TRIBUTE: Memories of Sher-e-Bangla


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Badrul Ahsan Syed Badrul Ahsan

Sher-e-Bangla Abul Kashem Fazlul Huq died on this day, 27 April, in 1962.

Fifty six years after his passing, the pre-eminent Bengali political leader of his time needs to be re-evaluated in terms of the historical period he lived in and in the making of which he had such a large role to play. In these past many decades, apart from a mouthing of platitudes and that too on the annual observance of his death anniversary, Sher-e-Bangla has hardlybeen the subject of any critical analysis. That of course has had its ramifications in that the history of the Bengali nation, or even that of modern politics in the Indian subcontinent, has had a significant part of it ignored or papered over. Much of the inadequate sense of history which underlies analyses of politics today in Bangladesh stems from the fact that we have more often than not preferred to push significant segments of history, at least in our part of South Asia, under the rug.

All these years after his death in 1962, it therefore becomes important to ask what impact Sher-e-Bangla has had on Muslim as well as Bengali politics. Begin at the beginning. Huq’s secular credentials were impeccable and because they were, it is often hard to understand why he chose to throw in his lot with the All-India Muslim League and thereby find himself caught up in a resultant communal struggle that would tear India apart. The answer is of course easy to come by: the momentum built up by Mohammad Ali Jinnah towards a guarantee of Muslim rights, if not exactly a demand for a Muslim state, had proved unstoppable by the time the Muslim League met in Lahore in March 1940. Besides, it will not do to ignore the fact that Huqwas the one political personality who was nearly at par in terms of popular appeal with Jinnah, a truth the latter grudgingly accepted. It was while the future creator of Pakistan happened to be addressing the Muslim League session in Lahore that Huqmade his entry into the premises. All heads and all eyes turned to him, a sure sign that the councillors were cheered by his arrival. A miffed Jinnah, unused to attention being drawn away from him, told the assembled Muslim Leaguers, ‘Now that the Tiger of Bengal is here, I must fall silent.’ The Quaid-e-Azam, as Pakistanis know him, was never to be comfortable with Sher-e-Bangla.

Sher e banglaThere is little question that Sher-e-Bangla enjoyed popular adulation. As he made his way to the Muslim League session in question, he deliberately slowed his stride, almost to a shuffle, looking to left and right and back again in happy response to the greetings of the crowd. He was clearly relishing the moment. That was the difference between him and Jinnah. Where Jinnah’s was too legalistic a mind inviting absolute obedience, one unwilling to admit any other human emotions into it, Huq’sattitude to life and politics in general was a mix of the necessary seriousness with equally necessary humour, all of which endeared him to the crowds. Wit was part of his nature. Yes, he loved mangoes. Indeed, he loved the taste of good food, was into gastronomic delights. But that again was a demonstration of the wider interest he had in life, the spontaneity which marked his dealings with people. A first class mind and a brilliant academic record defined him, but none of that prevented him from embracing populism as part of his politics. He was at home in the company of a colonial official as he was comfortable in discourse with an impoverished Bengali peasant. Of course, his politics was forever shifting. There is this sense, nearly six decades after his life came to an end, that he was always on a search for a more viable base in politics. The template therefore shifted constantly.

But note that nothing of that ceaseless shifting was governed by ideas of personal aggrandizement. As prime minister of United Bengal between 1937 and 1943, it remained his endeavour to promote, despite his progressive leaning toward Muslim demands, the cultural and political unity of Bengal on a secular basis. That Bengal mattered to him came through his readiness to align himself with Shyama Mukherjee and keep his government going. It was his fellow Muslims who undermined him at every step. Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, a powerful politician himself, harassed Huq all the way to the times when the latter was compelled to walk away from office in 1943. Huqhad a sure sense of his own dignity, a fact made clear through his public disagreements over policy with Jinnah. It is to Huq’scredit that he was that rare instance of a Muslim politician not unwilling to challenge the supreme leader of the Muslim League whenever he felt the latter was crossing the line. For Huq in pre-partition India, therefore, politics was consistently a matter of staying attuned to popular wishes. Where men like Suhrawardyand Khwaja Nazimuddin were content to confine themselves to elitist politics, Huq created his constituency among the wider masses. That was a prime reason why the Jukto Front (United Front) turned to him in the weeks prior to the East Bengal assembly elections in 1954. An ageing Sher-e-Bangla was yet a magnetic force and in alliance with his former rival Suhrawardyand Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani routed the Muslim League in East Bengal. It was a blow from which the Muslim League was never to recover, despite all later moves by successive Pakistani military rulers to revive factions of it and claim them in their narrow political interest.

Huq’s message in 1954 was patent. Pakistan’s Bengali Muslims were not willing to subsume their cultural heritage and their political ethos to an increasingly communal Muslim League interpretation of history. It was a message which Sher-e-Banglareiterated, with greater emphasis, on his visit to Calcutta after the 1954 election. Bengalis on both sides of the divide, he was clear in his assertions, shared a heritage that was at once inviolable and indivisible. Was that an expression of regret about partition on his part? We will never know, but we do know that this trip to Calcutta must have brought back for him memories of happier days. It was in Calcutta where all his friends and political disciples, Hindu and Muslim, still lived. And Calcutta was the place that had been his launch pad in politics. And so Huq waxed eloquent in remembrance of bygone times. For the Pakistani establishment, already in the grip of the civil-military bureaucracy that was eventually to push it to incalculable ruin, it was sedition. Huq was a born-again Bengali who, for GhulamMohammad, Iskandar Mirza and a discredited Muslim League, was in dangerous intrigue with Hindus. The axe was soon to fall on him and it did. It was a helpless Sher-e-Bangla who watched an arrogant Mohammad Ali, a fellow Bengali from Bogra then prime minister of Pakistan, tell him in clear body language that the Jukto Front’s days were numbered. It was a sight that deeply offended the young Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as he sat beside his chief minister, observing the hauteur of the prime minister.

Obviously, the sacking of the Jukto Front ministry was effectively the end of Sher-e-Bangla’s political career. His had been a long innings, one characterized by association withpoliticians of a higher calibre than those who dominated Pakistan in the 1950s. And yet Sher-e-Bangla was seemingly unwilling to call it a day. The fall of his ministry in May 1954 was followed by an assumption of roles which left Bengalis in a state of consternation about the veteran leader’s motives. He served as central interior minister in a government which only a short while earlier had accused him of treason over his Calcutta expression of emotions. And then he took upon himself the role of governor of East Pakistan. These experiences were to be his swansong. Perhaps he would have done well to stay away from the glory of power after 1954? Perhaps…..

Age had begun to take its toll on Sher-e-Bangla A.K. Fazlul Huqby the time Pakistan went under the first of its many spells of military rule. It was just as well, for an active and vigorous and younger Huq would have found it hard to imagine for himself a role in a state in whose emergence he had played so important a part and which was being pushed to regression. But those who recall his final days note that he was yet busy speaking of politics, of how much more he wished he could have done. His was an incoherent voice in those twilight days, literally, but there was no mistaking the supremely professional politician that throbbed in his being.

In Sher-e-Bangla, there was a rural Bengali earthiness which came in beautiful combination with urban political suavity. A big man, figuratively as also literally, he had an abundance of humour and the kind of joie de vivre which underscore the lives of individuals who make a difference in the lives of those who look to them for leadership. His heart accommodated ideas. It was a heart that was generally in the right place, despite the unexpected surprises he sometimes threw our way.

For all these reasons and for more, the Tiger of Bengal deserves a greater historical analysis than he has thus far been a recipient of.

(Sher-e-Bangla Abul Kashem Fazlul Huq — pre-eminent Bengali political leader in pre-partition India and post-1947 Pakistan — died in Dhaka on 27 April 1962).

Syed Badrul Ahsan: Associate Editor, The Asian Age. Contributing Columnist, Shottobani.

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