Sunday, June 23, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

(Mis)conceptions, missing names, land, and the Bible

Airbrushing facts or people out of history leaves the world a poorer place
Update : 30 Dec 2021, 07:24 AM

In these past many years, there have been a good number of people who have raised some points about individuals and about politics which merit clarification. 

We begin with Syed Najmuddin Hashim, a scholar who in Bangladesh served as ambassador to Burma and the Soviet Union, as it then was. He also had a stint as minister for information in the regime of General Hussein Muhammad Ershad. In the 1960s, Hashim held a senior position in Pakistan’s ministry of information, a period which saw him work in close contact with Altaf Gauhar, the powerful bureaucrat who served as secretary of the ministry and whom President Ayub Khan regarded with fondness.

The reason I raise the matter of Syed Najmuddin Hashim is simple. During his lifetime and also following his passing at the end of the 1990s, people have bandied about the idea that he was the ghostwriter of Ayub Khan’s Friends Not Masters. In equal measure in Pakistan, there have been people who have regularly spoken of the actual writer of the book being Altaf Gauhar. 

Many years ago, when Hashim bhai -- as I used to address him -- and I were in Kathmandu for a media conference, I asked him if there was any truth to the reports that he was the man who wrote Ayub’s memoirs. It was then that he gave me the full story.

On a particular day in the 1960s, as the manuscript of the book was being prepared, Altaf Gauhar approached Hashim and handed him two chapters to be edited by him. Hashim’s reputation as an excellent writer in English was well-known in Pakistan, which was why Gauhar gave him those chapters for editing. 

Hashim took the chapters home, edited them thoroughly, marking it all in red ink. Editing done, he gave the pages back the next day to Gauhar, who immediately became nervous at seeing all the corrections. “What have you done, Hashim?” That was Gauhar’s plaintive question. The bureaucrat was worried at the probable response to the editing from the field marshal. Hashim’s response was deadpan: “You asked me to edit them and so I have.’” 

The next thing Hashim knew was that Gauhar had him tag along on his visit to the President’s House in Rawalpindi with the edited pages. Obviously, Gauhar was in a state of trepidation in anticipation of Ayub Khan’s reaction to the editing. As Hashim bhai told me in Kathmandu, Ayub was relaxing on the lawn of the presidential residence in Rawalpindi when the two men arrived. When Gauhar gave him the Hashim-edited chapters, Ayub for quite some time went over them. He had not yet looked at Hashim standing beside Gauhar. 

As Hashim bhai narrated the scene, Altaf Gauhar looked truly in a state of misery. At that point, the president, without raising his head, wanted to know from Gauhar who had done the editing. The question unnerved Hashim also, as he told me. In a state of nervousness, Gauhar told Ayub about Hashim. It was then that the president looked up and looked at Hashim. 

“Where are you from?” He asked Hashim, whose answer was that he was from East Pakistan. A couple more questions followed about Hashim’s responsibilities at the ministry of information, after which Ayub told a surprised Hashim and a visibly relieved Gauhar, “Good editing.” He then asked Gauhar to give Hashim a few more pages of the manuscript for editing.

And that, Hashim bhai told me, was the extent of his involvement with Friends Not Masters.

Airbrushing facts or people out of history is debilitating, in the end, for those who do it. I recently went on an online search of the website of the geological survey of Pakistan, my reason being to get into the history of the geological survey as it had originally been set up in undivided India. 

There was a personal reason as well, which is that having served in the geological survey of India at its Calcutta office from 1942 to 1947, my father had opted for the geological survey of Pakistan at partition. He served there till 1971 and after the War of Liberation worked for the geological survey of Bangladesh till his retirement in the early 1980s.

Well, here’s the story: In my search for the history of the department, I came upon a list of individuals who have so far served as directors general of the geological survey of Pakistan. I was left surprised at the fact that the names of two Bengalis who had served as DGs of the GSP were not on the list. 

I recall clearly that the first Bengali director general was Dr AFM Mohsenul Haq. When he was appointed in 1965, a reception was accorded to him by the officers (among whom was my father) of the department at Café China in Quetta. My father was asked to take me, a student of class five, along. The officers handed a garland to me to be placed around Dr Haq’s shoulder, which I did cheerfully.

But on that list of DGs, Haq’s name is missing. The other Bengali who served as director general of the GSP was Waheeduddin Ahmed, but that was after 1971 when he opted to stay back in Pakistan because his spouse was Urdu-speaking. In the course of his tenure, he once visited Dhaka (in the 1980s). These days, as I understand, he leads a retired life in Karachi. His name too is not there on the list, which makes me wonder if the authorities of the geological survey of Pakistan have been on a mission of denying that Bengalis were ever part of it.

Seeing such lapses, I emailed the current DG of the GSP, asking him about the missing names. I have not received a reply.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu is dead. Our world is thus a whole lot poorer. We will miss the goodness which defined him, the expansive soul which was his, and the infectious laughter he spread all around. There was the humane in him, the courage to call a spade for what it is. He coined the term “Rainbow Nation,” presided over the Truth and Reconciliation Commission his friend Nelson Mandela set up in apartheid-free South Africa. He berated the African National Congress when he saw its standards decline.

That was Desmond Tutu. And who can forget the history of African colonization encapsulated in his pithy comment? -- 

“When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, “Let us pray.” We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.”

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

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