Every time we come across a piece by Syed Badrul Ahsan, we come across very easily: each piece from him stands out like crisp paper notes amongst the bundle of pale used faded notes. His words rejuvenate us with rhythmic energy. While reading his columns on historical subjects, we find ourselves travelling through the zigzag paths of history.
However, recently the response he gave to a piece on Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy (Suhrawardy's place in History: bdnews24.com, 19 September 2015), makes us question, that while Badrul Ahsan rightly observes that history is about being objective, was the article objective enough to do justice to Syed Abul Maksud's article 'The Pioneer of Democracy' [The Daily Star, 8 September, 2015]? Having read the article, we feel Syed Badrul Ahsan also filtered Suhrawardy, but with a different sanitizer: Independent Bangladesh and Bengal's People. As such, we feel inclined to raise some questions and add some more references to see further 'objectively' and 'dispassionately' the issues raised by Syed Badrul Ahsan regarding Suhrawardy who, quite ironically, served both Pakistan and Bengal.
Maksud's piece in The Daily Star appears to be a simple narrative on Suhrawardy's life. This article was much simpler than Maksud's usual write ups: sharp, witty and analytical. However, it is understandable that a small piece in the editorial page will not touch a larger span. Maksud never in his piece made any implications that he was 'writing history', hence when Badrul metaphorises the essay as a 'sanitized version' of history, reader may think it a one-eyed criticism. What we need to notice is that whether Maksud had intentionally omitted or avoided any crucial fact from the readers. On a cursory look, it appears that Maksud's piece deals only with the positive sides of Suhrawardy's political career on the eve of his birth anniversary, but calling it a 'sanitisation' of history might be a mis-prediction . Maksud did not probe into the political mistakes of Suhrawardy, hence it is hurtful to assume that Maksud has dishonoured or misread the history. Badrul Ahsan, however, brings new dimensions of Suhrawardy, but we want to add a 'subaltern' view to Badrul Ahsan's narrative.
We have been enlightened by Ahsan's write ups on historical figures like Bangabandhu and Tajuddin Ahmed on many occasions. The piece under scrutiny, however, was about none other than Bangabandhu's political Guru Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy. Ahsan sounded bit straightforward in blaming Suhrawardy for the 1946 Great Calcutta Killings. Interestingly, Bangabandhu's 'Unfinished Memoir' does not portray Suhrawardy as such. Bangabandhu has narrated many events relating to the Calcutta Killings, but nowhere did he mention about such a negative role of HS Suhrawardy. Therefore, we think that any criticism on this aspect of Suhrawardy's political career should be properly corroborated.
Having read the 'Unfinished Memoir', we get an impression that had Bangabandhu been a disciple of Abul Hashim or Mawlana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani or even Sher-e-Bangla instead of Suhrawardy, he might never have reached the peak of leadership he later attained. Tofazzal Hossain Manik Mia wrote in 1964 in a special supplement of the Daily Ittefaq that just as the depth of ocean is immeasurable, it is impossible to evaluate Suhrawardy. Therefore, for a reader to get a wholesome idea on Suhrawardy, Syed Badrul's piece should be supplemented by other sources as well.
Below we give new references and research findings which were absent in Badrul Ahsan's piece so as to deter the misconceptions on Suhrawardy.
A. Badrul Ahsan does not count Suhrawardy as 'one of the greatest politicians' of the 20th century and opines Suhrawardy cannot measure up to leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru or even Jinnah. He may be right. But that does not make Suhrawardy any smaller. He can still be 'one' of the many great leaders of the Indian Sub-continent. History shows that after Jinnah, Suhrawardy himself was the second most popular leader in the whole Pakistan. If Congress and Muslim League had not rejected his Proposal for an undivided Bengal (the proposal received support only from Sarat Chandra Bose), the history would have taken a different course. He was a non-Bengali, but loved the Bengal so much that he remained with Bengal till death did them apart. Even his contribution to the Jukto-Front politics in bringing the landslide victory in the 1954 election against the Muslim League should have been properly credited with.
B. Syed Badrul Ahsan has doubted Suhrawardy's role in the Great Calcutta Killings that took a violent form on 16th august, 1946. He wishes to attribute a political onus on him for declaring a 'Direct Action' day that allegedly ignited the riot. The claim is contestable, for the day was set for a 'peaceful' political demonstration against the British raj for a separate Muslim state announced by Jinnah. Being a provincial leader of the Muslim League, Suhrawardy was a part of the program, but it is on record that he understood the notion of 'direct action' in an honest political way. Being asked on the issue, Professor Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, Asian History Professor at The Victoria University of Wellington, wrote us: 'whether or not he [Suhrawardy] fuelled the riot is uncertain, but historians argue that he failed to take adequate measures to stop it. His political opponents believed that this was deliberate. But new research shows that the failure was systemic.' Sekhar's thought is in line with Nariaki Nakazato, Professor on South Asian History at the University of Tokyo who has shown the 'power vacuum' and 'systematic breakdown' of different actors in colonial Bengal to suppress the riot. Suhrawardy's sister and biographer Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah in her book Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy: A Biography (Oxford: 2001) says that the riot was not the deed of any single person, rather it was the unavoidable consequences given the overall political situation prevailing at that time. She writes that her brother worked with tiger-like ferocity to restrain the riot. Suhrawardy himself had accounted in front of the Investigation Commission formed with regard to that. In his explanation, Suhrawardy wrote that the 'Direct Action Day' of 16th August was the day for peaceful political protest against Cabinet Mission Plan to form the interim government solely with the Congress members bypassing the Muslim League. Reginal Coopland, a constitutional expert found a 'government within government' by examining the structure of the Government of India Act 1935 and other contemporary confidential political documents and dispatches. He has shown how the English Governor could deliberately ignore the power of the Chief Minister of Bengal. National Professor Salahuddin Ahmed in his book 'Bangladesh: Past and Present' (APH Publishing, Delhi, 2004) testifies from the letters of Lord Wavel, the second-last Viceroy of British-India, that 'he could not find enough evidence against Suhrawardy to accuse him and neither was it clear what Suhrawardy had said in his speech one week earlier.'
These views of the historians should be taken into account in assessing Suhrawardy's role during the Calcutta disturbances. In order to do an 'objective analysis' we should also contextualize two things of Suhrawardy's political philosophy: (i) Suhrawardy had left the Congress in 1926 in protest of the first riot; and (ii) before the second riot of 1946 became widespread, he worked with Gandhiji at Calcutta actively in restoring peace. Against this background, how did Suhrawardy's actions become liable for the 1946 disturbances remains unanswered from Badrul Ahsan's writing? Neither did he explain in his piece under which scale Suhrawardy becomes 'an ardent defender of the British Empire' when he was left out to select the unpopular Khawza Nazimuddin as the Governor General of Pakistan after Jinnah's death.
C. The write up also talks about Suhrawardy's failure to deter the 1943 famine. Badrul Ahsan, however, acknowledges the role of colonial politics in creating the famine. But the hegemonic nature of the colonial politics should be looked at to understand the gravity of the problem. During the British raj famine was a frequent phenomenon in Bengal and other parts of British India. The 1770's famine, the great famine in the south during 1878-79 and the Bengal famine in 1943---all of them, once scrutinized, show the hegemonic character of colonization. This has been amply discussed in the Famine Commission Report of 1945 and the works of Florence Nightingale and Professor Amartya Sen. As such, it was not Suhrawardy who contributed to the famine. Rather it was the final outcome of the 'depeasantisation' process that the British embarked on from the early colonial days. Corroboration may be sought from Historian Professor Salahuddin Ahmed. Professor Ahmed's book 'Bangladesh: Past and Present' (New Delhi: 2004) holds the 'constitutional limitation' of the Bengal government liable to face the famine. Professor Ahmed credited Suhrawardy's effort to check the magnitude of the famine through the opening of langarkhanas all throughout Bengal.
D. One of Suhrawardy's statements is frequently used to his discredit: "The 1956 constitution gave 98 per cent autonomy to East Pakistan." Badruddin Umar, for example, professes this view. It seems that Syed Badrul Ahsan also belongs to this school of thought. Suhrawardy is quoted to have said so and maybe he numbered the percentage as a sporadic remark. But the statement, not being given in the National Assembly, should be taken cautiously considering the overall political context. The 1956 Constitution is vulnerable to a mountain of criticisms, for the autonomy (be it 98 per cent or 50 per cent) was of no effect, ultimately leading to the Six Point Movement by Bangabandhu in 1966.
But even then, Suhrawardy ensured the insertion of ideas, such as, universal suffrage, parliamentary democracy, fundamental human rights and the like through his constitutional deliberation. His constitutional prudence has been widely acclaimed by Justice AR Cornelius, who is famous for his powerful dissenting opinion in case of Maulvi Tamizuddin Ahmed (1955). Moreover, it is on record that Suhrawardy worked hard to decrease the discrimination between the two wings of Pakistan. We must not fail to remember that Suhrawardy was not just another politician, his education, political views and stature had a higher standard. The metaphor of 98 per cent autonomy should not imply that he never dreamed of an independent Bangladesh, because given his position in the 1950s, it was not for him to dream of Bangladesh. This also answers the questions that why Ayub Khan could never buy Suhrawardy? And why was he declared disqualified to run in the election by the notorious election disqualification order? Why he had to languish in jail for two years being declared as a traitor of (west) Pakistan? Why did he form the National Democratic Front to confront the martial law anarchy? Why did he die 'mysteriously' in a Beirut hotel all alone? Why does (erstwhile West) Pakistan NEVER officially remembers or even acknowledges him? Didn't his trusted colleague Abul Hashim say about him at his death: 'He died a magnificent pauper, receiving the burial of an emperor?' This is the other side of Suhrawardy, who might have overestimated the ironical autonomy.
E. Finally, Syed Badrul Ahsan brings into discussion the fact of Mawlana Bhasani leaving Awami League. He accuses Suhrawardy's pro-American foreign policy for this. Whether Suhrawardy's policies were indeed 'Pro-American' is definitely debatable, but a little bit of speculation would reveal he actually vented for a 'Balanced Foreign Policy'. He was the only Prime Minister who tested his foreign policy in the National Assembly. Dr. Naumana Kiran, an Assistant Professor of Punjab University examines the papers on foreign policy of the then Federal Cabinets (1947-1958) and found its 'utmost utility' for Pakistan. Hence, the total foreign policy needs to be judged under not merely under the context of 'east Pakistan'. Suhrawardy tended to Pakistan's policy, but how those policies served East Pakistan and the Bengali people, is more than questionable. It is, however, discernable that since India's leadership was involved in the formation of Non-Align Movement (NAM), Pakistan was never in a position to support or join the NAM. Why Pakistan could never come out of its Pro-American policies was not for Suhrawardy to decide, but nonetheless Badrul Ahsan, a bit sternly, blames him. By saying 'President Ayub Khan moved to mend fences in the Arab world', did Badrul Ahsan mean to praise the Iron Man? It must be understood that Suhrawardy was for a 'just' Pakistan, two wings, federalized, but equal and just.
We need to finish this write up. Again, we wonder whether Badrul Ahsan did some injustice to Suhrawardy while deciding his place in history. Let us end with a verse from Mirza Ghalib, which Suhrawardy recited while responding to the opposite Counsel's cross examination in the habeas-corpus case (1962) to free him: 'har ek baat pe kehte ho tum ke 'too kya hai' ? tumhee kaho ke yeh andaaz-e-guftgoo kya hai ?' (You ask me every time that what I am, but do tell me, what is this conversation that we are having?).
Arpeeta Shams Mizan is a Harvard Law Graduate.
Email: [email protected]. S M Masum Billah is a PhD Candidate at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Email:[email protected]