HE DIED as he lived, in quiet composure. He met the awesome challenges of existence with the dauntless spirit of a sportsman. Nurul Islam Anu, 78, breathed his last in Dhaka on October 18, 2017. Even a week before his sad demise, he did not look or act his age. As an adviser to a big business house and leader of a large private bank in Bangladesh, he remained quite busy. Yet as an amiable and romantic person he found time for social engagement and relaxing hours with friends. He had usual health problems but rarely complained about these to his kins and friends. That was the quintessential Nurul Islam Anu. The exciting, rich and varied experiences he had as a civil servant and self-effacing political activist prepared him well for his little publicised final year. Nevertheless, during the last days of his life he showed like a bright star in galactic distance. Modest and courteous to the core, he never spoke about his glorious past. Younger generations only learnt about the full range of his achievements after knowing him for quite some time.
Nurul Islam Anu was a unique product of unique times: The 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. He was a brilliant student and outstanding sportsman of the Dhaka University during the early 1960s. It was a rare combination, but then, he was rarer than that, a good human being. His unassuming ways endeared him to all who met him. On his part he easily became ‘a part of all (he) met’. Even as a student he displayed his commitment and devotion to the cause of Bengali self assertion against the internal colonialism of the pre-1971 Pakistani state. He was a leading member of the then East Pakistan Student’s League. Along with elite civil servant Rafiq Ullah Chowdhury (father of honourable speaker Shirin Sharmin Chowdhury) and elite diplomat late ambassador Humayun Kabir, he was exceptionally an urban, sophisticated and smart member of the Student’s League of the ’60s. In fact many of us, their juniors, were their admirers even if we did not join their student’s organisation. Anu bhai, (elder brother) even after he joined the elite Civil Service of Pakistan, loyally maintained his connection with the guardian political entity of the student’s League, Bengali nationalist platform the Awami League. In the process, he came to enjoy the generous affection of the founder of the sovereign and independent Bangladesh, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. That was what made it possible for him to serve as prime minister Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s first private secretary in liberated Bangladesh. By a stroke of capricious fate, Nurul Islam Anu served from 1971 as private secretary of the then governor of East Pakistan, Admiral Ahsan, the notorious occupation period of governor Lieutenant General Tikka Khan and Bengali civilian AM Malek. He quietly helped the Bangladeshi struggle for liberation in many ways even from his sensitive post. For instance, he saved the lives of the top Bengali officers in Dhaka in early December 1971 by secretly asking them not to come to a meeting in the government house now Bangabhaban on one of the last days of occupation. If they came to the meeting, the Pakistani occupation forces would have shot them to death. Despite all this, he would have come to grief just after liberation if his vibrant connections with the Awami League did not exist. He was posted to Washington DC as first secretary of the Bangladeshi mission in the USA in 1974. This happened shortly before the tragic assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and most of the members of his family on August 15, 1975. Nurul Islam Anu’s fortunes faced fresh reverses. Regime-change caused him the loss of his diplomatic job. He became virtually stranded in the United States. He rebuilt his career as an independent businessman in Washington DC.
Before and after this great divide in his life Nurul Islam Anu continued to help and serve other human beings in need. In this he acted as the torch-bearer of the tradition of his respectable family of Munshiganj-Bikrampur. His uncle, a noted law maker Abdul Hakim Bikrampuri, was an epitome of modest living and selfless service to society. Nurul Islam Anu followed his ideal and served others with sincere altruism. Even when he did not have ample resources he assisted indigent, low-middle class men and women to make both ends meet.
Again he used his well-earned position and influences to help others in trouble. In 1967 when I was threatened with the loss of my job as a Dhaka University teacher and about to be denied entry into the elite civil service because of an adverse intelligent report on account of my role as a student leader in the anti-autocratic movement during the early 60s, Anu Bhai himself a new entrant in the service came to my help. He, along with Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir also a member of the erstwhile CSP, lobbied quietly but effectively to neutralise my adverse police report. As a result, I was able to get into the service and served for about 13 years. Then in 1980, I voluntarily resigned from the job. At this juncture, also Nurul Islam Anu gave me moral support that helped to lift my spirit. It was a cherry blossom time, April in Washington DC of 1980. I was in town on the international visitor’s programme of the US State Department. I had tendered my resignation before coming out of Bangladesh. I wanted to break free of bureaucratic bonds and pursue an independent career. In Washington I spent two wonderful days with Anu Bhai at his place in Bethesda near Washington. I found that not only me but prominent political leaders of the Awami League and top civil servants used Anu bhai’s apartment as ‘Caravanserai’.
Nurul Islam Anu sincerely believed in service above self. As elsewhere, in Washington also he used his car as a virtual, free taxicab to carry friends and ex-colleagues to their offices in the town. Among his regular ‘passenger- friends’ were such stalwarts as Fakharuddin Ahmed and Reshidur Reza Farooqui then serving the World Bank. They not only took the service for granted but even showed their annoyance if Anu bhai was late by a few minutes. It was against such a context that he found time to dispel my doubts on the eve of my resignation from government service and leapt into the darkness of an uncertain future. His confident smile and encouraging words on a morning in a Café inspired me to boldly embark on a uncharted and new phase on my life and career. He always kept a smiling face which helped others to snatch delight and happiness out of dark despair and despondent gloom.
During his long stay in the USA, forced by titanic political changes in Bangladesh in 1975, Nurul Islam Anu worked to erect something of a great significance. He took courage in his hands and with profound conviction, great patience and energetic endeavour built up the North American Awami League. From a small beginning in the late 1970s it grew into a mammoth organisation of numerous expatriate Bangladeshis by 1991. As president of the US and Canadian branch of the Awami League Nurul Islam Anu contributed immensely to the triumphant revival of the party. Avowedly, partisan with a sense of democratic tolerance, he often became emotional about the creation of the North American Awami League. I remember at a crowded reception in 1994 in the official residence of his friend the late ambassador Humayun Kabir. Anu bhai took me aside for a close conversation. He said, ‘Shelley, you cannot imagine what I had to go through to build up the North American Awami League at a hostile time. Before the party became strong here, Bengalis could not sleep in peace because of fundamentalism and its allies like many individuals from Bangladesh. On hearing this I observed that ‘fundamentalism’ was a threat but said that I could not comprehend how these individuals posed a danger to the Bengalis in North America. For obvious reasons the individuals must go unnamed, but my remarks enraged his wife more than him. She said, ‘You would not understand how oppressive these have been to Bengalis here’. Whatever that may be, the significance of Nurul Islam Anu’s contribution to the foundation and expansion of the North American Awami League cannot be ignored. What followed came as a shocking blow to him, his friends and well-wishers across the party lines. From early 1990s to the end of his days, Nurul Islam Anu, despite his undying commitment to the Awami League and its core values, was evidently distanced from the party and its core. He never told us or anybody else the reason why. There are many speculations and he brushed these off with a smile. In many causal and lively sessions some of us, such as, Jahangir Jashim with his close non-partisan personal links with the Awami League and Nurul Kabir with his command over the news network unsuccessfully tried to find out the secret. The secret has now travelled with Nurul Islam Anu to his silent grave. If anyone else knows the truth, that person alone can reveal it. Nevertheless, Nurul Islam Anu had no regrets. He remained faithful and loyal to the cause of Bengalis of Bangladesh and to the political party of which he was a devoted member.
Dr Mizanur Rahman Shelley, founder chairman of Centre for Development Research, Bangladesh (CDRB) and editor, quarterly ‘Asian Affairs’, was a former teacher of political science in Dhaka University (1964-1967) and former member of the erstwhile Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP) (1967-1980) and former non-partisan technocrat cabinet minister of Bangladesh (1990).
Want stories like this in your inbox?
Sign up to exclusive daily email
More Stories from Opinion