Akbar Ali Khan: Life of service, voice of conscience
Akbar Ali Khan's passing has come as a sudden shock, although his health issues have been severe and prolonged. Despite his frailties, he has been undaunted in his public engagements, speaking out on critical national issues on a regular basis, always calling a spade a spade, urging the nation's gaze towards a higher ground. Given his personal tragedies – the passing of Bhabi and of his beloved daughter, as well as his multiple health complications – Akbar Bhai's willingness to be a fearless voice of conscience has been nothing short of heroic. He traversed many careers: teacher, bureaucrat, freedom fighter, policymaker, writer, public intellectual. But there was one constant thread in this long and eventful life journey: a fierce sense of integrity, dedication to service, and openness to learning.
Akbar Bhai was a seeker of knowledge at heart, but not in isolated ivory towers. From his early book Discovery of Bangladesh to the numerous titles that followed, he was both meticulous in his scholarship and keen to connect to his readership. His unorthodox titles, his communicative language through which he explained complex economic issues in ways that both piqued and engaged a wide variety of readers, is testament to his great success as an author. No wonder UPL and Prothoma keep publishing new editions of his books; the long line of interested readers keeps growing longer and longer. His writing career was not a post-retirement story either. He has been intellectually active all throughout his career; two of his major titles – Discovery of Bangladesh and Porarthoporotar Orthoniti – were published while he was in active service at the highest levels of the government.
Akbar Bhai also exemplified the idea of public service dedicated not to one's personal advancement only, but to service to the public. He was fearless in writing notes of dissent when he could not agree with directives from the higher-ups, no doubt following his belief that a public servant's true vocation is to offer honest and competent advice, and not merely pander to the higher authorities or, worse, blindly acquiesce to their vested interests. But he was also focused on finding effective solutions to developmental and administrative problems. He was a very successful finance and later cabinet secretary, and after retirement, alternate executive director at the World Bank. I had the fortune of meeting him in Washington, DC at his World Bank office in 2005. He was the natural choice to head the Regulatory Reforms Commission set up by the caretaker government in 2007 to streamline bureaucratic red-tapism and obstructive mindsets. It was a loss for the nation when this body and the other initiative for a government-business dialogue platform – the Better Business Forum – were discontinued by the government that followed.
Despite his personal tragedies, Akbar Ali Khan never really "retired" from his true vocation of public service. As Bangladesh appears to have retreated from democratic norms, while governance concerns have intensified, the need to speak "truth to power" in Noam Chomsky's famous formulation has never been greater. Being a "voice of conscience" is not an easy role to embrace, given the increasing turn towards an authoritarian mindset in Bangladesh. Akbar Ali Khan has been quite fearless here, too, becoming one of an increasingly vanishing breed of public intellectuals. His time came. Others must carry on. The promise of Bangladesh must shine bright. Adieu, Akbar Bhai.
Hossain Zillur Rahman is executive chairman of the Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC) and former adviser to the caretaker government of Bangladesh.