Syed Badrul Ahsan*
Dhaka, November 1, 2018 (Alochonaa):
It is his moment in the sun once more. For Dr. Kamal Hossain, political negotiations have been part of life. Many have been the seasons when he was called upon to handle issues which eventually had a powerful bearing on the history of the South Asian region.
When, therefore, Kamal Hossain leads a team of his newly formed political alliance, Jatiyo Oikyo Front, to Ganobhavan for talks with the Awami League on the modalities of the forthcoming general elections, he will certainly not be feeling his way to the deliberations. He has been on such a landscape before, more than once. Whether or not he will come away from the talks a happy man is all dependent on how the ruling party, led by the daughter of the man he has always revered and whom he served in a number of capacities, looks at the issues raised by his team.
Political negotiations are always a matter of adversaries dealing carefully with one another. The irony about Thursday’s talks is that for the very first time in his career, Dr. Kamal Hossain will find himself debating his former political organization, the Awami League, on critical issues the country happens to be confronted with. He will be on the other side of the table, facing his former comrades who have had their lives and careers bound with the fortunes of the Awami League.
For observers of political history, memories of Sheikh Hasina and Kamal Hossain together rejuvenating the Awami League in the 1980s will come alive. And that includes the presidential election of November 1981 when Kamal Hossain, as the Awami League nominee, was pitted against the BNP’s Justice Abdus Sattar.
Kamal Hossain’s career makes for fascinating and absorbing reading. He was part of the team which Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman led to the Round Table Conference called by a tottering Ayub Khan regime in Rawalpindi in February 1969. It was left to Kamal Hossain to explain the finer aspects of the Six Points to the assembled politicians, from both the regime and Pakistan’s opposition. In the event, the RTC failed to yield the results so keenly desired by the Bengali leadership. But Kamal Hossain was on the way to bigger things. Elected to a National Assembly seat vacated by Bangabandhu after the December 1970 elections, he made a definitive entry into the inner circle of the Awami League.
When a Pakistan People’s Party delegation led by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto travelled to Dhaka in January 1971 to ask for a softening of the Six Points as well as explore the chances of a grand coalition between the Awami League and the PPP at the centre, it was again Kamal Hossain who put his lawyer’s abilities and energies to good use. The Six Points, he explained to Bhutto — and Bangabandhu and the rest of the senior Bengali leadership listened in rapt attention — were by no means an undermining of the state of Pakistan. Indeed, a constitutional scheme based on the Six Points would guarantee a democratic Pakistan. Bhutto and his men could not argue back. They went back to Karachi.
Kamal Hossain’s expertise as a political negotiator were once again put to the test, this time in much more serious form, when the Yahya Khan junta, the Awami League and the People’s Party engaged in the delicate negotiations taking place in Dhaka in March 1971 on Pakistan’s future. The postponement of the National Assembly session had swiftly led to conditions where Pakistan’s existence as a state was threatened. The insincerity of the junta and the PPP with regard to a transfer of power to the Awami League could not be overlooked.
Yet the Awami League, unwilling to go for secession, carried on with the negotiations. Kamal Hossain was pitted against the junta’s legal luminary, former chief justice A.R. Cornelius, and the People’s Party’s constitutional expert Abdul Hafeez Pirzada. He acquitted himself well, patiently and diligently upholding his party’s point of view on the means by which martial law could be withdrawn and power handed over to the elected representatives of the people.
When the junta procrastinated, Bangabandhu instructed Kamal Hossain to let the generals know that Bengalis were no more interested in a federation. They would now have nothing less than a confederation of Pakistan. The junta and the PPP hit the ceiling. General SGMM Peerzada told Kamal Hossain he would get back to him over the Awami League’s new position after consultations with Yahya Khan and the others. He never called back, even though Kamal Hossain and his party colleagues waited all day on 25 March for a feedback from the regime. In the evening, Yahya Khan and his team flew stealthily back to West Pakistan. A few hours later, the Pakistan army launched Operation Searchlight. Pakistan was in free fall.
In solitary confinement in distant Haripur, Kamal Hossain resisted all attempts by the military regime to have him repudiate and condemn Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman at the secret trial the junta was conducting in Mianwali against the Bengali leader. The junta tried playing on Kamal Hossain’s emotions, knowing that his wife was a Sindhi and his in-laws were placed in important positions in Pakistan.
The military officers believed he would do their bidding, gave him pen and paper to ‘expose’ the ‘conspiracy’ Mujib had resorted to in March. Kamal Hossain wrote page after page. And what he wrote was a severe condemnation of the perfidy which the junta had committed under the cover of negotiations in Dhaka. The soldiers were livid.
Kamal Hossain’s skills as a negotiator were once again put to the test in April 1974 at the Delhi talks between him, Indian External Affairs Minister Sardar Swaran Singh and Pakistan’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Aziz Ahmed. The negotiations were tough, with the Indians wanting to have the burden of having to keep 93,000 Pakistani prisoners of war lifted from their shoulders; with Pakistan fervently desirous of getting the PoWs back home in order to prevent any discontent threatening the survival of the Bhutto government; with Bangladesh ready to let all but 195 prisoners, accused of war crimes and therefore to be tried by Dhaka, go home. Aziz Ahmed pledged to have the 195 officers tried by the Pakistani government itself if Bangladesh would let them go. On the basis of that Pakistani promise, Bangabandhu instructed Kamal Hossain to let the officers go free. A tripartite agreement was signed. Pakistan was to renege on its promise.
Kamal Hossain was thirty two when he accompanied Bangabandhu to Rawalpind in 1969; thirty four when he argued for the Awami League with the Yahya Khan junta in 1971; thirty five when as law minister he played a pivotal role in formulating Bangladesh’s constitution in 1972; thirty six when he took over as foreign minister in 1973; thirty seven when he engaged in the Delhi negotiations and oversaw Bangladesh’s entry into the United Nations in 1974. He was still a young man of thirty eight when Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated in 1975.
At age eighty one, Dr. Kamal Hossain returns — to remind people that negotiations are tough affairs, that results cannot be predicted and that despite everything they are a necessity in politics.
The art of negotiations, by the way, consists in the ability of adversaries to look each other in the eye and carry on a decent conversation.
*Syed Badrul Ahsan is Editor-in-Charge of The Asian Age, Dhaka, Bangladesh. From 1997 to 2000 he served as Press Minister at the Bangladesh High Commission, London, and he has been part of adjunct faculties at Dhaka University, Independent University Bangladesh, and University of Liberal Arts. Ahsan is a member of The Reading Circle (TRC) in Dhaka, and has been a Fellow at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi. His biography of Bangladesh’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, From Rebel to Founding Father: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was published in 2013.
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