Syed Badrul Ahsan
It is time to recall, in these moments of depressing politics, the times in which Dr. Kamal Hossain was one of our reasons for hope. There is a strange, inexplicable silence into which the former foreign minister and reputed politician has lapsed. But, again, that is understandable. In these past three decades, this nation has not quite derived the advantages, in both the intellectual and political sense of the meaning, it could have had from him because of the careful way in which the politicians who came after him pushed him into the sidelines. Losing Kamal Hossain signified a delinking of our souls with our past, an era with which he was closely associated. Losing him also meant, in a sad way, the nation’s losing its way into the future.
Kamal Hossain is the last survivor of the generation which gave us our greatest cause for happiness and our biggest reason for being as a nation-state. He was a passionate defender of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the so-called Agartala conspiracy case. As the future Father of the Bengali nation vigorously argued the case for the Six Points programme at the round table conference in Rawalpindi in March 1969, it was Kamal Hossain, in association with Syed Nazrul Islam and Tajuddin Ahmed, who underscored the legal aspects of the programme. He was young, he was idealistic and he knew that the future belonged to those who had the courage to speak up for Bengal. Bangabandhu knew of the principles that defined Kamal Hossain. And it was these principles that brought Hossain into active politics, through the elections of 1970. It remains a definitive point in Bengali history that between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s, politics in Bangladesh was forged, practised and made honourable by Bangabandhu and the men around him. Those were times of intense hope and huge dreams. Kamal Hossain was a significant presence in that constellation of stars.
In these decades since the restoration of elected government in 1991, Kamal Hossain’s ought to have been a voice for Bangladesh in the world beyond our frontiers. That he did not become that voice, that he was not given the space to be that embodiment of a vibrant nationhood, speaks of our collective treachery with our history. It was his singular move that saw the Awami League unified under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina in May 1981. It was his spirited campaign for the presidency against Justice Abdus Sattar in November of that year which first informed us that a return to values, after the devastation of August-November 1975, was possible. He lost the election, but through him we won a moral battle. Indeed, morality and principled politics have always been part of the Kamal Hossain persona. When Bangabandhu fell to the forces of counter-revolution in August 1975, he was on a visit abroad as foreign minister. He could have returned home and linked up with Khondokar Moshtaque Ahmed. That he did not, that indeed he chose a life in exile and in intellectual pursuits abroad demonstrated yet once more his loyalty to the ideals along which he had shaped his political career.
It was similar loyalty that Kamal Hossain upheld as a prisoner of the state of Pakistan during the entirety of the War of Liberation. There were the rumours about his role in those dark moments of history. Many were the accusations hurled at him by those who thought he had betrayed Bangabandhu. Unbeknownst to us all, he refused to cave in to Pakistani pressure, to tell the Yahya Khan junta what it wanted to hear: that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was the man who had caused the crisis in ‘East Pakistan.’ Despite his family connections in West Pakistan, despite the chances of his leading a good life minus Mujib and the Awami League, he stood by his leader. As the junta prepared to try Bangabandhu on charges of treason and waging war against Pakistan in August 1971, the Bengali leader demanded that Kamal Hossain be his defence lawyer. That would be a problem, said the Pakistanis, for Hossain could not at that point serve as his lawyer. Bangabandhu, ever the political being, understood then that his constitutional adviser was, like him, in detention. The two men were reunited in January 1972. Bangladesh had come into being.
For all his silence, for all our failure to have him occupy centre stage as Bangladesh’s elder statesman, its voice of wisdom, Kamal Hossain remains our claim on the past and our dream of what might have been. In March 1971, he articulated our case at the political negotiations before Pakistan opted to burn and pillage and rape and murder. As law minister, his was a leading voice in the formulation of the nation’s constitution. In his role as foreign minister, he was a powerful, purposeful and articulate spokesperson for Bangladesh abroad.
In this era of all-consuming mediocrity, Kamal Hossain speaks to us of the brilliance he and his generation personified in the days when Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was our window to the world. His has been a life pursued in dedication to a cause. Our lives could have been an emulation of his.
Syed Badrul Ahsan: Associate Editor, The Asian Age. Contributing Columnist, Shottobani.