Published:  01:37 AM, 05 December 2019

Suhrawardy's politics and place in history

Suhrawardy's politics and place in history

The fifty-sixth anniversary of the death of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy is being observed in the country today.Four years ago, a write-up, 'Suhrawardy's 123rd Birth Anniversary: The Pioneer of Democracy', appeared in a leading newspaper in the country. Without question, the article noted a number of important facts about the life and times of the late politician.

The writer went to great pains to present a portrait of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy that will be appreciated by many, given Suhrawardy's place in the history of pre-partition India and then of post-1947 Pakistan. One wishes, though, that the writer had also revealed those factors which have gone a long way into undermining, if not actually destroying, Suhrawardy's reputation as a political leader of renown.

Any assessment of an individual who has for reasons of a varied nature become part of the history of his times cannot be piecemeal or selective. Such an assessment calls for a study of the individual in the totality of historical analysis. In our present instance, the writer begins by informing readers that Suhrawardy was 'one of the greatest political figures of the 20th century'.

That seems like an exaggeration, given that the late leader was quite behind, in terms of influencing positive politics, such figures as Gandhi, Nehru and even Jinnah. It surely does not do for any historian or scholar to go overboard in eulogising a particular political figure without the facts to support his arguments. Unbridled praise is no analysis.It was noted in the article that Suhrawardy served as minister for food and civil supplies in the Bengal cabinet headed by Khwaja Nazimuddin in 1943.

The point is noted, but what remains missing here is that it was on Suhrawardy's watch in that ministerial position that the devastating famine of Bengal occurred. One does not blame him entirely, of course, for there was all the colonial politics pursued by that ardent defender of the British Empire, Winston Churchill, who had entire shipments of food made over to his soldiers --- because they were fighting a war! --- rather than have them reach the hungry and dying Bengalis.

That said, one cannot quite gainsay the fact that as minister for food and civil supplies, Suhrawardy proved unable to carry out his responsibilities to the people of Bengal. The distribution supply, under him, simply cracked.

We are informed, and correctly too, of the period in which Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy served as chief minister of undivided Bengal between April 1946 and August 1947. We are also enlightened on the role Suhrawardy played as 'one of the main architects of Pakistan'. No one takes issue with any of these assertions.

But the saddest part of the story here is that nowhere does the writer mention the role played by Suhrawardy in the Great Calcutta Killings of August 1946. He was chief minister of all Bengalis and yet, at the call of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, he decreed a holiday on 16 August 1946, a day the All India Muslim League touted as Direct Action Day.

The ramifications of Suhrawardy's action were horrific: as many as five thousand Hindus and Muslims lay dead in four days of communal riots sparked by Suhrawardy's decision. One might also note that prior to the riots, an article by Suhrawardy in a newspaper clearly advocated violence in the pursuit of what he called a noble cause.

There cannot and ought not to be sanitized versions of history. The biggest danger to a preservation of the historical truth comes through the efforts of scholars of history to ignore the larger, comprehensive picture. One ought not to be fulsome in one's praise of Suhrawardy in relation to the adoption of a constitution for Pakistan in 1956.

If anything, the 1956 constitution was one of the earliest of political blows aimed at the interests of the Bengali population of Pakistan, for it reduced East Bengal, home to 56 per cent of Pakistan's population, to demographic equality with the country's western region when the Punjab, Baluchistan, Sind and the North-West Frontier Province (with a combined population of 44 per cent in the whole of Pakistan) were lumped into the One Unit system as West Pakistan. The Bengali majority, through sheer chicanery on the part of the political classes, simply ceased to be.

Besides, one recalls only too well the infamous statement by Suhrawardy that the 1956 constitution had given Bengalis 98 per cent of regional autonomy. Nothing could have been further from the truth, proof of which was to be had subsequently through Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's corrective measure of the Six Point programme in 1966 and eventual drive for an independent Bangladesh in 1971.

The politics pursued by Suhrawardy in the latter part of the 1950s was instrumental in pushing Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani out of the Awami League and into setting up the National Awami Party.

Suhrawardy's pro-American foreign policy, as underlined by Pakistan's association with such US-led anti-communist alliances as CENTO and SEATO, was what drove not only Bhashani away from the Awami League but also pushed Pakistan into the western camp. It was a move from which Pakistan was not to recover.

Finally, Suhrawardy's contemptuous remark on the non-aligned movement (zero plus zero plus zero amounts to zero) raised hackles in the Arab world and not until President Ayub Khan moved to mend fences with Arab figures like Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s would a modicum of normalcy between Pakistan and the Arab world be restored.

One understands perfectly the need for paeans to men and women who are part of history. But isn't history all about a little more than a singing of praises, a somewhat higher calling than an underplaying of the truth? Isn't it about objectivity, a dispassionate interpretation of the past, after all?

The writer is Editor-in-Charge,
The Asian Age

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