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Story of a political negotiator

  • Published at 06:03 pm October 31st, 2018
Kamal Hossain
Jurist, statesman, politician, freedom fighter DHAKA TRIBUNE

Is this the return of Kamal Hossain?

It is his moment in the sun once more. 

For Dr Kamal Hossain, political negotiations have been part of life. Many have been the seasons where he was called upon to handle issues, which eventually had a powerful bearing on the history of the South Asian region. 

When, therefore, Kamal Hossain leads a team of his newly formed political alliance Jatiyo Oikyo Front to Ganabhaban for talks with the Awami League on the modalities of the forthcoming general elections, he will certainly not be feeling his way to the deliberations. 

He has been on such a landscape before, more than once. Whether or not he will come away from the talks a happy man, is all dependent on how the ruling party, led by the daughter of the man he has always revered and whom he served in a number of capacities, looks at the issues raised by his team. 

Political negotiations are always a matter of adversaries dealing carefully with one another. The irony about Thursday’s talks is that, for the very first time in his career, Kamal Hossain will find himself debating his former political organization, the AL, on critical issues the country happens to be confronted with. He will be on the other side of the table, facing his former comrades. 

For observers of political history, memories of Sheikh Hasina and Kamal Hossain together rejuvenating the AL in the 1980s will come alive. That includes the presidential election of November 1981 (when Kamal Hossain, as the Awami League nominee, was pitted against the BNP’s Justice Abdus Sattar).

Kamal Hossain’s career makes for fascinating and absorbing reading. He was part of the team which Sheikh Mujibur Rahman led to the roundtable conference called by a tottering Ayub Khan regime in Rawalpindi in February 1969. 

It was left to Kamal Hossain to explain the finer aspects of the Six Points to the assembled politicians, from both the regime and Pakistan’s opposition). In the event, the RTC failed to yield the results so keenly desired by the Bengali leadership. 

But Kamal Hossain was on the way to bigger things. Elected to a National Assembly seat vacated by Bangabandhu after the December 1970 elections, he made a definitive entry into the inner circle of the AL.

When Pakistan People’s Party delegation led by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto travelled to Dhaka in January 1971 to ask for a softening of the Six Points as well as explore the chances of a grand coalition between the AL and the PPP at the centre, it was again Kamal Hossain who put his lawyer’s abilities and energies to good use. 

The Six Points, he explained to Bhutto -- and Bangabandhu and the rest of the senior Bengali leadership listened in rapt attention -- were by no means an undermining of the state of Pakistan. Indeed, a constitutional scheme based on the Six Points would guarantee a democratic Pakistan. Bhutto and his men could not argue back. 

Kamal Hossain’s expertise as a political negotiator was once again put to the test -- when the Yahya Khan junta, Awami League, and People’s Party engaged in the delicate negotiations taking place in Dhaka in March 1971 on Pakistan’s future. The postponement of the National Assembly session had swiftly led to conditions where Pakistan’s existence as a state was threatened. The insincerity of the junta and the PPP with regard to a transfer of power to the AL, could not be overlooked. 

Yet, the AL, unwilling to go for secession, carried on with the negotiations. Kamal Hossain was pitted against the junta’s legal luminary, former chief justice AR Cornelius, and the People’s Party’s constitutional expert Abdul Hafeez Pirzada. He acquitted himself well, patiently and diligently upholding his party’s point of view on the means by which martial law could be withdrawn and power handed over to the elected representatives of the people. 

When the junta procrastinated, Bangabandhu instructed Kamal Hossain to let the generals know that Bengalis were no more interested in a federation. They would now have nothing less than a confederation of Pakistan. The junta and the PPP hit the ceiling. General SGMM Peerzada told Kamal Hossain, he would get back to him over the AL’s new position after consultations with Yahya Khan and the others. 

He never called back, even though Kamal Hossain and his party colleagues waited all day on March 25 for a feedback from the regime. In the evening, Yahya Khan and his team flew stealthily back to West Pakistan. A few hours later, the Pakistan army launched Operation Searchlight -- Pakistan was in free fall.

In solitary confinement in distant Haripur, Kamal Hossain resisted all attempts by the military regime to have him repudiate and condemn Bangabandhu at the secret trial the junta was conducting in Mianwali against the Bengali leader. The junta tried playing on Kamal Hossain’s emotions, knowing that his wife was a Sindhi and his in-laws were placed in important positions in Pakistan. 

The military officers believed he would do their bidding, gave him pen and paper to “expose” the “conspiracy” Mujib had resorted to in March. Kamal Hossain wrote page after page. And what he wrote was a severe condemnation of the perfidy which the junta had committed under the cover of negotiations in Dhaka. The soldiers were livid.

Kamal Hossain was 32 when he accompanied Bangabandhu to Rawalpindi in 1969; 34 when he argued for the AL with Yahya Khan junta in 1971; 35 when as law minister he played a pivotal role in formulating Bangladesh’s constitution in 1972; 36 when he took over as foreign minister in 1973; 37 when he engaged in the Delhi negotiations and oversaw Bangladesh’s entry into the UN in 1974. He was still a young man of 38 when Bangabandhu was assassinated in 1975.

The art of negotiation, by the way, consists of the ability of adversaries to look each other in the eye and carry on a decent conversation.

At age 81, Kamal Hossain returns -- to remind people that negotiations are tough affairs, that results cannot be predicted, and despite everything, they are a necessity in politics. 

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist.