My Travels with Minister Kamaruzzaman
"To be sure that your friend is a friend, you must go with him on a journey, travel with him day and night, and go with him near and far." - African Proverb
I started working for AHM. Kamaruzzaman in May 1972 when he was the Minister in charge of Relief and Rehabilitation-the ministry that had the gargantuan tasks of reconstruction of war ravaged Bangladesh, and providing help to millions of people uprooted from their homes.
I was a greenhorn in Civil Service then, having worked only in the sub-divisions in 1971, with a short stint in the Prime Minister's Secretariat immediately after independence. I had never seen Kamaruzzaman, but only had heard of him. In a brief interview that lasted only a few minutes, I was asked by Kamaruzzaman to join his ministry immediately as his Private Secretary. I did not know at the time that I would work for him in all his three terms as Minister or that I would be one of the last government officials to see him before he was incarcerated by Khondker Mushtaq in August 1975.
AHM Kamaruzzaman, a minister in three cabinets of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, President of Awami League in 1974-75, is one of the least talked about leaders of the Bangladesh liberation movement. He gave leadership to our freedom movement as Minister for Home Affairs, and Relief and Rehabilitation in the interim cabinet formed in Mujibnagar in April 1971. He was the most recognized political face in North Bengal. He had been a member of the Pakistan National Assembly before the 1970 elections. Kamaruzzaman continued the tradition of parliamentary politics that started with his grandfather who was a member of Bengal Legislative Assembly in 1920s.
In the three years that I worked for him, I came to know Kamaruzzaman as a political leader with foresight, vision, and great empathy for others. Much of this I learnt from days and months of travel with him home and abroad.
He was a literary man with a great sense of humour, a lover of arts and music, and above all a family man. He was a tolerant man who would allow access to even those who were at the other end of the political spectrum during our liberation movement. The man never frowned on any one. He was everybody's Hena Bhai, young and old. I came to know of the qualities of head and heart of this leader more from travels with him than working for him in the confines of the Bangladesh Secretariat.
As Private Secretary I was his travel companion for many of the arduous travels that he took both home and abroad. I watched in amazement how he could travel for hours, sleep little, and meet with scores of people at any time of the day without showing a sign of fatigue. In domestic travels he would marvel me with his capacity to keep himself on a roll for 17-18 hours a day with road travels, public speeches, and streams of meetings with political workers, government officials, and favour seekers that never seemed to end.
He was an eloquent speaker both in public and private audience. In his travels abroad, he would amaze his counterparts with the depth of his knowledge of the country he was visiting, its economy and politics, and above all, by his extremely friendly and informal way he of treating his interlocutors. In his domestic travels I travelled literally all over Bangladesh with him, particularly in his first term as Minister of Relief and Rehabilitation. In his foreign travel as Minister of Foreign Trade, I would accompany him to countries in Europe, USA, Japan, Thailand, Burma, India, and the former Soviet Union.
The first domestic travel that I took with Kamaruzzaman was what I would like to call as my baptism by fire. It was a marathon travel that began immediately after I joined him in May 1972. The travel plan that Kamaruzzaman laid out before me later seemed it would last for months. It would cover six districts-all in the north beginning with Pabna, and ending in Dinajpur. I knew that the Ministry of Relief and Rehabilitation had received four Russian Helicopters for relief operations, and that the Minister could use these for his official travels. After the itinerary was written, I showed him the travel schedule noting helicopter as transportation. The Minister crossed out helicopter, and wrote "by road". Hopes of quick jaunts in the air thus dashed to the ground, I started planning for a road trip over war ravaged roads and bridges, numerous ferry crossings, and travels through hot country sides of northern Bangladesh in a dry and sultry month of May.
Travels to the majority of the districts in 1972 (there were 18 districts then), particularly those in the north, were nothing but frightful adventures. There were three ferries to cross to reach Pabna on the other side of the Jamuna River. Each ferry crossing would take hours, even with Ministerial prerogatives, simply because the number of ferries had dwindled to a handful after the war. The roads were potted with holes, some the size of small ponds. The potholes were created by tanks that had traversed the districts during the war. At points where the bridges were blown away, there were more ferry crossings, or simply one had to drive through the river beds if they were dry.
In that particular May trip to the North, we made it to Pabna town, our first stop, in about eight hours. The local Circuit House, where we sojourned, was already populated by local officials and party followers. Both Minister and his entourage, which included two European NGO officials, arrived in sweaty clothes and dust from head to foot. Kamaruzzaman asked me to look after the NGO officials while he attended to his work in Pabna. I was relieved as that would give me also time to refresh.
I probably had given myself an hour when the Minister's attendant asked me to join Kamaruzzman in the main hall where he was meeting with local officials. I found Kamaruzzaman as fresh as I had seen him in his house early that morning, without a sign of the wear and tear that I was showing in my much younger, twenty-something body. After about two hours of meeting with officials, and perhaps another hour with political workers, Kamaruzzaman announced that we would leave for the next district. I had thought that we would stop in Pabna for the night as planned earlier, but the Minister told me that night travels in hot seasons were more comfortable. With dinner over (a quick meal of rice, fish and daal), an energetic Kamaruzzaman hopped in his car with his security detail, while I followed him in a jeep with the two dog tired foreign NGO officials. The entourage set off for the next stop, Meherpur sub division of Kushtia in the thick of a sultry night.
We arrived in Meherpur before the crack of dawn and lodged into a rest house that was reportedly built in early 1900 by the British. I probably slept for three hours, when I was informed by the Minister's orderly that the Minister was ready for his meeting with the local officials. A fresh looking Kamaruzzaman draped in white kurta and pajama was already in the meeting hall awaiting his interlocutors. With the meeting over Kamaruzzaman asked that we follow him to his next places of visit, villages that were heavily damaged during the war.
The tour of the villages lasted several hours, through dusty roads under a hot sun. Time and again the minister's entourage would be stopped by local people, supplicants for relief in most cases. Patiently he would listen, assure the people that help was on the way, and accept the bundles of applications that were pushed to him by people.
The town of Kushtia was next where we arrived around noon. The chores were similar, meeting local officials, party workers, and supplicants. Before the day was over, the caravan was on its way to the next district, which was Bogra in this case. However, in between Kushtia and Bogra there were impromptu way side meetings where the Minister had to stop and address the gatherings, visit a school, or a hospital all of which required rehabilitation.
We spent the night in Bogra where the Deputy Commissioner had also arranged a musical soiree in the minister. Prior to that there was a formal dinner for the Minister that had to wait as he was having back to back meetings, some of which were taking place in his suite in the Circuit House. The meetings were a sight to behold. The Minister would be sitting in his bed partly reclining on a pillow, while a dozen others-mostly local political leaders would be seated on the bed. There would be others some standing over the headrest, while still others would be sitting idly in the sofas spread in the bed room. It would be my destiny to somehow pull a chair and sit near the minister, and take down notes on follow up actions that he would ask me to take when we would be back in Dhaka.
With fifty people crammed into a small room, the air cooler would be completely ineffective; but Kamaruzzaman would listen patiently, frequently wiping sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief. The fresh kurta and pajama that he had changed into a couple of hours before would become soggy with his sweat, but the man would not seem to dislike it.
Near midnight, the Deputy Commissioner ventured to enter inside and reminded Kamaruzzaman politely that dinner was getting late, and that he had other guests waiting for him. This helped as the Minister finally found an excuse to get rid of the crowd. Again, this was not an easy task. With some cajoling from the Deputy Commissioner and the local MPs, the crowd left. We left to let the Minister refresh himself. Dinner and music later took care of half of the night, leaving about a few hours of sleep for us before we began the next leg of the odyssey.
For next four days we covered another three districts, and countless thanas all in the dusty hot northern areas. The chores in each place were the same, meeting with officials, wayside meetings organized by political workers, night parlays with political workers, and of course lunches at dinner time, and dinners past mid night. Fortunately for the foreign NGO workers, they left our company at Rajshahi where they were to start some relief and rehabilitation work. For us, the official retinue of the minister, the endurance continued.
I can hardly describe the conditions of roads, bridges, and other physical infrastructure in the north ravaged by war. There was scarcely any bridge that was left intact; pavement on the roads had given way to gravels and stones since tanks rolled over them only a few months before. Villages on the way side bore marks of war in school buildings and other solid structures since many skirmishes took place between the Indian Army and the retreating Pakistani forces in these places. In some cases, we also saw remnants of burnt villages.
In areas most affected by the war, there were camps for the returning refugees from neighboring West Bengal districts. These camps were mostly in Rangpur and Dinajpur districts-two northern most districts of Bangladesh. In Dinajpur, the city itself had a war torn look as battles were fought inside the city.
Refugees to India and elsewhere had returned to their war torn villages only to be sheltered in tin sheds put together with bamboo poles in some cases or simply with tarps in other cases. Each shelter was a sight by itself-with hundreds of families in vast camp sites. Tending to all the needs of the millions impoverished by the war in matters of months was an impossible task. But listening to them was probably was not so difficult. Kamaruzzaman made it his mission that year to visit each and every war affected district in Bangladesh, see for himself the conditions of people, and do what he could as Minister for Rehabilitation.
The May 1972 tour of six northern districts was of a dozen other trips that I would endure with Kamaruzzaman. In one and half years that Kamaruzzaman served as Minister for Rehabilitation, he would visit all 18 districts (total number that time) and over two hundred thanas. I myself accompanied him to 16 of the districts, more frequently by road than by helicopters. In his next two terms as Minister of Commerce and Foreign Trade from 1973-74, and as Minister of Industries in 1975 (till his internment in August), I did some repeat travels with him to various districts by road, but these were less frequent.
In the beginning I dreaded the road trips, the bumpy rides through dusty roads, and involuntary and unplanned road side stops. I abhorred the late night suppers and lunches on the go.
I had great discomfort in writing notes in a small circuit house room that was crowded by a hundred favour seekers and politicos. But in time when I saw the appalling conditions of the people ravaged by the war, the bombed out homes and burnt villages, and watched how Kamaruzzaman empathized with the needy that I realized all this was for a cause.
I became a seasoned traveller of the roads along with Kamaruzzaman. This was also my first hand education in grass roots politics-travels bring leaders closer to people. Kamaruzzaman knew more of his country and his people from his travels than by reading reports from officials who served him.
Bangladesh was a war ravaged country through much of the early seventies. Its infrastructure thoroughly broken, and an economy limping largely through foreign assistance, it took more than political leadership to cheer a people who were hardly able to eke out a living in the districts and the villages. The political rhetoric and bureaucratic paper work in Dhaka could not feed the millions.
The relief and rehabilitation work that Kamaurzzaman led in the formative years was grounded on the reality that he had seen for himself from his untiring travels through the length and breadth of the country, and his relentless efforts at providing some succor to the hapless multitudes with international aid efforts. He had made it a routine in his travels for the top civil servants in Dhaka to tour with him to the distant places he would go, follow up on his commitments the next round of visit to the same place, and take to tasks officials who failed to do so. In a number of travels to the distant North, he took as travel companions officials from UNHCR, ICRC, UNDP, and countless other NGOs. Kamaruzzaman led the first efforts to coordinate the activities of the NGOs that were flocking to Bangladesh by creating an office of coordination of International Relief Agencies. His advice to all of the agencies were, travel, travel, and travel-and then get to know what will work and what will not work in Bangladesh.
The author worked as Private Secretary to A.H.M. Kamaruzzaman from 1972-75