THE death of Mahfuz Ullah bhai has shocked many because no matter if he was ailing like many of his age and time, he seemed so unconquerable by normal whims of life and death. He was immensely popular amongst many, a matter of great acceptance by all that people from both sides of the political barricade have deeply mourned his passing away.
He was not just a journalist or media personality courtesy television talk shows but a person involved with development issues and politics as well. It is standing at the crossroads of these several journeys that he waved his personal colours and has finally put it down to lie down. He leaves not just his life but a way of life and the history of a generation that will never walk the streets again. After all, the streets are no longer the same.
My personal gratitude
MAHFUZ bhai helped me get a job which changed my life. Having passed out from Dhaka University in 1977, I needed employment. My friend Morshed Shafiul Hasan mentioned that the 1971 History Documents project under Hasan Hafizur Rahman was hiring. Mahfuz bhai took me to the office and held Hasan bhai’s hand and asked for a favour to hire me. The request was kept and my life too changed as I moved out of the conventional academic space and ultimately became entirely focused on 1971 history. It is far away from my core learning areas of somewhat constricted and traditional DU approach of teachings. I owe my deepest for that.
So thank you Mahfuz bhai. The first job has become my last job too and my eternal gratitude for that.
A life in weekly Bichitra
WE MET at the weekly Bichitra office in the early 1970s, a by-product of Dainik Bangla, both now defunct. Bichitra was a historic media product as it reflected and assisted the forces of transition that was in play in Bangladesh right after 1971. A major focus of Bichitra was the war history itself and its editor Shahadat Chowdhury was himself a freedom fighter in Sector 2 and very close to Khaled Musharraf. The person who walked into the office of Bichitra most regularly was Dr Zafarullah Chowdhury with his ‘Gono’ plans of health and medicine for all. It was a time of idealism, activism and action.
What was a common thread was the politics of the left variety, then under pressure as the Awami League had little patience for other kinds of ideas and certainly not that of the red variety. Maualana Bhashani was the umbrella for many of the left and Mahfuz bhai too upheld that. So did Shahriyar Kabir bhai who in many ways was the contestant of Mahfuz Ullah bhai for our younger one’s loyalties. Shahriyar bhai’s politics was then of the far left kind led by Badruddin Umar. His determined mien was always there.
Mahfuz bhai had a more formal political life but that was ending or had already ended by the time Bichitra was moving up the ladder. It was modern, open-minded, kept many windows open, introduced arts, literature, culture and fashion as topic of media. It basically laid the foundations of today’s media landscape. Its influence is so profound that most media innovations took place within the first five years of Bangladesh’s life. Much of what we see today are expansions and developments of the work laid in its foundational phase which Bichitra, a weekly, led and laid. It practically invented the middle class media mentality which still retains its hold.
From an outsider to an insider
WITH the 1975 transition, many other transitions occurred and that includes Mahfuz bhai’s shift from the margins into the governmental and power spaces. He began to get opportunities outside conventional media that took him away from the iconic days and rooms of Bichitra which had generated him. With the Awami League’s departure from the scene, left politics returned but it did though the doors laid open by the BNP, which was not a left party.
It was this critical connection that defined the political life of our history once again. What all the great leftists never noticed was that the left has never had any significant presence on its own and had to depend on others for creating their historical space. They were defined by their opposition to the Awami League. Its was a history that began in Kagmari 1957 when Bhashani left the Awami League, egged on by the left and virtually disappeared as a historical force, an experience from which they never have recovered in any sense.
So Mahfuz bhai too ended up in the BNP camp and batted for them till the end. He was its most sophisticated spokesperson, the most articulate public relations man but he had become boxed into a very small history. That was his tragedy for he belonged to a much greater battle field.
He had many achievements but this is not the place to recollect them but perhaps mourn for what he could have done more. He represented a generation of young activists who could bring people together and make causes. Dr Zafarullah in his finest days did that too but become linked with party politics rather than social movements. So did Mahfuz bhai but the vehicle they chose was not the best for them. Its not personal achievement but the historical one that I speak of.
To serve those lesser than him
HIS finest days were when he as a media worker planned stories, staying far away from power. His lesser days were when he lived close to it. In the end, he became a critic and an apologist rather than a champion, no matter how alone. He was taller than almost all the political leaders who were with him.
But all this is over now. In the end, he has walked far, written much, played major roles in media and specialised branches of development journalism, written speeches for political leaders and parties, been there and done it all in his life. To me, he shall always be the person from the days when he had not sworn loyalty to one or many who were not greater than him. That was to be history.
So, good-bye, Mahfuz bhai! Time and history flows past and its your work that show you at your best. It is there that we detect the man who was part of that greater history that had led to the process of making of a state and helped created the foundations of media that will never disappear.
Best wishes and see you soon!
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.
Want stories like this in your inbox?
Sign up to exclusive daily email
More Stories from Opinion