KM Subhan and the principles he lived for
Nine years after he transited to the Great Beyond, Justice KM Subhan is remembered --- and remembered with deep emotion --- by men and women of principle in this country. He was one of a class of good men, decent men, that has fast been dwindling as a band of brothers dedicated to the cause of justice and democracy.
Justice KM Subhan was among the courageous and the principled. The facts around his life and career speak for themselves. When the Awami League returned to power in 1996, twenty one years after Bangabandhu's government was overthrown in a violent coup, there was the expectation among many that Subhan would seek a restoration of his position in the Supreme Court. The expectation did not reach fruition, because Subhan was in little mood to ask for favours. He was not willing that the new government place him back in a position that had earlier been seized from him by a military dictatorship. That was part of his integrity.
I was young when I came in touch with Justice KM Subhan sometime in the later part of the 1980s. It was a time when a democratic upsurge against the Ershad regime widened and gathered steam. It was joy seeing Justice Subhan turning up at public rallies demanding a restoration of democracy, for his was a voice of hope against despair, a presence which promised light at the end of the tunnel. He spoke in quiet yet insistent tones, informing us of the fundamentals of the War of Liberation, of why we needed to find our way back to secular democracy. For the relative youth that I was, those moments defined the future. And, of course, there was the sheer happiness in me in knowing that my write-ups had drawn Justice Subhan's attention. He understood why I was being subtle in my references to history, for the times were out of joint. And he combed through my articles, spotting in them my principled views, as he called them, on Bangladesh's national history. He was thus one man, among many others, who instilled in me the confidence to carry on doing what I needed to do.
My respect for Justice Subhan has never wavered. Like Justice M.R. Kayani and Justice S.M. Murshid in Pakistan before him, Justice Subhan has for me been a constant reminder of the agents of change who have kept the torch of liberty alight and democratic rights alive in our world. It was an era when many superannuated judges lapsed into silence or ended up serving military as well as elected autocratic politicians. But KM Subhan was different. He elected to be on the side of the ramparts where the disaffected masses were ready to storm the Bastille. His was a loud presence in the campaign against communalism, against the fanaticism of religion. His courage in defending Taslima Nasreen when a band of fanatics put a price on her head gave the rest of us the chance to emulate him, to believe in the power of political and moral conviction.
When the outfit calling itself the Khatme Nabuwat stirred up hate against the Ahmadiyya community, Justice Subhan lost little time in rising to the defence of the community. As a significant cog in the wheel of secular democracy, he identified, naturally, with the Ekatturer Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee. As part of the Bangabandhu Parishad, KM Subhan was forever aware of the truth that the legacy of the Father of the Nation mattered, that Bangladesh's history would only dwindle into being a black hole if Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's life and times were not made the centre piece of collective national life.
It was an activist KM Subhan that I had the great fortune to interact with. At receptions where he and I met, the happiness that emanated from him at seeing me was palpable. We would talk for a while, he doing most of the talking. I listened and learned. It is not every day that one gets to be in the company of a man of wisdom. Nothing of the snobbish was there in Justice Subhan. Humility dripped from him. But he did not suffer fools or the ignorant. He was not averse to making plain his disdain for those who tried to question the genesis of the state of Bangladesh. Unlike other judges, who even in retirement chose to remain circumspect, even politically correct, in an articulation of their political preferences, Subhan knew what position he had to take. He never had any doubt that the Awami League offered hope to the country. His faith in Sheikh Hasina did not waver. It was his conviction that politics which rested on religion, or religion which was imposed on statecraft, was an insult to the intelligence and dignity of Bangladesh's people.
Justice Subhan remained aware of the direction he thought the country needed to take. Not for him the need for compromise. Not for him the subtlety necessary for an assessment of political realities. He was categorical in making his opinions known in the public domain. His self-esteem underpinned his life, his worldview. It was a principle he shared with his contemporaries --- Justice Kemaluddin, Justice Abdur Rahman Chowdhury, Justice Syed Muhammad Hussain. KM Subhan had little wish to indulge the hollow men who wielded authority. His wrath for the local collaborators of the Pakistan occupation army in 1971 was pronounced. Patriotic men and women, he believed, could have no truck, could not be in the same room, with treacherous elements. Denizens of the dark did not have to step out into the light of the sun.
Brave men are consistently threatened men. Villainy always aims at cutting good men down. Justice Subhan's enemies --- ageing collaborators, religious bigots and pseudo-nationalists --- were legion. He remained unperturbed. His advancing years were no barrier to his continued involvement with political and social causes. Inspiring ubiquity was what defined his presence at rallies, at news conferences, at seminars. An all-purpose man, he loved to walk, and so kept himself in good shape. His conversations were animated, his laughter was deep and spontaneous. In his eighties, he could easily make you think he had just stepped into his sixties.
It was my good fortune to know Justice KM Subhan. He was of a club of wise men from whom I learned about politics, about the values that energise us in doing all the good we can in a furtherance of the interests of this sovereign Bengali state.
Seven winters have come, and gone. Yet every thought of Justice KM Subhan is a soulful throwback to spring and the times that he defined, as also the other way round.
This morning, our homage goes out to a man for whom life was an endless mission of high morals, for whom respect for individuals was concomitant with love of country.
(Justice KM Subhan passed away on 31 December 2007).
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Associate Editor,
The Daily Observer