Monday, 4 July, 2022

Light Goes Out of the Last Lighthouse

The noted author, playwright, journalist and the man who composed the immortal poem/song ‘Aamar Bhaier Roktey Rangano Ekushey February’ commemorating the sacrifices of the language martyrs of 1952, Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury is no more with us. He expired in the early hours of Thursday in a London Hospital (Iinnah…Razeun). He was suffering from old-age complications for a long time.  Even till his last days in the hospital bed he remained active, participated in webinars, gave interviews in different media or to people proving ‘a good soldier never retires’. He is survived by three daughters and a son. His expiry comes five weeks after the sudden death of his third daughter Binita. Though the nation knows him as Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury, to many of us who were close to him was Gaffar Bhai. He perhaps was the last Light House of Bangladesh whose lights went off in the last two years, most during the pandemic period. The pandemic was cruel for most of the nations, more specifically for Bangladesh as this country now is overwhelmed with mediocrity, people with dubious past and in the forefront of corruption, indulging in all sorts of evils and misdeeds. It lost most of the people who made Bangladesh proud with their works and deeds.  Merit has for a long time taken a back seat and one who can satisfy certain people or groups are the ones who are in the limelight and in the forefront. National Professor Jamilur Reza Chowdhuy was the first to go in the first phase of the pandemic, followed by National Professors Anisuzzaman, and Rafiqul Islam followed by journalist and writer Kamal Lohani, the former Chairman of Bangla Academy Shamsuzzaman Khan and quite a few others.

Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury born on 12 December 1934 in Barisal completed his schooling from the Ulania Junior Madrassa in 1950 and came to Dhaka and completed his Intermediate Examination from Dhaka College and BA Honours from Dhaka University. The day he landed in Dhaka to pursue his higher studies he got involved in different kinds of political movements protesting the anti-Bangali activities by the rulers of the then West Pakistan. As an activist he was always in the forefront but alongside he also began a career in the world of journalism, first in Daily Insaf in 1950. The following year he moved to the Daily Sangbad as a translator. He worked with iconic editors like Maulana Akram Khan (Daily Azad), Mohammad Nasiruddin (Weekly Saugat), Poet Abdul Quader (Monthly Dilruba), Tofazzal Hossain Manik Miah (Daily Ittefaq), Ahmedul Kabir Chowdhury (Daily Sangbad), Obaidul Hoque Sarkar (Daily Pakistan Observer) and many others. He even tried to run a printing press without much success.  His mastery over both Bangla and English was quite high.

In his early days in Dhaka the first thing that he got involved into was the language movement. The language movement virtually began in 1948, March when Pakistan’s founder and first Governor General Mohammad Ali Jinnah came to Dhaka and declared in a public rally in Ramna Race course (now Suhrawardy Udyan) on 21 March, 1948 that ‘Urdu and Urdu shall be the only state language of Pakistan.’ Interestingly only 6 percent of the population of the country spoke the language whereas more than 54 percent, the people of East Bengal, spoke Bangla. East Bengal was the most important part of Pakistan as it was only the people of Bengal who voted for the creation of Pakistan. There was an immediate protest in the meeting to be followed by protests from the   students of Dhaka University the same evening where Jinnah was being given a reception by the Dhaka University authorities.

The movement to declare Bangla as a state language of Pakistan which began in 1948 gained momentum in 1950s resulting in the police firing on a student demonstration on 21 February 1952 in front of present  day Dhaka Medical College, killing number of students amongst whom were Salam, Rafique, Barkat,  Jabbar, Safiur and many others.  Gaffar Chowdhury was in the demonstration procession when the police fired on the students. The firing dispersed the demonstrating students and initially it was not known if there were casualties. Later Gaffar Bhai along with few others went to the Dhaka Medical Hospital and saw the dead and injured lying on the floor. He first saw a dead body which he mistakenly thought was of Shahid Rafique and Gaffar Bhai after many years, in the 90s, came to know that it was of Rafique. The first poem protesting the police firing was written by Mahbub ul Alam Chowdhury (Brother-in-law of another language movement hero late National Professor Rafiqul Islam) of Chittagong on the same day which was recited in a public protest meeting in Chittagong’s historic Laldighi Maidan. Few days later Ghaffar Bhai wrote the immortal poem later sung as a song ‘Ammar Bhaier Roktey Rangano Ekushey Februry’. Originally the poem was distributed as a leaflet without the name of the poet. The leaflet was picked up by another language movement hero, later on a renowned scientist Dr. Abdullah-Al-Muti Sharfuddin handed it over to music composer Abdul Latif who added music to the poem. Later the music for the poem was recomposed by Shahid Altaf Mahmud (killed by Pakistan Army in 1971). The poem was included in the first language commemorative book ‘Ekushey February’ published in the month of March, 1953, a year after the police firing on the demonstrating students and was edited by the noted writer Hassan Hafizur Rahman. The poem was included in the book with the name of the writer Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury for the first time.

Currently the song ‘Aamar Bhaier…’ has been  translated into at least a dozen languages and was selected as the third most popular song in Bangla in a BBC survey, first being Tagore’s ‘Aamar Sonar Bangla’ followed by Shibdas Bandopadhya’s ‘Manush Manusher Jonney’. With the beginning of our War of Liberation Gaffar Bhai crossed over the border into India with his family and joined the liberation movement, and with the collaboration of the government in exile began publishing a weekly newspaper ‘Joy Bangla’ from Mujib Nagar. He was the Executive Editor of the paper and at the same time began writing commentaries for the popular West Bengal’s Bangla Dailies like Daily Ananda Bazar and Jugantor, sometimes contributing for Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra. In his lifetime he worked as reporter, translator, feature writer, editor of Bangla newspapers, wrote stories, novels, composed poetry, wrote plays like ‘Polashi Thekey Dhanmondi, which was later made into a tele-movie. The story revolved around the conspiracy to kill the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. After liberation he became the Editor of Dainik Janapad, but remained close to Bangabandhu. 

Gaffar Bhai had to leave Bangladesh in 1974 for London for treatment of his wife and in 1976 he began editing a Bangla weekly ‘Banglar Dak’, published from London. It was a great honour for me when he published an interview of me taken by him in his edited weekly, perhaps in 1998.  What made Gaffar Bhai popular other than his song ‘Ekushey February…’ was his regular commentaries and columns published in the local dailies, sometimes even in English dailies. Virtually he continued contributing in the local dailies even before he was shifted to hospital just a couple of months back. He was awarded the ‘Swadhinotar Padak’, ‘Ekushey Padak’, ‘Bangla Academy Padak’ and ‘Unesco Award’. Gaffar Bhai always wanted to make a full length movie on the life and works of Bangabandhu which he titled as ‘Poet of Politics’. This was in 2005 but could not begin his dream project because of lack of funds. He even conceived that the Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bacchan would play the lead role and the noted Indian Director Goutam Ghosh would direct the movie. Incidentally Goutam Ghosh is currently in Bangladesh making a documentary on the life of Bangabandhu in Kolkata (Calcutta). Gaffar Bhai, even though his health would not permit it, would visit Bangladesh every other year, the last visit being in April of 2019. Whether in Bangladesh or in England I always made it a point to meet him personally and get lots of inspiration from him. One of my books ‘Nation People and Politics’ was launched by him in his home in Edgware in London. Every Time I visited London I had dinner with him in a nearby restaurant and when later his health would not permit much to go out I would carry the dinner to his house where we  had the dinner together with my former student Dr. Nurun Nabi. 

Though Gaffar Bhai lived in London since 1974 Bangla and Bangladesh never left him. Known as an ardent follower of Bangabandhu and the politics of Bangladesh Awami League he never shied away from pointing out what was not right for the country or what was wrong and boldly expressed his personal views. He thought that the governments hobnobbing with the fundamentalist Hefazat-e-Islam was wrong and it contradicted with the politics of Bangabandhu and Awami League. He expressed his unhappiness at the fact according to him that Bangabandhu’s daughter Sheikh Hasina is quite often surrounded by wrong and dubious people and sycophants. He never compromised with the spirit of Liberation War of Bangladesh, wanted Bangladesh to return back to what it stood for in 1971 and to the ideologies of Bangabandhu. He felt if his daughter fails then survival of Bangladesh will be at stake.

Gaffar Bhai lived a complete meaningful life, gave the nation what he could, was a patriot par excellence and will live forever as long as Bangla as a language survives. He accomplished more in his lifetime than many others of his time. His footsteps in the history of the country will be everlasting. Your deeds will survive longer than your name.  Adieu Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury, the loving Gaffar Bhai. May Allah grant you eternal peace in His Jannat.

(The writer is an analyst and a commentator.)

Source: Sun Editorial