March, the month we just passed, is a very important month for the Bengali nation. Especially, in the year 2021, the significance of the month of March has reached extraordinary levels in the national and historic perspective. Due to this phenomena, many memorable events often stay hidden in the shadows, and get less priority. Amid all these memorable events, one man's memory is very much alive in my mind due to reasons that will become obvious for its significance, which compels me to write this article. That memorable person is the late Mahbub Anam, whom I have always called Mahbub Bhai.
The Language Movement sowed the seeds of the Liberation War, and paved the way for our independence. Mahbub Bhai's direct involvement in the Language Movement, and the limited leadership role that he played during that time, had an exceptional impact. That is why I have mentioned that there are significant reasons behind remembering his life and work.
Mahbub Anam was born in an educated and enlightened family of Mymensingh, on March 28, 1931. The British Empire's sun was nowhere near setting, and the government still had a firm control over the Indian subcontinent. Although the non-cooperation and Khelafat movement and some minor rebellious acts may have initiated India's independent struggle, the centre of power was still in London, where the possibility of an independent Indian subcontinent was beginning to be discussed at the roundtables being held there. At the same time, the whole world was enshrouded in the dark shadows of an economic depression.
It is with these national and international perspectives that Mahbub Bhai's educational life started in the then capital of Bengal, Calcutta, now Kolkata. His father, late Abul Mansur Ahmad, was a famous journalist, litterateur and politician. He was already a well-established editor and writer. In the mid-forties, he launched the Kolkata based influential newspaper the Daily Ittehad as its editor. The author of Food Conference, Abul Mansur Ahmad can be termed as one of the forerunners and among the most powerful satirical writers in Bengali literature. He was a firm believer of secular and democratic politics. He was a top level leader of Awami League and a powerful central minister of Pakistan during the Shaheed Suhrawardy government in 1956-57. His wife Akikunnesa Ahmad was also a highly educated literary person. Her writings, Adhunika Stree (The Modern Wife) and Adhunik Shwami (The Modern Husband) created waves among Bengali readers, especially women. Mahbub Bhai was born and brought up in this enlightened family environment.
After completing his school life, he studied at the Ananda Mohan College of Mymensingh, and became the general secretary of the college's student union and also the general secretary of the Mymensingh district Chhatra League in 1952-53. My father was transferred to Mymensingh, and I also became a student of Mymensingh Zilla school; transferring from Saint Gregory's school of Dhaka. I remember, as I was on the list of top 10 meritorious students (we would call the feat "stand" back then), Mahbub Bhai told me that "You have broken the age old intellectual barrier of the Zilla school by procuring a place among the top 10 students. Congratulations to you." He was a contemporary of my elder brother late Faruq Choudhury (an author and a diplomat), and they had a deep friendship. He mentioned in his autobiography Jiboner Baluka Belay how he and his three other classmates and friends from University of Dhaka went to Kolkata as part of "efforts for improving Indo-Pak relations". Faruq Choudhury described the "mission" with his natural humour-filled linguistic tone in the book's 55th and 56th pages. The leader of the team was Mahbub Anam. Faruq Choudhury wrote:
"As far as I remember, we arrived at a college cultural programme, which was meant to improve Indo-Pak relations. Mahbub mentioned that he knows the editor of Satyayuga magazine, who was his father's friend. We four friends landed up at the office of Satyayuga. There, Mahbub Anam gave a short interview regarding the objectives of our "highly important" Kolkata journey. The year was 1954, and lots of activities were going on for the polls in the then East Pakistan. At this critical juncture, Satyayuga printed "Answering a question regarding the East-Pakistan polls, the leader of the team, Mahbub Anam mentioned that United Front, the opposing party of the ruling Muslim League, is steadily gathering strength"."
Later, during the general elections (1954), Mahbub Bhai was appointed the acting publicity secretary of United Front on behalf of the Awami League. Later on, he became an elected parliament member during the sixth general elections. He also successfully completed his MA degree in philosophy from the University of Dhaka.
Mahbub Bhai was a brother-figure to me, and I received a lot of motivation and encouragement from him while he was staying in Mymensingh. One of my friends (DA Rashid) and I published a short story collection for the youth, which was titled Notun Chobi (A New Image). Apart from close relatives who felt morally obliged, only a few people paid money to buy that book. Among them, two names are still written in my diary. One of them was the young lawyer Mr Sultan (who later became the first high commissioner of independent Bangladesh to the UK), and the other person was Mahbub Bhai. While I was still a school student, Rashid and I became the editors for a monthly youth magazine named Provati, but the publication had to be stopped after two editions. In that publication, very few patrons were included in the list of recipients of the "complimentary copy", among whom were Rashid's hometown Dhonbari's Nawabzada Hasan Ali Chowdhury, and Mahbub Bhai, for the supporting role he played in the publication of Mymensingh's Chaader Haat (introduced by Monthly Minaar). I remember, Mymensingh had a very lively cultural environment at that time, and Mahbub Bhai played a key role in its creation.
In 1954, Mahbub Bhai became the general secretary, by defeating a powerful opponent named Khorshed Alam (bhai), at the University of Dhaka's Salimullah Muslim Hall's student union elections. Khorshed Alam Bhai (a future CSP officer, finance secretary and the governor of Bangladesh Bank) was a brilliant student who earned distinctions in both Matric and IA examinations. He was also a columnist. Mahbub Bhai, a candidate of a Chhatra League supported platform called Oikkodoot, became the sole winner from his platform. The other winners standing from the Chattra Union-supported platform Democratic Jukto Front (United Front) were AMA Muhit (Bhai), the vice president, who in his later life became a CSP, a lucid writer, the finance minister and a politician, and myself, elected as the joint secretary.
As far as I can remember, apart from Mahbub Bhai, all other positions were filled by Democratic United Front candidates. This clearly showed the impressive personal characteristics and immense popularity of Mahbub Bhai. In the activities of our student cabinet, we always maintained a cordial and friendly environment, and we worked effectively as a team. I remember, at the very end of our term, we came to the decision that improving the quality of the lunch and dinner meals served in the dining room had become a dire necessity. However, in order to do so, it became imperative to increase the mess charge of the residential students by at least five Taka (Rupees, at that time) per month; from the existing charge of Rs 30 or 35. We came to the consensus that we will treat this as a "money bill" and raise it during a meeting called for the residential and general students. We went ahead with the plan, but the motion was defeated by a small margin of opposing votes.
As we were firm believers of democratic rules and practices, and as our "finance bill" was rejected by the voters, we decided that the "Muhit-Anam" cabinet, along with the other members, should resign. Mahbub Bhai took a lot of initiatives regarding this matter. I remember, Muhit Bhai, Mahbub Bhai and I submitted, in person, our resignation letters to the student union chairperson, and Provost Dr MA Gani. The usual authoritative figure, Dr MA Gani, gave us a disbelieving look. Then he received the signed resignation letters, but informed us that "Your resignation cannot be accepted as of now. You should continue your work." Needless to say, we managed to complete our remaining term of approximately one and a half months with ease. During Muhit Bhai's tenure as the finance minister, I once mentioned this story to cite as an example of how a democratic process can be followed. The recollection created a humorous effect on the discussion. However, when we originally submitted the resignation letters, we were dead serious.
As a young student, Mahbub Bhai always maintained an air of leadership, and in 1950-51, he became the student union secretary and the magazine editor of the Kolkata Islamia College (Currently Maulana Azad College). During his school days (at the Kolkata Aliya Madrasa's English Department), he took part in some student activities. In Kolkata, he was jailed for the first time for taking part in the movement to free captain Rashid Ali on "Rashid Ali Day". Mahbub Bhai was also a highly involved and dynamic activist of the Language Movement. He was jailed in 1952 as the general secretary of "Mymensingh Zilla Tamaddun Majlish" and joint secretary for the "Rastrobhasha Songgram Porishod". He was again jailed for taking part in the Language Movement as the general secretary of SM Hall. Later on, the government honoured him by awarding him the "Brave Soldier of the Language Movement" medal in 1980. Tamaddun Majlish also adorned him with the posthumous "Mother Language medal".
Mahbub Anam was a well-known journalist, political commentator, columnist and an author. He was the editor of one the country's oldest, major English newspapers, the Bangladesh Times. During his long career, he successfully adorned different roles, and developed a strong reputation in each of them. He worked as a senior executive in the former Pakistan Observer and was a member of the Bangladesh Newspaper Council, Press Council, the board of directors of Bangladesh Shongbad Shongstha (BSS), the Bangladesh film censor board, the special committee for Bangladesh public library, the publication wing of Shilpakala Academy and also, as the senior co-chairman and executive member of the Bangladesh Editor's Council, etc.
His was a strong presence in literary and cultural fields. His works include Amra Bangladeshi, Amra Bangali and Itihasher Shikriti Bonam Bikriti. Additionally, he also worked as the secretary of Bangladesh Sahityo-Shongskriti Kendro.
He was awarded the Swadhinata Padak (Independence Award) for his unique contributions in the professional and cultural arena. He also received other prizes and medals like the Sher-e-Bangla gold medal, Maulana Akram Khan gold medal, etc.
In his later life, he also earned a very good reputation for skilfully running the Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation as a director. His last significant professional task was as the editor of The Bangladesh Times.
In a nutshell, we can say that our favourite Mahbub Anam Bhai was a multitalented person. We can undoubtedly say that he left behind his distinct mark of merit and skilfulness in every field he worked in. He improved upon every role he was called upon to play, through his kind, humble and friendly demeanour. In my memory, he lives on as a brother who had an exceptional personality, and a person who possessed an immense level of creative force.
Enam Ahmed Chauwdhury is former Chairman of the Privatisation Commission.