I went to London in 1994 to do my PhD. My supervisor Phillipe Sands was a well-known legal expert in the international arena. He had earned repute as a lawyer on both sides of the Atlantic. The very day that I met with the busy gentleman, he made mention of Dr Kamal Hossain. I said, “I know him. I even interviewed him.”
At the outset, Phillipe was none too pleased with me and my questionable knowledge as a PhD student. But the moment I mentioned that I knew Kamal Hossain, his entire demeanour changed. For the first time he paid me some attention. I have met with similar experiences while travelling abroad, while working on my fellowship, and attending conferences.
Whether it was at the London International Law Association, the Environmental Law Association in Bonn, the International Court of Justice at The Hague, everywhere leading legal experts and lawyers uttered Dr Kamal’s name with deep regard and respect. The world over, the one name from Bangladesh known for law and human rights is Kamal Hossain.
To us he is known as the principal author of the constitution in 1972, certainly the best constitution at the time. It had innumerable provisions for good governance and people’s rights, including issues of human rights, independence of the judiciary, ministers’ accountability to the parliamentary committees, strong local governance, etc. In later times, various rulers came along to twist and turn the constitution, trampling on its underlying spirit and riddling it with black laws. Kamal Hossain was part of constructing the constitution, never part of its decay.
It is not just in his authorship of the constitution, but in all steps of his life that Dr Kamal Hossain has displayed brilliance. His politics, his legal profession and his social considerations have always been for the welfare of the people, never for anything bad or malevolent. He has always stood up against all that is bad, a symbol of hope, or conscience. Most of his life has been spent fighting against wrongdoings, abductions, killings, exploitation and the desecration of democracy.
Today is the 80th birthday of this living legend. The legends of our independence struggle, Bangabandhu, Tajuddin and the others, did not live long. We are fortunate to have Dr Kamal Hossain among us. This extraordinary man remains very special in the hearts of the people of Bangladesh.
We can categorise Dr Kamal Hossain’s eventful life in three phases. In the first phase we see him as a full-fledged lawyer. He did his PhD and BCL from Oxford and Bar-at-Law from Lincoln’s Inn in London, and began practising as a lawyer in 1959 in erstwhile East Pakistan.
Within a few years he became established as a lawyer of repute. In fighting the Agartala conspiracy case, he drew close to Bangabandhu and became his close political associate too. He won in the 1970 elections as an Awami League candidate.
After independence when Bangabandhu formed a committee to draw up the constitution, it was Kamal Hossain, merely 35 years old at the time, who headed the committee. As one of the closest associates of Bangabandhu, at various times he headed various important ministries, including the law ministry, the ministry for energy and mineral resources and the foreign ministry. He has played a vital role in the promulgation of many good laws and policies.
Things came to a standstill with brutal assassination of Bangabandhu. He has never been able to accept this killing. He remained away from the country for a few years after Bangabandhu’s death. At that time he taught at various reputed universities around the world and was also involved in research. He began winning a sound reputation as an expert on law in international circles.
Upon his return to the country, he set to the task of rebuilding Awami League and reviving democracy. He was also deeply involved in the legal profession.
The third phase of Dr Kamal Hossain’s professional life began after 1990. He was equally active in the streets and in the courts during the 1990 mass uprising. After that as the dreams of democracy, good governance and human rights began to fade, his struggle in politics also grew more difficult. He then became renowned for his expertise in human rights, international energy, maritime and environmental laws.
Age has not been able to hold him back. Broken dreams could not break his spirit. He remains an inspiration for any initiative to establish human rights in the country. He has remained committed and true to the cause.
Dr Kamal is a solemn-faced large man. Hidden within this imposing figure is a sensitive generous heart. He has spent his life by the side of the common people, fighting cases for the poor pro bono.
From teachers, journalists and human rights activists to slum dwellers, helpless persons imprisoned without trial, deprived women and children, so many have been rescued from oppression, harassment and exploitation through organisations established by Dr Kamal Hossain. He has innumerable won cases involving billions of taka for the country, including those against the giant multinationals Scimitar and Chevron. He has brightened the image of the country far and wide on international forums the world over.
He has been recognised and honoured as a frontrunner in the country’s true political, social and intellectual movements. Other than the constitution, he has crafted many important laws. He has played key roles in cases to establish human rights and the rule of law. He has been behind the establishment of innumerable renowned institutions of the country including Ain O Salish Kendra, BLAST, TIB and BILIA.
Dr Kamal Hossain has enviable achievements in the international arena as well. He has been in important positions and as consultant in various top international bodies including the UN and the Commonwealth. He has taught, and worked as a fellow, in world renowned universities in Oxford, Amsterdam, Dundee and other places. He has been the chair in various international arbitrations and been the editor of research journals. He has been judge in international tribunals to settle maritime disputes between countries. His unparalleled talent, oratory skills and personality have taken him extraordinary heights. He has made Bangladesh proud in the international arena.
Dr Kamal Hossain has remained committed to the people of the country. However, after the death of Bangabandhu, has any ruler of the state given him due respect? A few European countries had once taken initiative for Dr Kamal Hossain to be made a judge at the international court of justice. But the initiative fell through simply due to lack of response from Bangladesh.
Had initiative been taken from the state, perhaps we could have seen this man of such stature as the United Nations Secretary General. But no government took any such initiative. Perhaps it was because he has always stood up against injustice and wrongdoing that the governments have sidestepped him. He has no regrets. He is reluctant to speak about himself. He would rather discuss about the country and its state of affairs.
During such deliberations, he is often overtaken by emotion. Bangabandhu invariably enters his conversation. He laments the loss of Bangabandhu’s ideals. But he is a basically an optimistic man. His eyes light up with hope when he talks about a reporter on TV reading Bangabandhu’s unfinished autobiography, or some youth rallying against the Rampal power plant, or someone writing on human rights.
This child-like hope within him fills us with both aspiration and guilt. He is 80 years old. But for a man like Kamal Hossain, this is not enough. He, and persons of his ilk, should live on forever and ever.
*Asif Nazrul is a professor of the law department at Dhaka University
*The article originally published in Prothom Alo print edition is rewritten by Ayesha Kabir.