Rehman Sobhan's Memoir on Governance in Bangladesh's Formative Years Is a Must Read

Sobhan writes it is ‘difficult to capture the mood and tensions of those historic days’, but in part two of his series, he does it remarkably well.

This second volume (Untranquil Recollections: Nation Building in Post-Liberation Bangladesh) of Rehman Sobhan’s three-part memoir is devoted to his return from exile to Dhaka where he stayed for almost four years – two and half (1972 to 1974) of those as member of Prime Minister Mujibur Rehman’s Planning Commission (PC) – till he felt it necessary in 1975 to flee into exile again.

His three colleagues in the PC were Nurul Islam, Mosharraf Hossain and Anisur Rahman. It was their first exposure to working in government machinery, though they had acted closely with politicians before liberation.

‘Untranquil Recollections: Nation Building in Post-Liberation Bangladesh’, Rehman Sobhan, Sage, New Delhi 2021

The Mujib government worked in the national aftermath of strife, genocide and deprivation and a young population with no entrepreneurial ability. Ninety-seven percent of the economy before liberation had been in non-Bengali hands and nationalisation was needed to address the abandonment of these enterprises.

Decision-making centred on Mujib in an environment of prioritising scarce resources, rivalry for budget allocations and resistance to implementation. The ministers established their patronage systems and various centres of power – the bahinis – emerged, armed and with destructive and fluctuating agendas.

The regime was replete with personal and political splits, malice and rumours abounded, with tension between senior and junior civil servants, and between those from Pakistan and those who had served in exile. In this dismal scene, there were turf wars, and one ‘needed more common sense than economics’ in dealing with issues.

Mujib possessed a ‘magical connection with people’; his style was to work with individuals and not institutions, which became a ‘source of his vulnerability’. He used intuition and ‘casual sources of information’ as guidance and was open to influence from unauthorised levels. 

Tajuddin, prime minister pro tem during exile in India and now finance minister (1972-73), like Mujib, wanted a socialist economic policy, but confessed that Mujib had never even enquired about what had transpired during the liberation war, and the PC was left without the support of  the political leadership. Tajuddin himself never took any initiative to consult the PC and during the first year, the members met Mujib only a handful of times.

Also read: For Indian Diplomats in Pakistan, the Run up To the 1971 War Was a Very Tense Time

In 1973, Mujib himself took charge of the PC but it remained bereft of support and met with widespread opposition. Every policy failure of government was attributed to the PC, though in public meetings the leaders continued to endorse self-reliance, austerity and socialism. Decisions given by Mujib on proposals from the PC were perfunctory and ‘off-centre’. Ministers refused to implement decisions, and meetings and memos led to alienation, heightened by pro-business lobbies, opposition to land reform, and corruption in the public sector.  

Mirza Mumtaz Hussain Kizalbash, West Pakistan Minister for Commerce, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, then East Pakistan Minister for Commerce and Ata-ur-Rehman, Chief Minister, East Pakistan, in a photo from 1957. Photo: Flickr/Public.Resource.Org (CC BY 2.0)

The PC tried to avert foreign influence over policies despite aid-dependence. Given the early suspicion of USA and the World Bank, the first year’s assistance was met by India despite being itself an aid donee. Pronouncements of socialism never translated into concrete support and while some foreign leaders were sympathetic, the operational levels were hard- headed. Among Muslim states, only Kuwait was generous. 

Sobhan’s chapter on Indian relations is superb, perceptive and informative.

‘Adversarial attitudes constituted one of the cornerstones of national politics’, and inherited attitudes led to every problem – inflation, famine, smuggling – being identified with an alleged Indian conspiracy. In this manner, anti-liberation circles kept themselves active in politics; these comprised rightists, Islamists, leftists and Maoists.

The Friendship Treaty was seen as bondage, sovereignty was forever invoked. Mujib and his Awami League found it prudent to criticise India on smuggling, the maritime border and Ganges waters. Within the administration and political class, many if not most were opposed to improving ties, and even in India there were those who wanted to keep Bangladesh a client state though by 1975, in terms of control of assets, India’s share was zero. 

Also read: Bangladesh: Confrontation Escalates Over Mujibur Rahman Statue

The First Five Year Plan, an attempt to eliminate the privileged and hierarchical system that 1971 liberation had overthrown, was produced within a year, but the four disillusioned PC members never expected it to be implemented; they wanted only to show that self-reliance was possible.

It was never placed for public discussion and its social goals were ignored and shelved. All four members realised that they lacked political power which only ministers enjoyed. Whispers against Tajuddin led to his exit, Anisur Rehman and Mosharraf departed, and Sobhan resigned and went to a think-tank for development studies. When the PC members advised Mujib about political action, ‘he advised us to limit our advice to the economic sphere’, which was an obvious snub. In 1975, an Emergency led to a one-party state because Mujib thought the situation required a drastic solution. 

Sobhan writes it is ‘difficult to capture the mood and tensions of those historic days’, though he does it remarkably well.

Also read: Partitioned Lands Do Not Have to Lead to Partitioned Minds and Hearts

The coup against Mujib was so well advertised in advance in army circles that one has to wonder why the separate abilities of the Indian and Bangladeshi intelligence services were missing in action. Sobhan hints that the USA, even if unaware of the coup in advance, was certainly not averse to it, and facilitated the hasty exit of the putschists from the country.

From the coup and assassination of Mujib in 1975 till 1999, Mujib was erased from public memory, whereafter the process of ‘setting the record straight [by the Awami League] has been exposed to some overcompensation’.

Bangladesh became a society of privilege through an elite class. Under Sheikh Hasina as prime minister, Sobhan contends that the past 12 years are a contradiction of Mujib’s vision because high growth and prosperity has come with inequality and disparity. 

This riveting memoir, well written and well published, with shafts of whimsical humour to lighten the sombre overall mood, is absolutely mandatory reading for anyone interested in the history of Bangladesh.  

Krishnan Srinivasan is a former foreign secretary.