More than three decades after he played a key role in bringing Sheikh Hasina from her exile in India to mount a challenge against Zia-ur-Rehman, this veteran of Bangladesh politics and once a close aide to her father stands as Prime Minister Hasina’s principal challenger in the country which will hold elections on Sunday.
Meet Kamal Hossain, former law and foreign minister in Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Cabinet between 1971 and 1975, and, almost four-and-half decades later, now head of the Jatiyo Oikyo Front (National United Front) — the main opposition in Bangladesh’s fiercely-contested election.
In an exclusive conversation with The Indian Express on Wednesday afternoon, Hossain shrugs when asked if he is the principal challenger. Sitting at his third-floor lawyer’s chamber in a nine-storey plush building in Dhaka’s Motijheel area, he says, “I am no challenger. I am just an 80-year-old man… I am just working to restore the rule of law, democracy in the country.”
“I am waiting for the election day. The election day is a liberation day. It will be second liberation day if it’s free and fair election,” he says.
Just minutes earlier, four days before the country goes to polls, a couple of senior policemen came to his chamber, to express concern over his security.
“Police officials told me that they were concerned about my security. They will provide security at my chamber and house if necessary,” Hossain, also the president of Gano Forum, said.
But, this octogenarian is not giving up his fight.
That’s what he has done for over five decades of his life — from being a lawyer to Hasina’s father Mujibur Rahman in 1968 to being the opposition alliance leader, challenging Hasina’s 10-year rule in the upcoming elections.
As a 31-year-old, he defended Mujibur Rahman in the Agartala conspiracy case in 1968 against the then Pakistan government.
After Bangladesh was liberated in 1971, he was the first law minister of the country and headed the Constitution drafting committee, and is regarded as the architect of Bangladesh’s Constitution in 1972.
He also served as the country’s foreign minister, when he held parleys with Sardar Swaran Singh and was key to Bangladesh joining the UN in 1974.
“I was just practising law when BNP’s (Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s) secretary general Fakhrul Islam came to meet me a few months ago and asked me to lead the front. I was aware of what was happening throughout the country, so I agreed,” he says calmly, talking about his becoming the leader of the opposition alliance. He was referring to the crackdown against civil society activists and journalists, as well as the opposition, in the last few months.
The BNP, whose leader Khaleda Zia has been in jail since February this year over corruption charges, has stitched up a rainbow coalition, with Hossain at the helm of affairs. Khaleda Zia’s son Tareq Zia also faces life imprisonment, and is a fugitive under Bangladesh law. Tareq has been living in London for a decade.
But, over the hour-long conversation, Hossain, a widely regarded secular icon, also expressed his discomfort towards the BNP’s track record with India as well its decision to field 22 members of the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, a banned fundamentalist political outfit.
“I am sorry to say that fielding ex-Jamaat people is stupid. I had given it in writing that there will be no support to Jamaat, no bringing in religion, fundamentalism, extremism etc,” he says, with a sense of frustration at realpolitik. BNP-Jamaat alliance has been accused of attacks on minorities in 2001, which is a sensitive and key issue in the elections.
“Had I known (that Jamaat leaders will be given BNP tickets), I would not have been part of it, but I will not stay a single day if these people have any role in the future government,” he told The Indian Express on Wednesday.
On BNP’s poor track record with India, he says, “BNP has told India that we have been wrong. When Khaleda Zia went to India, she told them. It was part of their rehabilitation process, she began to correct (the position).”
On politics in Bangladesh and other parts of South Asia, he says, “Why should we have dynasties ruling our part of the world. Look at Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka.”
The BNP is also helmed by the Zia family.
Hossain, who is the only still-active member of the Mujibur Rahman Cabinet, recalls of his equation with India: “I had a great equation with Mrs Indira Gandhi and her foreign minister Swaran Singh. We discussed the knotty issue of land boundary with so much ease.”
He recalled the “joy of building a nation” after the 1971 liberation war, the development of Bangladesh from a province to a country, saying, “The foreign ministry was in two rooms in InterContinental hotel, and the law ministry did not have enough books, so we had to bring our own personal collection to consult law books.”
He said they improvised, and it was an “exciting time”. But, he said that independence meant that the government belonged to the people, according to Article 7 of the Bangladesh Constitution, which he proudly drafted, along with others.
“Right now, democracy is compromised, and democracy is critically important. Independence is meaningful when there are free and fair elections,” he said.
Wearing a black suit and surrounded by his books on law, he said, “Our people have to recover the ownership of the country. So, this election is about recovering the state from the usurper.”
On his alliance with the BNP, he says, “Such unity of forces has happened earlier as well. For Bangladeshis, the appeal to unity has had resonance. That the country belongs not to a particular party or a family.”
On what his role would be if the opposition came to power and whether he would become Prime Minister or not, he said, “I don’t say yes or no… but I am committed to participate in the democratic processes, with no designation, no salary.”
He said he seeks to end “narrow partisanship of police and administration”, adding, “there is beautiful Bangla word for it, doliyokoron.”
“Look at the police, what are they doing? Policemen have become doliyo lathiyas (party’s soldiers)…”
During all five decades of his career, he says, he has not seen as many arrests as he has this time.
“A total dictator,” he said, without naming Hasina even once during the hour-long conversation.
“We need real cooperation with India. India’s enlightened self interest should look at our own interest,” he said, as he indicated that India has been leaning towards Hasina’s Awami League.
He also had a word of advice for future governments in Dhaka and Delhi on cooperation, including on transit rights and access to ports.
“Some of this should be done in a more transparent manner, (things like) who negotiated and what is negotiated… The legitimacy is in question, but any reasonable Bangladeshi will accept them. But there is a feeling that India niye nilo (India has taken something).”
Someone who loves poetry and reading fiction, including Indian Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy, Hossain is also friends with former President Pranab Mukherjee and former NSA Shiv Shankar Menon. “But, I have not had any discussions with them for a year now. Maybe after the elections, I should go and discuss things,” he says.