The Symphony Of Our Times
A memorable study tour
However, I was quite determined to write down activities and thoughts as these occurred every day. It was as if momentary life was too precious a thing to be left unrecorded. It is said that ancient India on account of its overwhelming concern with the concept of life in this world as an illusion and timelessness of the soul did not have much interest in writing history. We are told that the process started with the advent of Turkmen-Afghan rule in the sub-continent. Whatever the historical roots of recorded history might have been my own urge to put happenings and ideas in black and white was indomitable.
I can see in my entry of the March 16, 1959 that from the April 1958 the surging flow of the days prevented me from maintaining regular and detailed diaries. That is how a very significant event in life went unrecorded in its informative details.
This was the 'historical study tour' undertaken by the students of history in Dhaka College during April 1958. The nearly month-long trip by land to northern India and Lahore in Pakistan was organised by the college. History was one of the subjects that I studied in the college with great enthusiasm. A group of 20 students, both of bachelor and intermediate classes, constituted the team. It was led by popular history teacher Mir Anwar Ali.
Among the classmates who went on the tour were Mia Mohammad Nuruzzaman, Mohiuddin Mahmud Hafiz, Abdur Rashid Mia, Mokarram Hossain Bokhari, Monwar Siddiqui and others. Among the seniors, students of BA class were Mr Azizul Haque Khan, the vice-president of the College Students' Union. He was from Narayanganj and had close relations with the Students League, the students' organisation of the Awami League. This was why he could play an important role in making our tour a reality in the face of barriers put up by the educational bureaucracy.
The day in April 1958 when we were scheduled to leave for India, we received the undesirable information that the office of the director, Public Instructions had put a bar on our travel. Their reason was that the college authorities did not obtain their permission for international tour of students. There was no time to go through the normal processes of officialdom. At the initiative of the VP Aziz Bhai, the help of influential youth leader Mr Mostafa Sarwar of Narayanganj was mobilised. Mr Sarwar was a member of the family of Mr Osman of Narayanganj, one of the early and reputed leaders of the Awami League.
Under the leadership of Mr Mostafa Sarwar and Aziz Bhai, we, the crestfallen group, walked in a spirited procession towards a minister's residence at Minto Road. We were encouraged to shout slogans and entered the compound of the residence. Mostafa Sarwar said something to the personal staff of the minister; then a young man in black waist coat came out and assured us that the DPI's bar would be withdrawn and we would be able to travel to India.
Later, we came to know that our benefactor, the youthful minister, was none other than Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib, the architect of Bangladesh, in later years. The affectionate intervention of the leader helped us to go on our historical study tour within the next few days.
The tour of northern India and Lahore in the then West Pakistan was instrumental in introducing us to the historical relics there. It was, by all counts, a memorable event for us young students of the rich history of the sub-continent. We started from Phulbaria railway station in Old Town of Dhaka. It was in early April 1958 that our historic journey by train began. The route lay through Darshana in Kushtia where the train crossed into India. The passengers were, of course, subjected to the usual immigration and customs formalities.
One remembers that these were much stricter at that particular time than any other. The central Pakistani authorities had clamped what was titled 'Operation Closed Door', an avowedly anti-smuggling drive, by the then boarder militia, East Pakistan Rifles (EPR) backed by elements of the Pakistani army. Naturally, we were a bit apprehensive but things went smoothly after a little delay.
Our first stop was Kolkata, the city of my childhood where memory began. I was a bit nostalgic but was awakened to rude reality as our teacher and guide Mir Anwar Ali told us that we had to go to the nearest police station to register ourselves as 'foreign visitors'. That was the state of relationship between Pakistan and India at that juncture. The few days that we spent in Kolkata were spent in visiting relics like the Victoria Memorial, Fort William and other landmarks such as the New Market, Chowrangi and Maidan with its famous monuments.
The journey westward was by train again from the fabled Howrah station. The train that took us to Delhi was aptly titled the Janata Express. We travelled third class with the people feeling like 'New Gandhis'. We remembered the sarcastic remarks of Aruna Asaf Ali, then mayor of Delhi, about Mahatma Gandhi's insistence on travelling third class. She wrote that in order to honour the desire of the great leader, Bapuji, as he was often called by his followers, the Congress workers had to fill the adjacent compartments on two sides of Bapu's compartment to ensure his security. 'Bapuji did not know', she observed, 'how much it cost us to keep him in poverty.'
Our plebeian journey lay through places rich with historical heritages such as Mughal sarai, Kanpur and Lucknow. Thousand years of moving history passed us by as if in montage as the train moved angrily to its western destination.
The two weeks tour of northern India including Delhi with its Red Fort, Shahi Masjid and nearby Fatehpur Sikri, Akbar's impressive tomb in Sikendra all held us spellbound with the magnificent charms of creative time past. In old Delhi of myriad legends, our meal at a roadside stall left its lingering test in our mouths: big chunks of fish freshly fried in boiling oil and served with oven warm 'nans'.
Agra was another splendid experience. The majestic Tajmahal felt like a dream in marble floating against a sky radiantly lit by a full moon. We had to wait on the historic terrace of the Taj for the full moon to appear at the appointed time. Tired after long journey after Delhi, we were half asleep. Suddenly there was uproar. Some people escorted someone very important. A few young men from Kolkata were sitting by our side. One of them said in an impressed voice, 'It is the finance minister Morarjee Desai who comes to see what it would cost to repair one of the damaged minarets of the Taj.'
One remembers the visit to the adjacent temple under slow construction at Dayalbagh. We were shown workmen and artisans busy carving colourful stone slabs to be fitted into the walls. Such was the inimical context of Indo-Pakistan relations even at that time that friend Mohiuddin Mahmud Hafiz said in guarded whisper, 'Look, Shelley! These stones seem like the missing ones from the Taj!' I did not say anything but felt a little sad at the mutual suspicion and distrust that marked the relations between two neighbouring political entities which were one only 11 years ago.
From Agra, our path lay through Amritsar, the holy city of the Sikhs. The Golden Temple floating on a pool of water was a magnificent site. Then it was time to board a bus to the well-known Wagah-Attari frontier post between India and Pakistan. It was an afternoon of the declining sun of late spring; the soldiers on both sides of the boarder looked tall, strong and smart.
Their postures did not seem to reflect the belligerence and hostility that marked mutual relations of India and Pakistan. The Indian border guards were formal but polite and we crossed a short distance on foot to get into West Pakistan. We entered what was then our country though set apart by a thousand miles of a none-too friendly neighbour's territory.
The author, founder Chairman of Centre for Development Research, Bangladesh (CDRB) and Editor quarterly "Asian Affairs" was a former teacher of political science in Dhaka University(1964-1967) and former member of the erstwhile Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP) (1967-1980) and former non-partisan technocrat Cabinet Minister of Bangladesh (1990).