Kamal Hossain remembers Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman with deep affection. And he does not do that merely because the Father of the Nation was the individual in whose tutelage he found his way in politics, indeed rose to political prominence. He recalls Bangabandhu for the larger than life man he was, for the astute political leadership he provided the nation with. As you listen to him reflect on a past that is not to be anymore, Kamal Hossain has a wistful look, one which persuades you into thinking, correctly, that his imagination has taken him on a nostalgic journey into the past.
Dr. Kamal Hossain’s acquaintance with the future founder of Bangladesh came about in the late 1950s when he returned home after completing his law studies in the United Kingdom. It was as yet a time when Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, despite the military rule General Ayub Khan had put Pakistan under, mattered in Pakistan’s politics. But the young Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was quick to see the possibilities in the young barrister who had just come back to the country. There was every hint that Mujib would be utilizing Hossain’s talents in future.
And the future came in the mid 1960s, when Bangabandhu revived the Awami League following the death of Suhrawardy. But for Kamal Hossain, the opportunity to draw truly close to Bangabandhu came in the late 1960s, first as part of Mujib’s legal defence team at the Agartala Conspiracy Case trial and then, once the case had been withdrawn and Bangabandhu travelled to Rawalpindi in February 1969 to attend the Round Table Conference called by the Ayub regime, as his constitutional advisor whose huge responsibility was to explain the legal aspects of the Six Points at the RTC.
Bangabandhu’s great quality was in spotting talent and putting it to use. It is what he did with regard to Kamal Hossain. Indeed, he was convinced that his young protégé would be invaluable both to him and his party as the Bengali nation prepared for the future. Certainly with that outlook on the future, Bangabandhu had Kamal Hossain contest the by-election to one of the seats he had won at the December 1970 election. Hossain was a shoo-in since the 1970 election had, as Bangabandhu had promised, been a referendum on the Awami League’s Six Point programme. In the political but eventually abortive negotiations that followed in March 1971 between the Awami League, the Yahya Khan junta and the Pakistan People’s Party, it was left to Kamal Hossain to work out the finer details of the AL position on the future of Pakistan. It was on Bangabandhu’s instructions that Kamal Hossain informed the junta on 24 March 1971 that moves should get underway to have Pakistan transformed into a confederation in line with the Awami League’s emphasis on a separate, purely Bengali entity for East Pakistan.
Kamal Hossain’s loyalty to Bangabandhu has never wavered. Taken prisoner by the Pakistan army in early April 1971, he was flown, like his leader, to West Pakistan and lodged in Haripur jail in the North-West Frontier Province. The regime had thought that Hossain’s family considerations (his wife was a Sindhi, his brother-in-law was a noted diplomat in Pakistan) would impel him to repudiate Mujib and perhaps even have him testify against his leader before the military tribunal which would be trying him in secret. Given a sheaf of papers to record his statement about the ‘conspiracy’ the Awami League chief had indulged in, notably his move to create an independent Bangladesh in East Pakistan, Hossain spent a whole night writing down his analysis of conditions as they shaped up throughout March 1971. In the morning, having come to his cell to collect his statement, Kamal Hossain’s jailors were shocked and then furious at discovering that he had not lived up to their expectations and had instead detailed the perfidy the regime had indulged in with respect to the political negotiations in Dhaka. He would pay for such behaviour, they warned him darkly, and nothing could save him from the gallows. Then they left.
The fondness in which Bangabandhu held Kamal Hossain was made evident as preparations went on in Mianwali to bring the Father of the Nation to trial before a secret military tribunal. The junta had chosen, without consulting their famous prisoner, Pakistan’s senior lawyer A.K. Brohi as Bangabandhu’s defence counsel, a step the Bengali leader rejected out of hand. He did not accept the lawyer and did not recognize the jurisdiction of the tribunal. At one point, he made it clear that if at all he needed a lawyer, it would be Kamal Hossain. That posed a dilemma for the regime, which could not inform Bangabandhu that Kamal Hossain too was a prisoner in West Pakistan. They simply told him it was not possible to have Hossain defend him. An astute Bangabandhu did not fail to understand that like him his constitutional advisor too was in a state of incarceration.
These are details of a story, or call it history, which Kamal Hossain speaks of as he remembers his leader. His recollections of the dramatic moments when Bangladesh became free and the Pakistani government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was compelled to free him and Bangabandhu are truths that need constant retelling. Throughout the War of Liberation, it was a constant refrain on Shwadhin Bangla Betar Kendra to condemn Kamal Hossain for his ‘betrayal’ of Bangladesh and Bangabandhu. Not until Hossain and his family arrived with Bangabandhu in London in early January 1972 from Pakistan did the world know of the reality. It was Bangabandhu who informed the world that the Pakistani authorities had tried their utmost to have Kamal Hossain testify against him at his trial. Hossain had never wavered in his loyalty to him.
Kamal Hossain’s responsibility in those early days of freedom was to prepare a constitution for the new nation. Bangabandhu conveyed to him the broad outlines, the parameters, within which the constitution ought to be framed. The rest was left to Kamal Hossain and his team. By early November 1972, the constitution was ready. After the election of 1973, Kamal Hossain was entrusted with the responsibility of foreign affairs, in which position he engaged in negotiations with India and Pakistan over the issue of the release of Pakistani prisoners of war then in camps in India. It was a measure of Bangabandhu’s continued confidence in him that he permitted him the liberty of working out as good a deal as possible for Bangladesh. The result was the tripartite agreement of April 1974. And then came Kamal Hossain’s moment of glory when he steered Bangladesh into the United Nations in September 1974.
Dr. Kamal Hossain took a sabbatical from the government in early 1975 to pursue a fellowship at Oxford. It was with reluctance that Bangabandhu let him go, making sure that his position as foreign minister remained intact. Within months, though, he had Hossain return home. His dependence on his minister hardly needed any elaboration. A happy Bangabandhu told Kamal Hossain, once the latter had come back home, that there were surprises ahead for everyone. There was good news, Bangabandhu told Kamal Hossain as the latter prepared to fly to Europe on an official tour in late July 1975. In a cheerful mood, he informed the foreign minister that Tajuddin Ahmad was being brought back into the government. For Kamal Hossain, nothing could be more heart-warming than the prospect of the former Mujibnagar prime minister and post-liberation finance minister returning to the centre of things.
And then tragedy struck.