The smiling face of professor Gobindachandra Deb, better known as GC Deb, catches our attention every time we see the pictures of the martyred intellectuals in the media contents on martyred intellectuals day.
GC Deb’s adopted son Jyotiprakash Datta let us know that the smiling photograph of the professor was taken at a studio on the professor’s birthday.
The forgetful philosophy professor at the University of Dhaka was unmarried.
Being an insolvent student, Jyotiprakash worked part-time at a publication house till midnight. The security guards of the Jagannath Hall several nights spotted him creeping into his dormitory, climbing over boundary wall as the dorm’s main entrance was locked before his return.
Notified about the matter, the hall provost GC Deb summoned Jyotiprakash. Instead of punishing him, GC Deb invited Jyotiprakash to stay at his home. The professor offered Jyotiprakash a job, to take dictation, and took responsibility of his student’s accommodation and food. After a few days, GC Deb adopted Jyotiprakash as his son.
GC Deb’s family expanded to three members when Jyotiprakash had married a writer Purabi Basu. Jyotiprakash and Purabi migrated to the US for higher studies in the late 1960s and GC Deb adopted another littérateur, Rokeya Sultana, as his daughter.
GC Deb’s secular philosophy was reflected in his way of life by adopting son and daughter from two different religions. Rokeya and her husband witnessed first-hand the abduction of GC Deb when the Pakistani occupational army raided the Jagannath Hall provost building on 25 March 1971 midnight.
We have traced some details of the GC Deb killing, through certain research work. We learnt that GC Deb had a Fulbright scholarship at the Wilkes College of Pennsylvania, US, in 1967, four years before the Liberation War. During March of 1971, GC Deb was drafting his ‘American Experience’.
During his stay in the US, GC Deb delivered a speech on Buddhism and other topics related to oriental philosophy. He was invited by the McGill University's Institute of Islamic Studies to deliver a speech on Islamic philosophy. In his speeches, GC Deb highlighted the comprehensive idea of religion and philosophy he depicted in his Tattvavidya-sara, Aamar Jibandarshan and Aspiration of the Common Man.
Interestingly, an US youngster Paul A Nazarek–a fan of GC Deb’s speech-- formed the GC Deb Foundation in Pennsylvania. Nazarek was a chiropractor.
GC Deb had been exchanging thoughts with Nazarek to develop his ‘American Experience’ title project. Till March 1971, the professor had already written several parts of the book. A month before he was killed, he went to the US and stayed at the residence of Jyotiprakash and Purabi. He also took part in GC Deb Foundation activities.
After returning to Dhaka, GC Deb sent his last letter to Nazarek on 22 March 1971.
It was early 26 March 1971 when the Pakistani army knocked on GC Deb’s DU residence door. The occupational army entered the house and killed GC Deb and Rokeya’s husband. Rokeya survived the attack as she hid herself in a backyard shelter.
The attackers buried GC Deb–the man exploring a unique humanism–with numerous non-Muslim students at the Jagannath Hall grounds.
When the Liberation War intensified during May, the DU authorities received an unexpected letter by Paul Nazarek from Pennsylvania. Nazarek enquired about GC Deb’s fate-was the professor still alive or dead? Nazarek requested help from the university authority to recover the manuscript of American Experience.
We have found a dispatch from the university registrar asking feedback of the letter from the then DU vice-chancellor Syed Sajjad Hussain. The feedback from the VC seems frustrating but unsurprising to us now. The pro-Pakistan VC had written a note ‘No action for the present’ on 13 May 1971 as the feedback. The VC attempted to trash the GC Deb issue.
During the India-Pakistan War 1965, Pakistani intelligence detained GC Deb as a means of ‘protective custody’ on suspicion of spying for India. Jyotiprakash accompanied his father to the jail gate. The young man sensed how the philosopher was exhausted due to the harassment.
Later, GC Deb was released from jail, but was kept under security surveillance, even during his stay at home and hospital, for the entire period of the India-Pakistan War 1965.
We understand why the pro-Pakistan VC remained silent at Nazarek’s letter.
Nazarek didn’t give up. Refused by the DU authorities, Nazarek wrote to the Pakistan Embassy in Washington DC to inquire about GC Deb and the manuscript.
The Pakistan Embassy informed the foreign affairs ministry of Pakistan about the matter. Eventually, the DU authorities received a letter from the foreign affairs ministry asking information about GC Deb. The new development shook the DU authorities. We have found proof of notes exchanged among the officials of administration and philosophy department under DU during October-November of 1971.
At last, the DU authority on 30 November 1971 provided a ‘soft note’ with the Dhaka protocol officer at foreign affairs minister– “The former professor and head of philosophy department of Dhaka University died on 26 March 1971”. The message, for sure, would not help Nazarek understand the motive of the gruesome killing of GC Deb and others on that night. However, the foreign affairs ministry’s reply did not reach Washington because of a snap of communication between Dhaka and Pakistan due to shifting change in the war situation. Two weeks after, the world observed the emergence of Bangladesh.
We noted that Nazarek, being in the dark about GC Deb’s update, again tried to search for the manuscript in independent Bangladesh. On behalf of the GC Deb Foundation, he wrote to the new VC of DU in January 1972, asking for the American Experience manuscript and other books. In his letter, Nazarek wrote that he was ready to bear the cost of the courier and other expenses. He had already got the news of GC Deb’s murder.
Frustrated with the delay of response from the DU authorities, Nazarek asked help from the newly established Bangladesh Embassy in Washington. He shared his frustration about the DU authorities' indifference to GC Deb. And he again inquired about the killin of his respected philosopher while asking for GC Deb’s literary works. Moreover, he requested for photographs of GC Deb’s residence.
We have noticed that Bangladesh Embassy diplomats in Washington, particularly the second secretary SM Ali took Nazarek’s letter very seriously. As the diplomat insisted, ten 10 months after Bangladesh’s independence the DU authorities provided Nazarek a detailed account of GC Deb's murder. In a letter to Nazarek, the DU authorities wrote that the Pakistani army set fire to GC Deb's residence, destroying everything. The letter confirmed that there was no possibility of finding the American Experience manuscript.
Such negligence by the DU authorities to respond to GC Deb’s close associate is unacceptable. We would consider this as a limitation of the reshuffled administration in an emerging country. But a foreigner’s curiosity, as opposed to the local people’s indifference on GC Deb, have raised some questions within us.
GC Deb as a philosopher from Bangladesh once had caught international attention. A foundation was formed in his name. Have we Bangladeshis carried on this legacy of GC Deb? We believe that GC Deb’s philosophy is still relevant in a world crippled by conflict.
We have not paid due attention or showed proper honour to GC Deb yet. The government lately granted GC Deb the posthumous Swadhinata Padak (the highest state award in Bangladesh) in 2008.
We also know that GC Deb, before his death, donated half of his property to the DU and the rest to his adopted children Jyotiprakash and Rokeya. Rokeya has already expired. We come to know that the DU authority paid the arrears of GC Deb to Jyotiprakash after four decades. The initiative was praiseworthy.
GC Deb loved his longtime workplace–the Dhaka University–like he loved his adopted children. That’s why he donated half part of his land located in Dhanmandi.
We propose that the DU authorities, with permission from GC Deb’s successors, establish a GC Deb memorial center on the Dhanmandi plot. The new generation must get an opportunity to learn about GC Deb’s philosophy and the history of his death through the center. This is crucial for us to make the humanists, secularists and seekers of harmony like GC Deb, relevant in the divided societies of Bangladesh and the world.
*Shahaduz Zaman is a writer and medical anthropologist, and Khairul Islam is the regional director (South Asia) at WaterAid
*This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Sadiqur Rahman