The prince from Prithimpasa

By Ali Hamid Khan

Published: The Independent Internet Edition, August 17, 2001

It is very difficult to just select and pinpoint a single person and say that he has the most enduring and deep impact on me and my coming of age. When I decided to pick out one such man who had the persona and the capacity to stand out it was my late uncle Nawab Ali Safdar Khan, popularly known as Raja sahib. It is difficult to analyze and measure a person in isolation; we have to take up different aspects of him and his environment, which creates a man and his actions. His different traits and the background in which he grew up and became a part of the social order are to be considered before any reasonable and viable analysis, which will be realistic and acceptable, can emerge.

Raja Sahib was a man who transcended his feudal background, the world in which he was born and raised with all the accoutrements required to give him a persona and attitude of the privileged class. His leadership quality was inbred and in the course of time it bloomed internalizing from eminent personalities in whose company he spent great deal of time. Gradually he attained a position, which set him apart to touch the lives of the masses, specially the underprivileged. He succeeded with great ease and flair to endear himself to those who looked up at him as an icon and a voice of the voiceless. He relentlessly struggled to free the masses from their abject poverty and misery. He was compassionate and kind. He easily expressed empathy with the have-nots and took up their cause and completely got himself immersed in their worlds to seek their emancipation and freedom from want and lead a respectable life away from the burden of deprivation. His work and endeavour made the common man gravitate to him to seek his support to strengthen their hands. The sole purpose of his life was to wage war against the forces, which kept them in servitude and subservience.

It was during the Jukta Front days that he joined his crusade and from that day onward his sole objective was to bring dignity and self-respect into the lives of these people. From that day on he never looked back and kept his fight on. With every passing day he grew in stature politically and socially and fast became a bulwark against the politics of Muslim League. Those were the days when a new order was emerging and the social and political matrix was undergoing transformation. A new vista was surfacing and beckoning him. The political landscape was volatile and Raja Sahib was all game ready to pounce and take up the mantle to march ahead with his message. He was a volatile and dynamic leader and was capable of understanding the changing political language and stances. He had the versatility to grasp the occasion at its prime and utilize the moment to bring the masses out of their morass. He electrified the environment with his presence and political acumen. The leadership soon saw the potentialities and brought him to the forefront to spearhead the movement in his region. In a short time he won recognition and respect and set on with his task and ambition.

He came into politics after being inspired by Moulana Bhashani whom he considered his mentor and teacher. He came under his patronage and was one of his favorite protégés. This is where Raja Sahib went through a catharsis and transformation and from this process emerged a new man shedding his feudal background and upbringing. His sole purpose from his association with Moulana Bhashani, whose magnetic and powerful personality gave a firmer shape to his aspirations and they were perfectly shaped and moulded, was to bring about a social change in which everyone could have an equitable share and thrive and prosper. He plunged into full time active politics and never paused to look back. His agenda had no priority other than political activities. The flurry of activity, which encompassed him, kept him completely engrossed and he had no time for anything else. He was always rushing to wherever he was needed and never shirking from his responsibility and the cause he had chosen. His work and personality built an aura around him. He was admired and loved for his courage and determination. He stood against injustices like rock and fought strongly and unflinchingly against the retro-forces, which suppressed and repressed the poor and the weak. Soon his popularity shot up meteorically and his name and fame spread far and wide. The authorities never delved into issues without knowing his stand and view. The authorities always solicited his consent and concurrence whenever any contentious or controversial issue came up and befuddled them. Such was his power and influence, which affected everyone. He devoted his life to fighting for the weak and the suppressed to rescue them from subjugation and indignity, which they suffered at the hands of the rich and the corrupt.

Raja Sahib to be understood in entirety has to be looked from a broader perspective. Raja sahib was a scion of a renowned Zamindari family of Sylhet. He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He was born in the Murshidabad Palace of his maternal grandfather Nawab Bahadur of Murshidabad Wasif Ali Meerza, KCVI. He was the eldest son of Nawab Ali Haider Khan and his wife the eldest child of Nawab Bahadur of Murshidabad. Nawab Ali Haider Khan was in the Muslim League and was twice minister of Assam. Raja Sahib was born on 16th.August, 1919. He had his education from St. Edmund’s College, Shillong; St. Paul’s, Darjeeling and Alia Madrasah Calcutta. He was a very good football player and was a patron of Mohammadan Club, Calcutta. He was also an accomplished billiards and lawn tennis player. He was a junior champion of Calcutta Club in the mid- 30’s. He led a jetset life in Calcutta moving and associating with prince and princess, Rajahs and Maharajahs. The Maharajah of Tripurra was a close friend of him. He had the privilege to be in the company of greats like Subash Chandra Bose, H.S. Shuharwardy, Prince Yusuf Meerza, the king of Nepal and Rabindranath Tagore and many more such distinguished personalities and luminaries. This was his young days when he had no cares and worries and he lived a life of fun and joy. But, his association with the different personalities was having an impact on him and this world was influencing him though he never realized. One outstanding quality he had and was inherent in him and that was he was an eloquent speaker with photographic memory and a good listener. He was also a charismatic person who had an influence over people and loved to play jokes and pranks. When he went into politics he didn’t have too many problems in making himself comfortable in this world and effortlessly gave extempore speeches, which surprised many. He had the ability to sway people with his words. His speeches easily succeeded in having an impact on the gathering wherever he went and he was an instant success drawing huge crowds and mesmerizing them with his speeches. People put their trust in him and rallied instantly behind him. These were the reasons he was much liked and sought after by senior leaders.

In spite of his lifestyle every time he visited his ancestral home Prithimpassa he was moved by the poverty and deprivations of the people. He patiently listened to their myriad problems and mixed and moved freely among his raiyats. Their plights and sufferings greatly touched him and he was moved by the pathetic conditions to join mainstream progressive politics to free them from the ordeals and crisis of abjection and illiteracy.

He joined politics full time and when there was a split in the party he moved with the faction to National Awami Party with Bhashani and remained there working hard and arduously for emancipation of the downtrodden. In 1958 he was a fugitive when the military junta of Ayub Khan was on his trail. He was hunted and chased out of the country. The army rule was hard and ruthless on the detractors and politicians.

When in 1969 the mass upsurge was ready to topple the military regime even in the face of gruesome and barbarous treatment Raja Sahib represented his region and bravely led the people against the army. Later, during the Liberation War when the military rulers Pakistan began genocide of the unarmed people, he and his younger brother Nawab Ali Sarwar Khan, M.P. joined the freedom struggle under the leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahaman.

Those were fearsome days of violence and bloodshed when people were indiscriminately cut down and crushed by the hordes, which showed unparalleled cruelty and apathy. Racked by civil war there was no option but to join the war for freedom. Consequently Raja Sahib and his brother were forced to cross over to India and from there they continued their guerrilla warfare against the army. From Kailashahar they continued their incessant forays and skirmishes. Their ceaseless sporadic attacks daunted the determination and overwhelming might of the well armed Pakistan army. The Pakistan Army based there on the border turned the personal residences of Raja Sahib and his younger brother into army head quarters and wreaked heavy and irreparable damage. When the Pakistan army buckled and genuflected before the onslaught of the armed rebellion, Raja Sahib returned home victorious after freeing the area from the clutches of the occupation army. He found that the occupation army left a blazing trail of unprecedented torture and losses. Before him lay a colossal task of restoration. The shocking tales and remnants of the nine months of occupation, which he confronted at every step, were unbelievable and massive.

But, he did not shirk his responsibility of restoration and with renewed vigour and strength he went on with the rebuilding to bring back normally to remove the scars of persecution. From the crucible of war was born a more mature, composed and experienced man. Though he was war weary and fatigued but he knew there was no respite. The work before him was more important than his personal interests and necessities.

He was a voracious reader and an erudite person. He loved to socialize and mix around with people from every section of society, exchanging views and enriching his knowledge of different aspects of life and culture. He was admired and respected in every circle and people young and old enjoyed his company. His contemporaries looked forward to his company and he was considered by hundreds as an icon and archetypal mass leader who had the power and ability to move and rouse them.

Unfortunately and very sadly he did not live long and died in the prime of his political career in 1975 at CMH Dhaka on 16th. July. His untimely death sent shock waves and people flocked in tens of thousand to mourn his death on hearing the news. It was one of the largest and most memorable congregations of people who represented all sections of society to pay their last respect. At his funeral there was an unprecedented convergence of his admirers, followers and the common man for whom he had devoted his whole life to bring justice and honour to them. People came braving rain and thundershower and there was unending influx of humans.

Never before such a huge gathering was ever witnessed by the people of the area. There were loud lamenting and emotive expressions. He was buried in his family graveyard at Prithimpassa amidst uncontrolled display of human emotions. That day it was further confirmed how loved he was by the common man and what he truly meant to them. Even today people visit his grave to pay him their respects and tributes.

In one of his entries in his diary he had written that people can only unchain and remove the shackles of servitude through armed rebellion and definitely not through arbitration and peaceful means. This gives a glimpse of the man to understand his mind and purpose. He epitomized valour, courage, chivalry and hope.

His name was Nawab Ali Safdar Khan but his maternal grandmother affectionately called him Raja and that's how he popularly became Raja Sahib to everyone, to his relatives, friends, foes, peers, and the common-man.

The indelible imprints he has left in the minds of the people continue to guide and inspire many. Today his work and words live on and remind people to stand up against injustice and persecution bravely.

In the 50's Raja Sahib joined the Famous Balisara movement when the labours of the Tea Estates who had no rights to vote by Pakistani Law rallied behind him under his leadership to wrest the voting rights, which was justifiably theirs.

Raja Sahib led the long march to Moulvibazar sub-division on foot all the 30 mile long dirt road with his followers. Today 25 years after his death the govt. of Bangladesh has finally recognized him and his freedom struggle against the occupation army during 1971 freedom struggle and accorded him posthumous award of bravery and valiance and his services to the new born country.