THE TAHER I KNEW
by Lawrence Lifschultz
The Daily Star, Dhaka, Bangladesh
July 23, 2006
On July 21, 2006, the 30th Anniversary of Colonel Abu Taher’s execution, Lawrence Lifschultz gave the keynote speech on the day when Dhaka University publicly commemorated Taher’s life. Lifschultz was South Asia Correspondent of the Far Eastern Economic Review at the time of Taher’s secret trial. He also reported for the BBC & The Guardian (London). He was arrested and deported from Bangladesh while reporting the case. Lifschultz’s speech was published in two parts by Prothom Alo and The Daily Star on July 23rd and 24th, 2006.
I first met Taher in 1974 while I was living in Bangladesh. It was a year of devastating floods that were causing extensive damage to crops particularly in areas such as Rangpur. With crops having been submerged more than five days, the autumn rice harvest was affected which meant landless and land-poor peasants would have no employment or means to buy rice for their own consumption. By autumn, thousands of hungry rural folk were drifting into towns in search of food, work or relief. When I reached Rangpur in October, famine dominated the town and its surrounding areas. It was a scene out of Dante’s inferno with thousands of women and children begging for food. Their men folk had long since left for distant towns in the hope of finding work or relief and to send money home. Many had not been heard from.
It was in this atmosphere that I asked colleagues in Dhaka if they knew anyone who had a sophisticated understanding of the issue of flood control. Was there someone out there who understood the issue beyond the stale ideas that were being repeated year in and year out? A journalist colleague told me there was an interesting army officer who had just published an article in Bichitra where he was advancing innovative ideas that showed a clear grasp of the problem and factors that had contributed to the exacerbation of flooding by the type of development that had been pursued for decades. The officer’s name was Abu Taher.
I sought out Taher at his office. He had recently left the army and was now heading the Sea Truck Unit, an inland water transportation organization. I was fascinated by the man’s ideas. He knew there would be no solution to a future of recurring famines without finding a sustainable and durable solution to the country’s chronic flooding. Taher had researched the approach that had been utilised during the Mughal period. He had extensively studied the subject and what had happened during the colonial period. Clearly, there were lessons to be learned the modern experts were not even dimly aware of. During the Mughal period the authorities had extensively mobilised the rural work force during the dry season to dig out an extensive network of canals designed precisely to facilitate “run off” so that a flooded rice crop would never be under water more than five days—the time threshold until the crop was ruined.
Taher had also concluded that the development of railroads and surface roads since the colonial period had exacerbated the flooding problem by building its transport grid tragedy on an East-West axis. It was an axis that exacerbated crucial “run off” capability required to lower flood levels before crops were ruined. Moreover, the Mughal canal network that had made Bengal a relatively wealthy province had been systematically neglected during the colonial and post colonial period. Naturally, the end result was a severe exacerbation of flooding. Taher argued that the Mughals had organised their land based on transport routes on a North=South axis, augmented where appropriate by river transport, which clearly was and had to be the back bone of the country’s system of commodity transport. It was precisely for this reason he had taken up the post of Director of the Sea Truck Unit after he left the army.
I have only given the barest sketch of Taher’s views. But, what I understood was that I had met a man who was a “scholar soldier” who looked to history to find pragmatic solutions to today’s problems. I knew many people in Dhaka. This was my job as a reporter. But, as I got to know Taher, I found a remarkable synthesis of intellect, pragmatism and commitment to solving Bangladesh’s chronic problems of poverty and underdevelopment. I spent many evenings visiting him and talking into the early hours.
Not only did I learn about his views of guerrilla warfare that he had begun to implement in the 11th Sector during the Liberation War but I also learned about the “new paradigm” for an arm organization that he south to implement when he took command of the Comilla Brigade. Taher had a view that the Bangladesh Army faced a crossroads. It would either replicate the structures and organizational forms of the Pakistan Army or it would fashion itself into a new type of army not seen before in South Asia. If it ended up simply modeling itself ideologically and structurally on the Pakistan model where nearly all the soldiers had received their training, except for post-1971 Mukti Bahini recruits then without doubt the Bangladesh Army at a future stage would become the agency of a military or a military-civilian dictatorship in this country.
In Taher’s view if the Liberation War was to result in a fundamental change for those among the most impoverished strata in Bangladesh, the an army had to emerge that would identify with the interests of the poor. In his view, it could only do so by a new daily practice shaped around interactions with villagers and ordinary people. It would be an army much more than merely a force that carried arms. At this stage Taher called it a “productive army”.
The Pakistan Army like all conventional armies had been an economic drain on the precious resources of the country. Huge budgets diverted funds to defense denying critical resources to schools, hospitals and productive investments. Decades of military dictatorship and domination had insured that Pakistan’s Army had maintained a strangle hold on the country’s economy. In Taher’s view, the army was a great parasite which had been an integral element of the process that had kept East Pakistan poor and backward. He asked if so many lives had been sacrificed to recreate this monster in an independent Bangladesh. His answer was “no” and it certainly would not happen with his participation as an army officer. He would try to show the way to a new paradigm and ally with forces in Bangladesh that saw a greater promise than merely “independence” in a war that his men referred to as the Liberation War.
In the Comilla Brigade, Taher organized his soldiers to be “productive soldiers”. The Brigade had to grow its own food and become self-sufficient as possible so it would not be an economic burden on society. Members of the Brigade had also to go out into the surrounding villages and help local farmers with planting, harvesting and work on irrigation systems. They became known as the “Plow Soldiers”. Some though this amusing but others saw a serious purpose.Taher viewed such daily interaction between soldiers and ordinary people as being critical to changing the culture within the army and the “mentality of domination” that is the psychological bedrock of any army en route to becoming a military dictatorship. This is what Taher would ultimately mean by his concept of a People’s Army in the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.
Taher explained to me that he had left the army because like minded officers like himself who were uncompromising against nascent forms of corruption and favored a movement of a new structure were losing ground. Conventional patters were reasserting themselves. Increasingly, officers being repatriated from Pakistan who had been untouched by the ideological influence of the war, were assuming a greater role.
In meeting with Taher, Mujib was patronizing and simply didn’t grasp how serious the stakes were. The seeds of authoritarianism and military dictatorship were taking root. Mujib could not see this. In good Pakistani tradition, a military coup would happen. Taher intended to be outside the army preparing an alternative when that day came.
In late 1974, I left Bangladesh to become South Asia Correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review which meant I would be based in New Delhi with responsibility for covering all of South Asia. When I said farewell to Taher, I had no sense whatsoever that he was secretly a member of the JSD or was involved in organizing units inside and outside the army who were preparing themselves for the moment when the most conservative elements in Bangladeshi society would assert themselves in a military coup that would threaten to bury democratic rights. What I did sense from Taher was that he had evolved over the years into a “revolutionary socialist”. He had occasionally asked me to bring him a specific book or journal from abroad. He clearly had an interest in socialist economic debates and economic planning as a tool in development. Our conversations reflected an insightful, critical and thoughtful man. It was only after the November 7th Uprising that I saw Taher again. I was surprised to find that he was the military commander of the Uprising. While surprising to me, it was also logical to me. It was Taher’s attempt to put his ideas into practice.
My relationship with Taher remained absolutely professional. When we met in the third week of November, he was already underground. Although he had saved Zia’s life on November 7th (according to Zia’s public claim at the time), Taher and the JSD’s assessment of Zia’s position had been wrong despite Zia’s claims in private that only socialist policies could end Bangladesh’s desperate poverty.
I managed to meet Taher after making elaborate arrangements. I was guided to a rendezvous, by Taher’s older brother, Abu Yusuf Khan. We met for about ninety minutes where I heard Taher’s side of the events surrounding November 7th. As I was preparing to leave, he said I would be welcome back. He was hopeful. He implied their day was coming. I reminded him that I would always be standing far back in the crowd watching him and his colleagues if they came to power. I said, depending on how they acted would determine whether or not I would be “welcome”. I told him if there were arbitrary arrests or worse, I would be the first to report it. In such a situation, I said I may not be welcome. I reminded him that I was a critical skeptic of all power. He nodded, smiled and said he understood my point. I said if you implement your dreams, I will also be there to report it. Create the New Army. Solve the flood control issue. Help the poor cease to be poor. I will describe it all.
We parted. It was the last time I would ever see Taher again. My next encounter with him would be at a distance. I would be standing in front of Dhaka Central Jail the day his secret trial began.
Lawrence Lifschultz was South Asia Correspondent of the Far Eastern Economic Review and is the author of Bangladesh: The Unfinished Revolution.
Editor’s note: July 21st was the 30th anniversary of the execution of Colonel Abu Taher. Today we carry a remembrance written by renowned journalist, Lawrence Lifschultz, who covered Taher’s trial. Tomorrow we will carry Lifschultz’s 3,000 word reflection on the secret trial by special military tribunal in Dhaka Central Jail that concluded with Taher’s execution.