Mostafa Jamal Haider
Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. — William Shakespeare
One of the most controversial and misunderstood, yet seriously discussed and evaluated name in contemporary Bangladesh politics is Kazi Zafar Ahmed. This high profile importance and magnitude he earned neither by any gift of nature, nor by a matter of coincidence, but by dint of sheer hard-work and devotion, perseverance, indomitable courage and sagacity. He achieved every inch of his success by strong determination and unfaltering tenacity. Sometimes he scored success, sometimes he could not. Sometimes he was acclaimed, sometimes he was eschewed. But in the ultimate analysis he created an everlasting imprint at the deepest corner of the soul of his people. This is because he never isolated himself from the pains and pleasures; agonies and ecstasies; hopes and despairs of the people.
During his fairly long life-time of 76 years 1 month and 26 days, for at least 50 years he either took active part or remained an active witness of the political scenario of this country. It is neither possible, nor do I intend to narrate or analyze that long history of his life in this narrow space of my article. What I want to project here is a few personal observations regarding his achievements and failures; integrity and improbity; transparency and turbidity ever since his entry into left progressive politics of this country when Mr. Golam Arif Tipu baptized him during his post matriculation student life in the Rajshahi Government College. I do not expect that all my observations will be acceptable to everyone in its totality.
When Kazi Zafar got admitted into the Dhaka University the political situation in Pakistan, especially in the then East Pakistan, was very precarious. Among many other political crises a most unfortunate incident took place during the session of the East Pakistan Provincial Assembly where Deputy Speaker Mr. Shahed Ali was hit on his head and he died. It was in this background that the Martial Law was promulgated in Pakistan for the first time on 7 October, 1958. Resultantly, all political activities were banned; all student councils and student politics were declared illegal. An ominous silence casted all over the country.
However, this frightful silence and lull did not last long. Students of the Dhaka University were slowly organizing themselves against the military regime of Ayub Khan. Kazi Zafar Ahmed was outside Dhaka for a short while during this period. Students of Dhaka University planned to demonstrate openly on 21 February (Shahid Dibash) of 1962. But the plan was changed after Shaheed Suhrawardy was arrested on 30 January at the Karachi airport. Instead of waiting until 21 February, the student community burst into protest the following day and a general strike was observed at the Dhaka University on 31 January. Thus began the historic student movement against the military dictatorship, even though the military government could suppress it for a while. The regime had a short sigh of relief with Ayub Khan’s unilateral promulgation of a new constitution, introducing so-called basic democracy and the announcement of dates for national assembly elections. But soon the student community seized the opportunity to protest against the newly published Sharif Commission Report on Education to spread the flame of student movement against the autocratic regime to the entire country. During this time Kazi Zafar Ahmed established himself at the forefront of the student movement.
To me, the 1962 movement was one of the proudest events in the history of student movement in this country. Its significance in terms of its wider appeal and far reaching impacts was no less than that of the historic language movement of 1952 or the 11-point movement of 1969. During this movement there emerged a group of talented and courageous young people who contributed enormously to national politics through their able leadership. Among them, without any doubt, were Kazi Zafar Ahmed, Shah Moazzem Hossain and Muhammad Farhad. The first two were eloquent and magical speakers as if the prodigies of Orpheus. In particular, Kazi Zafar Ahmed could mesmerize the audience with the ups and downs; pathos and logos of his speech. Haider Akbar Khan Rano, one of the heroic leaders of the 1962 education movement and now a Presidium member of the CPB wrote in his book, “Shatabdi Periye” about Kazi Zafar Ahmed’s speech: “17 September was the first day of the general strike against the Ayub regime. There were police firings on the procession in the morning; Wajiullah and Babul succumbed to bullet injuries on that day. Kazi Zafar Ahmed delivered a heart-wrenching speech in front of the dead bodies lying in the Dhaka Medical College Hospital. A lot of people wept listening to his speech.”(pg. 58 )
Military convoys started patrolling the streets in the evening after the imposition of 144; arrest warrants were issued against the student leaders. Despite all these restrictions, student leaders such as Kazi Zafar Ahmed, Muhammad Farhad, Sheikh Fazlul Haque Mani, Rashed Khan Menon and Haider Akbar Khan Rano managed to enter into the residence of the former Chief Minister, Mr. Nurul Amin. There the national politicians under the leadership of Mr. Suhrawardy were planning to issue an ordinary statement. After Mr Suhrawardy finished reading the statement, Kazi Zafar Ahmed burst out saying, “when students are laying down their lives to police-firing, you are trying to absolve your responsibilities by issuing an ordinary statement; we cannot accept this. You please at least call a general strike.” Mr Suhrawardy was furious and said, “I am not to be led by kids like you.” In reply, Kazi Zafar Ahmed told, “we have had you released from the jail through movements from the Aam Tala; your grave will be in the same Aam Tala.” Everybody was stunned. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman rushed to Kazi Zafar and calmed him down. However, Mr. Suhrawardy negotiated with Governor Golam Faruk afterwards and attained release of jailed student leaders and withdrawal of arrest warrants against them. The 1962 education movement was a successful movement. The entire recommendation of the Sharif Commission was abandoned.
East Pakistan Students Union found a new lease of life through the 1962 education movement. It started to reorganize itself at the Dhaka University and all over the country under the leadership of Kazi Zafar Ahmed and Muhammad Farhad. It became absolutely necessary to have an organizational structure of the East Pakistan Students Union. Hence, a central conference was organized in a hall at Shwami Bag of Dhaka in October 1962. For justifiable reasons the councillors and delegates to the conference demanded to have the two most successful and tested student leaders, Muhammad Farhad and Kazi Zafar Ahmed, as President and General Secretary of the central committee. But on instructions from the underground Communist Party, a completely inactive Dr. Ahmed Zaman was made President with Kazi Zafar Ahmed as General Secretary. Dr. Ahmed Zaman never participated in the activities of the East Pakistan Students Union and later left the country for London. Blind loyalty was the only consideration for selection in the committee.
Thus, began the controversial saga of Kazi Zafar Ahmed’s political career. The controversy became more intense during the next conference of the East Pakistan Students Union in 1963. By then Kazi Zafar Ahmed, with all his close associates and some other front-line leaders lost blessings of the Communist Party. Hence, they were forced to organize themselves separately. However, a new central committee was formed with Badrul Haque as President and Haider Akbar Khan Rano as General Secretary with the full consent of the Party. But almost immediately after the committee was formed, propaganda and innuendos were orchestrated against Haider Akbar Khan Rano and his close associates who refused to sever their relations with Kazi Zafar.
By then the East Pakistan Students Union was virtually split into two factions. It became open in 1965 at the central conference of the East Pakistan Students Union at the Engineers’ Institute auditorium. Although through a compromise a new united central committee was formed with Rashed Khan Menon as President and Saifuddin Manik as General Secretary, a small group of councillors gathered at night on the roof of the Iqbal Hall (current Sergeant Zohurul Haque Hall) and the pro-Soviet faction formed a rival central committee with Motia Chowdhury as President and Saifuddin Manik as General Secretary. Kazi Zafar Ahmed and some of his close associates were in jail. So what? The spearhead of attacks was pointed towards him. I think, it was not a matter of disgrace for Kazi Zafar Ahmed to become embroiled in a political controversy at that time.
Afterwards, Kazi Zafar Ahmed played a revolutionary and historic role in the labour movement, especially of textile mill workers movement of this country. There, too, he had to fight against the revisionist ideas of the pro-China Communist Party leadership regarding the trade union movement. It should be remembered that by then the Communist Party was formally divided. Fortunately, Haider Akbar Khan Rano and some others were with Kazi Zafar Ahmed and Tongi industrial area was their main centre of activities. Their influence spread among the textile mill workers of Godnail-Shiddirganj area also where they organized a strong trade union movement. The fifty-four day long successful general strike of the textile mill workers was a glorious chapter in the history of trade union movement of this country. The determination and uncompromising perseverance shown by the workers of Tongi during the military rule of Yahyah will remain written in golden letters forever.
Kazi Zafar Ahmed and his close associates started to organize themselves by forming the Coordination Committee of East Bengal’s Communist Revolutionaries. While at the national political platform they worked within the National Awami Party of Moulana Bhashani, they continued their organizational activities among students, workers and peasants. Their greatest success under the leadership of Kazi Zafar Ahmed was the creation of mass organizations among students, workers and peasants on the one hand and forming revolutionary cells/centres in villages on the other hand, while the rest of the pro-Chinese factions shunned mass politics under the influence of Charu Majumder.
On the 22nd February, 1970, the Coordination Committee of East Bengal’s Communist Revolutionaries openly declared the programme for an independent People’s Democratic Republic of East Bengal from a public meeting under the banner of the East Pakistan Students Union (Menon) at the historic Paltan Maidan. The meeting was presided over by Mostafa Jamal Haider [the author]and addressed by Kazi Zafar Ahmed, Rashed Khan Menon, Mahbubullah and others. Arrest warrants were issued against the speakers at the meeting. They were tried in absentia in the military court; Kazi Zafar Ahmed and Rashed Khan Menon were sentenced to 7 years jail and a 1-year jail sentence was given to Mostafa Jamal Haider and Mahbubullah.
At the time when longing for freedom was getting deeper and sharper in the minds of the people, the so-called pro-Chinese communist factions gave priority to annihilation of class enemies as the principal issue, ignoring the question of national emancipation. Kazi Zafar and his associates did not commit that mistake. They actively took part in the armed struggle to liberate the country. Shibpur of Narashingdi district, the area where his close associate Abdul Mannan Bhuyan, already established himself as a very popular leader of the peasant masses, became the revolutionary field headquarters and the training centre of the Coordination Committee of the Communist Revolutionaries.
Kazi Zafar Ahmed and his close associates were among the first to come forward with a programme of constructive opposition in post-liberation Bangladesh. By the end of 1972 Kazi Zafar Ahmed became the General Secretary of the National Awami Party at the invitation of Moulana Bhashani. Rashed Khan Menon became the organizing secretary, Mannan Bhuyan the agriculture secretary and Mahbubullah became the secretary for education affairs. NAP became a very strong political organization. Kazi Zafar Ahmed’s fame and glory was at its meridian at that time. Just as Shelly’s immensely powerful Sky Lark with enormous potential, Kazi Zafar was only rising and rising. Behind him was an organized network of devoted and disciplined team.
In the words of Haider Akbar Khan Rano: “Kazi Zafar Ahmed, Rashed Khan Menon, Mannan Bhuyan, Jamal Haider and I were the main core of our communist organization. Our personal relationship was excellent; as if we were members of the same family. There was no dearth of sincerity, although at times we differed on political questions” (Shatabdi Periye, p. 301).
Here lies Kazi Zafar Ahmed’s success in creating such a team; here also lies his failure that he could not keep the team intact. I firmly believe that had this team remained intact, the character of politics in Bangladesh would have been changed completely. Nevertheless, to get embroiled in the blame game as to what extent he or his associates were responsible for this split will be a fruitless discourse. At later stages the distance between Kazi Zafar Ahmed and his tested associates began to grow on the issues like forming the Communist Party of Bangladesh (Leninist) with Nazrul Islam and Amal Sen and whether to join the BAKSAL or not.
It should be mentioned here that by then Kazi Zafar and his followers left Moulana Bhashani’s National Awami Party and formed the United People’s Party (UPP); it was on 17 November, 1974. The UPP announced its programme to continue struggle against imperialism, feudalism, and the comprador capitalist class. Its programme was similar to that of NAP, but more progressive. A central committee was formed with Abdul Halim Chowdhury, who came from NAP (Mozaffar) and Kazi Zafar Ahmed as President and General Secretary respectively. Within a short period of time, the UPP was able to establish itself as a strong political organization throughout the country. It was possible due to our country-wide network of workers. Then came the unholy announcement to establish one-party rule. It was on 25 January, 1975, the parliament passed the bill in only 11 minutes ending the democratic polity. BAKSAL was formed immediately thereafter. All political parties, including the UPP, were banned. Serious differences between Kazi Zafar Ahmed and his close associates emerged on whether to join BAKSAL or not, and at one stage, he left the country in disguise. He visited many European countries in search of friends and allies in the international arena. He had some successes, too. But just then the greatest tragedy of the century happened in this country. On 15 August, 1975, the great leader of the Bengali nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was killed along with his family members by a group of misguided Army officers. Soon Kazi Zafar Ahmed returned home and went to Tongi. He was arrested there. Khondakar Mostaque was the President. There was an air of uncertainty and fear throughout the country and the ruling clique did not want any steer-ups. So they released Kazi Zafar Ahmed very soon. Events were unfolding in an unbelievable speed. It is not possible to provide a detailed narration or analysis of these events; nor is it the objective here. But the main focus here is Kazi Zafar Ahmed’s support for General Ziaur Rahman and joining his government as a minister.
In the hope of gaining popular support during this critical juncture of the nation, General Zia convened a public meeting in Dhaka’s race course. Thousands of workers from Tongi gathered there at the instruction of Kazi Zafar to make the public meeting a success. Slowly and steadily public support started gathering for General Zia. But the UPP again fell into the abyss of serious differences of opinion on the question of whether to join the nationalist front of General Zia. The central committee of the UPP met for three days and at one point Abdul Halim Chowdhury and Kazi Zafar Ahmed announced their decision to join the nationalist front; alas! the UPP was wrecked. One needs to judge how wise and correct it was to wreck the UPP on the issue of joining the nationalist front. Even more questionable was the decision to take a complete U-turn and start anti-Zia crusade within three months when Ziaur Rahman dissolved the nationalist front and formed Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Often a heavy price has to be paid for dualistic policy in politics.
The later years were even more confusing; more painful. The assassination of Ziaur Rahman, the election for the vacant post of President, the retirement of the newly elected President Justice Abdus Sattar and finally seizing of power by General Ershad, were all stage-managed drama. As if a very powerful remote control was busy in organizing these events from far away.
Kazi Zafar Ahmed joined the country-wide united anti-Ershad movement. It was through his initiative that the BNP-led 7 party united front emerged in parallel with the Awami League-led 14 party alliance. The anti-Ershad movement continued with ups and downs just like a tide; but it never stopped. At some point Ershad started various clever ploys to break up opposition parties and he began to attract leading opposition figures like a skilled magician. He also promised general elections.
This was the most difficult time in Kazi Zafar Ahmed’s political career. Sitting in the office of the UPP at 42/43 Purana Paltan, we often witnessed a white car sent from a special place waiting at some distance. Coming out of the party office, many used to go away in that car; their journey was towards that special place. Gradually Kazi Zafar Ahmed was losing his friends and political associates. After Rano-Menon, he also lost Mannan-Noman when he was leaving Ziaur Rahman. His image of a fiery uncompromising leader of the 1960s was also gradually fading away in the opposition camp. As if he was neither here nor there.
We see a lot of examples of people in power enjoying luxurious life after making tons of money and amassing mountains of wealth. But Kazi Zafar Ahmed was an unusual exception. At the end of his life he did not leave behind anything except half a block of a building in Dhaka. His treatment was carried out with the donation from his well-wishers. He also did not compromise on political questions until his last breath. He harshly criticised Ershad for his vacillations and later capitulation during the general elections of 5 January, 2014 and severed all relations with him.
Yet, controversy about him will perhaps continue. In fact, controversy happens about those from whom expectations are high; those who are epoch-makers; those who soar high in the glaring sky of politics like a shining star, a luminary. Kazi Zafar Ahmed was one of them. Long live Kazi Zafar.
(Mostafa Jamal Haider, a former minister of the government of Bangladesh is the secretary general of Jatiya Party (Zafar-Jamal) He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)