With the passing of Nur-E-Alam Siddique, the curtain falls on yet another phase of Bengali nationalist politics. Siddique was among the young stalwarts of the movement which, through its loyalty to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was to provide rich substance to Bangladesh’s struggle for freedom.
Part of the affectionately termed group of ‘Four Khalifas’ around the Father of the Nation, Siddique was a key player in the students’ drive for a complete break from Pakistan at a time when it became clear that the Yahya Khan junta was blatantly engaged in efforts to thwart Bengali aspirations as expressed through the results of the general election of December 1970.
Nur-E-Alam Siddique, ASM Abdur Rab, Shahjahan Siraj and Abdul Quddus Makhan were the voices of the young, indeed of the student community, which acquired increasing degrees of militancy in March 1971. And once the Pakistan army launched its genocide, these four men, along with their peers in the movement, made their way out of the occupied country to organise resistance from across the border.
At a time, though, when Tajuddin Ahmad was finding it hard to fashion an organised political and military strategy, the latter bit through giving shape to the Mukti Bahini, Siddique and his friends opted to be part of the Bangladesh Liberation Force (BLF), otherwise known as the Mujib Bahini. It was a force which refused to acknowledge the authority of the Mujibnagar government, an act which did not endear it to those engaged in the war under the authority of Acting President Syed Nazrul Islam and Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmad.
The liberation of Bangladesh should have been a period of consolidation of national ideals, a process to which Siddique and his friends could have made stellar contributions. That did not happen, as by mid-1972, a bare few months after the end of the war, Siddique, Rab, Makhan and Siraj went their separate ways. The struggle came to be concentrated on the Chhatra League, with Rab and Siraj intent on according to it a measure of socialistic ideas that had obviously not been properly spelt out.
For Siddique and Makhan, the Chhatra League would be a vehicle for a furtherance of the political philosophy which underlay the War of Liberation. In the end, the Chhatra League split down the middle, with the Siddique faction organising its conference at the Engineers Institution and the Rab group opting for Suhrawardy Udyan. This was in July 1972. Both factions expected Bangabandhu to attend their conferences. On the other end, public feeling was that Bangabandhu would stay away from either of the conferences. In the end, however, he turned up at the conference of the Siddique faction.
The opportunity was thus given to the Rab faction to move in a direction opposed to the Awami League government. Later that year, the formation of the Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal, with its programme of scientific socialism -- a concept never adequately explained by the JSD leadership -- marked the official split of Rab and Shahjahan Siraj with the post-liberation government.
In the years following the rise of illegitimate military rule in the country in August 1975, history took a disturbing course. It quite makes sense to ask if Bengali nationalist politics could have been strengthened had the four young men of the Chhatra League not fallen out and had the JSD not taken shape. Nur-E-Alam Siddique was elected to the Jatiya Sangsad in the country’s first general election in 1973.
Years later, Siddique made fresh attempts to enter Parliament but fell short of his expectations. He moved out of politics and focused on business, a career move which turned out to be lucrative for him. In the later years of his life, television viewers often saw him appear on Channel-I’s Tritio Matra and reflect on national politics. His was the sole presence on the show, with anchor Zillur Rahman fielding the questions.
A brief journey back into the past throws up interesting, sometimes intriguing, images of the paths taken by Siddique’s three comrades in politics. Abdul Quddus Makhan did not live long, but as long as he was around, his loyalty to Awami League politics remained beyond question. Shahjahan Siraj, once a fiery exponent of scientific socialism and a key voice in the JSD, at one point made a U-turn in politics by joining the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). He served as minister for the environment in the BNP-Jamaat government led by Begum Khaleda Zia in 2001-2006. Siraj’s life came to an end some years ago.
The JSD, the original form of it, is now memory. Over the years it splintered into a good number of factions. Major MA Jalil, a reputed freedom fighter and first president of the party, eventually went for a right-wing political shift. He would die in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. Out of the JSD would emerge such outfits as the Bangladesher Samajtantrik Dal (BSD), led by Mahbubul Haq. The JSD, inspired by Colonel Abu Taher, instigated a segment of general soldiers of the Bangladesh army into rebellion against officers in the aftermath of the Nov 7, 1975 counter-coup.
Scores of officers would be killed before General Ziaur Rahman, who had been freed by Taher’s loyalists from home confinement (in which position he had been placed by General Khaled Musharraf on Nov 3) went for a surgical strike against Taher, Jalil and Rab and their followers. In effect, Zia broke the back of the JSD. Taher would be court-martialed and executed in July 1976. Rab, after spending time in prison, was freed and allowed to travel to Germany for medical treatment.
ASM Abdur Rab would in the Ershad years reinvent himself in politics. With the Awami League and the BNP boycotting the parliamentary election called by General Ershad in 1988, the field was left open for Rab to take his place as leader of the opposition. He took it eagerly and played that role until the fall of the regime.
In 1996, the Rab faction of the JSD took a new road to politics by aligning itself with the Awami League and overseeing the defeat of the BNP at the June 1996 election. The Awami League, unable to win a clear majority, went into a political arrangement with Anwar Hossain Manju’s faction of Ershad’s old Jatiya Party and Rab’s JSD. Rab assumed office as minister for shipping in the government.
In the last few years, Rab’s political trajectory has covered anti-Awami League alignments, such as the one which in the period before the 2018 election included the BNP and had Dr Kamal Hossain, law and foreign minister in Bangabandhu’s government and Awami League presidential candidate in November 1981 before making his way out of the party to form the Gano Forum, playing a leading role.
The contributions of the four militant young men, the collective spirit behind the Shwadhin Bangla Kendriyo Chhatra Sangram Parishad, firm in their loyalty to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the heady days of March 1971 and in the subsequent armed struggle for liberation, will forever be recalled with respect and deep gratitude by this nation. Of these four men, only one -- ASM Abdur Rab -- remains.
Our skies have changed colour since those tumultuous times when these young men served as the voice of the young, when it looked as if the future would be theirs to forge as a second generation of Bengali political leadership. Much water has flowed under the bridge since those days of struggle, with the water often being muddy. That second generation was not to be.
Our scholars owe it to the nation to conduct research on Siddique, Makhan, Rab and Siraj. These men were instrumental in shaping, in a distinctive way, a critical stage of Bangladesh’s national history. That stage, in the lead-up to the guerrilla struggle and through the long, tortuous months of the war, should be an official part of the record.
History must be penned in all its broad outlines, in all its finer details.