He was unerringly on the right side of history, at every crucial stage of his life
I watched the tributes being rolled out ever since he passed away, and wondered what Anis Chacha would have made of all this. He was that rarest of men, after all: Equally at ease both at home and the world, in private and the most public of places.
Whenever the praise got too effusive, he would gently rebuff it with genuine grace, saying he was not worthy of such superlatives. Would that have been his reaction? Or would he have been moved, taken aback that he had meant so much to so many? I like to think he knew.
There were so many lives he touched, after all. All around the world. I am talking, of course, about Dr Anisuzzaman, national professor, recipient of the Ekushey and Independence Day awards, awardee of the Padma Bhushan by the government of India, twice recipient of the Ananda Puraskar, and a host of other accolades far too numerous to list here. The man most educated and socially aware citizens of Bangladesh would think of when asked to name someone who epitomized the collective conscience of this country.
Most, I think, but not all. Because this is a deeply divided and fractious land, with some people holding intractably regressive views of what this country stands for and what it should represent. And those people showed their true colours at Anis Chacha’s passing, vilifying him because he stood for reason and inclusiveness, the values they so virulently detest. Would this have surprised Anis Chacha? Again, I think not.
I get the sense that he knew his country and countrymen too well not to be aware of the ire he raised in some of them. After all, he helped give shape to what was meant to be a tolerant land, unified in its diversity, all those decades ago. It would not have worried him, I am certain. He was steadfast in his convictions regarding what his country needed to be.
Conscientious, enlightened, and intrepid
When you look back at most people’s lives, those of even the most lauded of intellectuals, you are confronted with the wrong turns they took along the way, the blind alleys they went down. Anis Chacha was not one of them. He was unerringly on the right side of history, at every crucial stage of his life. Look back on his career, and you will see the truth of that statement.
Anis Chacha’s contributions during the Language Movement of 1952, when he was just a teenager; his fearless act of academic resistance in editing a volume of essays on Rabindranath Tagore in 1968 in an environment of profound divisiveness and paranoia; at the time of the mass uprising of 1969, the Liberation War of 1971, and to the Bangla version of the original constitution of the sovereign state of Bangladesh, are all widely known.
But as someone who spent his adolescence and early youth in the 80s and 90s eras, in the strife-torn capital city of this turbulent country, what I have always been struck by was his conscientious, enlightened, and intrepid stand on virtually every major issue faced by the people of this country.
He was the person who testified at the Gono Adalat -- the People’s Court -- organized at the Suhrawardy Udyan in Dhaka on March 26, 1992, against Ghulam Azam, the leader of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party and the man responsible for the forming of the Al Badr militia which, along with other paramilitary forces and the West Pakistani army, carried out a campaign of murder, rape, looting, and arson in erstwhile East Pakistan during the 1971 Liberation War, as well as the targeted killing of secular intellectuals towards the end of that war.
It is difficult these days to grasp quite how brave a stand this was in the Bangladesh of the early 90s. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party was the ruling party; they had formed a coalition government with Ghulam Azam’s Jamaat-e-Islami in 1991, and Anis Chacha and everyone else involved in the Gono Adalat movement had put themselves in imminent harm’s way by embracing the cause.
The government duly responded by filing sedition cases against all 24 distinguished people, including Anis Chacha, who were the primary movers and shakers behind the Gono Adalat and intimidating them in every way possible. These cases were not withdrawn until 1995, when a neutral caretaker government led by Justice Habibur Rahman was in power.
All his life, Anis Chacha took a principled stand against the death penalty. And unlike many of us, he did not waver from his position even in the case of the most despised enemy. When the Gonojagoron Moncho movement erupted in February 2013, demanding capital punishment for Kader Molla and other war criminals of 1971, Anis Chacha was one of the most prominent public intellectuals to come out in its support.
But he also steadfastly maintained that the judicial system -- the International Crimes Tribunal in this case -- should be allowed to operate independently and not be put under pressure. He was a lifelong supporter of the Ekattorer Ghatok Dalal Nirmul Committee (the Committee for the Elimination of the Killers and Collaborators in 1971) -- the organization that coordinated the Gono Adalot movement of 1992 -- but always had reservations about the word “nirmul” or “elimination” in its title.
In the dark days of 2015, when there was a sudden spate of killings of and attacks on bloggers, writers, and publishers by Islamist militants, he was famously quoted as saying that along with the freedom of believing in and practicing any religion of one’s choice for the citizens of Bangladesh, we must also ensure the right not to believe in and practice any.
He had always openly maintained that he was a secular humanist, having lost his faith in organized religion of any sort during his youth. It is impossible to overstate how much these words meant from someone of Anis Chacha’s stature in those fraught times, and what they still mean in the increasingly intolerant and parochial environment of present-day Bangladesh.
The hallmark of intellectual honesty
And if the hallmark of intellectual honesty is the ability to reflect on one’s position and review it, Anis Chacha embodied this trait for me. This was a man who had been intimately involved with drawing up the first constitution of the country, the founding principles of which were democracy, socialism, secularism, and Bengali nationalism; yet later in life, he had deep ambivalence regarding the concept of ethnicity-based nationalism in Bangladesh.
In a country which is home to a wide variety of indigenous peoples, each with their distinct culture and heritage and languages, ranging from Asamiya, Mundari, Santali, etc in the north to Marma, Chakma, Mizo, and many others in the south, he came to see Bengali nationalism as hegemonistic -- not inclusive enough, nor representative of the vibrant diversity of this land.
Although the Bengali ethnic identity reinforced the secular character of the new country he and his peers were giving shape to, since Bengalis had been practicing many different religions and peacefully coexisting with each other for centuries, he told me that he had come to believe that having Bengali nationalism as a founding principle had been a mistake, simply because it did not represent all the peoples of distinct ethnic origins who inhabited this country.
I addressed him as Anis Chacha because I had the privilege of knowing him personally. My father, Mufazzal Haider Chaudhury, was his teacher and subsequently his colleague, he and his family were our next-door neighbours at the Dhaka University campus from 1985 to 1995, and my brother married his daughter.
His word was his bond
I knew him then as a diligent, conscientious, somewhat distant man; impeccably punctual, already larger-than-life if not quite the legendary figure he was to become. I only became aware of how exceptional a person he was, in so many different ways, many years later.
At the time of his daughter Shuchita’s marriage to my brother Suman, he personally inscribed the names of the peons and guards of the Department of Bengali, Chittagong University, on envelopes containing individual invitations for all of them. This is a man who was used to socializing with heads of state and individuals of enormous means and surpassing brilliance, yet he made time for everyone.
Commitment was all to him. His children used to jokingly say that he seemed impervious even to the notoriously sluggish Dhaka traffic; if he had promised he would go to four events over the course of an evening, he would somehow make it to all four. I read somewhere that Satyajit Ray was known for suffering fools with grace; Anis Chacha had the rare gift of keeping everyone happy, while making it all seem effortless somehow.
My brother passed away in late December, 2011. His passing was quite unforeseen, absolutely devastating for the entire extended family. One of the memories stuck in my mind from those dreadful days is that of Anis Chacha’s forbearance in the face of inconceivable tragedy. He did all anyone could have expected of him for his family, yet still kept his commitments to the outside world.
Something else that will always stay in my mind when I think of Anis Chacha is an event from late 2018. He had supported my father’s nomination for the Swadhinata Padak (Independence Award), the nation’s highest accolade for civilians, which my father was awarded in 2019. I had compiled the relevant information for the submission of the nomination; Anis Chacha asked me to bring the document to him to have a look at.
He was already ailing then, but as usual, was still at a social gathering, at Dhaka Club this particular evening, attending an event we had also been invited to. I gave the document to him in a cavernous hallroom brimful of people. Anis Chacha took out his pen, and for the next four minutes or so, it was as if all that hubbub and all those people simply disappeared. He corrected this, made amendments to that, every move definite, every gesture precise. Then he smiled and handed the document back to me.
For a precious few moments there, I had a glimpse of the quintessential academic, forever mining the riches of a well-lived life of the mind, yet always able to deal with whatever the world outside threw his way with rare grace and genuine humility.
One of my favourite pieces of writing on Anis Chacha is by his close friend AZM Abdul Ali. In it, Ali Chacha says he saw his friend as a man for all seasons. He stated this more in a social context than anything else: His friend was there for everyone, from close family members to casual acquaintances, from the high and mighty to those of humble means and origins.
It strikes me, though, that Anis Chacha evolved into a man for all seasons for his country and the world also. Just like Sir Thomas More, the celebrated lawyer, humanist, and lord chancellor of England of the 16th century about whom Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons was written, he was always there to speak truth to power and to dispense the right blend of wisdom and common sense, invariably with a touch of his inimitable wit and innate understanding of human nature.
I recall saying to Anis Chacha once that I worried about the state of our country, that I had difficulty recognizing the state he and his peers had so lovingly given shape to, that my father and so many others had lost their lives for, in the land I see today.
Anis Chacha told me it was our responsibility to ensure that this country becomes the land we hold in our hearts. That it was a task that will not be completed anytime soon. That working towards that goal is the lifelong duty of his generation, of ours, and of all the generations that follow.
He is not with us anymore, but his words still resonate. I hope we are listening.
Tanvir Haider Chaudhury has spent most of his career as a banker and is now running a food and beverage company