A strong hint of the erudition in Syed Badrudduja was his home library. Shelves stacked with books, dealing with subjects as wide ranging as literature and politics and religion, were what greeted you as you entered the room that had once been his. Most of the books bore his mark, were a testimony to the methodical and meticulous way in which he had read them. Phrases and sentences and paragraphs had been marked out in blue or yellow or red pencil. And of course there was the ubiquity of fountain-pen ink to give a certain wholesome quality to his perusal of the works he must have collected with so much love and diligence in the seventy four years he walked the earth. Those books were proof of the existence of a modern man. Badrudduja was a modern man, at home with the many issues that consumed life or brushed it by in his times.
When you read of Syed Badrudduja or listen in on conversations about his life and career, you tend to wonder why his politics did not carry him as far as his followers and acolytes would have liked it to. Where was the spark of ambition in him which in other men made them rush toward the hall of fame, the overriding goal being putting a foot under the door just as it is about to get shut? But Badrudduja's ambition went beyond the personal. He had all the reasons in the world, in the aftermath of Partition in 1947, to go over to the new state of Pakistan. Everyone else was going there --- Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, Abul Hashem, Chaudhry Khaliquzzaman and so many others --- but Badrudduja would not budge. There was no ambivalence in him. He knew where his roots were. Those roots were in India, indeed in Calcutta, and he was not about to abandon those in the Muslim community he knew could not go over to Pakistan. The record is clear. Badrudduja had never been enthusiastic about Pakistan. For all his advocacy of Muslim rights, he was clear in his conviction that the creation of a separate state for Muslims was not the best solution to the crisis of communalism in India.
And so he stayed back. He had been mayor of Calcutta in 1943, a time when famine stalked Bengal. It was a place he called home. Men of conviction did not turn their backs on their homes. Syed Badrudduja stayed. If he left, he let people around him know, there would be no one around to care for the Muslim community. He became the voice of these dispirited people; he spoke for them in the post-1947 Bengal Legislative Assembly. And for as many as fifteen years he represented his constituency in the Lok Sabha, where his refined oratory enriched the proceedings of the House. The Lok Sabha records remain evidence of the contributions Syed Badrudduja made, in an era of principled politics, to the cause of democracy. He belonged to no party. As an independent, he had little chance of influencing policy or making it. He would never be a minister, either in Bengal or in the Union government in Delhi. But, yes, there were those who toyed with the thought of Badrudduja rising to the presidency of India someday. Such thoughts were never his. Politics for him was selfless dedication to public causes, as made evident through his role in the anti-Holwell Monument agitation. He had little time for little men, which is why individuals like Raghib Ahsan, for all their opposition to him, could never measure up to him in stature. Badrudduja did not take it lying down when the Bengal committee of the Muslim League was dismantled on Mohammad Ali Jinnah's instructions. Such audacity was answered with expulsion from the party. Badrudduja remained unmoved. He was not to be intimidated by Jinnah, for his politics had commenced under a far superior politician, the late Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das. It was the Calcutta Corporation where Badrudduja was placed by Das. The journey would commence from there. In time, Badrudduja would link up with a new political associate, Sher-e-Bangla A K Fazlul Huq.
But politics was never an easy affair for Badrudduja. Almost always at odds with the Indian government or with the West Bengal government, he would go to prison repeatedly and yet the experience would not break him. Freed at some point, a decree of house arrest would be served on him. He did not complain. But he did miss those sessions in the Lok Sabha, where he enjoyed the repartees with Atal Behari Vajpayee. The two men were adversaries in the House. Out of it, they were men linked in camaraderie. Syed Badrudduja's friendship with Jawaharlal Nehru was to be of an enduring sort despite the divergences of opinion that defined their politics. When India's first prime minister died in May 1964, Badrudduja's eulogy on him was truly a throwback to the oratory of Marcus Tullius Cicero. It was elegy delivered in the terminology of literature. It left foreign dignitaries who had descended on Delhi for Nehru's funeral impressed to no end.
Syed Badrudduja's final spell in prison quite took the wind out of his sail. He lost the election in 1971, for the times belonged to Indira Gandhi at the centre and to the Left in Calcutta. Marched off to prison on charges that were never to be proved, he went through a steady decline in health. Freed without conditions, he spent his remaining years at his European Asylum Lane home in Calcutta --- reading, reminiscing and observing the changing shape of politics in his country and beyond. The scholar in him was never to die, was as restless as it had always been. President of the Anjuman Taraqqi-e-Urdu at a point, he delivered his presidential address in such impeccable Urdu that many among his audience had little idea that he was a Bengali. His speeches in English and Bengali are yet recalled for their substance and diction and delivery by a dwindling generation of men who sat at his feet in their youth. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was fond of recalling the tea and biscuits he was served during his youthful days at the Badrudduja home. On the day Syed Badrudduja died in 1974, he ensured that one of the late politician's sons resident in Dhaka was able to fly without difficulty to Calcutta to be present at his father's last rites.
Syed Badrudduja's legacy is without frills, for humility dripped from him. He was the quintessential politician, a pupil of the old school where enlightenment consisted in a comprehension of and empathy with issues that ordinary men and women grappled with every livelong day. He belonged with those men and women, identified with them. His greatness came wrapped in his humility.
(Syed Badrudduja --- Indian political leader, mayor of Calcutta, member of the Bengal Legislative Assembly, member of the Lok Sabha --- was born on 4 January 1900 and died on 18 November 1974)
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Associate Editor, The Daily Observer