A tribute to Akbar Ali Khan

Journey of discovery of a scholar-bureaucrat

Akbar Ali Khan (1944-2022) Akbar Ali Khan (1944-2022)

Eminent economist cum historian, retired secretary, renowned academic and former adviser to the caretaker government Dr Akbar Ali Khan passed away all of a sudden on September 8, 2022, -- leaving behind a legacy that is bound to last for many years in the intellectual domain of Bangladesh.

Born in 1944 at Nabinagar of Brahmanbaria, he was a bookworm since his school-days, and subsequently proved his academic mettle when he topped the list in both bachelor's and master's degree examinations at the history department of Dhaka University. He then joined the Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP) in 1967, but defected from the Pakistani government to join the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971 while serving as a sub-divisional officer (SDO) of Habiganj. After independence, he started teaching history as an Assistant Professor at Jahangirnagar University, on lien from the government in 1973, and subsequently did his Phd in economics from Canada's Queen's University in 1979 as a Commonwealth Scholar. Although he was then promoted as Associate Professor at Jahangirnagar University, he switched sides once again and returned to his erstwhile civil service profession during the 1980s.

 As a post-independence civil servant, Dr Khan had one of the cleanest images among his CSP contemporaries, and ultimately went on to become one of the longest serving finance secretaries  as well as cabinet secretary under three successive regimes. After retirement, he served as an alternate executive director in the World Bank headquarters till 2005, followed by his brief stint in the caretaker government of 2006-07 that lasted until his resignation over disagreements with the then president in January 2007. This was followed by his appointment as the chairman of the Regulatory Reforms Commission (RRC) in October 2007 by the caretaker government led by Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed, when he introduced many reform measures in the delivery of public sector services, including introduction of citizen's charter at all government offices. But he resigned from that position in October 2009 citing non-cooperation from the newly elected government. After that, he has been serving as an adjunct professor at several private universities of the country including BRAC University.

The image that Dr Akbar Ali Khan generated in my mind when he taught us - new entrants in the civil service - development economics at Bangladesh Public Administration Training Centre (BPATC) in 1986, still lingers in my memory. He appeared to me to be a simple, unassuming and forthright man, who was full of wit and humour while delivering lectures. He was ever-ready to answer well-informed questions by knowledgeable peers, but showed no mercy to those articulating silly ones. But that reprisal was carried out only through satire and humour. Unfortunately, the BCS Foundation Course at BPATC was the last occasion when I could interact face to face with Dr Khan as a civil servant. But his image of a keen, learned and intellectually advanced unassuming bureaucrat lives on in my memory even today.

On looking back at his life and career, what strikes me most was his spirit of perseverance in the face of chronic adversities. In spite of the passing away of his wife Hameem Khan and the only daughter Nehreen Khan in 2016, he did not put any brake to his intellectual or academic pursuits despite his ill-health. His autobiographical book 'Purano Shei Diner Katha' (Accounts of Old Days) was published only this year, and he was already working on the second volume of the book when death suddenly struck. His centenarian mother-in-law Jahanara Rahman (a first-batch student of Lady Brabourne College, Kolkata) was the lone companion during his last days in Gulshan, Dhaka. Dr Khan held her in great esteem, as she helped him in partially overcoming the inconsolable grief and sorrow of losing his closest kin and also took care of him despite her advanced age. 

A VORACIOUS READER TO A PROLIFIC WRITER: Regarding his transition from being a voracious reader to that of a prolific writer, Dr Khan wrote in his autobiography, "I am basically a bookworm. I did not consciously seek to become a writer; rather I wanted to remain a reader. Much pain has to be endured for becoming a writer. I therefore studied many subjects, but did not write any book. When I started writing books, my age had crossed 50".

"I became a writer from being a reader for two reasons. While reading, I saw that there were differences of opinion on many questions. I started to dwell on those questions. While reflecting, I reached conclusions of my own in many cases. I felt that I also had something to say on numerous issues. But the subjects did not fall under any fixed format or pattern.  Certainly, many questions came up in my mind regarding history; questions cropped up about good governance; about politics in the country; about literature; and questions emerged regarding proper utilisation of the country's water resources. Whenever I felt that I have something to say on any subject, I tried to write on that. If I did not have any opinion of my own, I did not write any book merely for propagating others' views".

"The second reason why I wrote books was that I enjoyed reading many. I felt like spreading that enjoyment among others. Especially, when I went back to teach economics at the university, many theories of economics stirred me. There is a beauty in economic theory; I wanted to share that beauty with others. I spread the ideas among ordinary readers - especially of those economists who had won the Nobel Prize. But whether I wrote for the pundits or ordinary citizens, many years of contemplation had gone into those".

Akbar Ali Khan never wrote any fiction, novel or poetry. The only genre of books that he concentrated on was research essays. Dr Khan's first book 'Some Aspects of Peasant Behaviour in Bengal, 1890-1914' was based on his Phd dissertation and published by the Asiatic of Society of Bangladesh (ASB) in 1982. His next book 'Discovery of Bangladesh: Explorations into Dynamics of a Hidden Nation' was published by the University Press Limited (UPL) in 1996, which was subsequently rated as the best publication in humanities for the period 1996-98 by ASB. But the book that firmly established him as a writer was 'Pararthaparatar Arthonity' (Welfare-oriented Economics), written in Bangla and published by the UPL in 2000. He showed in the book that complex issues of economics could also be presented in a humorous style, and thereby could win the hearts of the readership. It was a new trend, and earned him recognition overnight as a powerful writer. The book was highly praised for its wit and originality even by the mass-circulated literary magazine of Kolkata 'Desh', and also earned for Dr Khan the 'Justice Md. Ibrahim Gold Medal' from the ASB.

After retirement, his book 'People's Participation in Budgetary Process in Bangladesh: In Search of Political Reforms' was published by the NGO 'Shamunnay' in 2008. His subsequent books were: 'Friendly Fire, Humpty Dumpty Disorder and Other Essays: Reflections on Economy and Governance in Bangladesh' published in English by UPL (2010); 'Andhokarer Utsha Hotey: Sahitya, Samaj, Poribesh O Arthonity Samparkey Alor Sandhan' (From the Sources of Darkness: Search for Light in Literature, Society, Environment and Economy) in Bangla by Pathak Samabesh (2011); 'Ajob O Jabor Ajob Arthonity' (Strange and Very Strange Economics) in Bangla by Prothoma Prokashan (2013); 'Chabikathir Khonjey: Natun Alokey Jibanander Banalata Sen' (In Search of Key: Banalata Sen of Jibananda in a New Light) in Bangla by Prothoma (2015); 'Gresham's Law Syndrome and Beyond' in English by Prothoma (2015); 'Abak Bangladesh: Bichitra Chhalanajaley Ranjneeti' (Amazing Bangladesh: Politics Mired in Motley Nets of Deception) in Bangla by Prothoma (2017); 'Durbhabna O Bhabna Rabindranathkey Niey' (Concerns and Reflections on Rabindranath) in Bangla by Prothoma (2019); 'Daridrer Arthonity: Otit, Bartoman O Bhobishyat' (Economics of Poverty: Past, Present and Future) in Bangla by Prothoma (2020); 'Bangladeshey Budget: Arthonity O Rajnity' (Budget in Bangladesh: Economics and Politics) in Bangla by Prothoma (2021); and lastly 'Purano Shei Diner Katha' (Accounts of Old Days), an autobiography in Bangla by Prothoma (2022).

Dr Khan had analysed the political crisis in Bangladesh in the backdrop of economic progress in his book 'Abak Bangladesh: Bichitra Chhalanajaley Rajneeti'. He wrote in its introduction, "I am proud about many achievements of Bangladesh. But political degeneration and continuous worsening of good governance has generated a terrible mental agony that is worse than physical pain for those of our generation who had participated in the liberation war after getting imbued with the spirit of democracy".

The scholarly journey that Dr Akbar Ali Khan had started with the publication of his book 'Discovery of Bangladesh' in 1996 did not stop there. As pointed out by a former economist of the World Bank Group Syed Akhtar Mahmood (my senior at both Islamabad Model School and Dhaka Residential Model School) in a recent article, "Indeed, for much of his life, the works of Akbar Ali Khan, the voracious reader, dedicated scholar, relentless writer and courageous public intellectual, has been a journey of discovery. With a generosity of spirit, the boldness of a principled man, and the power of his pen, Akbar Ali Khan has shared with us the fruits of that journey. By doing so, he has encouraged us to embark on our own explorations into the dynamics of a hidden nation".


Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.

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