Published:  01:06 AM, 05 December 2017

The complex politics of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy

The complex politics of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy

Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy died a lonely man fifty four years ago today in Beirut. It was sudden death which put an end to what had been a colourful life, with its many shades of meaning, led by a Muslim politician in the Indian subcontinent. Perhaps it was a cardiac arrest which killed Suhrawardy. Or perhaps something sinister was done to him by a regime that was unhappy about his very large presence in Pakistan's national politics.

One will never know if Field Marshal Ayub Khan had a hand in his death. One recalls too the threat held out by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, at the time Minister for External Affairs (the term 'Foreign Minister' would become fashionable later) in the Ayub dispensation, to Suhrawardy. Through a friend, he had an ominous message passed on to Suhrawardy in Beirut:

'Tell Suhrawardy not to try and return to Pakistan, otherwise I shall make sure personally that he never sets foot on its soil.'One is not quite sure if Suhrawardy's death was a direct consequence of Bhutto's threat, clearly made on behalf of Ayub Khan. Maybe it was mere coincidence that the former Prime Minister of Pakistan breathed his last in line with the natural law of mortality within days of the threat being made by Ayub's brash young minister.

But what we do know is that Suhrawardy's passing away as a natural happening was never accepted by his young disciple Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Till the end of his own life through assassination, Bangabandhu remained convinced that foul means had been applied by the government of Pakistan, especially the President, to put Suhrawardy out of the way. There were all the reasons why the regime feared a return to Pakistan by Suhrawardy.

At that point of time, Suhrawardy's was the only voice that could mount purposeful opposition to the military regime. Shere Bangla A.K. Fazlul Huq had died of old age ailments in April 1962. Khwaja Nazimuddin, despite his new-found respectability as a veteran politician playing a prominent role in the opposition to the military regime, was not quite the man, having been part of the Muslim League establishment responsible for a systematic undermining of democracy in the 1950s, to take on Ayub Khan.

The dictator had placed Suhrawardy under arrest, but that had not cowed the latter into submission. Indeed, Suhrawardy's public letter to Ayub Khan excoriating martial law was a broad sign that sooner rather than later the former Prime Minister would mount a challenge to the regime. Death came in the way. Ayub and his acolytes surely must have considered it a godsend, which illusion would in time be broken through the swift, dramatic rise of Suhrawardy's political disciple Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in Pakistan's politics.

There is a need, all these decades after Suhrawardy's death, for a meaningful reassessment of the man and the politics, indeed the varied forms of it, he upheld all his life. Assessments of historical personalities fail to make the point if they are selective in nature and therefore partisan in form.

Any study of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy must therefore take into account the entire canvas of his politics if a realistic picture is to emerge of him, one that will be of academic value to researchers and students of South Asian history. Part of the reality we associate with Suhrawardy is the myopia the ruling circles of Pakistan demonstrated, in the late 1940s, towards him first by depriving him of his seat in the country's Constituent Assembly and then ordering him, hours after he had arrived in East Bengal, out of the province.

Here was a hardcore believer in and fighter for Pakistan who was being told that he had no place in Pakistan. And the message came from such political pygmies as Khwaja Nazimuddin and Liaquat Ali Khan, men who were certainly no match for the cosmopolitan Suhrawardy.

And yet there has consistently been the other side of this cosmopolitan man. To this day, his acolytes find it hard to explain why Suhrawardy, despite being Prime Minister of pre-1947 Bengal, chose to clothe himself in the garb of a Muslim League politician and go along with Mohammad Ali Jinnah's call for a Direct Action Day on 16 August 1946. Of course he was part of the Muslim League; of course he had aligned himself to the cause of Pakistan. But should he, in his position as the political leader of all Bengalis --- Hindu and Muslim --- have declared the day a holiday when there were all the gathering portents of trouble as a result of Jinnah's call?

Muslim League leaders, including Suhrawardy, delivered incendiary speeches on the day in Calcutta. The riots began within moments, with Muslims attacking Hindu shops and homes and pouncing on any Hindus they spotted on the streets. Then the Hindus and the Sikhs hit back. In four days of rioting, anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 Bengalis, a majority of them Muslims, perished on the streets of the great city.

The Great Calcutta Killings have always been a stigma on Suhrawardy's reputation. Despite all the defence put up for him by Muslim politicians and writers, all evidence points to what Suhrawardy failed to do in August 1946, namely, preserve, protect and defend Bengal in the face of the clear violence promised by that call to Direct Action Day. A couple of months later, it was the turn of Noakhali to erupt in communal bloodletting. Jinnah, the future founder of Pakistan, showed not the slightest interest in muzzling the beast his politics had unleashed. Not until Gandhi travelled to Noakhali did a semblance of sanity return to Bengal and to the rest of India.

But politics being largely a question of a handling of contemporary issues, Suhrawardy shed his old skin in Pakistan and dressed himself in a fresh one, to public satisfaction, when he linked up with Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, Shamsul Haq and other secular Bengalis to give shape to the Awami Muslim League in June 1949. That was a moment of redemption for Suhrawardy.

The redemption took on greater meaning when he and his colleagues presided over the transformation of the party into the secular Awami League. In time Suhrawardy became part of the government, through assuming office as minister for law. Again, in time, he took office, but only for a year, as Prime Minister of Pakistan. Every other political leader --- Nazimuddin, Ghulam Mohammad, Mohammad Ali Bogra, Chaudhry Mohammad Ali, Feroz Khan Noon, I.I. Chundrigar --- in Pakistan seemed to pass through some revolving doors before disappearing in the hard blowing winds of time. Suhrawardy survived. His, let it be said again, was a colourful personality.

Suhrawardy charmed his fellow heads of government through his brilliance at the Commonwealth summit. On his visit to the United States as Pakistan's leader, he spoke with eloquence on his country's foreign policy objectives before President Dwight Eisenhower and members of the US Congress and on television. His patently pro-American position happily did not prevent him from welcoming Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai to Pakistan at a time when rabid men like John Foster Dulles expected every pro-Washington country to be in thrall to America.

The Zhou visit would be a shrewd move on Suhrawardy's part. In the first place, it would signal a subtle shift on Pakistan's part toward sketching the outlines of a more independent foreign policy. In the second, through stressing Pakistan's commitment to such US-led anti-communist blocs as CENTO and SEATO, Suhrawardy convinced Washington and by extension the West of where he meant to take his country in terms of its ties with the outside world.

But such maneouvering on Suhrawardy's part did not sit well with Bhashani, the leftwing founder president of the Awami League who now decided that Suhrawardy's foreign policy was provocation enough for him to leave the party. In early 1957, Bhashani formed the National Awami Party, highlighting the polarization that had come into Pakistan's politics. And then there was the question of the degree to which Suhrawardy had failed to uphold the political rights of the Bengalis of East Pakistan.

He watched as the One Unit system effectively swept away the Bengali majority in the country to bring it at par with West Pakistan. He was frivolous in suggesting that the 1956 Constitution of Pakistan had guaranteed 98 per cent of autonomy to East Pakistan when it was no such thing. He angered the Arab and the larger non-aligned world through a public expression of his belief that any talk of unity in that world was basically a combination of zeros that ended up being zero. It was not a smart thing to say.

This morning, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy will be remembered once again as a politician of high qualities. There will be sections of the media and the political classes extolling him as an apostle of democracy. And yet there are the many others who have seen little of the enriching sort in his legacy. All of this points to a simple yet telling conclusion --- that Suhrawardy was a complex man in terms of his role in pre-partition Bengal politics and in his post-partition role in Pakistan.

In August 1946, he did not move to put a lid on the riots his politics had initiated in Calcutta. In 1962, he was warning Ayub Khan about the dangers attendant on a stifling of democratic aspirations in Pakistan. In the early 1940s, he and his followers left no stone unturned to undermine Shere Bangla's ministry in Bengal. In 1954, he cheerfully embraced the idea of a political union with the very same Shere Bangla, through the Jukto (United) Front in the task of dislodging the Muslim League ministry in East Bengal.

Suhrawardy's politics, in hindsight, appears to have been a constant, sometimes desperate search for high ground. In April 1947, having presided over the communal killings in Calcutta and unable to prevent similar fratricide in Noakhali, he seemed prepared to reinvent himself through the suggestion of an independent Bengal. The idea, backed by Abul Hashim and Sarat Chandra Bose, fizzled out as soon as it was made --- because it was too late in the day and was clearly a half-hearted measure opposed by radical Hindu political leaders. It was a non-starter. No one took it seriously.

In Pakistan, Suhrawardy was a different man, far removed from the fiery communalist and divisive figure he had been in Calcutta in 1946. Whether, had death not come to him, he would have been able to reshape Pakistan as a fully functional democratic entity through driving Ayub Khan from power will forever be a matter of conjecture. It is immensely interesting, though, that the young man he groomed in politics, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, would in time try to reconfigure Pakistan within the parameters of democracy, would be thwarted by the same entrenched classes that had pushed the Jukto Front and then Suhrawardy's government over the precipice.

History is a pool where newer ripples are caused with the passing moments. And then comes a time when the ripples give way to gigantic waves. Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy's struggle for Pakistan was a palpable ripple in the pool, a blood-tinted one at that. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's battle was an overt transformation of the ripple into a rising wave, of the pool into a turbulent river, in the struggle for Bangladesh.

A remembrance of Suhrawardy, then, is in broad measure a study of the evolution of politics from Muslim communalism in the 1940s and 1950s to Bengali secularism in the 1960s and 1970s, that last secularism bit being to the credit of a future Bangabandhu.

The writer is Associate Editor, The Asian Age

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