Bengali activist in America during 1971 Sangram

Last updated: 10 October 2017 From the section Muhammad Yunus

After two decades of 'colonial rule' by their brethren in West Pakistan, the Bengalis frustration boiled over. They were denied a legitimate General Election win and sufficient aid during a cyclone few weeks earlier which killed over half a million people. When mass rally took place throughout the province the West Pakistani authorities bought in the military to 'control' the situation.

On 25 March 1971 the Pakistan Army launched a vicious attack on the people of East Pakistan in a covert operation known as 'Operation Searchlight'. In response, the East Pakistanis decided to fight for independence. The Bangladesh Liberation War had begun.

Like all fellow probashi Bengalis, when news of the shocking attack had reached Muhammad Yunus he reacted instantly by declaring his allegiance to the new nation of Bangladesh. During the subsequent nine months war Muhammad Yunus founded a citizen's committee and ran the 'Bangladesh Information Center' in Washington, with other fellow Bengalis in the United States, to raise support for liberation. He relentlessly lobbied the US Congress, particularly the Senate, and foreign embassies, hoping to win diplomatic recognition for the emerging nation. He organised an aggressive grassroots lobbying effort, principally by encouraging Bengali-Americans to educate their senators about the cause of liberation. He also published the Bangladesh Newsletter from his home in Nashville.

Throughout this highly charged but physically and emotionally draining journey, he was aided by many Bengalis and non-Bengalis alike. Among these were Zillur Rahman Khan, Shamsul Bari, Alamgir, Fazlur Rahman Khan, and Enayet Karim.

During those 9 months we drew a very clear picture of the future Bangladesh in our minds, which became sharper and more vivid with each passing day. We wanted to uphold democracy, to establish the majesty of the will of the people which would be expressed in a free and fair election. We wanted to ensure people’s right to fashion their lives as they wanted. We wanted people to be free from poverty. We dreamed of a life of a happiness and prosperity for all citizens.

We dreamed of a nation which would stand with dignity among all other nations in the world.


Colleagues recall a young man who combined zeal and impressive organisation skills with the temperament of a diplomat.


When Bangladesh gained independence on 16 December 1971 the young economist, swept up in the euphoria of victory and the prospect of helping to build a new nation, was eager to return to Bangladesh for good. But the war had taken a heavy toll. The Government of Bangladesh estimated 3 million Bengalis were killed, 10 millions were refugees in neighbouring India creating camps of misery and destitution, and hundreds of thousands more became victims of rape and other atrocities committed by the Pakistani army.

By the time the war was over, Bangladesh was a devastated country. The economy was totally shattered. Millions of people needed to be rehabilitated.

I felt that I had to go back and participate in the nation-building. I thought I owed it to myself.


Return to a broken nation to take up Professor of Economics role with Chittagong University

In June 1972, accompanied by his wife Vera, 32-year-old Muhammad Yunus returned to his beloved motherland after a 7-year stint in USA. But the country he returned to was not the same country he had left. The nine months war had totally destroyed all fabrics of society. There were grave challenges in every aspect of life.

I returned from America in 1972 full of idealism and dreams, bathed in the nirvana of the Western world’s rational approach to all problems. I was no more at ease with all the West’s social ways and consumer goods. I watched hours of TV a day while working on complex equations.

I was convinced that if East Pakistan could keep its resources rather than being a colony of West Pakistan, our economic situation would quickly improve.

When I returned, I saw bravery and determination among the ruins of war. There were difficulties in every direction, and people faced them resolutely. But as months and years went by, hopes turned into disillusionment. Instead of the country find solutions, things were getting worse.


First job in independent Bangladesh

Immediately after arriving, to his dismay, the only job Dr. Yunus was offered at Dhaka University was a junior position in the Economics Department - an offer he declined. He was then recruited by Prof. Nurul Islam, a former teacher who was the chief of the new government's planning commission. When Yunus said he had no intentions of working for the post-liberation government, Prof. Islam refused to take no for an answer and pressed upon Yunus the contributions he could make to the process of nation building from inside the commission. In the end, Dr. Yunus overcame his doubts and agreed to work for the government. In July 1972 he was appointed Deputy Chief of General Economics Division, Planning Commission (GEDP) by the Government of Bangladesh.

While he reconsidered the job offer, Yunus pondered the massive task of rebuilding the world's 139th independent nation. Despite the obstacles, he was far from discouraged. To the contrary, he felt that building the Bangladesh of his dreams, virtually from scratch, was the ultimate challenge. If Japan could become a powerhouse within a few decades of defeat in the Second World War, he reasoned that surely Bangladesh could reclaim its ancient glory and assume a dignified place among the nations of the world.


However, the job was not for him.

His responsibilities were left unclear and after two months of very little activity a frustrated Yunus left a note of resignation on his desk and departed for his home district in south-eastern Bangladesh.

As soon as I came back, I was appointed to the government’s planning commission, with a fancy title, but I had nothing to do all day except read the newspaper. I was a Ph.D. in economics, fresh from the United States, and the country was in dire need of economic development, and yet they had nothing for me to do.

After repeated protests to the chief of the planning commission, Nurul Islam, my former professor at Dhaka University (at whose insistence I joined the planning commission), I resigned and became head of the economics department at Chittagong University.


Yunus was naturally anxious to get busy, but he waited for days, and then weeks, for someone to give him work to do. For reasons he never completely understood, nobody obliged. He collected a paycheck and spent his days reading newspapers. Disturbingly, his situation was far from unique. Throughout the government, officials sat about drinking tea and basking in their self-importance while millions of people tried desperately to put their lives back together in the wake of the war, with little or no outside assistance.

Yunus realised that before there could be any economic development as described in the computer models he had studied in Tennessee, a transformation in the mentality of the thousands of bureaucrats, indeed the entire government, was necessary. A sense of urgency and responsibility had to be developed.

Even though he would later meet dedicated civil servants, he came to believe that they were exception to a pervasive rule. In Yunus' view, bureaucrats seldom had any notion of serving the nation. Anyone who proposed new ideas was seen as someone likely to show up the boss. People learned to keep their mouth shut and to shower their superiors with compliments and gifts whenever possible. Most of those who figured out how to manipulate the system would use their positions primarily for personal aggrandizement. In the meantime, Bangladesh languished while neighbours like South Korea, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and India progressed.

Not surprisingly, in his brief time in the civil service, Yunus developed a lifelong mistrust of government. He saw that without firm political leadership, bureaucratic inertia was inevitable and expensive programs and schemes were rendered useless, mired in red tape.


Head of Department of Economics at Chittagong University

In September 1972 Dr Yunus joined the prestigious Chittagong University (CU) as Associate Professor of Economics. He was relieved to finally have some work to do: classes to teach, articles to write, and cultural events to organise and participate in. Based on his credentials as a Ph.D. from the United States with teaching experience, Dr. Yunus was named Head of the Department of Economics. Located 20 miles east of Chittagong city in large acres of barren hills, CU was built in 1966 and designed by Bangladesh’s Father of Architecture Muzharul Islam.

Though the university had all the amenities of modern construction, Dr. Yunus soon found out "how impractical all the internal arrangements were".

For instance, there was a huge office for the head of the department, but no offices for any of the teachers.

One of the first things I did as head of the economics department was to convert the department head’s office into a common room for all teachers. I moved my own office into a small room. This made everybody unhappy. They wanted the head to sit in a big room, even if others had nowhere to sit at all.


It was difficult time at the university. Teachers were refusing to mark examination papers because the students had ignored all the rules and simply copied their answers from books and from each other. The teachers insisted those students retake the exams. But the students were in no mood to do so. They argued that after returning from the Liberation War (which had just ended in December of the previous year), it was generous of them to have sat for exams at all. It was left to Dr Yunus to step in and help calm the volatile situation.

Many of the students were part of the Mukti Bahini (Liberation Army) and had fought in the war. They still carried around their wartime guns threatening the teachers with dire consequences if exam results were not announced soon.

I took upon myself the task of mediating between the students and teachers to defuse this explosive situation.

Dr. Muhammad Yunus on the difficult challenges in post-liberation Bangladesh

Murder of Quazi Sirajul Huq

Post independent Bangladesh also had other personal challenges for Dr. Yunus. In 1973 his role model Quazi Sirajul Huq of Chittagong Collegiate School was murdered by his domestic servant, leaving Dr. Yunus devastated.

In 1973, in the chaotic days following the Bangladesh Liberation War, I visited him with my father and my brother Ibrahim, and we discussed the turmoil and difficulties through which we were living. A month later, Quazi Sahib, then a frail old man, was brutally murdered in his sleep by his servant, just to rob him of a small sum of money. In those turbulent times, they never caught the murderer. Like everyone who knew him, I was devastated. In retrospect, I understood his tears at the Taj Mahal as prophetic of the suffering that fate had in store for him and his people.


Establish 'Rural Studies Program' (RSP), later renamed to 'Rural Economics Program' (REP)

Since his staff were not ready to embrace change and accept his innovative ideas, Dr. Yunus decided to establish an institutional base outside the department to build the program he envisioned. In 1973 he established the Rural Studies Program (RSP), after failing to resuscitate the university's fast declining Rural Development Program.

The RSP had no budget, no permission from the university to operate, and no staff. What it had, simply, was its founder's enthusiasm and some stationery he had printed up at his own expense.


Dr. Yunus was passionate about merging the academic and practical worlds. As part of the curriculum offered by the RSP program, Dr. Yunus developed a course called "Issues in Rural Development" in which students would do original field research in the neighbouring villages of Jobra and Fatehpur and earn academic credit while assisting local poor people. His aim was to break the tradition in higher education, particularly prevalent in Bangladesh, of merely expecting people to read scholarly works and then repackage those views in their own papers. Rural development was happening right at the university's doorstep, so why should students rely only on books?

Initially, students responded slowly. Many were clumsy interviewers, eager to retreat back into the world of books. After a few semesters, however, a small number started to catch on. Over time, the courses offered by the program became more popular, and by the late 1970s, enrollment was high. The program was renamed to Rural Economics Program (REP) and began putting out research reports on issues such as agricultural development and community organisation.

In 1974 Bangladesh was hit by one of the worst famine in history. Dr. Yunus's efforts to help the victim would lead him towards a path of discovery which would eventually propel him to international status and win him the Nobel Peace Prize.