My tribute to Dr. Jaffor Ullah – an eminent scientist, a remarkable secular humanist, and a person of greatness and inspiration

Published on Sunday, September 15, 2013

An untimely death of Dr. Jaffor Ullah on August 21, 2013 was a huge loss for all the secularists and rationalists of Bangladesh. He was a great secular humanist and an extraordinary writer in the USA, who originally hailed from Bangladesh. Although he had a strong background as a research scientist, he worked his ways in the areas of literature and philosophy through extensive studies. His depth of knowledge in English and Indian literature was far-advanced. I came to know from him about his studies on the works of many writers in literature, who enriched his mind and thoughts on social science and philosophy. As a scholar in literature and as a devoted researcher in the areas of molecular biology and genetics, he was able to explore the meaning of rationalism in a more lucid form. The combination of his knowledge on scientific research and on literature allowed him to write in a rational and eloquent fashion. I always consider myself very fortunate to have met with him in 1999 in Atlanta, GA. Since then, I was always in touch with him over phone and e-mail.

Even before I met with him, I used to read his articles in "News from Bangladesh", where he was an editor. I was one of his many admirers, who were eager to read his thoughtful essays regularly on the Internet in the 90s. After reading his articles written with lucidity and perspicuity in English, I developed an idea about him being an academic researcher in socio-political science. However, after meeting with him in 1999, I came to know about his academic achievements and research in the areas of biochemistry, molecular biology, and genetics. I was amazed to know about his superb scientific achievements including the applications of his research in diverse areas. In general, there is a perception that the professionals and researchers in the fields of science and technology do not write well on socio-political issues. It is true that most of the researchers in these areas remain busy with their own professional work and do not get enough time to write on the issues outside the academic areas of their expertise. However, Dr. Jaffor Ullah was an exception in this regard. He was an extraordinary researcher, who could work like a scholar simultaneously in many different fields. As one of his admirers, I always appreciated his thoughtful and analytical essays and always mentioned it to him. At one point of time on our efforts as a group of secularists to propagate the values of free thinking, rationalism, and secularism, he was approached by a confused critic (through an e-mail) with a request to him to write on topics only in his own areas of expertise (molecular biology, biochemistry, and genetics) instead of writing on socio-political issues. He told me about this with his usual openhearted laughter. I referred to a write-up that I read a long time ago. In that write-up, it was mentioned that the writers with the background in science write in a more logical and rational form. He agreed on this. I must say that it was entirely true for Dr. Jaffor Ullah.

Through his writings on socio-political issues, Dr. Jaffor Ullah became well-known to many of us, who are not related to his academic fields of expertise. Many of us are not aware of his achievements in his research in genetics, molecular biology, and biochemistry. As far as I remember, he told me that he authored more than one hundred publications on his research in many reputed journals. I was amazed to know about so many journal publications. His research was on the cover story in July 2007 issue of "Agricultural Research," a research news magazine published by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). In this cover story, his research with a Cornell University research team on enzyme-based technology to free up phosphorus from phytic acid was covered ( After reading this news story, one can understand the level of achievements Dr. Jaffor Ullah had in his field as a research professional. While he was successfully doing research on the phytase enzyme, he was writing on diverse areas on socio-political issues and even working to finish translation of the Sanskrit poem Meghaduta by Kalidasa. Indeed, Dr. Jaffor Ullah was a rarely born intellectual, who contributed in diverse areas of science, socio-political subjects, and literature.

He inspired many of us to think and write freely through his writings and encouragement. I still remember his encouraging words for me to write on the events centering our liberation war while doing lunch together at the Emory University Cafeteria in 1999 in Atlanta. He came to know from me that I was a school student in 1971 and a college student while Bangabandhu was killed in 1975. I told him that I was not involved in politics through any political party but I was well aware of the political events in Bangladesh. I briefly mentioned him about my secular views in terms of religion and politics. Through our exchanges, he and I became very happy to meet with each other. Since he left Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) in 1969 and since he was not living in Bangladesh during the events that took place in 1971 and afterwards, he wanted to know more about the conditions during these periods from me. I came to know from him about his hard work in protesting the brutal acts of the Pakistani military junta on the people of Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) in 1971. He was doing his graduate studies at that time but actively took part to protest and raise funds for the freedom fighters and refugees, who fled to India. He worked hard to network with a scarce group of Bengalis living at that time in the USA for supporting the liberation war.

He was curious to know more about the condition in Bangladesh in the aftermath of our liberation war. Especially, he wanted to know about the political events that led to the formation of BKSAL by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. I told him that I would write about these events based on my observation and studies while I was in Bangladesh and I would send the write-up to him for his review. Later, I wrote and sent him the write-up. He read and edited it within probably an hour. He changed the title of my write-up and gave a new title "Vision for a Decentralized and Secular Government in the Seventies". He sent it to "News from Bangladesh." After a few years, I sent it to "mukto-mona", where the write-up is still available. He encouraged me to write more on the chaos and conspiracies that resulted in the deviation from secular democracy and gradual Pakistanization of Bangladesh after the death of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. As always, he edited and reviewed most of my write-ups in an unimaginably fast pace and used to send those to "News from Bangladesh", "mukto-mona", "vinnomot", and other forums. As a great researcher and scientist, as a great believer in secular democracy, and as a scholarly writer in English, he could edit write-ups by others so well and he himself could write in a short time by expressing his opinion in a very revealing form.

In the aftermath of the election in 2001, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat-I-Islami (JI) cadres unleashed a reign of terror especially, on the minority population of Bangladesh. Dr. Jaffor Ullah became distressed and dismayed by the events of torture and terror by the BNP and JI cadres like all others (Mr. Jamal Hasan et al. including myself). The situation became worse for the secular democracy loving people of Bangladesh. Dr. Jaffor Ullah wrote extensively against the terrorist acts and atrocities committed at that time. I remember his heartfelt activism through his powerful writings after the attack on Dr. Humayun Azad and after the killing of Mr. S. A. M. S. Kibria. In addition to "News from Bangladesh" and "mukto-mona", he used to write in the "Bangladesh Observer" and in the "Daily Star" at that time. At all times, he was highly concerned and was actively communicating with many such as Mr. Harun Habib (a freedom fighter and a former chief editor of Bangladesh News Agency (Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha)), and Jamal Bhai et al. about the dreadful terrorism including hundreds of bomb blasts and killings of many prominent individuals that were leading Bangladesh toward the same condition as Pakistan. After the defeat of the patrons of the killer forces in the election held in 2008, he became very happy like many of us.

As a powerful writer, Dr. Jaffor Ullah used his writing capabilities to express his opinion in an effective and articulated form. Those who knew him through his writings, they would agree that he could convey his thoughts in a strong but in an excellent structure and style in English. Those who knew him personally, they would agree that he was an openhearted person, who could laugh with a lot of life in it. Any phone conversation with him used to be continued with his openhearted laughter. Whenever I think about him, his lively laughter reaches my ears. Through humor and lively laughter, he could come up with ideas and topics for write-ups that were related to serious issues of the time. Indeed, he was an amazing intellectual, who enlightened us through his writings and through his personal charisma.

A scholar like Dr. Jaffor Ullah is much needed at all times for our scientific achievements and cultural enlightenment. Unfortunately, our dear Jaffor Bhai will be no more with us. But, his inspiration will always be with us. The last time I talked to him was after the emancipation of Shahbag Youth Movement in Bangladesh early this year. He was very satisfied that the young generation of Bangladesh was inspired by the real history of the Bangladesh liberation war. I mentioned that the writings of many writers including him helped propagate the real history to our new generation of young Bengalis. He said with full satisfaction that the writings on the spirit of our liberation war such as secular democracy, rationalism, and non-communalism have been propagated and communicated well to the new generation. Dr. Jaffor Ullah wrote to explore and communicate these spirits so well. He will always be remembered as a great scientist and as a great secular humanist.

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