Recounting the artist’s protests against injustice
Artist, poet, novelist, researcher, and numismatist Murtaja Baseer passed away in a Dhaka hospital earlier today. I have known him since 1981, when I joined Chittagong University as a lecturer in the English department. Baseer Bhai was then an associate professor of Fine Arts at that university.
Art critics will write about his achievements in and contributions to the field in which he was foremost, as one of the most hallowed and acclaimed artists of Bangladesh. Today, I will only briefly recall an incident that has not been discussed in newspapers in the recent past.
It was in the year 1984, when Major General Hossain Mohammad Ershad was the president of Bangladesh. The army strongman was in the process of consolidating his power. One morning, he suddenly declared the closure of all universities in the country.
The University of Chittagong was, and still is, administered under the university autonomy law enacted by the parliament in 1973 at the behest of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. According to the law, only the syndicate of the university could shut down and reopen the university. The president or the government had no role to play in this. Ershad’s declaration created not only dissatisfaction but a sense of rage among the academics of Chittagong University.
Murtaja Baseer was the president of the Chittagong University Teachers’ Association that year. I was also one of the elected committee members of the association. Baseer Bhai quickly convened a meeting of the CUTA and discussed the presidential order of closing down the university.
After a very long exchange of views, Baseer Bhai’s opinion was, when and if the government decided to reopen the university, all academics would go on strike to demonstrate their dissent of the illegal closure.
In a week’s time, the military-president ordered the opening of Chittagong University. However, the CUTA defied Ershad’s command and requested all academics to refrain from teaching and being involved in all other academic affairs. This was a slap on the face for Ershad, who thought every institution in the country would unhesitatingly carry out his orders.
The strike went on for one long month, and during this time, the CUTA members along with its president Murtaja Baseer, had to frequently travel to Dhaka for meetings with the Federation of Bangladesh University Teachers’ Association. The late Professor Moniruzzaman Miah was the president of the federation.
At one stage, President Ershad had thundered, “I won’t tolerate the existence of a state within a state.” Yet we knew well that it was because of Murtaja Baseer that the military usurper did not dare to incarcerate the members of CUTA.
Finally, after protracted rounds of negotiations with government representatives, the university started functioning normally only after the syndicate decided to do so.
Golam Sarwar Chowdhury teaches English at Notre Dame University Bangladesh.