‘Conscience of the nation' turns 80

Mizanur Rahman Khan* | Update:

Barrister Amir-ul Islam (right) congratulates Dr Kamal Hossain offering a garland of 80-rose at the 80th birth anniversary of the latter. Photo: Abdus SalamWe pay profound tribute to the living legend of our times. We are talking about jurist Kamal Hossain who is 80 today (Thursday). Pablo Picasso said that youth has no age and we believe that our beloved, respected ''conscience of the nation'', Kamal Hossain too has no age.

I take pride to think that it was possible for me to come to his little attention. I found him generous, his dedication to the masses limitless.

I am fortunate to have listened to his candid deliberations on political history as well as constitutional and court experiences.

I always have found him energetic and lively from the dawn to dusk, even at the dead of night, when talking about the people of Bangladesh. He loves to recall his great association with the father of the nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and Tajuddin Ahmed, among others. He most fondly recalls the heydays of sixties, when the young Kamal Hossain understood that the process of nationhood had started to blossom.

It is not an easy task to list his innumerable credentials of national and international standing. Apart from his contribution to drawing up our Constitution and relentlessly acting as a natural amicus curie in almost all of the landmark cases of the nation's history, I would like to give him most credit for a few things of paramount importance in shaping the nation’s image.

First and foremost, in his foreign ministership, newly born Bangladesh managed to avail crucial ''recognition'' (100 states by September ’73) from across the globe and won admission to the UN (hoisting flag at the UN was a ''defining moment'' for him). The repatriation of occupied forces and triumphant return of the allied forces in due time, elevated the nation's international standing.   

The apparent Chinese and Saudi opposition until 1975 was perhaps not quite correct. China carried out secret jute diplomacy through Kamal Hossain's cousin Ambassador KM Kaiser (a friend of Chou En-lai). And, according to Davis Eugine Boster, the American ambassador at the time, King Faisal sent an unpublicised emissary to Dhaka, but the process was ditched due to the assassination of King Faisal. Boster wrote in the cable on Kamal Hossain's Saudi visit in May 1975: ‘Bangladesh was desperate to build ties with Saudis after China.'

I heard from Kamal Hossain how he convincingly explained time and again to the Sauds that secularism does not confront Islam.’

Kamal Hossain also took the historic decision to buy Shell gas fields at very modest price and terms, which had been leased to Shell during Pakistan times. I see his smiling face whenever he recalls this Shell episode. The Shell boss later lamented to Kamal Hossain that it was their wrong decision to sell such vast gas reserves at such a cheap price to Bangladesh.

Petrobangla won only two cases in international arbitration and these were the cases of Scimitar and Chevron. Bangladesh got the verdict in 2010 against the US oil-giant Chevron, which save Petrobangla around $ 240 million. Canadian Scimitar was won in the early ’90s. Kamal Hossain was the main counsel for the state in both the cases.

A part of Chittagong port area (20.77 Acres) was given 99 years lease to the western company SSA and we even saw that this ominous decision built on unscrupulous national consensus. The AL gave the decision and BNP jumped to implement it. This would be a glaring example to show how a so-called ''national consensus'' could endanger territorial integrity.  In SSA Bangladesh Limited vs. Engineer Mahmud-ul-Islam and others, the Supreme Court rejected the attorney general’s plea in 2003 that the project will pump in $ 450 million, and upheld the arguments advanced by Kamal Hossain.

Kamal Hossain appeared as a one-man army to protect, preserve and defend the territorial sovereignty of Bangladesh.

Superiority of Mujib

It was only couple of weeks ago when I was enjoying his great story telling. I rediscovered the sagacity of Mujib. It was about midnight. Suddenly he told me that Huseyen Shaheed Suhrawardy himself recognised the superiority of Mujib in understanding the dynamics of the politics of East Pakistan.

As usual, I asked him how that could be. He readily cited the Memoirs of Huseyen Shaheed Suhrawardy, first published by the UPL in 1987.

''I told him (Mujib) that your farsightedness was appreciated by your mentor Huseyen Shaheed Suhrawardy''.

But how it was possible since the book was published in 1987, I asked. Indeed that was another story. The manuscript of Huseyen Shaheed Suhrawardy’s memoirs had been deposited for a long time with Kamal Hossain. So what he related to Mujib, had still been unpublished.

The unfinished memoirs were written in 1963, the last year of Huseyen Shaheed Suhrawardy's life and Suhrawardy asked Kamal Hossain to read the first hundred pages in the September of the same year in London.

The book is out of print. Thanks are due to Kamal Hossain's younger daughter Dina, who helped find the book that night amid load-shedding.  I am very much tempted to cite that particular passage for a number of reasons.  In my humble view, it is the most significant passage in the context of present day political and democratic environment, and on the birthday of Kamal Hossain, a close disciple of Mujib.

In the words of Suhrawardy: ''He (Mujib) has doubts that national unity and national integration will solve the problems of East Pakistan.'' Kamal Hossain rightly opined that, ''Suhrawardy saw the culmination of the six points, Bengali nationalism and the ultimate emergence of independent Bangladesh.''

 ''He (Mujib) is not interested in the field of foreign policies as he does not believe that any foreign country should become deeply committed here,'' was the essence of this narrative of Suhrawardy, according to Kamal Hossain, who thinks it is still valid in the present situation.

Secret papers

For last couple of years I have collected some declassified American and British diplomatic cables relating to Kamal Hossain and his diplomatic endeavours which I wish to publish in a book. Today I would like to share a few of these anecdotes.

I found US and British diplomats are always appreciative of the intellectual side of Kamal Hossain. They also find that Kamal Hossain is distinctly different and set apart from the other leaders.   

Senior foreign office official IJM Sutherland was the first man who welcomed our father of the nation as `Head of State'' on his return (along with Kamal Hossain, his wife Hameeda Hossain, daughter Sara and Dina) from the prison of Pakistan. He wrote on 12 January 1973 to Lord Balniel: “He is quiet spoken, articulate... Mujib's closest political and constitutional adviser. However, he is not a member of the AL of long standing, his own political position is somewhat vulnerable.''

Kamal Hossain was killed!

DN Chester of Nuffield College wrote two separate letters on 8 July 1971 to the British prime minister and the high Commissioner of Pakistan respectively calling upon them to save the life of his dear student. He had heard news that Kamal Hossain had been killed! Chester stated that ''I was very upset to see the report in the Time of 2 April that Hossain had been killed.'' Fortunately, and obviously, the report was incorrect.

'Missing minister'

Kamal Hossain opposed the fourth amendment. In silent protest, he left for Oxford two weeks before the bill was passed in January 1975. Indeed this was his unofficial resignation from the cabinet. Naturally, the unusual absence of a foreign minister in the country attracted the diplomatic corps. 

-Kamal Hossain’s narratives in  Bangladesh Quest for Freedom and Justice,  substantially corroborated by American and British secret papers, show that the bond between Mujib and Kamal was unparallel.

Mujib knew that his disciple had deserted him because of the one-party rule. It was clear case of democratic dissent which Mujib took in the right spirit.

His disagreement did not seemingly prevent the president to offer him to take fresh oath as foreign minister from London over the phone. He later acquiesced to the offer in Dhaka.  

Kamal Hossain's position was transparent to the father of the nation, but not clear to many. I think disclosure of a few sentences here from the UK papers might dispel the wrong perception, if any.

British high commissioner at the time, BG Smallman, saw Kamal Hossain's position as ''rapidly seeming defection''. He wrote to London on 24 February 1975: ''Why, otherwise should Kamal Hossain have gone to the extreme of taking his children out of school to give a lecture or so?''

But on 11 February, Ray Whitney informed the FCO that Kamal Hossain was ''distinctly unhappy'' and ''wished to resign'' over the change. Whitney concluded: “This is by no means surprising given the part he played in the drafting of the original constitution.'

To me Kamal Hossain is (as always) and will remain a torch bearer of establishing justice and rule of law for which millions fought in our great war of liberation. 

In the post 1975 era, he played a pivotal role in ending military rule and was instrumental in bringing Sheikh Hasina at the helm and subsequently ''moved out'' from the party following the 1990's election defeat related ''dissent''.

I found that Kamal Hossain has kept alive the essence of the values of Bangabandhu and Tajuddin and still remains their true disciple.

It is a disgrace for the state to be insensitive in honouring the man with whom the state founder was sensitive to until his last breath. At least our Postal department can publish a commemorative postage stamp to mark his 80th birth day. It would be commensurate with the admiration given to him by the father of the nation. 

Long live Dr Kamal Hossain!  '


*Mizanur Rahman Khan is the joint editor at daily Prothom Alo

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