Syed Badrul Ahsan
Professor Serajul Islam Choudhury remembers him rather well. He and Syed Mohammad Ali knew each other at Dhaka University in the earlier half of the 1950s, when they were both its students. It was one of those times when the ramifications of Partition were yet coursing through our part of the world. Hindus in droves were making their way to West Bengal, while Muslims, not as many in number, took the opposite route to find new homes in East Bengal, or what would later become East Pakistan.
Syed Mohammad Ali, third child and eldest son of Rakia Khatun and the reputed Muslim politician Syed Badrudduja, Mayor of Calcutta in the traumatic famine-driven times of 1943 and then member of the West Bengal Legislative Assembly prior to moving up to the Lok Sabha, made his way to East Bengal. Dhaka University was to be his new academic territory and Salimullah Muslim Hall his abode. Ali could have immersed himself in a quiet academic life. But that was not to be his style of functioning. Something of the father had transferred itself tothe son. He decided to contest the hall union elections. Attired in an achkan and a Jinnah cap, as Professor Choudhury puts it, he delivered some rousing speeches, all of which were laced with the Muslim nationalism which at that point propped up the new state of Pakistan.
In the event, Ali lost the election. The defeat did not depress him. It did something better. Within the parameters of the communal Pakistani dispensation, he felt the stirrings of change in his soul. One of those very few who were to turn their backs on a questionable legacy, Ali edged to the political centre. No, the movement was neither glacial nor ponderous, but of decent alacrity. He made friends with progressive elements at Dhaka University, feeling all too well the winds of change beginning to rush through the Bengali landscape. A secular man stealthily took shape in him, helped not a little by his journey to Britain to pursue legal studies. In time his personality went through an expansion. As a newly anointed barrister, he imbibed in himself the political liberalism he considered to have been an engine of progress in Britain and indeed in the West.
But while law gave him his professional moorings, it was politics which came back to claim his intellectual energy. He was his father’s son; and he was by now steeped in the British liberal tradition. And do not forget that the times — and we speak of the 1960s, of course — were starting to stir with possibilities. He had already left bachelorhood behind, having happily married the daughter of the Bengali politician AbdurRouf Khan. Here he was, the child of a legendary Bengali Indian political figure in the Lok Sabha, the son-in-law of a BengaliPakistani politician wedded to purposeful rightwing beliefs. For Ali, though, the future was beginning to shine through the seasons. It was Bengali nationalism which increasingly claimed his attention and, yes, his interest. He must have toyed with thoughts of participation in political activism, but then thought better of it. He marched off into journalism.
And that was a moment when Syed Mohammad Ali revealed himself in his element. It was the radical newspaper The Peoplewith which he identified. All through March 1971, he penned the fiery editorials which excoriated the Yahya Khan regime and the Pakistan People’s Party, in effect calling for principled yet firm resistance by Bengalis to the conspiracy to deprive them of their democratic rights. The sharpness of his language, the depth of his arguments, the height of the aspirations he shared with his people were the provocation the Pakistan army needed to clamp down on the newspaper. The soldiers torched the offices of The People on the night of 25 March 1971.
Ali made his way to Calcutta, the city that had been his home, engaging in spirited academic debate with his father on the crisis unfolding in occupied Bangladesh. And then it was London, a city steadily taking the shape of a new home, that he travelledback to. From that agonising distance, he felt the pain of a people, his own. The radio was what he was glued to; scanning newspapers for reports of the grim struggle back home were his preoccupation. The meticulous man that he was, he preserved the newspapers, specifically through cutting out reports of the Bangladesh struggle and filing them away for future reference. Politics suffused his being; and a people’s revolution thousands of miles away claimed his thoughts. Freedom was eventually to come to his people. He celebrated it with gusto in the land of unfettered democracy. And then he made his way back home to his free country.
Intellectual ferment drove Syed Mohammad Ali all his life. Ideas played in him in an endless cycle. He dwelt on religion, on Islam, and was thoroughly uncomfortable with men whose bigotry sought to push the faith into the wilderness. He argued passionately about the rights of women, thoughts he brought together in a revealing work on the position of women in Islam. But while Ali was a devout Muslim, he did not ignore his manifest need to undertake scholarly studies of Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity. He was at home in his disquisitions on comparative religion. God was a lifelong theme for him.
In essence, Syed Mohammad Ali was a modern man. He was a voracious reader, in the classics, in Tagore and Nazrul. His home was, and remains, a veritable library, the books arranged by subject, often by author. He was not a bookworm. He digested books, profundity of knowledge formulating his thoughts and powering his inquiring mind. Yet there was no mistaking his knack for shaping his own interpretations on the works he studied. Gushing praise of writers was not for him, but he was quick to appreciate the mettle of all men of letters.
This was Syed Mohammad Ali, MBE, a man in all his creative spontaneity. He laughed uproariously, indulged in humour and gave of it in plenty. Home was where his heart was … in Calcutta, Dhaka and London. And yet life was a serious affair for him. He was in love with it, even as he discoursed on death and the world beyond the parameters of mortality.
Eight years ago, on a cold October afternoon, life quietly gave way to the inevitability of twilight. Syed Mohammad Ali passed on — to meet his Maker, to dwell amid the stars through the melody of the heavens.
Silence took hold of our world.
Syed Badrul Ahsan: Contributing Columnist, Shottobani.