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Maniruzzaman Miah, as I knew Him

by June 17, 2016 General

Although he was more of a guru and mentor to me, Professor Maniruzzaman Miah was also a very good friend of mine. He was also a very close family friend.  This obituary of this great man isn’t an emotion-charged eulogy or tribute. What I write here simply reflects my candid, honest thoughts about the departed soul. My superlatives about his virtues and qualities simply reflect my deep appreciation, love, and admiration for this great man. His death is a personal loss to my family, and me; and I believe, for the entire nation of Bangladesh.

Days after my joining Dhaka University as a lecturer in February 1973 , my friend, renowned historian Ahmed Kamal introduced me to Professor Miah, and other progressive faculty members at the Arts Lounge of Dhaka University, viz. Ahmed Sharif, Serajul Islam Chowdhury, and KAM Saaduddin. He was exceedingly polite and civil, which is quite rare among many; academics, bureaucrats, and politicians at times could be very arrogant, loud, self-promoting, vain, and not-so helpful to others. Not him. He was urbane, modern, humourous, soft-spoken, kind and gentle, erudite and humble. He would love to dress up, and was a connoisseur of good food until he had a heart by-pass in 1991. He, however, remained a good and generous host, till his last days.

What was most striking about him – besides his disarmingly sombre demeanour and politeness – was his empathy for others, beyond his class, close associates, friends and family. He was a very good listener. As he was respectful and kind to his colleagues and friends, so was he to the ordinary people: rickshaw-pullers, his chauffeur, cook and members of the working classes in general.

He played a heroic role in the liberation of Bangladesh. He never ever took any undue advantage from the State or from anybody else for his role in the Liberation War. He was in Tikka Khan’s hit list, and narrowly escaped death at the hands of Pakistani occupation Army. He, however, never talked about it in public. 

 Many people – including my past and present colleagues at various universities in Bangladesh – aren’t aware that Dr Maniruzzaman, along with a handful of other professors of Dhaka University, played the most important role in the eventual enactment of the Dhaka University Order by the Bangladesh Parliament in 1973. In 1969 and 1973 as the Secretary of Dhaka University Teachers’ Association, he played the key role in drafting the Dhaka University Order, to ensure autonomy or relative independence of the University from government control (like any other public/government-funded university in the civilised world). As a follow up to the Dhaka University Order, the government subsequently made the other public universities in Bangladesh autonomous too.

 I recall his untiring efforts in organising relief operations in Dhaka city during the famine of 1974. Hundreds of starving people were dying on footpaths, and in and around the Dhaka Stadium and Kamalapur Railway Station, everyday. He was the main coordinator of collecting and distributing dry food – mainly bread and powder milk – from Nilkhet-New Market area among famine-stricken people, who mostly came to Dhaka from the northern districts of Bangladesh.

He was known for his strong secular views and preference for socialism to capitalism. He, however, never imposed his philosophy on his friends, colleagues, and students. As the Vice-Chancellor of Dhaka University for a short span of time – around three years – he never gave any preferential treatment to anybody only because they subscribed to his ideology. In fact, some Dhaka University teachers shared with me what they thought of him as Vice-Chancellor. To them he was simply “pathetic”, and “useless” to teachers belonging to his own group, as he would often select teachers from other groups for various administrative positions in the University. There were three different quasi-political groups of teachers at Dhaka University, White, Pink, and Blue.

 It’s noteworthy, by the late 1980s the erstwhile leftist/socialist Maniruzzaman Miah started lending open support to the BNP, preferring it to the Awami League or whatever was left of the leftist politics in Bangladesh. He was not alone. By early 1990s, many left-oriented and even pro-Awami League politicians, including university teachers, had shifted their allegiance to the BNP. However, some of his very close friends and comrades at the University were totally disillusioned with him for this decision.

What I’ll miss for the rest of my life is the small anecdotes Professor Miah would share with his friends, from time to time. Unlike some people, who would always brag about their connections, families, intelligence, honesty, scholarship and achievements, he would always be least pretentious, and humble. He would only talk about certain institutionalised corrupt practices at our universities and certain government departments, including the Anti-Corruption Commission, where he worked for a while. He would avoid naming the corrupt, as his intent would always be to rectify the system, not to denigrate people, dead or alive. But sometimes there were exceptions to his rule; he would reveal names, which I avoid disclosing here.

 I give an example of his honesty, dignity, and self-respect. While he was the VC, he had no money to get a heart by-pass operation outside Bangladesh, as there were no good hospitals in the country in those days. He badly needed the surgery, but his principles and self-respect wouldn’t allow him to ask the Prime Minister money for his treatment, from the state coffer. By the way, on someone’s asking the PM to do so, Mrs Zia is said to have remarked: “He’s a bachelor. He has lots of money. He doesn’t need any state funding for his treatment”. Professor Miah narrated this anecdote with a big laugh. He never justified taking any money from the state coffer for any VIP’s treatment. I couldn’t agree more with his uprightness and dignity.

 He also refused to request the NUH cardiologist and surgeon to waive their fees, unlike some other “poor” Bangladeshis had done before. He told me point-blank: “Look! I’m a vice-chancellor from Bangladesh. My country is poor, but I’m not a beggar; I’ve my own dignity and self-respect”. He borrowed money from his younger brother Arshaduzzaman for his treatment. And thanked me and my family a million times for what he thought we had done for him by merely offering him a place to stay in Singapore, before and after his surgery. Hats off Professor Miah!

The writer teaches security studies at Austin Peay State University in the US. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Global Jihad and America: The Hundred-Year War Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan (Sage, 2014).