Remembering health minister Habibullah Bahar

Syed Abul Maksud | Update:

Remembering health minister Habibullah BaharAfter the founding of Pakistan, Habibullah Bahar Chowdhury was the first health minister of East Bengal (now Bangladesh). He was a leader of the non-communal and progressive faction of Muslim League.

He was a politician, but also a sportsman, a writer and a journalist. He was the editor of a brilliant literary magazine, Bulbul. As a young man he was part of Master Da Surja Sen’s group. Poet Nazrul was very fond of him. He also won Gandhi’s appreciation when he worked in Mahatma Gandhi’s peace mission after the riots in Noakhali.

I have been recalling Habibullah Bahar since last Thursday. As health minister, he went on a trip to Shibalaya. My father put him up at the dak bungalow there. His orderly went to wash up at the pond when he accidently shot himself with the revolver at his waist and was badly injured. The minister scrapped his visit and rushed with his orderly and the civil surgeon to Dhaka by launch. I was very small at the time but I remember the stir created by the incident.

Muslim League and Congress were vehemently opposed to each other. Prabhas Chandra Lahiri was an influential Congress member of the East Bengal legislative assembly. He had spent a long time behind bars during the British rule and was in jail during the thirties.

Even though he would use a mosquito net, his arms and legs would swell up with mosquito bites. In his memoirs he wrote, “Dhaka’s mosquitoes are very clever... that’s when I got acquainted with Dhaka’s mosquitoes. But when Bahar sahib was minister, he completely eradicated all mosquitoes from Dhaka. That’s when I slept without mosquito nets in Dhaka. That was Bahar.”

Today, leaders of opposing parties never have a word of praise for each other. Back then, leaders of the opposition would praise any good work of the government. Ganendranath Bhattacharya, another leader who lived in Sutrapur, was also full of praise for Habibullah Bahar.

In one of his memoirs, Jasimuddin said, “One of the greatest achievements of Bahar as minister was eradicating mosquitoes from Dhaka. Prior to independence, there was no way one could stay outside the mosquito net after dark in Dhaka city. As health minister, Bahar rid the city of mosquitoes. He would personally go around the slums and supervise this work.”

We environmental activists nowadays lament about the state of Dhaka city’s canals and water bodies. In the fifties the canals were filled with water round the year. Large vessels would travel along the Dholai Khal.

Habibullah Bahar had planned certain river routes in Dhaka city. Jasimuddin wrote that Bahar had plans to use the rivers and canals of the city so Dhaka would have canal routes like Venice.

Habibullah Bahar was from Chattogram and a contemporary of Abul Fazal. Abul Fazal wrote about him in one of his memoirs, “As the health minister of East Pakistan, there is no comparison to the efficiency he displayed. It was during his time that the famous mosquitoes of Dhaka city were eliminated. His achievement back then remains as a model down till today.”

As health minister, Habibullah Bahar could have said that my duties involve senior officials of the health department, government hospitals, doctors, nurses, their appointments, transfers and promotions. As a minister, why should I run after these insignificant little insects?

On his way home from the secretariat, he would stop off to check the drains, ditches and stagnant water and would ordered these to be cleaned if necessary. He wasn’t into any post-modern anti-mosquito campaign of wearing T-shirts and caps with fancy slogans and marching in a rally with a band playing loudly.

Bahar sahib was from an old aristocratic family. He simply carried out his duties as a minister. He was not involved in looking after any family business.

Over the last one and a half months, the media has been rife with news of dengue. Our honourable minister all these days had remained silent about dengue. Finally on Friday he offered his valuable views on the matter. Sitting in his drawing room, he said, “Why are there so many dengue patients all of a sudden in our country? I have a simple answer – there are many mosquitoes, many Aedes mosquitoes. These are healthy mosquitoes and very sophisticated. They live in the city, in homes – that is my answer. Mosquitoes are increasing as their production is high. Somehow we couldn’t manage to control the mosquito population. The mosquito population is increasing just like the Rohingya population after they came to our country. If the production was less, there would be less Aedes mosquitoes. People would be bitten less by infective mosquitoes and there would be less dengue.” [Jai Jai Din]

The health minister correctly said, “It is the city corporations’ responsibility to kill mosquitoes, not that of the health ministry.” He advised the journalists to be more careful when reporting on dengue, saying, “The journalists must know that every day 15 to 20 people in the country die of road accidents. Ten die of snake bites and hundreds of heart attacks. We don’t keep track of that. But over the past few months, only 8 died of dengue. The situation is now fully under control.” [Samakal]

The honorable minister was quite unaware that he had insulted and hurt certain people with his words. It is downright cruel to make snide remarks about the Rohingyas, the most oppressed community in the world today.

When he stated that the dengue situation was fully under control, it implied that no one will be infected anymore and no one would die anymore. There was no need to make such a forceful statement because everyone knows that the health ministry isn’t a ‘death-control’ ministry.

In Italy when a child fell into a well, the state machinery went all out to save the infant. Italy’s prime minister said, “When it’s the question of death, one is too big a number.”

People expect responsible and sensitive words from those in senior positions. Debating over the number of deaths or the definition of epidemic won’t improve the situation. What is required is a sense of responsibility and commitment to duty. That is why even after 69 years, Habibullah Bahar comes to mind.

* Abul Maksud is a writer and researcher. This piece appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir

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