Young students at the neat, little North Kumarbhog Primary School of village Kumarbhog in Munshiganj were looking out with restless eyes through the windows. On the ground outside, by the dried up khal and the towering trees dotting it, the school’s founder Shafiuddin Ahmad was waving his shaking hands with unbridled energy and enunciates his raison d’être — to inform on and fight for the cause Bangladesh’s rural existence. ‘How can you do that without staying in the villages?’ asks the 84-year-old veteran journalist. With his cracking voice and dry, scruffy hair and beard, he was just getting started. After spending more than half a century telling tales from the countryside, crisscrossing all 64 districts and almost all thanas in search of the ‘untold Bangladesh’ and having been a part of all major political movements, Shafiuddin is the living legend of charan (‘wandering’) journalism.
Born on November 1, 1922 in village Haridia of Lohajang upazila in Munshiganj to the Dewan lineage, Shafiuddin was late to enter school, and spent most of his childhood before that as a rakhal (cowboy). It was not until he was fifteen, and only after his brothers and sisters had started poking him that it dawned upon him that he also wanted to be an educated man. ‘Having a very strict father, who was serious about studies, once I started going to school, there was no other option but to get serious,’ says Shafiuddin. His mother died of cholera when he was only five and it gave his father Jalkadar Dewan all the more reason to be strict. Jalkadar, who worked on a passenger shipping line running between Rangoon and Kolkata, maintained an active political and cultural vibrancy at home with prominent local and national political figures visiting their home frequently. ‘Probably it was the blessing of the great revolutionary Surya Sen’s visit to our home in my infancy that spurred me into fighting for the common man,’ says Shaifuddin.
Having finished school with flying colours, he got enrolled into Horoganga College in 1948. Journalism and political activism eating up more and more of his time later, although he had by then got admission to Jagannath College in Dhaka. He eventually took his master’s degree examination several years later from jail. But all along, the child rakhal was growing up to tell many tales; even before he left school. Those formative years, the wunderlust crystallised from wandering the dusty rural beaten down tracks of winter and the muddy green fields of rain-washed Bengal, still sparkle in those two eyes as the journey of a thousand steps and more tales start coming out.
‘The Taltala-Gorganga khal is our Suez. Most big inland ships moving through the rivers went through it to avoid crossing the long arduous crossing of the larger rivers. My first story as a journalist came when a ship literally broke into two pieces in that narrow channel. My uncle had bought a Brownie camera just that year. With that camera, I took a photo of the marooned ship, and along with the print sent a small story to the then influential daily Azad,’ recollects Shaifuddin. In retrospect, his teenage beginnings as a scribe nearly six and a half decades ago are more or less the same conception that he holds dearest to heart: ‘I don’t know why I did that, but now that I look back, maybe, it was because I thought that the event was as important as any of those great political upheavals going on at distant places.’ After a pause, he speaks: ‘News is where people are. If Bengal, Bangladesh, is made up of her villages, if her many millions live in the villages, then their lives and tribulations and joys is the most important news there could be.’ That is Shaifuddin, a man whose career as a journalist spans three brackets of history, and who has spent a life reporting the news for the ubiquitous, yet almost hidden in ‘Local News’ or ‘National News’ pages, on the ‘other’ million lives in our villages, mufassils – where Bangladesh lives.
Shafiuddin’s roll of honour as a scribe reads like a list of the most famous news establishments of the then Bengal, later East Pakistan and finally Bangladesh. While he started contributing to newspapers back in school, his dormant political inclinations coupled with his drive to inform found him as the Munshiganj correspondent, in 1943, for the Bengali weekly Janayuddha, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party of India (of which he was a member) coming out of Kolkata, and its English version coming out from Bombay – the People’s War.
Throughout the forties and fifties, he wrote for papers such as the daily Azad, the daily Ittehad, the weekly Millat, the daily Amar Desh and the then still weekly Ittefaque. ‘Politics and newspapers went hand in hand. Most publications were mouthpieces for some political party. In fact, the Millat spoke for the Muslim League, and so did other papers for their respective parties. But even being in Munshiganj, I would feel that, whatever political gyrations taking place in Kolkata or Dhaka, there were some ripple effects back here. Or at least I felt so!’
Journalism, die-hard political activism with the quintessential proletariat’s pinch of left ideals, as could be expected, went hand in hand with the late-starter in academics. In fact, it was in college that politics took centre stage in Shafiuddin’s life. Elected general secretary of the students’ union at his college, he took part in the March protests of 1948 against Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s proclamation of Urdu as the national language of Pakistan. Imprisoned as a political prisoner, Shafiuddin life as political activist alongside his journalism started in full swing after this. Between 1954 and 1962, Shafiuddin was thrown into prison for no less than seven times. The infamous Khapra Ward incidence in the Rajshahi Central Jail is one that Shafiuddin still remembers vividly. He was arrested in March, and shifted from the Dhaka Central Jail. On April 24, 1950, a brawl started between the jail authorities and the inmates regarding the food being served. But it soon turned bloody. ‘It was a classic show of oppressive power. Just imagine — 60 rounds of live ammunition fired at inmates, inside a jail ward. Eight of the 39 inmates died right there. I was injured with many others, but saved my life by hiding behind a drum used to clear out the urine of the inmates,’ Shafiuddin recounts in detail of the horrific experience as a political prisoner. His activism never stopped though. In 1952, the year of the language movement, he was elected general secretary of the students’ union of Jagannath College. Besides his seamless attention to reporting on Munshiganj, he remained an influential political activist in Munshiganj, a crucial area considering its proximity to and influence over Dhaka. A close aide to Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani, he remained attached to mojlum jananeta’s politics right till the end — first the Awami League and then the National Awami Party.
Throughout the sixties and seventies, even his reporting started taking political overtures. As he puts it, ‘The times were such. Everyone was fighting Ayub on the streets, even back here in Munshiganj. How would that not be reflected in the reporting?’
The daily Pakistan Observer, the United Press of Pakistan, the Dainik Pakistan (later Dainik Bangla), the daily Morning News, the Eastern News Agency and the Bangladesh Times were just some of the major publications in which he wrote through those turbulent, pre-liberation years and also through the whirlwind natal days of Bangladesh in the seventies. ‘These villages or mufassils change very slowly. Even when national and regional upheavals were ripping apart the pages of history, something inherently strong holds these people and their lives together. They are a more resilient lot than those Brahmin [higher-caste] journalists and editors sipping tea at the so called “National” Press Club would admit,’ says Shafiuddin.
In fact, organising the country’s journalistic fraternity under local institutions has been the other long-standing quests of Shafiuddin. ‘I founded the Munshiganj Press Club with ABM Musa in 1960. But for the next three decades, I have travelled all across Bangladesh to help establish and even start many of the district level journalist’s associations,’ recounts the man who has been honoured for his lifelong contribution to rural journalism by many institutions. The daily Janakantha honoured him with a prize and a monthly award. ‘If journalists are to report from the villages, they need to have common platform from where they can actually stand and speak. The associations should play this role, though they are rarely doing that these days,’ Shafiuddin says.
‘The ideals that this noble profession entails — honesty, patriotism and courage — has to be upheld, collectively,’ Shafiuddin says. ‘The villages and mufassils of Bangladesh are changing fast. Very fast, in fact! It’s going wrong. If you ask me, it’s a troubled state of transition from feudalism to something that even I am to put my finger on. Maybe greed! There are too many for too little. I alarming observe how the news from the villages have become more and more about violence, land disputes and other troubling issues. Everyone wants to get out of “here”, and abandoning the villages. And the journalistic fraternity in the mufassils are also becoming party to this great fiasco. But I am always hopeful. Look at me. If I could stay in these villages and report from them for more than half-a-century, many others can too.’
Though all of Shafiuddin’s seven children have gone on to become well-established, his wife, Zayeda Begum, is not forgiving. ‘She blames me for abandoning the family. She says that I never looked after the children. Well, how did they grow up so well?’ jokes the wandering scribe. ‘I wanted to inform the rest of the country about what goes in the many villages, where the real news happens, and in the process contribute in some way. My dream of a society that is more equal is interlinked with this. If the bigwigs in the capital or anywhere, for that matter, don’t realise the importance of our villages, in its true existence and not just in their rhetoric, then as a nation we will fail in whatever we do.’
If journalism is, to use the still widely used cliché of the Washington Post publisher Philip Graham, ‘a first rough draft of history that will never really be completed about a world we can never really understand’, then Shafiuddin Ahmad’s six decades of reporting the ‘real news’, on the lives of the people who populate Bangladesh’s thousands of villages is the original ‘first draft’ of our history. Shafiuddin still nudges us to read between the lines of those ‘local news’ sections that stay neatly tucked inside the folds of the morning papers all through the day. If you ask Shafiuddin: ‘That’s news!’