On a pleasant November evening at Guwahati’s Silpagram in 2012, in front of a 100-strong audience, a Bangladeshi rockstar spoke in impeccable Assamese ‘Moi 16 bosoror pasot ghoroloi ahisu (I have come home after 16 years)’. After enthralling the audience with his blockbuster hits, the singer signed off with a philosophical note leaving the audience in silence: ‘I bring songs from the land of Chaitanya Dev and Lalon Fakir to this land of Srimanta Sankardev and Azan Fakir, and the core of what these great teachers taught us lies in love for humanity which goes beyond any borders’. The same Bangladeshi rockstar was in Guwahati again in the spring of 2015 to enthrall another enthusiastic audience, this time at the Chandmari ground for the Guwahati Book Fair. Since then, he has developed a growing legion of fans in Assam.
This rockstar is none other than Maqsoodul Haque or Mac as the legions of fans in Bangladesh like to call him. A pioneer of Bangla pop-rock music in Bangladesh, Mac and his erstwhile band from the 1980s, Feedback are the stuff of legends in the history of Bangla music. While the albums Ullash and Mela redefined album music in Bangladesh; Melai Jai Re – a pop tribute to Pohila Boishak or Bohag Bihu (as we call it in Assam) – the title song of the album Mela turned out to be a blockbuster hit, and a refrain from the song has almost become immortal now – ‘Bashonti rong sari pore, lolonara hete jay’.
Come the 1990s and gradually Mac’s music turned more political, almost anti-establishment, with Baul philosophy at its core. Some of his songs were banned as they were too upfront for the powers-that-be in the 1990s in Bangladesh.
Bonding Over a Shared History
August 2017, Uttara, Dhaka: Sitting in a cheap hotel room, Haidar Hussian, a senior Assamese journalist, was reconfirming if he brought all his medicines when we embarked for Bangladesh by road from Guwahati. I was busy with my smart phone trying to find Mac Haque on Twitter or Facebook. I found him and sent a message on Facebook. A couple of hours later, my phone beeped, Mac Haque replied, ‘I am free all day tomorrow, I would be happy to meet you. This is my number xxxxxxxxxx, call me’.
I called at the number and started talking in my rustic Bangla, and after a moment passed on the phone to Haidar Hussain, but Mac had started responding with impeccable Sivasagoriya accented Axomiya. We were dumbfounded. After all, blaring one or two liners into a microphone is different from conversing in a language.
The next morning, we were greeted with a namaskar by Mac at his Mirpur residence Bauliana. He looked ostensibly happy to host two strangers from his Ghor – Assam. Later he said, ‘It is not every day that I have the opportunity to host guests from Assam’. As we settled down in the drawing room decorated with paintings, artistic posters and with Xorai, Bota and Ban Bati, our first question to Mac was about his fluency in Assamese. ‘It is because of my parents. When I and my sister were growing up, our father had a strict rule – while at home speak in Assamese or the cane awaits you’.
Mac is a proud second generation Assamese in Bangladesh whose nationality is Bangladeshi but ethnicity is Assamese. His love for Bangladesh as well as Assam brings out many of the nuances and complexities that govern our histories. While in Assam, the very word ‘Bangladeshi’ evokes strong resentment – we tend to view Bangladesh as a nation with suspicion due to problems of ‘illegal’ immigration, and because of alleged demographic upheaval etc. – Mac’s family history brings into light an unacknowledged side of the partition and migration story – nuances that we have missed or unconsciously overlook.
Mac comes from the influential lineage of Farsi pora or Persian readers in the court of Ahom kings. His father Zaiul Haque, a decorated seaman in the British Indian Navy, migrated to East Pakistan from their ancestral home at Rajabari in Jorhat, Assam in 1952, barring one, all of his uncles followed suit and migrated to East Pakistan. Zaiul Haque settled in Narayanganj, a major riverine port 20 kilometers away from Dhaka, where he joined a Swiss company named Sandoz Dyes and Chemical limited. And it was in Narayanganj in 1957 that Mac Haque was born.
A few hundred Assamese Muslims from Jorhat, Nagaon, Sibasagar and Dibrugarh had decided to migrate to East Pakistan after the partition. They all came from affluent upper middle class families like that of the Haques. Assamese Muslims were neither persecuted nor was there any palpable sense of insecurity during the partition; I wondered what could have prompted this stream of migration? Mac explained, ‘It was no exodus, this was a migration of ‘optees’. The Assamese Muslims envisaged the then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, as a land of opportunity, where they felt that they might stand a better chance with their acquired skills in the civil services, railways, and armed forces to improve upon their existing careers’.
Mac further pointed out that in the immediate aftermath of the partition, for the Assamese Muslims who decided to migrate to East Pakistan, it was not an uncomfortable decision – after all, they were going to be a few hundred miles from their homes and dear ones. Until the late 1950s, the phantasm of passports had not arrived and the visa regime between India and Pakistan had not yet been streamlined. One could board a train in Dhaka or Chittagong and could reach Furkating Junction near Golaghat in less than 24 hours. Frequent trips to or from East Pakistan were quite common amongst the families that had decided to migrate.
A War and a Disruption
The Indo-Pakistan war of 1965 changed everything. Stringent visa restrictions were put in place making it almost impossible for the families to visit each other across borders. In addition, loyalties were tested on both sides of the border. Mac’s only and eldest uncle who remained in Assam was arrested on suspicion of being a Pakistani agent and was held in Jorhat prison for several months by the Bimala Prasad Chaliha-led Assam Government.
Mac has vague but fond memories of visits to Assam during his childhood. I asked him which trip to Assam from his childhood is etched in his memory. It was the trip of December 1972, but there is a story behind this trip – a story of suffering, bravery and longing for home and Ghor – Bangladesh and Assam.
Once the Liberation War broke out in March 1971, millions of Bengalis fled to India. But three hundred odd Assamese huddled together as a community and remained underground for nine months to survive. Some even joined the Mukti Bahini to fight the Pakistani Army. Mac told us that one second generation Assamese, Bablu Rasheed was martyred after he had been brutally tortured by Pakistani Army while another Assamese Faruk Ahmed turned out to be an agile Mukti Bahini guerrilla fighter.
However, when the Liberation War broke out, Mac’s own family was trapped in Karachi. After Mac’s father, Ziaul Haque had a heart attack, in February 1972, the family made their first attempt to escape from Pakistan via Afghanistan but were apprehended by border guards near Quetta in Baluchistan. They made their second attempt to escape in December 1972 with help of the politician, Nazer Ahmed Khan who had links with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the Awami League, and finally managed to reach Kabul after traveling for seven days.
When the announcement was made in the snow covered Kabul airport that ‘Bangladeshi escapee refugees will board first,’ Mac remembered with pride that he gave the clarion war cry of Joi Bangla and soon enough a hundred others joined him in unison.
His relatives in Assam had assumed that Zaiul Haque and his family had died during the Liberation War. Upon receiving word that they were alive and had escaped from Pakistan via Kabul, Mac’s uncle Shafiqur Rahman Hongkwar received them at the Delhi airport and they flew to Jorhat from there. After staying for 10 days at Borhola in Jorhat, they finally flew to their newly independent homeland from Calcutta. Upon arriving at Tejgaon airport in Dhaka, Zaiul Haque took aside his young son and made him promise that come hell or high water they would never desert Bangladesh. ‘A promise,’ Mac says, ‘despite many opportunities to emigrate elsewhere – I am still committed to and hope to keep my promise for as long as I am alive’.
Reenergizing Past Bonds
We spent the most part of the morning discussing Mac’s family, histories of migration and the Bangladeshi Assamese community. When we started discussing contemporary political issues in Bangladesh and Assam, we were already late for another appointment with some Bangladeshi human rights activists. Mac exclaims, ‘Are you here in Dhaka tomorrow as well? You have to meet our comrade Manosh Choudhary. Let me call him’. ‘It’s done! Dinner here, tomorrow. Manosh will also join us’. So the next evening, we gathered again at Bauliana. This time, we were joined by comrade Professor Manosh Chaudhary, a young professor of Anthropology at a National University, and Lira S Haque, Mac’s lawyer and activist life partner.
It turned out to be a no-holds-barred political adda. We discussed ULFA leaderships’ sojourn in Dhaka, AFSPA in Northeast India and Bangladesh Army’s commercial interest in the country, condition of the left movement in South Asia, minority politics and politics over minority in Assam and Bangladesh, communalism and linguistic nationalisms in Assam and Bangladesh.
Manosh, a vociferous critic of Bengali nationalism, exhorted, ‘Bengali nationalism is a weapon to maintain status-quo by the powers-that-be. Don’t let the political discourse get beyond Bangabandhu-Tagore-Nazrul-Sonar Bangla and you can continue to rule’. Mac mischievously smiled and said, ‘Don’t forget Lalon Fakir, even though we are a late entrant into the lexicons of Bengali nationalism’.
It is in this thread of discussion that Manosh mentioned comrade Mac was arrested because he had dared to musically reinterpret Rabindranath Tagore. Mac and his new band, Maqsood O’ dHAKA had released an album titled Ogo Bhalobasha which is the first ever jazz rock fusion album from Bangladesh. It featured blues, jazz and fusion music in Bengali, with experiments in jazz-Bengali classical fusion, including a work of the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. There was a hue and cry from the traditional Bengali cultural purists, and Mac was arrested and held in Dhaka Central Prison for three days. In the meanwhile, the media propagated that he had been arrested for the charges of ‘wife-beating’. Soon a warrant for re-arrest surfaced. Mac said that such was the trauma that his wife, son and friends decided to put him in confinement in a ‘secret’ clinic for almost a year.
Lira politely scolded us that we should also look at the dining table. Dinner was rice, chicken curry and for those who wanted to eat – Beef Bhuna.
Over dinner, I asked him about the Shahbagh movement of 2013 in Dhaka when hundreds and thousands of young Bangladeshis demanded that religion be permanently separated from parliamentary politics. I already knew Mac Haque was one of those artist-activists who were at the forefront during the Shahbagh movement. Mac retorted, ‘We gave the Mollahs a tough time’.
It was almost midnight, after a brief chat over a smoke on the terrace, Haidar Hussain, Mac Haque and Manosh Chaudhary came back to the drawing room and in almost unison they said, ‘Yes, there is a lot of misunderstanding and misgivings as far as Assam and Bangladesh are concerned’. We discussed that a two-day civil society Assam-Bangladesh symposium cum cultural meet should be held in Guwahati sometimes later this year.