A journey with Rehman Sobhan

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A tribute to the eminent economist, public intellectual, and pillar of Bangladesh’s civil society

“All this is going on; how can I not be there?” 

Five decades ago, in this very month of March, this was how Professor Rehman Sobhan explained to his friends why he was abandoning his quest for a PhD at a prestigious university in England and returning home to a turbulent Dhaka.

Much was going on, indeed. Ayub Khan had just been deposed and Yahya Khan had taken over. Bangabandhu had just been released and was actively organizing his party and getting ready for the promised elections. The penultimate chapter in Bangladesh’s struggle for independence was beginning to unfold. PhDs could wait — but not a nation’s struggle for emancipation.

Throughout his career, this has been Rehman Sobhan’s hallmark — to be where the action was, where society needed his talents the most, oblivious to personal comfort or ambitions. Thus, 50 years later, in the same month of March, as he turns 85, I feel privileged to join hundreds of his friends, students, admirers, and fellow travellers in wishing the eminent economist, public intellectual, social activist, and pillar of Bangladesh’s civil society, a very happy birthday! 

Professor Sobhan, today, as you look back at your exceptional life and career, you must be taking a nostalgic drive down memory lane. You would perhaps remember your days as an undergraduate at Cambridge University where you first developed your crusading spirit and your penchant for politics.

Teachers who had influenced you included Maurice Dobb, Joan Robinson, and Nicholas Kaldor. And, of course, there were your peers: The aspiring economists from South Asia — Amartya Sen, Mahbubul Haq, and Jagdish Bhagwati.

What good times you had then, reactivating the Indian Majlis, of which you became president in your final year, and debating with the Conservative Club which, in a flirtation with naughtiness, you had joined for a term just so that you could attend its meetings and harass visiting Tory politicians with awkward questions. 

You were in your first year at Cambridge when the momentous election of 1954 took place and the victory of the Jukta Front ushered in a new era in the politics of Bangladesh. The events in far-away East Bengal did have its mark on a young undergraduate, several thousand miles away in the tranquil environment of Cambridge. This was possibly your introduction to the politics of Bangladesh and the first time that the East-West disparity issue entered your consciousness. 

You may remember being enthused by this great democratic assertion by the Bengalis. It is not that you were very knowledgeable about Bangladesh at that time, having visited it only once in 1948. Most of what you argued was from first principles — but that did not dampen your enthusiasm one bit. Cambridge politicized you in the context of the democratic struggle of the Bengalis and the East-West disparity issue, and at the same time it radicalized you intellectually. 

You finished your undergraduate studies in June 1956 and, by January 1957, had come to Dhaka. Your choice of Dhaka as the place to settle down may have puzzled many. Neither by birth nor by upbringing were you fully Bengali; your father’s family came from Murshidabad and had settled in Calcutta, while your mother belonged to the Urdu-speaking elite Nawab family of Dhaka. But for someone with such great interest in democratic struggles, Bangladesh was the place to be.

As you told some of us several years ago, you “became a Bengali by ideological choice.” Many years later, you would write in your autobiography: “At that stage of my life, my adopted homeland was for me, an idea, not a real place. I thus chose to make my home in Dhaka, not out of the compulsions of circumstance, birth or ancestral inheritance, but as an ideological decision to proclaim myself as a Bengali.”

In Dhaka, after flirting for a while with the idea of joining the newly created East Pakistan Planning Board, you accepted a job as a teacher at the Economics Department of Dhaka University in October of 1957. Joining with you at the same time were Anisur Rahman and Muzaffer Ahmed.

You would perhaps remember your early days as a lecturer at Dhaka University; teaching monetary theory to the MA class, but really enjoying the economic history course you taught the first year students which included, among others, Fakhruddin Ahmed and Mohammad Yunus.

You may remember the tutorial groups you had formed, perhaps modeled after the tutorials you had participated in at Cambridge, and the post-lecture sessions at the common room where, over samuchas and tea, you argued with your students on all kinds of topics, from the domain of economics to the world of politics. 

The debate on disparity was of course picking up at the time. In 1956, a year before you came to Dhaka, a group of eight Bengali economists, including Dr MN Huda and Professor Nurul Islam, had articulated the view that, because the geographic separation of its two wings severely impaired labour mobility and imposed high transportation costs, Pakistan had effectively two economies. 

In a report on the draft of Pakistan’s First Five Year Plan (1956-1960), these economists also pointed out the growing economic disparity between the two provinces and what had to be done to correct it. As you settled down in Dhaka, you got drawn into these discussions. 

In 1961, at a seminar in Dhaka University, you presented a paper on the idea of “the two economies,” building upon past work by other Bengali economists. The concept and the underlying analysis already had some circulation in academia, political circles, and government. Now it exploded into public consciousness. The seminar was a small affair, but the message reverberated to the highest echelons of power. Ayub Khan, then on a visit to Dhaka, was confronted by journalists.

He asserted that Pakistan had only one economy. The next day, the headlines of the Pakistan Observer cried out: Ayub Khan says Pakistan has one economy, but Rehman Sobhan says there are two. It was the first of many headlines that you would make throughout your career. But it must have been some thrill, being juxtaposed, at the young age of 26, with the all-powerful dictator of Pakistan.

From then on, you were arguably the most public face of the Bengali intellectuals. As your fellow economists, led by Professor Nurul Islam, carried out rigorous research demonstrating the many manifestations of economic disparity and identifying its underlying causes, you took the message to the public in addition to making your own research contributions. In doing so, you illustrated the importance of synergy between rigorous academic work and its vocal transmission to the public arena. 

The 60s were turbulent times and, as you look back now, probably the most exciting of your life. So many memories must be flooding your mind now. The regular gatherings at your house where students came, as did politicians and trade union leaders, leftists of all persuasions — the great split in the leftist camp had not yet taken place — and elite professionals. 

You discussed economics and politics, devised strategies for tackling establishment speakers coming to town, and briefed parliamentarians, for many of whom your house was a regular place of pilgrimage before heading off to the parliamentary sessions in Karachi.

You would also remember the National Association for Social and Economic Progress, NASEP in short, which you had established with Badruddin Umar and your cousin, Kamal Hossain, among others. And, of course, you would remember your evolving association with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. 

A few years later, you decided that the time had come for you to take a break and you set off for England to do a PhD. But your sojourn was short. The movements which started in 1968 took your attention away from studies. You were back on the political track, writing and lecturing, and then, after Ayub fell, decided to take that major step and return to Dhaka.

You picked up the threads from where you had left them. You became closely involved with Bangabandhu. Today, as you reflect, I am sure you remember those long meetings you had with him and, among others, Tajuddin Ahmed, Kamal Hossain, and Nurul Islam, discussing the constitutional implications of the Six Points. 

In the midst of all this, you managed time to fulfill one of your long-standing dreams. Together with Kamal Hossain and Hameeda Hossain, you brought out the “Forum,” modeled somewhat after the New Statesman, mixing political relevance with professional rigour. You must have cherished memories of toiling away in the two rooms above the garage at the Hossains’ Circuit Road house, editing the writings of others, doing your own writing, and, on the day the issues would come out, working till the wee hours of the morning, reading the proofs, waiting till the first prints came out and riding back home with almost the satisfaction of having given birth to a child.

Then, of course, came the elections of 1970, the sweeping victory of the Awami League, the denial by the Pakistani establishment of the legitimate rights of the Bengalis to form a government, and the long-drawn out negotiations with the establishment. You were an intimate part of the drama unfolding then. 

Then came the crackdown. You escaped the wrath of the Pakistan army by the breadth of your hair and managed to cross the border and arrive in Calcutta. There you met Tajuddin Ahmed and other members of the provisional government and, on their instructions, set out for London.

Thus begun your role as one of the chief voices abroad for Bangladesh’s independence movement. The eloquence for which you are renowned came into play fully. You may not remember all your lectures but the people who attended still do. 

A few years ago, a senior Bangladeshi staff of the World Bank recounted to me how he and others in the audience listened spellbound for close to three hours, as you gave a speech articulating the Bangladeshi case at the University of Pennsylvania.  

Your contributions to post-independence Bangladesh are equally remarkable. You joined the Planning Commission and took charge of industry. That may have given you a feeling of déjà vu since a decade and a half ago you had toyed with the idea of joining the East Pakistan Planning Board. One of the many things you did was ensure that the public sector industrial corporations all had sound management information systems. 

I have reason to be personally thankful to you for this; a decade later, as I worked on my doctoral thesis on the nationalized industries of Bangladesh, I was able to collect a huge amount of detailed, firm-level data thanks to this legacy of yours. 

After spending about three years at the Planning Commission, you resigned and joined the Bangladesh Institute for Development Studies, to which you returned in the late seventies after a few years abroad. You would remember the conditions at BIDS then, devoid of leadership, rudderless, and demotivated. 

You turned it around in the 10 years or so that you stayed there. BIDS not only regained its past glory but surpassed it, as it came to be known not only as the premier research institution of the country but as a center for social conscience.

It is in BIDS that I first met you. My association with you started just after my Masters examination in mid-1981. With some trepidation, I approached you in your impressive office at BIDS, which was then housed at Adamjee Court. I said I wanted to work with you and, much to my pleasure, you readily agreed.

We started working on the problem of loan defaults, producing the first thorough research on the subject. Little did we know then that this problem would not only remain four decades later, but in fact intensify.  I was followed by a few others of my generation who came to work with you on your projects — Debapriya Bhattacharya, Binayak Sen, MM Akash, Nazrul Islam, and Ahmad Ahsan. 

You brought us together to work on topics of considerable social importance — self-reliance, development of entrepreneurship, debt-defaults, and privatization. These research projects operated on shoe-string budgets and our salaries were very modest. But for us, it was a labour of love: Love for country and society, yes, but also for you who presented us with this unique opportunity.

We remember both your tough task-mastership as well as the long late-afternoon meetings when you would often open up with us in ways that you did not always do in public. We did not necessarily agree with all that you said or professed, and, over time, our opinions may have diverged even more. But, even now, many years later, irrespective of where our stations are, the memories of those days still sustain us, and the comradeships then forged remain an inspiration. 

In 1991, as Ershad’s government fell, the nation once again felt the exhilaration of a new future, just as it had done in 1971. You were inducted in Justice Shahabuddin’s care-taker government as an adviser for planning. 

The council had a limited mandate, but you had an eye on the future. You were not going to be content just holding the helm for three months. You wanted to work out a vision of development with specific action plans for the incoming government to implement. 

“This would be our legacy for the new administration,” you had said to me once. So, in a Herculean effort, you called about 250 top experts of the country, inviting them to join one of the two dozen task forces that you intended to set up to write the vision and action plans. 

The subjects of the task forces covered a wide range of subjects — from environment to monetary policy, from the energy sector to reviving the jute industry. Almost all responded and, working voluntarily, produced valuable reports on their assigned topics. Anyone who reads these reports now will be struck by how much of this work remains relevant today.

This enthusiastic, collaborative effort inspired you. You told me once: “The experience with the Task Forces in 1991 had a profound impact on me. It confirmed the existence of a huge reservoir of knowledge and expertise which could be mobilized at relatively low cost for the service of the nation.” 

At the same time, you were struck by the degree to which the many years of autocratic rule had created a culture of intolerance, and an indifference to dialogue and the pursuit of consensus on important national issues.

Two years later, you set up an institution to address this problem. Not surprisingly, you gave it the name, Center for Policy Dialogue. 

In some ways, you had come full circle, back to the Cambridge days. There, in the tutorial groups and in debating halls, you had come to appreciate the value of constructive debate, passionate but based on facts and logic. You wanted to bring that culture into the public discourse in Bangladesh.

A “Bengali by ideological choice,” you could have settled elsewhere but chose to devote your life to this land. And that is why, on your 85th birthday, and as we approach the 50th birthday of Bangladesh, we are tempted to forget all conventional notions of life expectancy and wish that you will be here for another five decades — till Bangladesh celebrates its centenary year — continuing to speak out for whatever you feel is right. So much will be happening in your beloved land over the next half century — how can you not be there? 

Akhtar Mahmood writes from Maryland, USA. Recently retired from the World Bank, he worked with Professor Rehman Sobhan at the Bangladesh Institute for Development Studies in the early 80s, researching the development of state-sponsored entrepreneurship in Bangladesh, and later in the mid-80s, investigating the early results from privatization.