"The prime minister would call me 'Muhith shaheb'"
Prothom Alo editor Matiur Rahman paid a visit to former finance minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhit at his home in Banani on 21 March to find out how he is doing. Matiur Rahman was accompanied by the newspaper's special correspondent Fakhrul Islam. The discussions with AMA Muhith revealed many facets of the former finance minister's eventful life.
From a very early age there were all signs that Muhit would be meritorious. He is one of the major architects behind elevating Bangladesh to the level of a developing country. As finance minister of the Awami League government, he presented the budget in parliament for 10 years at a stretch. It was during his tenure that the size of the budget expanded. He even set a precedent by voluntarily relinquishing office of finance minister in the eighties.
He strutted in the political and the economic fields with equal aplomb. He was an ardent lover of the arts, literature and culture. He also lent great support to the sports arena. He has spent entire nights under the open sky listening to classical music. All this, despite being the busiest finance minister of Bangladesh.
Abul Maal Abdul Muhit turns 89 this year. On 21 March, lounging on his sofa at home, he spent around an hour talking to Prothom Alo editor Matiur Rahman.
AMA Muhit's grandfather, Khan Bahadur Abdur Rahim, was a deputy magistrate in British India. His father Abu Ahmad Abdul Hafiz was a lawyer. But Abdul Muhit didn't take up his father's profession. He was to be his own entity. His mother Syeda Sahar Banu Chowdhury may not have had any formal education, but was a socially and politically conscious woman. Abdul Muhit said, "The British title went up till my grandfather, but halted there. My father had become a nationalist 'swadeshi'."
Abdul Maal Abdul Muhit was born on 25 January 1934 at home by Dhopadighi in Sylhet. He was the third child. The eldest of the siblings was a sister, now 91. His siblings had a significant role to play in his life.
Muhit recalled his claim to fame when he was just in Class Four. He said, "I was not very meritorious as a child, I did well later, in my matriculation. I stood fifth then. But there was an incident before that that made me famous, though that was by virtue of knowing English. I had an English teacher named Rajan Chowdhury. He went to a government officer back then and said, there is this boy who is very proficient in English. He can present a welcome address to you in your presence. That official visited school one day and I made that presentation. That made me famous!"
Aspirations to be president
Abdul Muhit earned his Bachelor's (Honours) degree in English literature in 1954 from Dhaka University, securing first class. He earned his Master's degree in the same subject the next year. As a student, he was a member of the Salimullah Hall students' union. In 1956 he joined the Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP).
Abdul Muhit said, "My results in the CSP exam were not good. I stood 13. I didn't even want to take the CSP exam. One of my friends said, are you crazy? Just do as I tell you. He made me give my word in front of another friend Latiful Bari and that's how I eventually took the exam."
Muhit went on to say how meritorious his friends Mokammel Huq, Faruq Chowdhury and others were. He recalled he school Bangla teacher Digendranath who was a proficient teacher.
Speaking about his own father, Muhit said, "He had an interesting habit of noting down everything. My mother was a village girl. She had a cousin who was the most educated girl in the area. She had studied up till Class Three. My mother studied and learnt a lot from her khala (maternal aunt), my dada (paternal grandfather) and another sort of grandfather of mine, Abdul Hamid. Hamid dada had won over dadi (grandmother) with telegraphic Morse code. Dadi was so beautiful that people would say she was like a goddess. I didn't see much of that dadi, though. She mostly stayed in Kolkata."
Muhit had the good fortune of studying at Oxford and Harvard. Towards the beginning of the sixties, Muhit wrote a 25 page article highlighting the economic disparity between the two Pakistans.
He upgraded the Tk 95 crore budget to a budget of Tk 4 lakh 40 thousand crore taka. After a 10-year stretch in the finance ministry, Abdul Muhit had aspirations to become president. He said, "I really wanted to become president, but I never told the prime minister about this aspiration of mine. She was the only one I could have told. But I have no grievances about this."
'I will go to Sylhet again'
Pointing out that he had always lent support to the president Md Abdul Hamid, this member of Awami League's central advisory committee Muhit said, "The prime minister never called me by name. At the most she would say 'Muhit shaheb'. Sometimes she would say 'our finance minister'."
While former caretaker government chief advisor Justice Habibur Rahman was on Muhit's list of favourite persons, he doesn't top the list. So who is at Number One? He said, "SM Shafiul Azam (bureaucrat and politician). He was a man of many qualities. Whatever his ideology may have been, he had vast knowledge of any given topic."
Muhit now enjoys spending time with his daughter and grandchildren. He lives at his own home in Banani. In 1971 he had been serving at the Pakistan embassy in the US when he declared his allegiance to Bangladesh. He mobilised support abroad for the Bangladesh Liberation War. That is why in 2016 he was accorded the highest civil honour of state, Swadinata Padak. He has authored 40 books, in English and Bangla. He has a collection of around 45,000 books. There are more books in the publishing pipeline including his own writings as well as some rare information and letters.
On 25 July 2021 Abdul Muhit contracted coronavirus. In the beginning of March this year he took ill again and was hospitalised. After recovering, on 14 March he even went on a visit to Sylhet. On 16 March the Sylhet City Corporation gave him the 'Guni Shrestha Sammanona' (award for highest merit).
Muhit said that Sylhet has a special place in history: "In 1857 during the Sepoy Mutiny, 17 persons were openly killed in Sylhet. This matter really pains me. No matter where I am, I always feel a strong pull for Sylhet. I will go to Sylhet again."