Great names are formed by great events. It's a truism that applies as much to the leaders and revolutionaries as to the pundits and intellectuals. Let us keep this in mind as we bid farewell to one of the best minds of our nation, Professor Anisuzzaman, 83, who died at the Combined Military Hospital in Dhaka on May 14, 2020. Newspaper headlines will tell you that he is the most high-profile victim of the coronavirus in Bangladesh till date. Personal tributes will offer little-known tidbits about the man behind the mountain that he was to everyone else. But history will remember him as someone whose superior knowledge could only be rivalled by his fierce love for his country, tested as it was by his activism during the great events that shaped his life as well as the course of the history of the land.
As a scholar, Professor Anisuzzaman could rightfully claim to have realised his full potential—as an activist, he was in the same ballpark as many great sociocultural reformers of his time. In the end, his was a life lived to its fullest. In his own words: "I wanted to be a teacher. In that I've achieved more than what I deserved. I wanted to be a lifelong learner. I tried to learn as much as I could. There were unexpected turns every now and then, but those were nothing compared to the love that I have received. I have no regrets with my life," he wrote in a column for Prothom Alo on the occasion of his 80th birth anniversary in 2017.
Professor Anisuzzaman was part of what many consider as Bengal's Golden Age, which produced some of the most defining moments of its history. He led a very active life, teaching, researching, writing, editing, attending seminars, and spearheading social and intellectual campaigns. He wrote profusely on the identity issues of Bengali Muslims and the Bengali community in Bangladesh, as well as language, politics, culture, education, religion, and society. He was also one of the individuals who played an instrumental role in creating the "grand narrative" of the nationalist history of Bangladesh. From a broader perspective, three of his achievements stand out: his participation in the Language Movement in 1952, his role as a member of the Planning Commission of the government-in-exile in 1971, and finally his leading role as a member of the committee that drafted the Constitution in Bangla, which was adopted as the official version on November 4, 1972.
Born on February 18, 1937 in Kolkata, Anisuzzaman moved to Khulna after the 1947 partition. He grew up in a family that nurtured writing. His father, Dr ATM Moazzem, was a homeopathy practitioner who loved writing while his grandfather, Sheikh Abdur Rahim, was a journalist and writer. In a way, the transformation that the three generations of the family went through could be seen as representing the transformation of the Bengali Muslims in general—the grandfather supported Islamic exceptionalism and the 1905 Partition of Bengal, the father supported the movement leading to the creation of Pakistan along religious lines, and the son, disillusioned by its bloody fallout and the divisive politics promoted by the then government, resisted it.
As he grew up, during those tumultuous years of the newly carved out country, he actively campaigned for the recognition of Bangla as a state language, and shortly afterwards, became involved in left-leaning politics which played a vital role in shaping his progressive worldview. This was evident in the subsequent years when he fought against Pakistan's sinister campaign against indigenous culture, took part in the 1969 mass uprising, the post-war movements against the war criminals, the 1990 anti-autocracy movement, and pretty much all the major sociopolitical developments in between.
But any obituary of Professor Anisuzzaman will be incomplete without an acknowledgement of the fact that, before he died, he was regarded as among the most well-known and respected Bangladeshi academics in international academic circles. His records as both a teacher and a researcher are enviable. In his long career, he taught Bangla in both universities of Dhaka (1959-69, 1985-2003, 2005-08) and Chittagong (1969-85), and was involved in various capacities with a number of universities outside the country.
As a researcher, he was disciplined and methodical, so much so that his mentor Professor Abdur Razzaq, who had an abiding influence on him, once reportedly described him as the most disciplined researcher he had ever known. I remember attending a seminar at the Bangladesh National Museum where Professor Anisuzzaman delivered a lecture, on October 29, 2017. In simple, clearly articulated words, he presented a paper on "Muslims in Bengal (up to the 18th century): Plurality of Identity"—a subject that he explored in many other books and articles as well.
The paper was based on the premise that the idea of identity is more fluid and multi-layered than we generally tend to think. An individual has multiple identities although he or she may choose one over the others. Likewise, he argued, the identity of the Bengali Muslims is complex and multi-layered. "When we identify a group of people as Bengali Muslim, we highlight only one aspect of their self-identity. But if we observe closely, we'll see that they contain multitudes," he said, stressing that plurality is an essential feature of our identity. He then drew on historical documents, accounts by contemporary writers, and literary sources to present a compelling picture of the diversity of Bengali Muslims in different ages in terms of their preference for language, attire, occupation, customs, and religious and political beliefs—which made them different not only from their Hindu counterparts, but also from each other.
I remember listening in awe as he talked, standing on the dais for nearly an hour, showing a captivated audience why he was held in such high regard. The paper, preceded by a note on Professor Abdur Razzaq, was presented without so much as a brief interlude, a remarkable feat given his age and failing health at that time.
Professor Anisuzzaman's canon includes books of different genres but the bulk of his work consists of research books and scholarly articles, as well as books that he had edited, sometimes along with co-editors. Among his research projects, two deserve particular mention: Muslim Manash O Bangla Sahitya (1964), an assessment of the position of Bengali Muslims and the nature of their contributions in Bengali literature and Bengali history in general, and Purono Bangla Gadya (1984), an assessment of the grammatical, orthographical and literary conventions of Old Bangla prose as well as emerging literary trends and conventions. There is no denying that it was partly because of his exceptional academic prowess that he had been so popular with his students and fellow researchers.
After all that he achieved in his long life, could there still be something that he craved? There was one, and he said that himself: "I wasn't born on this land of Bangladesh but I do want to die here. This is my final prayer."
He would be happy to know that his final prayer was answered. There can't be a more befitting end to the life of a warrior scholar who gave his nation so much, in so many ways, only to get so much love and respect in return.
Badiuzzaman Bay is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star. Parts of the obituary are borrowed from an article written by the author in 2017.