It was toward the end of the 1980s when I first met Saifuddin Ahmed Manik. He had become general secretary of the Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB) and clearly intended to demonstrate his ability to do what communists around the world were expected to do. And do not forget that those were rather heady times. Mikhail Gorbachev was shaking up things in the Soviet Union, indeed across the globe. To those of us who possessed abiding faith in socialism (and many of us still do), Gorbachev was the man of the hour. Here at last was the communist, as Waheedul Haque (our very own Waheed Bhai) informed us, who could take on the decadent capitalism which men like Ronald Reagan sought to represent. It was in Geneva in 1985, when a dynamic Gorbachev clearly overshadowed a tired-looking Reagan, that the ultimate triumph of socialism seemed to be assured.
It was this march of socialism that Saifuddin Manik and Waheedul Haque discussed at the New Nation office on that late 1980s day. I had just been introduced to Manik and thought it prudent to remain silent and listen to the conversation between the two men. It was much later that I learnt of the significant role Manik had played in the emergence of Chhayanaut in 1961. But on that day, it was the humility in the CPB leader that impressed me. As a matter of fact, humility has always been a defining quality in those who have upheld the principle of socialism through the ages. Once, on a bus from Gulistan to Shahbagh, I spotted the BSD's (Bangladesh-er Samajtantrik Dal) AFM Mahbubul Haque holding on, just, to the back of a seat, in that crowd of plebeians like me.
It was impressive, for here was a prominent politician feeling not at all out of place among common citizens. It was similar sentiments that arose in me when I met Saifuddin Manik on that long-ago day. At one point, he asked Waheed Bhai to enlighten him on matters relating to Bengali cultural traditions. Waheed Bhai laughed, in that friendly, unassuming way of his. That did nothing to stop Manik from repeating his question. "Waheed Bhai", said he, "all I have done in life is to engage in politics. But now I need some knowledge of culture to inform my thinking and indeed add substance to my politics."
It was a good beginning, in so far as knowing Manik was concerned, for me. He was a powerful figure in a party that had the long legacy of the revered Comrade Moni Singh behind it. And then there was Comrade Mohammad Farhad, the cerebral general secretary of the CPB whose demise had paved the way for Saifuddin Manik's rise to the top. At that point, I confess I was not sure whether Manik would be able to ascend to the stature Farhad had attained in his time, but Manik's lack of hauteur, his candour and distinctive humility clearly egged me on to the thought that someday he could matter on the overall canvas of national politics.
He had been a warrior in the War of Liberation; he was a culture enthusiast and, best of all, he was a communist. If Gorbachev succeeded in transforming the Soviet Union through transforming the nature of socialism, Manik could play a leading role in bringing Bangladesh's communists closer to the masses. And then came a day when Gorbachev fell; and around him it was the Soviet Union and international communism that collapsed in a heap. It is to Manik's credit, though, that at a time when communism was fast turning into a fading phenomenon, he was able to keep aloft the banner of the CPB in Bangladesh. People of my generation were persuaded that with men like Manik around, politics could not but retrieve the decency we had lost in this country after August 1975.
But perhaps doubts about the future of Left politics, about his own career had already begun to creep into Manik's consciousness. We will never know why he decided, at the precise point when we needed to hold on to socialist ideals despite the battering they were receiving nearly everywhere, to jettison the CPB and link up with Kamal Hossain's Gano Forum. Saifuddin Manik's decision to be part of an enterprise that had nothing of the communistic about it perturbed us greatly. Much as we admired Kamal Hossain's efforts to introduce a new strand in Bangladesh's politics, we could not see why a communist, and a prominent communist at that, should see fit to leave his lifelong ideology behind him and join hands with a political class whose pro-West leanings were rather pronounced.
Communists never turned their backs on their politics. It was a lesson we had learnt through our interaction with history. Yes, communism did go through its schisms, but hardly anyone who has been a communist in his mature years has ever gone for a repudiation of his beliefs. In the eyes of my generation, Saifuddin Manik had repudiated himself when he quit the CPB and climbed on the Gano Forum bandwagon. Except that the Gano Forum did not quite turn out to be a bandwagon. With time, Manik became an increasingly marginalised and nearly forgotten figure even as Manzurul Ahsan Khan and Mujahidul Islam Selim set about reinventing the CPB.
Saifuddin Manik was, for all his later change of political perceptions, a politician who thought he knew what needed to be done for the country. His heart, as they say, was in the right place. It is saddening that circumstances, those he created and those that arose despite him, in the end overtook him and left him way behind the men and women to whom he might have provided strong, charismatic and meaningful leadership.
(Saifuddin Ahmed Manik, born on 24 June 1939, died on 3 February 2008)