|Rebel with a cause
Debapriya BhattacharyaOn an occasion when one is confronted with the lifetime popular works of such an outstanding scholar as Professor Sobhan, one is seized by an urge for introspection. One feels inclined to take a step back and assess the context, concerns, and challenges confronting his life and time.I reckon his family circumstances played a big role in shaping Rehman Sobhan’s values and attitudes in life. While his mother was an enlightened member of the Nawab family of Dhaka, his father, who took retirement from the colonial Indian Police Service, opted for Pakistan, went on to become the political secretary to the prime minister, and subsequently served as an ambassador.Indeed, his father belongs to the first generation of post-Pakistan entrepreneurs, and established one of the first tanneries in Dhaka. Born in 1935 in Kolkata, Rehman Sobhan grew up at a time when the anti-colonial movement was gaining momentum in the sub-continent; he witnessed the decadence of the feudal structure, noted the limits of growth of the new Muslim middle class and observed the constrained prospect of the emerging entrepreneurial class in the then East Pakistan.An excellent academic environment nurtured and cultivated his natural ability to critically observe and assess his surroundings. He associated himself with the marginalized social groups on the one hand and the forces of promise and hope on the other.Rehman Sobhan’s alma maters included St. Paul’s School in Darjeeling, Aitchison College, Lahore and Cambridge University. His subsequent academic pursuits took him to such institutions as Oxford and Harvard Universities and many of the reputed centres of excellence in the academic world.
Fifty years back, in 1957, Rehman Sobhan started his professional career in the Department of Economics, University of Dhaka — where he taught till the beginning of the War of Independence in 1971. For many, Rehman Sobhan, first of all, is a teacher who still pursues his engaging augmentative style with great erudition while establishing his heterodox viewpoints.
I do not know whether through his teaching Professor Sobhan has affected eternity or not, but he has definitely influenced a number of generations of students, imbibing them with academic excellence, nationalistic feelings and, often, with a sense of purpose in life.
For many of us Rehman Sobhan is a “liberation economist” (as there are liberation theologists). He is an economist who devoted his talent to the search for a socio-economic paradigm, which could liberate the people of this country from the threats of ignorance, poverty, and insecurity. Some have complained that Rehman Sobhan was biased in his intellectual pursuit.
Yes, biased he was! He was biased towards the marginalized and the deprived, the voiceless and the disenfranchised people of this country. The storyline of all his works were underpinned by his quest for social justice, equity, and equal opportunities for all.
He emerged as possibly one of the most effective economists in Bangladesh to date, whose political economic analysis and perspectives will generate confidence and enthusiasm for future generations who will seek to empower the citizens with their effective rights.
Rehman Sobhan’s bibliography not only reveals the odyssey of a Bangladeshi economist creating the milestones to independence, engaging in defining the development prospect of a newly born country, but also reflects the country’s subsequent struggle for socio-economic development. His seminal contribution in formulating the economic premises for the independence of Bangladesh, better known as the “Two Economies Theory,” is an achievement that would have been enough for a life-time.
But he never slowed down. His writings are a true reflection of the developmental debate, discourse and experience that Bangladesh has undergone over the past years. Thus, we see that major themes of his works have sequentially covered such areas as political implications of the Food for Work Program of Ayub Khan, role of public enterprise in an intermediate regime, crisis of external dependence, debt default, agrarian reform, critique of adjustment policies reforms, anatomy of mal-governance and, finally, strategies for eradication of poverty. He was always the first to address the idea whose time has come.
He taught us to blend academic rigour with civic courage. An example of this was publication of the monograph “A Decade of Stagnation” during the heydays of the anti-autocracy movement, a time when he was the head of a semi-government organization, BIDS.
We later smuggled the monograph to the donor community’s annual aid group meeting held in October 1990. In fact, he was only 25 when his article on economy of East Pakistan was withdrawn by the Pakistan government because it was found to be politically unacceptable.
In this connection we cannot but mention Professor Rehman Sobhan’s role as a freedom fighter. He crossed over to India during the early months of the Liberation War in 1971, and was appointed “Envoy Extraordinary” in charge of economic affairs for the provisional Bangladesh government in exile.
In this capacity, he was the first representative of the provisional government to reach US in the month of May 1971. He was the first to address the leading US senators to apprise them about the cause of Bangladesh. At that time, he had the unique distinction of addressing the National Press Club of Washington D.C., an honour, which is sometimes accorded to the heads of states. Rehman Sobhan continued to mobilize international opinion till the victory day.
While appreciating the role of individuals, Rehman Sobhan has always demonstrated his belief in collective actions. Thus, he remains one of the successful institution builders in the country. The launch of the post-independence Bangladesh Planning Commission, rejuvenation of BIDS in mid-1980s, and founding of the CPD in mid-1990s bear testimony to his organizational capacity and leadership qualities. As a leader, he has always strived to create and promote people with conviction, and the will to carry on the task of nation building.
Many of you are possibly not fully aware that Rehman Sobhan has been, and remains, a distinguished personality in the international development community. He was a member of the United Nations Secretary General’s Committee for Development Planning, member of the Executive Committee of the International Economics Association, member of the Commission for New Asia, member of the boards of UNRISD and the UN University.
He was a member of the Group of Eminent Persons set up by Saarc heads of states, and also of the high level panel for the LDCs set up by UN-Escap. His forceful interventions in various forums are often respectfully recalled by those who did not necessarily agree with his propositions.
He resigned from the famous Volker Commission, which was headed by the former head of the US Federal Reserve, when he disagreed with him on his approach towards restructuring of multilateral financial systems, arguing for better resource flow to low income countries.
At the end of the day, what always impress us are his human qualities — his noble values and good manners, his care for his low-paid colleagues, inconspicuous public charity, active interest in diverse issues in life, and the strength to suffer personal tragedies gracefully.
Indeed, he has a deep and real inner life, which allows him to deal with the irritating details of the mundane. He finds time to pick the latest blockbuster from the DVD store, and also to pen a long review after reading Vikram Seth’s “A Suitable Boy.” Many of us who have learnt our trade at his feet received a bonus in the form of appreciation for pursuing high thoughts with passionate human interests.
One wonders why a man who is responsible for articulating the economic rationale for Bangladesh’s independence movement, who played an active international role for the provisional government, who shaped the reconstruction and development policy of post-independence Bangladesh, who with his research and policy works has systematically tried to create a self-reliant national economy, who for four decades has stuck to his guns in adverse conditions and has contributed in creating an independent civil society in Bangladesh — was never honoured with national recognition.
On second thoughts, it does not come as a surprise, Professor Sobhan had always been on the other side of the barricade — fighting against the establishment for the development rights of the poor and the marginalized. He was always a rebel with a cause.
Thus, his real recognition emanates from the affection and respect of his students, colleagues and conscious citizens at large. To quote Voltaire, “It is to him who masters our mind by the force of truth, not to those who enslave them by violence (and may I add, money), that we owe our reverence.”
Dr. Debapriya Bhattacharya is Executive Director, CPD. This piece is an edited version of his introductory statement at the publication launch of the Collected Works of Professor Rehman Sobhan on March
Rahman Shoban Bhai is a member of Dhaka nawab family.we are very proud of his Achievements.wish him our best wishes and love Reaz Salim