Justice Syed Mahbub Murshed's 106th Birth Anniversary

Published:  12:00 AM, 11 January 2017

Building bridges between past and future

History becomes eloquent about the men she loves. The frosty barriers of time melt down to reveal splendored colors of rainbow in warm radiance as the chronicles are related to men and women who boldly faced their restless times and yet retained their composure and visions that transcended their own age. Syed Mahbub Murshed was one among them.

Like others of his generation and the one that followed them in the South Asian subcontinent, Murshed lived courageously under three flags. Born a British subject, he lived to work for and see the departure of British colonial rule from the subcontinent. As a citizen of the post-1947 two-part state of Pakistan he fought with quiet dignity to establish, project and preserve the inalienable rights of the Bengali citizens of Pakistan even as he rose, by diligence and merit to the high position of the Chief Justice of the High Court of erstwhile East Pakistan ( East Bengal ) now Bangladesh during the sixties.

During the post-liberation period in sovereign Bangladesh of the seventies, he strived on for ensuring justice, human rights, democracy and national harmony. Retirement and failing health could not deter him from his mission of justice and equity in the secure context of a liberal democratic society. In the final analysis Chief Justice Syed Mahbub Murshed (1911-1979), an avowed spiritual and moral disciple of John Stuart Mill was a democrat, as he himself stated with elegant simplicity.

In my early youth I was a Pan Islamist. I, later, became a socialist, until recently I used to consider myself to be a social democrat, nowadays I think of myself as (merely) a democrat-- pure and simple ( The Pakistan Monitor, September 1970).

Scion of an aristocratic Muslim Bengali family, a brilliant student who entered the legal profession in the mid-thirties and was called to the Bar in England by the Honorable Society of Lincoln's Inn in 1939, he responded to the challenges of his time with a clear head and conscience. It was a mission fraught with countless difficulties. By the forties, the Muslim separatist movement that began in 1906 under the leadership on the All India Muslim League, had gained tremendous momentum. The failure of the then sub-continental nationalist platform - the Congress to convince the leading Muslims of its secular character led to emergence of what could be called Muslim nationalism. The Muslim League exploited it to the hilt. The liberal elements among the leading Muslim Bengalis tried their best to find a reasonable and practical way out. Syed Mahbub Murshed was a young activist of this group. Through the All India Muslim Majlish formed during mid-forties, Murshed tried to bridge the Hindu-Muslim political chasm and challenge the dominance of the All India Muslim League. The Majlish said that the Muslims should ask for "Pakistan" only if it becomes an "unavoidable necessity" (Dr. Shela Sen. "Muslim Politics).

As the time for the final parting of ways drew near, Murshed joined those who enthusiastically supported the "Cabinet Mission" plan of 1946 in its ditch effort to keep the subcontinent together. The Cabinet Mission led by Sir Stafford Cripps proposed a near-confederate sub-continent with autonomous Muslim majority groups of provinces in north-west and east of undivided India and a Hindu-majority group in the rest. It did not work. "Indians in general wanted freedom: the Muslims wanted self-assertion. In the last days of Birthish Raj, the struggle was three sided and the creation of Pakistan was its most extra-ordinary result" (HV Hudson. The Great Divide. London 1969, pi).

When the partition of the South Asian subcontinent (United India) seemed inevitable during early 1947, a group of Muslim Bengalis led by late Abul Hashim persuaded the then Premier of Bengal HS Suhrawardy to negotiate with the leaders of Bengal Congress, Sarat Bose (brother of the legendary South Asian Nationalist leader Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose) and Kiran Shankar Roy to explore the possibility of a "sovereign independent Bengal" outside both post-British-Raj India and Pakistan. Syed Mahbub Murshed and his father-in-law A.K.M.Zakaria, a Congress activist and Mayor of Calcutta in 1936, actively participated in these processes which were defeated because of intransigence of the Congress, particularly leaders Nehru and Patel. The majority of the Bengali Hindu leaders also did not support the idea and it was dropped.

The dream that Murshed shared with many who wanted to keep Bengal intact even in the divisive days of 1947 was not to be realized. The "Hindus and Congress decided upon the partition of Bengal which their forbears so bitterly opposed" (Hudson. The Great Divide p 275). Consequently East Bengal (today's Bangladesh) became one of the five provinces of Pakistan in August 1947. Separated by a thousand miles of hostile Indian territory from its Western half East Pakistan (East Bengal) appeared a manifest proof of the absurdity that pre-1971 Pakistan was. As a relatively young member of the Dhaka High Court Bar, Syed Mahbub Murshed was drawn into the Language Movement of East Bengal. He thus participated effectively in the successful process spearheaded by the Bengali youth to gain recognition for Bangla as one of the two state languages of pre-1971 Pakistan.

He also participated actively in the more comprehensive and long-term process of ensuring the political and economic rights of the Bengalis in Pakistan through a radical transformation of political and economical power within the state. Along with late Abul Mansur Ahmed, noted political leader, thinker and writer, who served in the fifties as a central Cabinet Minister and Acting Prime Minister of Pakistan, Murshed helped draft in 1954 the 21 point manifesto for autonomy of East Bengal. The 21 point program constituted the platform of the United Front Coalition of the autonomist Bengali political forces of Pakistan which routed the ruling Muslim League in the 1954 provincial elections.

Despite the restlessness of his times, Murshed was faithful to the tectonic trends of time. That loyalty to profound principles and his benighted people remained in fact during his exacting and splendid years in the bench of the Dhaka High Court (1955 November 16, 1967). Even after the imposition of Martial Law across Pakistan in 1958 Justice Murshed worked with a cool brain and resolute determination to ensure the dispensation of justice according to the Rule of Law in the words of the noted lawyer Syed Ishtiaq Ahmed. Murshed's elevation to the bench of High Court marked the beginning of an era in judicial history. As chief justice of erstwhile East Pakistan (1964-67) Murshed faced his time with the raw courage of a romantic idealist. Those were the heydays of a successful military dictator, Ayub Khan. His rule was garnished by apparently constitutional trappings.

The boldness of Murshed's judgments during these days became legends of judicial history. These judgments encompassed the so-called minister's case (which made president Ayub Khan change the constitutional provisions relating to ministers), the Mahmood case the Dhaka university convocation 1962 case and the basic democracies case. These proved that his commitment and loyalty to the rule of law was influencing. He realized the essence of justice that laws were for human beings and not vice versa. That realization of the timeless truth antedated and followed his years in the elevated height of the bench of the high and supreme courts. Syed Mahbub Murshed was a people's man. That was why even as early as 1961 when it was neither convenient nor fashionable he looks lead in organizing the centenary of the birth of the Bengal Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Even after his resignation, as the chief justice of erstwhile East Pakistan, he played an active and leading role in the mass uprising against autocracy in1969 and forcefully advocated the case for meaningfully establishing Bengali rights at the round table conference convened by the Pakistan dictator Ayub Khan during the fag end of his regime.

In post- liberation Bangladesh he was instrumental in projecting the voice for reasons and justice until his demise in 1979. After the emergence of Bangladesh he was the first prominent public figure who pleaded for a general amnesty for all political prisoners. He also urged the then government to start immediate negotiation for the repatriation of the Bangladeshi Bengalis stranded in Pakistan since December 1971.

Syed Mahbub Murshed was a romantic realist. He lived with his time and yet never failed to look beyond the transitory and superficial elements of contemporary years. However, tumultuous and exacting those might have been, that was why along with HS Suhrawardy and Abul Hashim he fought a seemingly losing battle to keep Bengal united and preserve the historic separateness of the Bengali people. After all Bengal has always been a distinctive region--independent and unique in the sub-continent through ages.

Syed Mahbub Murshed was certainly the epitome of a nationalist citizen of Bangladesh. He was at once a participant and an observer and analyst of life as it was lived during his times. He was at ease with several languages, besides his mother tongue Bengali including English, Urdu, Persian and Arabic. Being a gifted writer, he wrote on cultural and social themes with matchless elegance. I had the privilege of publishing, as editor of the Dhaka English monthly concept of his thought-provoking and superbly - written articles during 1961- 67. Exacting responsibilities of the top position in the high court could not prevent him from sparing a few moments for us. Morharraf Hossain, Ziauddin Ahmed, the publisher and managing editor of "Concept" and myself, whenever we went to see him and collect these writing. We were all young then and I was a fresh teacher of Dhaka University. Yet, he treated us as equals with whom he shared his fondest thoughts and dreams and depressing frustration.

He could look beyond the mist of contemporary times. He was also a cultural cosmopolitan, which Bengalis of Bangladesh, thanks to their luck of being citizens of a sovereign country in a emerging global village are in the process of become. He was a pioneer in many fields as in this one. Looking beyond immediate parameters Murshed saw promise and possibilities in sub - continental regional cooperation. That is why he wrote in 1976 "They have so much in common. They have to overcome the prejudices that keep them apart. They nations of the subcontinent have to untidily works together in order to approximate common goals. Unity in our part of the world, however, has to grow from within. It cannot be imposed by any external agent."

Chief justice Syed Murshed was ahead of his time - in the fifties, sixties and even in the seventies when he breathed his last. That is perhaps the tragedy of those who live faithfully with their times and yet have visions that transcend their own age. Nevertheless a noble dream is not diminished if it is only partly realized. Beautiful dreams, like good human beings such as Syed Mahbub Murshed do not appear in vain. A noble dream inspires humanity to strive to be humane. So do the life and work of men like Syed Mahbub Murshed.

The writer is a Social scientist, educationist, and litterateur

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