Unpublished interview of Akbar Ali KhanL: 'Young leadership can change the country, the aging can do nothing'
Writer and thinker Akbar Ali Khan passed away on 8 September. On 15 August, in a conversation with Prothom Alo, he spoke at length about the country, politics, democracy, the administration and his writing. This is, as far as we know, the last interview he had given to any newspaper or media outlet. The interview was taken by Sohrab Hassan and Rafsan Galib.
What do you see in the future of Bangladesh?
I see a good future for Bangladesh. There will be nothing incredible. There won't be any dire crisis as in some African countries. And if we draw a comparison with India, their overall indicators are above Bangladesh. But Bangladesh is ahead in certain sectors. In certain areas India lags behind, such as in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Certain areas in West Bengal too are not faring better than Bangladesh.
In recent times we have seen that the government and the bureaucracy have become one. How can this be resolved?
This can be possible if someone like Jawaharlal Nehru comes to power. It is such a political leader who can retrieve the country from this crisis. Otherwise it will not be possible.
This has become a culture. Will it just continue on in this manner?
We will see the same with whoever comes next too. They will think, if my uncle can become a secretary by dabbling in party politics, why can't I? If he can get away with doing five bad deeds, I will do seven. My son will come and do nine. When one government comes after this one, they will do the same. This happened in our times too.
Do you see any chance of the government changing through the people's votes?
I see no such possibility in the next 10 to 15 years. But youth constitute the majority of Bangladesh's population. The present leadership is aging. If the country can slip out of their grasp and if a young leadership can be built up, then democracy has a future here. If not, things will just continue this way. But I have hope that the youth will arise. I do not know who they are, but I have confidence in them.
The youth who had a role before and after the liberation war, had matured politically. But is the present generation developing in that manner? Do they have the ability to move aside the old leadership and come to the helm?
There will be conflict. After that if some people come forward with proper thinking and if they are successful, then there will be a positive outcome. Otherwise it will not be possible. If BNP comes in place of Awami League and Awami League in place of BNP, it will just be a repetition of the same old story.
Won't such an evaluation benefit Awami League?
Even if it does, Awami League is doing nothing good for politics. This benefit won't benefit the country. And because of this evaluation, people aren't even going to vote. If they do not have any liking, why will they go to vote at the risk of getting beaten up?
We saw people taking to the streets in protest in the sixties, even in the seventies, eighties and nineties, and even in 2007-08. Why don't we see that now?
I will compare the present times with Ayub Khan's decade of development. Ayub Khan wielded absolute power then. Had he not fallen from power, perhaps the 1970 election would not have been held. This may happen in Bangladesh too. Over the next 10 years, sooner or later, perhaps Sheikh Hasina may no longer be in power. A crisis may emerge with her party and Awami League. Young power may arise then. A rapid change may take place. And if nothing else, at least we may be able to proceed down the path of democracy.
Do you see any prospects for BNP?
Someone had told me that Tarique Rahman does not want to come to power at the moment. He wants to come to power automatically after Sheikh Hasina leaves. And Awami League leaders are also worried about what lies ahead. They are completely dependent on one person. Nothing moves without her orders.
It has been like that since independence. Nothing would happen without Bangabandhu's orders. It was the same during the rules of Zia, Ershad and Khaleda. We only saw Tarique Zia from Khaleda Zia's second government.
During Khaleda Zia's first government, there were people like Saifur Rahman and Mannan Bhuiyan. She would heed their words. That was completely absent during her second term. Saifur Rahman would go to various places to wait for Tarique Zia and receive him. When I was in the World Bank, I would see those pictures and would feel very bad. Even Saifur Rahman had to do this or else he would be removed. Such things have reached a height now.
But Sheikh Hasina has not created any alternative.
There are benefits of doing this and problems too. If you bring someone forward now, problems will be created.
You bluntly criticise various policies of the government. Don't you come under pressure?
Not so far. I guess they don't even read what I say.
We asked Badruddin Umar the same question. He said they don't dare. Perhaps they respect you.
Perhaps. But once the lawyer Shahdeen Malik told me that a defamation case was being filed against me because I had remarked at an event that the courts in Bangladesh were gambling dens. Those with money, win there. Those without money, lose. Actually I was referring to a book by an American author, but the judges took affront. A judge instructed a lawyer to file a defamation suit. Shahdeen Malik said you will find out about this in a day or two. That didn't happen eventually. Perhaps someone realised I was quoting from a book, it wasn't my own words. In my book, 'Abak Bangladesh', I wrote strongly about the judicial system. I began with a quotation of Bangabandhu so that I wouldn't get into trouble. Bangabandhu had said there is no way of getting justice in Bangladesh. Truth cannot be established with truth here. Truth is established through lies.
Once a judge met me and said, "I have lost my sleep after reading your book. Who are we hanging actually? Who are we saving? Everything is mostly lies. It is impossible to be a judge here." That is how things are. In the criminal court, death sentences are being passed, but there is doubt how valid the evidence is. I do not think anywhere else police do the things that they do here. They manipulate truth with lies, file a case and submit their investigation report.
Do the civil servants of today or anyone in the government approach you for advice?
No one comes now. They don't even contact me at all. They would, up till 2008-09. I retired in 2001, that is, 21 years ago. Those who are in office now, were very junior then. Some of the senior officers were in contact with me. They have all retired now. I am not in contact with anyone in the government.
Are you in contact with the younger generation, those in politics?
Not really. Many want to meet me, but it hasn't happened. Some from the party of Nurul Haque, who had won the DUCSU elections, wanted to take me to Dhaka University. I didn't go because I had decided that if I was to be involved in politics, I would be involved directly. If not, I would do what I could through my writing. Also, if I had been physically fit, then maybe I would consider it.
What is your next book about?
I want to write a good book in Bangla about the history of Bangladesh. The last one was translated, but it was very factual, not analytical, and so many things may not have been understood by certain readers. For example, what do we understand by Bangladesh? If we say it is the place where people speak Bangla, then we will have to include West Bengal, Tripura and parts of Assam too. Then again, some refer to Bengalis as an ethnic group, but there are huge differences between the Bengalis of West Bengal and Bangladesh's Bengalis. It is said, there was Bangla, not desh. Desh was added to Bangla a little while before the liberation war. The concept of Bangladesh was mentioned in the written documents or the 12th century emperor Rashtrakuta. He had ventured into Bangladesh and there he wrote that Bangladesh is a country that is inundated with water all the year round. It was a detailed description of Bangladesh as a wetland. If we go to Tibet, the root of the world Bangla in Tibetan is 'Bans' that means wetland. 'Banga' comes from 'Bans'. Then again, it is said that the word 'aal' is joined with 'Banga' to make 'Bangla'. Where does the world 'aal' come from? Only the wetlands have 'aal' (ridge between fields) and this is similar to Bangladesh.
How far is the present terrain of Bangladesh naturally formed?
Most of it, if not all, is naturally formed because this is a wetland. The wetlands in West Bengal are a continuity of this. It is completely different once you cross that and proceed towards Burdwan. People from outside also came and settled in those wetlands. That is why there is a grey zone in those areas of West Bengal and Burdwan. Our area is pure wetland. Bangladesh's characteristic is that the rural structure here is very weak. We have villages, but these are hardly villages if we compare these with the village of North India or the South. As there are no villages here, people do as they want. For example, during the Hindu rule, there were Buddhists here. There were all sorts of scripture and systems. People would practice their religions as they pleased. They became Muslims too. As there were Hindus of the lower caste here, they were the ones who became Muslims. But Hindus of the higher caste became Muslims too because the even the higher caste Hindus here were lower in caste compared to the West Bengal higher castes. The Brahmins of Rarh Bengal region would not eat with the Brahmin of this region because they considered them 'impure'. In other parts of India there was conflict among the higher and lower castes, but not here. All this will be discussed in my new book.
What about the second part of your biography?
I will write that too. I want that to be published after my death. I wrote a lot of bad things about a lot of people in the first part (laughs). An autobiography isn't interesting if you don't write about the bad things. The people have the right to know about these things.
Your book on Jibananda and Banalata Sen has been much discussed.
Actually I came to the right way by a wrong track. I had first seen Banalata as a courtesan, but had no proof. But once Jibananda's diary was published, I had no doubt left in my mind about what he wanted to say. I had said a lot of things that I shouldn't have because I hadn't read his diary. Many may criticise me, but that won't change my interpretation. They can swear at me if they want, but I think that the explanation that I gave about the poem 'Banalata Sen' is accurate. No one read it in that manner, or thought of it in that manner. Jibananda's philosophy of life is visible in 'Banalata Sen'. No one really gave this aspect much importance.
Your book 'Porarthaporotar Orthoniti' is hugely popular among the youth. What response do you get from them?
No one sends me any reaction, but there is something interesting about this book. When it was published, I was the finance secretary. I thought it wouldn't be right of me to publicise it. But I did arrange a small book launch. Shah AMS Kibria was the finance minister at the time and I invited him. He came. I gave copies of the book to Rashed Khan Menon and Haider Akbar Khan Rono. Later when he met Sheikh Hasina, Haider Akbar Khan Rono told her about this book. I received a phone call from Ganabhaban and so sent the book there. Sheikh Hasina praised it. Then certain MPs of Awami League began buying several copies of the book. That was good publicity.
Even while in the civil service, you would read and research intensely. How did you manage?
If you take civil service too seriously, you will go mad. You will just spend your time wondering who is conspiring against you, how will you trip someone over, and so on. You can do nothing in the civil service if you remain embroiled in all this. You will find this in most of the civil servants. You have to develop a hobby or something that keeps you away from all this. That is the only way for a bureaucrat to survive. So studying was my hobby.
Thank you too