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Remembering Abdul Mannan Chaudhury | A Legendary Figure | Kanihati

Photo caption Abdul Mannan CHAUDHURY in ILO congress in Havana along with Mr. Aftab Ali celebrated labour union leader and Mr. Kamakhyaprasad Trivedi of India
Photo caption Abdul Mannan CHAUDHURY in ILO congress in Havana along with Mr Aftab Ali celebrated labour union leader and Mr Kamakhyaprasad Trivedi of India

Abdul MannanChaudhury was a brilliant man much ahead of his times. In the early days, he showed a restlessness of spirit and did not advance much in formal education. It is not clear if he finished his high school education. Family legend says that he and his cousin, Abdul Hannan Chaudhury (alias Sulaiman), were comrade-in-arms in many youthful forays and often used to go away together travelling in different parts of Assam and Bengal. Their uncle, Tajammul Ali Chaudhury who used to be a civil servant and an influential figure tried to tame these two young men but they were not tameable. Ibrahim and Sulaiman as their family knew them lived lives filled with affection and indulgence. However, instead of floating forever without radar, a form of discipline and focus soon came to the life of Abdul MannanChaudhury. It is not clear what caused it; maybe it was his marriage, maybe it was a realization of his place and potential. By his late 20’s and early 30s he was involved in local politics, agrarian policy reforms, and was taking a keen interest in education. And even though bereft of formal education of any great level he taught himself English to the level that he was engaged in animated discussions with the local English functionaries. Much of that correspondence remains, a result of his meticulous filing of letters. In the 1930’s he became a Chairman of the south Sylhet local board, a forerunner of the administrative unit of what is now the Moulvibazar District thus gaining the popular nickname of Chairman Shaheb. It was an elected post, a very significant one, and was a remarkable achievement for a Muslim in those days. By using that position as a springboard he engaged himself slowly in Sylheti, Assamese and finally Bengal politics.

In the 1930’s he was a delegate of the All India Agricultural Conference in Delhi. In the assembly of Assam, he was engaged in an animated way on education reform. Travelling almost daily and meeting administrators, politicians, and leaders his work in those days appear almost frenetic. By the late 1930’s he had become a well-known and legendary figure in the Sylheti and Assam circle. In the 1940’s he gravitated towards the labour movement, initially as an organiser of tea garden labourers, but also as a general organiser of lower-ranking officers of the British Governments such as teachers, clerks etc. He became the dual champion of getting young Muslims employed in government jobs and demanding good behaviours from the British on behalf of the tea garden labourers.

Numerous documents detailing his activities during this period remain and testify to his energy and relentless pursuit of these goals. His writings and letters from that period also convey a sense of frustration with his colleagues and relatives and friends. It appears to me that he was fish of a larger pond stuck in a small one. The vision and the energy that he displayed in those days would have been more consistent with a role in national politics; however many circumstances, including probably his lack of formal education, truncated his ambition at that time. This was to change, however, as in the latter days of his life, he did receive a national and international platform for articulating his ideas. After 1947 he dedicated himself more strongly to the national labour movement politics of the new nation of Pakistan. He became a member of the delegations that initiated the deliberations of what became known as the ILO or International Labour Organization, a UN agency now based in Geneva. The early international conferences in Bandung (Indonesia), Havana (Cuba) and Geneva formed the basis of drafting internationally accepted labour laws. He became the vice president of the East Pakistan federation of labour and with colleagues, Faiz Ahmed, Aftab Ali, and A.M. Malek travelled the world presenting the viewpoints of the new nation of Pakistan. He has left behind voluminous documents detailing his days of travel in many exotic lands at a time when international travelling of such distances was very rare. Planes used to travel only short distances with many landings, and he provides humorous descriptions of a landing in Iceland on his way to Havana via Miami. He has also left a touching description of his time in Iraq detailing the description of the Mazars of important Sahabis and Islamic saints such as Hazrat Salman Farsi, TaposhiRabeyaBasri, and Hazrat Abdul QuaderJillani. Those were the last years of his life, he would die in 1956, and in his writings, he appears excited animated and shows recognition that finally he had arrived somewhere he always wanted to be. He relishes in describing a visit to HRH Aga Khan in Nice as part of his trip to Geneva. It seems that he relished the verbal banter in these international conferences and the draft of his speech in the conferences, indicates a great control of language and sophisticated thinking of this international issue. But even in those heady days of international travels, his dedication to serving his people remains at the top of his agenda. He spent a lot of effort to make sure that the East Pakistani Sylhetis then living in England could send their remittances properly back home. In those days money had to be sent via Calcutta via hundi, involving unscrupulous middlemen. In his files, there are descriptions of names and numbers of almost all the Sylheti people then living in London and adjoining cities and their problems. He used to then come back and lobby on their behalf in Karachi and Dhaka, seeing people like Abdul Malek, the central minister of Labour and Feroze Khan Noon, the governor of what was known as East Bengal. He was a relentless lobbyist now operating at a national and international level.

At the time of his death in 1956 in his early 60s, he was an active courageous man fighting a disease that was as life-threatening as it is now. He had cancer of the digestive system and he went to London to get himself operated on. His letters written in his last days show evidence of great courage and again a tireless dedication. Even facing death he laments the state of our Madrassas and writes lengthy letters about how to obtain funding for schools. Those letters show the social conscience and personal travails of a courageous man, an affectionate father concerned about the welfare of his sons and daughter, and a deep sense of religious feeling that permeates his psyche. His friends and well-wishers from London buried him in the Brook wood cemetery in Surrey, England. There he lies now, not too far from his labour union colleague Aftab Ali, and surrounded by graves of Muslims from all over the world. A son of Kanihati who often dreamt dreams bigger than he could handle, a courageous man who stretched himself to his limit, and finally a humble mortal, now lies in a foreign land, amongst many other dead of the Muslim Diaspora.

In Kanihati and the surrounding greater region of Maulvibazar, Sylhet, and Bangladesh, his name is now almost forgotten except among the members of his family. In fact, almost all illustrious people of his generation now face this oblivion. We seem to be hell-bent on wiping out great vistas of our history, thus embracing a form of amnesic philistinism. We as a people were not born in 1971; we are a people of long historical roots and travails and we all are children of people like Abdul MannanChaudhury who struggled for the identity we now take for granted. By remembering them we recognise those vital struggles that formed us. This page is thus dedicated to Abdul MannanChaudhury, my father, but symbolically also to my ancestors and forerunners who lived and struggled in the ancient famous and colourful lands that are known by poetic names such as Kanihati, Patanushar, Langella, Kaula and many other names. And similar names and places abound in every district of Bangladesh. These lands in Sylhet and other districts represent the true soul of our nation, and if we want to fashion a genuine and lasting identity for Bangladesh, we must search in these places the logic and elixir of our existence. We must celebrate these names in our history books, in the names of roads and rivers of our villages, and in buildings and structures that dot our cities. We must reclaim our history and be proud of it. This page thus celebrates something bigger than Abdul MannanChaudhury. It seeks to celebrate an attitude. In these pages, signalling the arrival of the cyber-era of knowledge and information, I seek to immortalise the lives and times of the forgotten people of the older generation and form a fountain of knowledge and aspiration from which our children can learn about who they truly are. And that learning would be a proper way of celebrating the legacy of Abdul MannanChaudhury.

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