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Dhaka Tribune

A few men and women of substance

Who are the luminaries of Bangladesh?

Update : 02 Dec 2023, 01:00 PM

“Would you care for some chocolate?” A question that somewhat baffled a young Amartya Sen on his way to Cambridge University by ship from Bombay to London in 1953. Amartya Sen’s fellow travellers on that ship were Tapan Raychaudhuri on his way to Oxford, who later became a famous historian there, and Romila Thapar, who later became a prominent historian of ancient India and was also on her way to Oxford to study history.

However, the question about chocolate came from Kaiser Murshed (Morshed), who was also on his way to the same destination. In his memoirs, Home in the World (2021), Amartya Sen recounts that encounter: Kaiser Murshed, following his education at Oxford and Lincoln’s Inn and Harvard University, where he did a Master's and, then, rather than practising law, opted to join the then Pakistan Foreign Service. Later, he became the Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh. 

On November 23, 2023, we lost this prodigious son, for whom Amartya Sen recollects in his autobiography:; "I could not later help feeling some parochial sadness that the academic world did not manage to recruit a thinker of such extraordinary promise." Nobel Laureate Professor Yunus wrote a glowing obituary on Kaiser Morshed in Manob Zamin, a Bengali newspaper.

Amartya Sen also mentions Kaiser Murshed’s father KG Murshed -- one of the few Bengali Muslim ICS (Indian Civil Service) officers in British India -- highlighting his reputation for smartness and humanity, a rarity in the colonial administration.

Fast Forward two years, it’s 1955. At Cambridge University, the students’ association for South Asian students was known as Majlish. Oxford too had its own Majlis with Kamal Hossain as its president and Barun De (a prominent Indian historian) as its general secretary. The president of Cambridge University’s Majlis was Rehman Sobhan, with Amartya Sen as its treasurer. They had a friendly debate with Oxford Majlis represented by Kamal Hossain and Kaiser Murshed (Rehman Sobhan too joined the Oxford team to join his cousins and contested against the Cambridge team that comprised Amartya Sen, Arif Iftikhar, who Amartya Sen described as the best debater he has ever seen, and Sadiq al-Mahdi from Sudan). The subject of the debate was “This House Fears China,” defended by Kamal Hossain, Kaiser Murshed, and Rehman Sobhan unsuccessfully.

Fast Forward, 1984, Kolkata, Centre for Social Studies, whose director was Barun De, a prominent historian (whose name I first saw as one of the editors of Past and Present -- a leading journal of history published by Oxford University). I asked him a naive question: Who are the most important historians of Bangladesh in his opinion? Barun De was quick in his reply: Anisuzzaman and Hameeda Hossain. I tried to point out that Anisuzzaman is a professor of Bangla. Barun De explained that his historical works on the Bengali language qualify him for this distinction. Hameeda, with a DPhil at Oxford, focused on the weavers' community of Bengal under the supervision of Tapan Raychaudhury. Hameeda Hossain is cited in Immanuel Wallerstein’s famed Modern World System.

Fast Forward, the early 1990s in Singapore, at a farewell event for Noeleen Heyzer, who was heading to take over as Executive Director of UNIFEM (precursor to UN WOMEN). I asked her if she knew anyone from Bangladesh. Again, she spent no time and mentioned Hameeda Hossain, of course, and then she went on to add: “Whenever I feel upset for any reason, I think of Hameeda Hossain because she is the only person I know who would always smile even in the face of the greatest adversity.”

Amartya Sen also mentions in his autobiography an encounter between Rehman Sobhan and Salma Ikramullah, who came to study law at Cambridge in 1955 and narrates her contributions to protecting the rights of those who need the help most in glowing terms. In 1991, shortly after the assassination of Rajeev Gandhi, she visited Singapore. When Salma Sobhan and Sultana Kamal screened a documentary called Eclipse based on a gruesome salish trial and gave a presentation, Singapore’s women activists, comprised of smart lawyers and academics, were utterly impressed by the eloquence of Salma Sobhan, a sari-clad unassuming woman.

Flashback to 1981, at the Institute of World Affairs, an unremarkable place in Salisbury (near Great Barrington), Connecticut, I met Selig Harrison, a famed American journalist who came to address the workshop participants. My usual question: Who do you know in Bangladesh? “Kamal, Hameeda, Rehman, and Salma” was his immediate response.

Back in the early 1980s, I attended a Development conference in Washington DC. As I was listening to Andrew Young, former mayor of Atlanta, with rapt attention as he narrated his life experience to make a point about the improvement of race relations in the United States, and later exclaimed, "what a great lecture!" The person next to me, a heavy-set respectable American gentleman, told me, "you should have been here last year." The keynote speaker last year, he replied to my question, was a Bangladeshi diplomat, Farooq Sobhan.

In 1996, Columbia University’s South Asia Program organized a celebration for 25 years of Bangladesh’s independence, where I had a chance meeting with Amartya Sen, among other dignitaries, including Gayatri Spivak. As Rehman Sobhan took the podium to recollect his memories of his struggle to mobilize US support for Bangladesh in 1971 as a roving ambassador, he spoke from his heart without notes. He recollected the blaring of Aretha Franklin’s song on the streets of New York. He was so eloquent that Shelly Feldman from Cornell University, who sat next to me, whispered in my ears, “I wish I had his power of articulation.” No mean achievement for a Kolkata-born Bengali.

These are some of the few men and women of substance that we can look up to as role models.

Habibul Haque Khondker is a sociology professor at Zayed University, Abu Dhabi who previously taught at the National University of Singapore.

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