Oscar Wilde says in De Profundis, a book I translated into Bengali later, that the worst thing about jail life is not that it hurts the emotions, but that it kills them turning the heart to stone. The exact words would be worth quoting if I had the book with me. The more I saw of this Central Jail the deeper my fear that the multitude detained as ‘collaborators’, most of them splendid young men, would gradually be turned into real criminals by the coarseness, brutality, vileness and deceit which they daily experienced. Everyone I talked to said that he was fairly resolved to take revenge against his captors, against those who had betrayed him. They made no secret of what they meant to do. Some said that the first task they would undertake upon their release would be to eliminate the man or men who had got them arrested. After what they had gone through and seen, the instinctive horror and distaste with which normal human beings recoil from thoughts of violence were no longer operating as a brake upon their desire for vengeance. And what advice could an old man like myself offer? Unlike ourselves they had given no hostages to fortune; they had no wives and children to think of; many of them had lost their parents in the turmoil following 16 December. Those whose parents were alive did not care what happened to them. Their own desire was revenge, revenge at any cost however long it might take.
There was talk of the Biharis being sent away to West Pakistan, which is all that was left of Pakistan now. In speech after speech the Prime Minister disowned them, declaring that Bangladesh could not tolerate the continued presence of a large community of what he termed Pakistanis on its soil; Pakistan was urged to take them off its hands. The inhumanity of the proposal went remarked in the Press. If the logic of the Prime Minister’s suggestion were accepted, every time there was a civil war in a country, a section of the population could be driven into exile on the grounds that they had not supported the winning side. If the International Red Cross had not come to their rescue, thousands would have perished in the concentration camps into which the Biharis were herded. They had to depend on the meagre rations of wheat, rice, milk and other edibles which the Red Cross supplied. The supply was neither regular nor adequate, not because of the fault of the Red Cross, but because of dishonesty at this end. We heard that many children died in the camps.
As news of these barbarities reached us daily, I wondered whether Sheikh Mujibur Rahman really desired any solution other than the kind of Final Solution that Hitler had chosen for the Jews. What manner of a man was this leader, now styled the Father of the Bengali nation by his followers, who could thrive only on violence and hatred? Clearly, a state led and presided over by such a person could possibly have no peaceful future. He had reduced a prosperous area to a ruin, depending entirely on the world’s charity, with its industries dislocated, its agriculture asphyxiated, its trade and commerce choked, its communications disrupted, and he claimed this had been a marvellous achievement entitling him to the admiration of all peoples!
With the hordes of non-Bengali prisoners who filled the Central Jail in 1972, I had few direct contacts. Prison restrictions allowed neither them nor me, or for that matter any others in my Block to move freely and see one another. We felt their presence, heard the murmur of their voices, smelt them, but the majority of them remained invisible, unknowable, inaccessible, except on Eid days when all Muslim prisoners were permitted to congregate for prayers for about an hour or so. Those who were closest to me were the persons detained like me in Seven Cells. The blocks called Six Cells and Old Twenty were within hailing distance of Seven Cells, the Sixth block being only two yards away, and occasionally in the mornings or afternoons, with the warders looking the other way, we met on the lawns. These meetings were considered violations of prison rules, but some of the head warders connived at them. There were others who growled if the caught anyone outside his block.
It was in the course of these morning and afternoon ‘outings’ that I made my first acquaintance with some well-known politicians of the old school. The best known among them were Mr Fazlul Qader Chowdhury, Mr Khan Sabur and Khwaja Khairuddin. I had never seen them before. Their names were of course familiar, but having always given a wide berth to politicians, I had no opportunities of getting to know them personally. There were others like Mr A. T. M. A. Matin, who once held the post of Deputy Speaker in the Pakistan National Assembly, Mr Shafiqur Rahman, an established Dacca lawyer, connected with the Council Muslim League, Mr A. Matin of Pabna, Mr S. B. Zaman, formerly of the Awami League, Mr Nasiruddin Chowdhury of Sylhet and Mr Faikuzzaman of Faridpur who all had a political background. Mr Akhtar Farukh, formerly Editor of the Jamaat-E-Islami daily Sangram, Mr Shah Azizur Rahman, lately of the Bangla Jatiya League, Maulana Masum, a religious leader, Mr Ainuddin of Rajshahi; Mr Mujibur Rahman and Mr Musharraf Hussain, members of the Malik Cabinet; Mr Ibrahim Hussain, a contractor turned politician were also among those whom I had opportunities of studying at fairly close quarters. Mr Nasiruddin Chowdhury and Mr Ainuddin were the only two among those mentioned who were not strangers.
In the block called Seven Cells were two University teachers, Dr Qazi Din Muhammad and Dr Mohar Ali; a banker and a Police Superintendent. We were a motley crew, differing in age, background, outlook, education, social status and culture. Although we had all been arrested as ‘collaborators’, it would be wrong to infer from this that we shared a common political attitude towards Pakistan and the principles on which it stood. Mr Hafizul Islam, the banker, for instance, was a firm believer in the Awami League’s theory that for twenty-three years East Pakistan had been exploited and fleeced by West Pakistan. He could reel off a whole array of tendentious data and figures calculated to prove the Awami League complaint. His offence was that he had been cited as a witness in the trial against Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in West Pakistan and he is believed to have been arrested on the Sheikh's personal orders. He was also the first in this group to be released; he left on 9 March 1972. Likewise, Mr Shamsuddin, the Police Superintendent, held views which were far from orthodox from the Pakistan point of view. In the beginning, some fellow prisoners eyed him with suspicion fearing that he might be a spy planted on us. I do not think this is true, but nevertheless the fact remains that his excessive religious devotions and nocturnal vigils, coupled with the remarks he occasionally let fall, filled us with vague misgivings.
Mr S. B. Zaman, a wealthy contractor had been elected to the National Assembly in 1970 on the Awami League ticket, but after the army crackdown in March 1971, he did not follow his party-men into exile. On the contrary, he issued several statements denouncing Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s extremism and pleading for the maintenance of Pakistan’s integrity. His educational attainments were not very high, and he was more interested in money and business than in politics. A pleasant young man (he was about thirty-five), he seldom gave the impression of being seriously preoccupied with political issues. Circumstances had thrown him into the company of political rivals, and in the bitterness of his present mood, he often ciriticised both the Sheikh and his followers in strong terms, but one could always feel that these criticisms were not the expression of deep convictions.
Like. Mr Zaman, Mr Shah Azizur Rahman did not belong to the Muslim League. He had had a chequered career. Originally a Muslim Leaguer, he had joined the Awami League when the latter seemed on the verge of sweeping the polls; then for reasons not understood he had deserted the Sheikh and allied himself with Mr Ataur Rahman Khan. He was known to have supported the demand for a sovereign Bengal, which was, considering his original affiliations, strange. The constant changes in his politics showed that he was at best an opportunist, concerned only to extract the maximum benefit possible from the party in power. His judgment was not however sound. Had it been so, he would not have resigned from the Awami League when it was about to score its greatest triumph. In the face of these facts, how could anyone take his present diatribes against the Awami League seriously? Moody, temperamental, nervous, hypersensitive and jealous, he occasionally gave way to violent and prolonged fits of weeping. Remorse, despair, helplessness, all combined to make him undesirable company. These moods involved him fairly frequently in heated augments with his fellow prisoners, arguments often escalating into noisy quarrels.
Mr Zaman used to spend a part of the night weeping. The first day I heard his sobs I thought someone had unexpectedly received bad news from home for which he had been unprepared. Then I discovered that each day, in the evening, as soon as the cells were locked up, Mr Zaman, left alone to grapple with his worries, broke down and sobbed for hours uncontrollably. These fits ceased gradually after he became used to the routine of prison life. Mr Abdur Rahman Bakul, a lawyer from Faridpur, who was in our block, had the same emotional weakness. But he seldom sobbed. In his case it was sighs and lamentations that kept his neighbours awake.
Mr Ainuddin of Rajshahi who was transferred to our block in September 1972 surprised us by a theory he had developed on the utility of sobs. His practice was to wake up late at night, between two and three, pray, and then spend an hour sobbing loudly. The sounds were fairly alarming. When asked why he did so, he explained that this was the best manner of moving God to pity. Of course. after we told him that God who knew the innermost secrets of men’s hearts hardly needs violent demonstrations of one’s grief or helplessness, he agreed to mitigate the rigour of his practice.
I have, however, digressed from my main point, which is that the men imprisoned together and indiscriminately labelled as ‘collaborators’ did by no means subscribe to the same political opinions or view the events of 1971 in the same light. Most of them appeared to have no strong convictions. Given an opportunity, they would defect to the Awami League. In their criticism of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman one could perceive many subtle undertones. Very few had yet been able to free themselves from the spell of Awami League propaganda, and, whilst denouncing the Sheikh's politics, would almost unconsciously quote Awami League theories about the exploitation of East by West Pakistan. I felt puzzled.
Their lack of principle or conviction, their selfishness, the narrowness of their outlook, their inability even in jail to agree upon anything threw a revealing light upon the factors which had tended to the disintegration of Pakistan. Essentially they were small men called upon by circumstances to deal with big issues, and they had failed. Treachery, conspiracy, treason, subversion had of course all been there. I am not even suggesting that a stronger set of men could have altered the course of events in 1971. Perhaps not. But it is doubtful whether those events would have been put in train in the same way had the men who supposedly were wedded to the ideology of Pakistan been less selfish, less narrow-minded, and possessed greater strength of character. I found that there was not one man among these politicians who was universally respected or who escaped the barbed sarcasm of back-biters.
Mr Khan Sabur, a withered old man of over sixty-five, suffering from a thousand and one ailments, was spoken of as a pervert and a drunkard, a professional smuggler who did not mend his ways even when he was a member of the Pakistan Central Cabinet. Strange, frankly vulgar stories were repeated to us, by those who claimed to have known him for years, of the sensual orgies in which Mr Sabur indulged, stories of how every evening in Rawalpindi his chums, drawn from all parties, foregathered at his residence for drinks. He is said to have maintained his secret links with Calcutta even during the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965. The smugglers in his pay continued throughout the twenty-three years of Pakistan to carry rice and jute over across the borders in Khulna. That is how he made his fortune.
These were serious allegations. The men who repeated them were Mr Khan Sabur’s colleagues; it was difficult to dismiss the stories as downright falsehoods. Even allowing for a discount of fifty percent, there remained enough to shake one’s confidence in Mr Khan Sabur as a political leader. It is true that Mr Khan had always been publicly opposed to the Awami League, had always asserted his faith in the ideology of Pakistan. But, if a fraction of what I heard was true, how could the public have confidence in him? The wide disparity between his professions and his practice naturally struck people as a shocking instance of political hypocrisy, and as the rumors about this gained currency, disenchantment with what was termed the sacred ideals of Pakistan grew.
Mr Khan Sabur was hardly an all-East Pakistan, much less a national figure. His influence was confined to the Khulna area. Those who knew said he had a fairly powerful hold upon this region. The Awami League had of course swept him off in the General Elections of 1970, but every one agreed that Mr Khan Sabur retained quite a sizable following in Khulna. As I heard this, I again wondered how he could, in spite of his record, still have followers. Some clue to the secret of his influence was provided by the adulation which he received from two men in this jail, both erstwhile protégés. One was Mr Aftabuddin, the mill-owner, and the other Mr Ibrahim Hussain. I was told that the former in particular owed everything he had to Mr Khan Sabur’s patronage, and was one of the few who had not forgotten his favours. Mr Ibrahim Hussain’s attachment was partly political. Not a profound thinker, he took Mr Sabur to be sincerely what he affected to be, an idealist of the rightist school, fallen now on evil days because of his unswerving loyalty to his ideals. The devotion of both was touching, and I felt that a person who could inspire such loyalty could not be dismissed as a mere nobody. However, he might have procured this loyalty; it was in politics a great asset. And not in politics only. For whatever the context the ability to command the loyalty of fellowmen is an exceptional gift worthy of praise.
But the sort of patronage that men like Mr Khan Sabur used could be employed for limited purposes only and was no counterweight to the lack of political honesty and personal character. That is where they failed so notably. High office (Mr Khan Sabur had been a member of the Pakistan Cabinet and enjoyed enormous powers) did not avail to offset the shortcomings, and to the end he remained a small man, concerned with intrigues and cliques, more anxious to stop a rival like Mr Munim Khan from becoming more powerful than he was than to plan a strategy for the defence of Pakistan. In jail he sometimes spoke bitterly of his sufferings, saying how he longed to die rather than face further humiliation, but we heard that he had secretly been trying to reach an accommodation with Sheikh Mijibur Rahman.
The idealism of Mr Fazlul Qadir Chowdhury, who died in prison in July 1973 was less open to exception. He was better known throughout this region than Mr Khan Sabur and was more of a national figure. Whereas Mr Khan Sabur could not in his own right as a politician, have obtained a hearing from audiences outside his own area, this was not true of Mr Chowdhury. A six-footer, quite a giant of a man, he commanded a presence which was impossible to ignore. It is not that people did not say that he has not used his official position and influence to make money. But no one said he was a confirmed criminal like Mr Khan Sabur; no stories of sex perversion were spread about him. A man from Chittagong, where he enjoyed a personal popularity transcending party differences, he had in his ways some of the coarseness and vulgarity of the common folk of his area. He guffawed loudly and was prone to descend to personalities. The worst criticism about him that I have heard was that he was a bully. But those who knew him intimately declared that underneath a rough exterior Mr Fazlul Qadir Chowdhury had a soft and generous heart. But what redeemed in the public’s eye his failings such as they were was his unwavering loyalty to the ideology of Pakistan which he had embraced in his early life. He had consistently followed the Muslim League, and when the party split during the Ayub regime, he had chosen to join the officially backed faction called the Convention League. What was of greater importance was that his faith in the ideals of Pakistan had shown no cracks till the end.
That was perhaps the reason why I felt rather disappointed and a little shocked when on the day his trial opened he made a statement in court compromising his position as a Pakistani leader. He said he had supported Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in his declaration of independence. The statement, intended as a defence against charges of treason and murder, all trumped up, could hardly have made any difference to the judge’s verdict in the circumstances which prevail today (1973), but it lowered Mr Chowdhury in our eyes and saddened us. Though it was absolutely clear from his conversation afterwards that his convictions had not changed, his action in court, the result probably of a temporary panic, pointed to a fundamental weakness in Muslim politics. Could one imagine a Congress leader of comparable stature in pre-1947 days getting panicky in the same way? Some of them preferred to be hanged rather than recant. But not for Mr Chowdhury the courage, heroism and valour of a martyr. Now that he is dead, I often recall with regret this blot on his otherwise unblemished record as a loyal Pakistani.
Mr A. T. M. Matin who had once been elected Deputy Speaker of the Pakistan National Assembly was rather a businessperson than a professional politician. Apart from the fact that he had held high office for a short period, he had no title either to fame in his own right or to eminence.
There was something rather unattractive about him. It wasn’t certainly his looks. His features not very distinguished though, were not uncommonly ugly. But there was an indefinable air of smallness about him, which struck most people. Outwardly, he was very religious. He spent the greater part of the day and also the night in prayer, but his devotions inspired no admiration, for he succeeded in generating the suspicion that he was a hypocrite, more concerned to create an impression than anxious to go through religious exercises from a sense of conviction. When he talked he pretended to have held views which, if followed, would have prevented the tragedy in which we are involved. Mr Matin was in the same block with me for several months. But I never felt drawn towards him. We sensed that there was an invisible barrier between us which made communication impossible. Mr Matin was a bundle of superstitions, dreaded crows as harbingers of evil, and tried frantically to drive them off if they landed on the roof-top. He was also a believer in evil spirits and some of the prayers he said were designed to ward them off. These were accompanied with gesticulations of various sorts.
His political views appeared to be a tissue of contradictions. He inveighed against the political unwisdom of Field Marshal Ayub Khan and strongly as he deplored the treachery of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, occasionally he would utter sentiments in respect of the treatment of East by West Pakistan which were difficult to differentiate from the Awami League creed. He was continually sending emissaries to the Prime Minister at the same time that he condemned him as an Indian agent. How exactly should one calibrate him? I must do him the justice of stating that Mr Matin did not look forward to a political future. But it is his political past, such as it was, which showed to what depths Pakistani politics had fallen.
Mr Nasiruddin Chowdhury whose claim to eminence rested on the fact that he had once served as a minister in one of the successive provincial cabinets which had ruled before Ayub Khan abrogated the Constitution, was far more outspoken than Mr Matin. His personal habits were disgusting. Of hygiene and cleanliness he had no idea. His filthiness was not accounted for by his comparative poverty. He would quite unashamedly pick up cigarette-ends from the floor and smoke or chew them; would eat any left-overs however dirty; seldom washed his clothes, and used the same lungi for days on end without the slightest effort to keep it clean. His behaviour showed signs of abnormality. But I found his political views free from cant and hypocrisy. In his defence of the ideology of Pakistan, he was never apologetic like Mr A. T. M. Matin, nor did he ever give the impression of having been influenced by Awami League propaganda about disparities between East and West Pakistan. He gave one day a reasoned analysis of the politics of East Pakistan which struck me as one of the best I had heard. There were times when one could not help loathing him but there were also times when one admired the strength of his convictions.
There were many others, abler than Mr Nasiruddin Chowdhury who lacked his convictions. Mr Abdul Matin of Pabna, whom we used to call Millionaire Matin to distinguish him from his namesake, Abdul Matin was a wealthy person with a long record as a politician. A self-made man, he had risen to affluence from very small beginnings, and his manners betrayed a vulgarity and coarseness which many found repellent. I tried to swallow his daily boasts about his wealth with the tolerance of a Chaucer. They amused me. As a politician, millionaire Matin was interested in elections and tactics, but I seldom had the feeling that he understood or cared about principles. Circumstances had induced him to cast his lot in with the Muslim League, but he could probably have fitted in with the Awami League equally well. I am not trying to throw doubt on his loyalty as a Pakistani. I mean that a person like him without strong intellectual convictions, who had been attracted to the League fold by the prospect of business opportunities, might as well have joined any other party with the same opportunities to offer. Mr Matin had a habit of spreading the wildest rumours with the assurance that they were incontrovertible truths, and though on almost every occasion the rumours were exploded and found to be without a shred of fact in them, he remained incorrigible.
Of the groups of lawyers detained in the area around Seven Cells, the best known in Dacca was Mr Shafiqur Rahman. Every one respected him for his professional integrity and competence. When there were questions of law to discuss, we all consulted him. He was very helpful, going even to the length of drafting our statements for us. Deeply religious, quiet, with an equable temper, Mr Shafiqur Rahman was the perfect antithesis of the usual run of politicians in this country who believe that being noisy is an essential part or a politician’s gifts. He is the one person who succeeded triumphantly in avoiding till the end squabbles with fellow prisoners. He had all the gifts that success in politics demands. But he was too quiet, too sober. Reason and passion are both equally important in political life, and it is passion that he seemed to lack. He would, as he often did, impress the judges in Court, but to rouse a crowd to action, one needed something else which was wanting in him.
Crowds are seldom interested in logical analysis; they demand fiery rhetoric and are moved by appeals to such sentiments as hatred and patriotism. Brutus, the philosopher in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar proved no match for Antony. Mr Shafiqur Rahman would make an excellent behind-the-scenes broker but I doubt judging from the temper of our people, whether people like him would cut much of a figure in public life. Which may be a pity, but it is no use imagining our public to be different from what they are.
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