The Symphony of our Times
First encounter with President Ayub
Life went on at a familiar pace. There was, however, an unexpected happening which led to my second face to face meeting with President Ayub Khan in Rawalpindi in the hot Summer of 1967. The details of that event will follow. First let me relate the first encounter in Dhaka I had with the mighty Martial Law President.
It was 1960. I was student of second year BA (Hons) class and Literary Secretary of the S.M Hall Students' Union. That was a period not long after promulgation of Martial Law and assumption of Presidency by Ayub. One could say that rage and protest against the authoritarian regime was still a few months away. As with all dictatorship the initial days were quiet and peaceful. The regime was in search of the right strategy to continue with their rule. One of the measures was to have meeting with cross section of the people.
Representative and leading students of the Dhaka University was considered such an important cross section. It was in that context when President and CMLA visited Dhaka in 1960. I happened to be a member of the small students group which met him. The venue was the present Foreign Service Training Academy, Sugandha where Queen Elizabeth stayed during her first visit to Dhaka in the early 1950s. We were led by popular senior teacher of Philosophy Govinda Chandra Dev, G.C Dev who became a martyred of the Liberation War as he was shot to death in the Pakistani Army crack down on the night of 25th March, 1971.
We were seated in the well appointed spacious drawing room. As the tall and well built President Ayub walked in, we stood up to greet him. We were impressed but not awed at that youthful time of our life. The President wanted to know us. Professor G.C Dev in his simple but assertive manner told him that we were all bright and leading students of the University Halls. The President then spoke briefly about the reasons why the military had to assume State Power. The explanations and clarifications were familiar as the State controlled media had spoken a lot about these.
Ayub then started talking about the future of the nation. It's youth and the ways of better national integration. I saw a chance to speak on what was still a sensitive matter to the non-Bengali rulers. Despite the abrogated Constitution of 1956 having recognized Bangla as one of the State Languages along with Urdu there was a conspiracy to put Bangla in the back burner especially after the imposition of Martial Law. I stood up and asked the President as to why the State still seemed to prefer Urdu and neglect Bangla? Ayub did not seem to be pleased. Nevertheless, looking at me, he replied "the two State Languages have equal honour and status.
There are technical and bureaucratic obstacles in implementing state policies and it takes time." Then I said, "Urdu is spoken by hardly three percent of the population and yet it gets priority." President Ayub might not have been amused but he concealed his feelings well and spoke in a lighter vein. He observed smilingly, "Yes, it is true but that Urdu as State Language is a fact. I personally do not speak Urdu well enough. I find it full of emotions and sentiments that suit principally the women and poets!" That was the end of that part of conversation. There was, however, more.
President Ayub started discussing the wastage caused by needless higher education for a large number of youth. He said many university graduates failed to find suitable employment; we should therefore, try having a system in which only the brightest and most talented students would get higher education while others would be diverted to technical education which offers plenty of employment opportunities.
I found another chance of confronting the mighty President. I said, "Sir, how do you sift the brightest from the less talented ones? We find in recent history that Winston Churchill was the last boy in the class when at school yet, he became the Prime Minister of United Kingdom and led the allies to victory in the Second World War. Again General Eisenhower when on training at West Point Military Academy, he possibly stood 28th in a class of 35 yet, he emerged as one of the great Generals of the Second World War and President of the United States of America. What would have happened if they were weeded out as untalented in their earlier years?"
President Ayub was taken aback for a few seconds and said, "You know, there are improved techniques to separate the talented and less talented these days. In fact, in the army we have developed tests which are almost fool proof". He then smilingly asked me, "why are you so worried? Are you the last boy in the class?" Before I could say anything Professor G. C Dev replied in a loud voice, "No Sir, he is indeed the first boy." President Ayub then broke into hearty laughter and said, "you see, you have no problem." Thus, closed the last exchange and we were taken to the table for tea and snacks.
Dr Mizanur Rahman Shelley, founder Chairman of Centre for Development Research (CDRB), and former technocrat Cabinet Minister of Bangladesh, died on August 12, 2019. He contributed his writeups to the Daily Observer which are being
published regularly as "The Symphony of Our Times".