A series about Pakistanis who struggled for freedom and rights and were persecuted for their endeavours
“A time will come when this State will destroy itself … if Pakistan eliminates non-Muslims from its folds and forms a Muslim state, Islam will be destroyed in Pakistan.”
Husseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy – Address to the Constituent Assembly – March 6, 1948
Few politicians stand out as ardent fighters for democracy or for secular politics in our history. Even fewer can claim to be populist leaders at the same time. One such man was Husseyn Shaheed Suhraward. Born in 1892 in West Bengal, into a family of disciples of Hazrat Abdul Qadir Gilani, he went on to become a pivotal figure in the Pakistan Movement and an ardent campaigner for democratic rights after Independence. His maternal grandfather, Maulana Ubaidullah al-Obaidi, was a devoted supporter of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and a founding member of the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College. After obtaining a Master’s degree in Arabic to fulfil his mother’s wishes – who although a veiled woman was the first to pass the Senior Cambridge examination from the region – Suhrawardy went to Oxford and was called to the Bar at Gray’s Inn in 1918.
Returning to India, he entered politics with active involvement in the Khilafat Movement and was elected to the Bengal Legislative Assembly in 1921. His fiery opposition to the Whipping Bill brought him to the Congress leaders’ attention, and soon he and his mentor, C.R. Das, together inked the Bengal Pact, which aimed to establish communal harmony. His leadership during the 1926 riots and labour union formations and the 1933 Round Table Conference raised his profile with the public. It was also at this point that Suhrawardy learnt Bengali in order to connect with the masses, something unique amongst aristocratic, foreign-educated elite Muslim Leaguers.
Becoming Secretary of the Bengal Provincial Muslim League, he led the party to respectable results in the 1936 elections, when a coalition was formed with Fazlul Haq’s KPP. His leadership in the 1943 famine brought him greater public recognition and he was elected Prime Minister of Bengal in 1946, as the party swept the elections in contrast to the performance of the Muslim League in other Muslim-majority provinces. While he was often heroic in these days of turmoil, the Direct Action Day and subsequent riots were the lowest points of his political career. After the United Bengal scheme failed to materialize, Suhrawardy joined hands with Gandhi to establish peace among rioting communities. Gandhi is reported to have said: “Jinnah – there is your statesman; Liaquat – there is your politician; Suhrawardy – there is your leader.”
If the words in Jinnah’s August 11 speech are considered to be the most memorable spoken on the rights of minorities in this country, then Suhrawardy outshone him in his first speech to the constituent assembly in March, where he made a direct appeal for minority rights. As recounted by his cousin and former diplomat, Shaista Ikramullah, he always made the distinction between a Muslim state and an Islamic state; his opposition to the role of religio-political parties speaks for itself. The issue of his Indian nationality became a burning one, and unable to get permanent residency in Pakistan he was extradited and his seat in the constituent assembly declared vacant in 1949.
After Independence, Suhrawardy recognized his differences with the Muslim League leadership and set himself on the path to establish what would become the most prominent opposition party in Pakistan, the Awami League. It was founded on March 18, 1950 and cashed in on the support of Bhashani’s “East Pakistan Awami Muslim League” and the Pir of Manki Sharif’s “Frontier Awami Muslim League”. An additional alliance with the Nawab of Mamdot led to the formation of the Jinnah Awami Muslim League, which won quite a few seats in the Punjab general elections and a handful in the frontier elections. But differences over the Basic Principles Report led to Mamdot’s expulsion from the party and ultimately the party’s breakup after only three years. Further defections resulted in the decline of popular electoral support in the western wing of the country and the All Pakistan Awami League was more or less reduced to a presence in East Pakistan. A coalition with A K Fazlul Haq’s Krishak Sramik Party enabled it to defeat the Muslim League in East Pakistan, but the short-lived Fazlul Haq ministry was dismissed by the Governor General and many leaders were imprisoned. Suhrawardy returned from a convalescing trip in December 1954 and was sworn in as Law Minister.
As Ayesha Jalal notes in her masterpiece, “The State of Martial Rule”, Suhrawardy was “the only Bengali of national stature who could claim a base of support in the eastern wing” and “had a penchant for stunning oratory”. Still, Suhrawardy accepted the Prime Ministership after having agreed to three things: that he would not alter the pro-western foreign policy; that he would not meddle with the army; and that he would keep the Bhashani and the left wing of the Awami League under control.
Governor General Iskander Mirza eventually outmaneuvered Suhrawardy and his electoral reforms proposed joint electorates in the eastern wing with separate ones in the western wing. Suhrawardy was surrounded by Republicans and within a short period of time political realities had converted him from a “rabid provincialist into a dyed-in-the-wool centralist.” The “volte-face on foreign policy” included his declaration of strengthening military agreements with the West, and this perceived betrayal by the Awami League led to massive protests by Bhashani and the left wing. Suhrawardy had essentially reversed his party position on bilateral and multilateral defence agreements, and his support of the Baghdad Pact led to party disapproval, since he had turned his back on the earlier envisaged “independent foreign policy”. Even so, Suhrawardy managed to lay the foundations of Sino-Pak relations with his trip to Beijing and a reciprocating trip to Pakistan by the Chinese Premier, Chou En Lai.
Suhrawardy had come to realize the limits of his premiership and disappointed his constituency in the eastern wing. To appease these grievances, he announced small business-friendly policies for the eastern wing. But they landed him in hot water with the industrial magnates of Karachi. Similarly, the agrarian reforms proposed by his Awami League (after severe food shortages devastated the eastern wing) led to protests by landlords across the western wing. Soon peasant demonstrations in Lahore and labour uprisings were threatening the politicians of West Pakistan, and in such a fraught climate Suhrawardy could not be seen supporting any revolutionary policies. When the West Pakistan assembly voted to dissolve the one-unit, Suhrawardy sided with Iskander Mirza (and the military-bureaucracy establishment) to oppose it. As Mirza looked for another Prime Minister to work with, Suhrawardy recognized the threat of dismissal and decided to resign after a mere 13 months in power.
During Suhrawardy’s premiership, the then Commander-in-Chief General Ayub Khan had told him: “Sir, if there is a coup, it will be over my dead body.” But Ayub Khan hatched a coup in 1958 and seized power. He forced Iskander Mirza to leave Pakistan and made Suhrawardy, like many others, a victim of the notorious EBDO law (Elected Bodies Disqualification Order). Swiftly EBDOed by the new regime, Suhrawardy was arrested in the wee hours of January 31, 1962 under laughable charges of anti-state activities. He was released after nearly seven months of solitary confinement and was welcomed by a massive crowd in Dhaka, but his health had deteriorated and he suffered a heart attack that New Year’s eve. He left for Beirut to recuperate, heartbroken by the regime’s policies, and died in exile on December 5, 1963, in the presence of only a stranger.
Suhrawardy married twice and fathered three children. His first wife, Niaz Fatima, daughter of Indian Legislative Assembly President Sir Abdur Rahim, died three years after their marriage in 1920. Their son, Shahab, died of pneumonia in 1940 while studying at Oxford; and their daughter, Akhtar Jahan, is survived by her own daughter, former Minister of Law, Justice and Human Rights in the Musharraf cabinet, Shahida Jamil. In 1940 Suhrawardy married a Russian actress by the name of Vera Tiscenkoin, though his busy political life led eventually to their estrangement and separation. Their son Rashid aka Robert Ashby is a professional actor in England.
The eight years after his death marked the highest discontent between the two wings of Pakistan. What might have happened had Suhrawardy lived? Would the West have dealt with the East as high-handedly as it did had he been alive? Would Dhaka have fallen? Alternate history can be an amusing exercise but it can’t lead to actual deductions. What has to be admitted is this: Suhrawardy was the only person who commanded respect in both wings of Pakistan and who had the influence necessary to sway public opinion in the eastern wing. He once said, in his deep baritone voice: “The English Language, PIA and I are the only links between East and West Pakistan.” In his memoirs, while praising Sheikh Mujiburrahman’s strengths, Suhrawardy prophetically anticipated the Six Point agenda as well as calls for autonomy and noted: “[Mujib] has doubts that national unity and national integration will solve the problems of East Pakistan.” It is a travesty that Suhrawardy’s name is now forgotten in public memory. In the annals of history, he is conspicuous as a principled and populist leader who had to pay the price for his opposition to the agenda of the military-bureaucratic establishment after Independence.
Great men are rare. It is tragic that his contributions to the country have been overshadowed by increasingly mythical accounts that glorify a handful of others. Pakistan’s fortunes, as it chose to become an Islamic state, have suffered hugely, just as Suhrawardy had predicted.
Shahid Saeed, a student, is interested in Pakistani history and politics