Can journalists be activists? This is perhaps the most troubling question every journalist has to confront while dealing with issues of public interest. Journalism is about assembling and verifying facts, and conveying fair and accurate accounts. But it is also about speaking for the people who do not have a voice. And many of our predecessors, in both pre- and post-independence Bangladesh, came to journalism to do just that. It was something like a mission of their life. Their publications too had socio-political agenda. Sadly, such activism has increasingly become partisan and now it's driven mostly by narrow self-interests rather than the greater good.
Syed Abul Maksud, who died on February 23, 2021, was an exception—a true activist-journalist. Perhaps, with his demise we may see an end of activist journalism.
His distinct attire, with two pieces of unstitched white cloth, too was a symbol of his activism which he carried out both through his pen and by taking to the streets. A video clip posted on Facebook by journalist Sharifuzzaman after Abul Maksud's death shows his body, draped in white sheets on a trolley, being taken out from Square Hospital—an apt reminder of the life of an activist without any stain. He ditched his regular outfits in 2004 in protest of the US invasion of Iraq. Many people then wondered whether anyone in the United States would even notice his protest, but his resolve remained unshaken. His newspaper columns had a large following, making his voice a powerful one, but his physical participation in protests was no less powerful.
He was always on the side of the oppressed and victims of injustice. He joined them in all corners of the country. Sometimes he was the lone voice, the initiator. In 2011, he staged a solo sit-in on the Shaheed Minar premises on Eid day demanding safer roads, after the tragic deaths of noted director Tareque Masud and media personality Mishuk Munier in a road accident in Manikganj.
Since his death was announced on Tuesday, a picture of him holding a large padlock inscribed with the message—"Do not close down Adamjee Jute Mills"—has been circulating on social media. But it was a partial depiction of his commitment and support to protecting the nationalised jute and textile mills and their workers. He walked with marchers for the cause of saving the Sundarbans. He rushed to stand by the victims of communal riots in Ramu, Cox's Bazar. Now that he is no more, his absence will be felt by activists in each and every social movement in the country.
He also landed in trouble with the higher judiciary for his activism. His statement on preserving religious sites at Mahasthangarh was suspected as a conspiracy against the government, and the then registrar was asked to lodge a criminal case against him. He was a pacifist and follower of Gandhi's tradition of non-violent activism. Many people mistook him as a Gandhian for his two-piece white cloth which was somewhat similar to Gandhi's. But he was a Gandhian not in attire but in philosophical following. He was also a director of the Gandhi Ashram Trust.
My personal interactions with Maksud Bhai date back only a decade, since my association with Prothom Alo, where he had been a contributor since its inception. It was a column he wrote for Prothom Alo that irked the then BNP government, leading him to quit his job at the state-owned news agency, Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha (BSS). Since then, he continued to write for Prothom Alo, and his last published column was one in which he argued why revoking BNP founder Ziaur Rahman's Bir Uttam title would be a mistake. It was indeed a testimony to his ability to rise above political bias and personal grievances.
Maksud Bhai used to write in the traditional mode of pen and paper. So, he would frequent the Prothom Alo office to help compose and proofread his manuscripts. It was next to my office room at the second floor of CA Bhaban, the previous address of the newspaper. Most of the time I was a keen listener and he spoke about current affairs of the state. Occasionally, he would call me in the morning when I was still in bed. Those calls were mostly about expressing his frustration over what was not in the day's papers and what they didn't report due to either self-censorship or partisanship of the owners of mainstream media.
I was one of his millions of avid readers. His style of writing was quite different from others on at least two counts. First, it had humour that hit hard the establishment. Secondly, his writings were full of historical accounts of the subcontinent. It was very enlightening. But when he was writing books, he was no longer a journalist, but a researcher. His books on Maulana Bhashani, Dhaka University, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Syed Waliullah, Buddhadeb Basu, Nawab Salimullah and poet Govinda Das are results of painstaking research which is an essential trait of any academic. Noted economist Professor Wahiduddin Mahmud wrote on Facebook that Abul Maksud was his classmate. But Maksud seemed to have chosen different avenues of research than his subject. Political history, philosophy and literature dominated his world.
His biographical publications on Maulana Bhashani are undoubtedly his most valuable contribution to our national history. His book on Kagmari Conference, published in October 2017, narrates some fascinating and hitherto-unknown stories. It quotes novelist Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay, who attended the Kagmari Conference in 1957, as saying that one day while walking through a village, Maulana told him that the eastern wing would secede from West Pakistan within 12 years. Tarashankar conveyed this assessment of Maulana to Annadashankar Roy and Prime Minister Nehru in a personal letter. Maksud wrote that Annadashankar had warned Tarashankar not to disclose it to anyone else, saying it would cost Maulana his life. Kagmari was the place where Maulana first publicly issued his famous warning that East Pakistan would be forced to say Assalamu Alaikum (meaning goodbye) to West Pakistan if discrimination and exploitation weren't ended. Maksud wrote that Maulana's prophecy of Bangladesh becoming an independent nation came true within 14 years.
The year 2021 is a time when we are celebrating the golden jubilee of our independence and the centenary of the country's premiere educational institution, Dhaka University. It is an irony that one of the most revered researchers of our country, who chronicled with diligence the history of both our independence war and the University of Dhaka, will not be with us in person in those celebrations. But his work and legacy will.
Kamal Ahmed is an independent journalist based in London, UK.