agriculture Industrial Development(VAID) programme. His eight years as principal of the college was memorable for a number of significant events.
In the 1960s, when food shortage was acute in the country and could only be tackled through modernising agriculture with the help of a structurally sound rural development programme, Khan began his journey in rural development as the director of the Bangladesh Academy for Rural Development (BARD). He took multidimensional efforts, focusing on three critical areas of development – administrative infrastructure, physical infrastructure, and socio-economic infrastructure.
The Academy under the leadership of Akhtar Hameed Khan took up projects like the organisation of village-based cooperative societies, training of village Imams and popularising the use of contraceptive methods, the implementation of which would open up opportunities for progressive attitudes, ignoring orthodox traditions.
Throughout his life, Khan was occupied by the demise of his mother as he wrote in his biography, “At the age of fourteen, she was married to my father, who was a police sub-inspector. After begetting and nursing six children in eleven years, she lost her health. But when a seventh child was born, my mother became a full-fledged tuberculosis patient, suffered terribly for six years, and died in 1932. She was then 36 years old”. The tragedy of losing his mother at such a young age probably led him to launch the programme for women in 1960, which promoted the emancipation of women, and focused on their health and literacy through training. The sufferings of aristocrat Muslim women, like his mother, provided Akhtar Hameed Khan the drive to fight for the rights of women. He introduced family planning programmes in the Comilla Pilot Project area to prevent untimely deaths of mothers.
Akhtar Hameed had high esteem and confidence in the entrepreneurship skills and capabilities of women. He writes in his biography, “In the realm of economics, faith assumes the shape of enterprise, the exercise of initiative, taking of risks, facing hardship, suffering losses and making gains. Long ago, I read the proverb that faith moves mountains. In the course of association with the common people, I have seen with my own eyes what the spirit of enterprise can accomplish.”
Having looked at Akhtar Hameed's life, we see that he started his journey towards enlightenment through Nietzsche but finally adopted Rumi's Sufism. He realised that egoism or idealism could not solve human problems and sufferings but practical actions could.
Akhtar Hameed Khan died of myocardial infarction on October 9, 1999 in the US at the age of 85. He was buried in Karachi on October 15.
Social entrepreneurs invent new ideas, approaches and models to create and procreate wealth, to promote social wellbeing and to remove socio-economic ills. Akhtar Hameed Khan played his role diligently to achieve these goals as the undisputed pioneer of social entrepreneurship. We can only hope that youngsters of the country are influenced by the values of this legendary figure and serve disadvantaged people living in rural areas of Bangladesh with humility and a sense of justice.
The writer is former chairman, Jubok Commission.