December 5 marks the death anniversary of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy. He is not well known to the present generation. Suhrawardy was a great leader, a rare statesman of his generation in the region who enjoyed profound popularity. He was the Chief Minister of undivided Bengal, Law Minister of Pakistan in 1953 and in 1956 he became the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Two thirds of today's population in Bangladesh were born after Suhrawardy died. The generation born and grew up during the past five decades have gone through the text books that hardly discussed the life and achievements of this great leader.
In undivided India, the last general election took place in 1946 on the premise whether the Muslim League represented the majority of Indian Muslims. This was a challenge to Muhammad Ali Jinnah as a leader in particular and the Muslim League as a political party. It was Suhrawardy who accepted the challenge on behalf of the people in undivided Bengal. Muslim League won the majority seats in the Legislature and formed the government with Suhrawardy as the Prime Minister of Bengal. In other regions that subsequently comprised part of Pakistan, Muslim League could not make a spectacular gain. In Punjab, Unionist Party formed the government. In Sind, North Western Frontier and Baluchistan Muslim League formed the government in coalition with other parties.
Khawja Nazimuddin, Suhrawardy's arch rival received a humiliating defeat in the election and lost hope of returning to politics. Suhrawardy vacated one of the seats he won, in favour of Nazimuddin and got him in the Bengal Legislative Assembly. Political rivalry and antagonism could never cast a shadow on Suhrawardy. On the eve of the partition of India, Suhrawardy realised the forebodings of dividing Bengal. He reached out to the moderate Bengali Hindu leaders and persuaded them in favour of united Bengal encompassing Assam, as a separate state. He argued that the fertile Brahmaputra delta and vast agroforestry in Assam would make the region one of the prosperous states in the sub-continent. He was also able to convince the Muslim League high command in support of his proposal. Jinnah gave his benediction to the scheme but cautioned Suhrawardy that the Congress would not accede to the idea. Sardar Patel summoned the Bengali Congress leaders and reminded them that since 1937, none other than Muslim leaders could become the prime ministers of Bengal. Patel questioned the political acumen of the Hindu leaders and suggested that they should seriously reconsider their support to Bengal-Assam unification plan. Jinnah's circumspection was correct. The unification plan was frustrated by the hardliners in the Indian Congress. Had Suhrawardy succeeded in crafting Bengal and Assam into a separate state, the fate of the region would have been much different.
The partition of the sub-continent was followed by unprecedented communal riots and large-scale migration. The Muslims in India felt insecure and moved to Pakistan in thousands. The wealthy Hindus in Pakistan began to leave for India in large numbers. The migration of the population posed enormous challenge to the new state Pakistan. Acharya Kripalani, the Congress President, at the invitation of the Pakistan government, visited Karachi and other places to halt the flow of migration. In public, he advised the Hindus against migrating to India. But in private congregations, Kripalani reportedly told them that their wellbeing would rest only in India.
The riots had also caused colossal damage to life and properties in Calcutta, Noakhali and other parts of Bengal. Suhrawardy joined Gandhi in his mission to quell the unrest that was spreading from one area to another. The other Muslim League leaders rushed to Pakistan in pursuit of power and opportunities. Following the emergence of East Pakistan comprising the districts of East Bengal and Sylhet from Assam, the central leadership of the Muslim League called for election of a new leader to form the government in the eastern wing of the country. It was a clever move to seek an alternative leadership to Suhrawardy. The attempt succeeded - Khawza Nazimuddin was elected new leader and became the Chief Minister of East Pakistan. Suhrawardy was systematically removed from the ruling power block.
Many senior Muslim League leaders had worked with Jinnah and he knew their strength and weaknesses. But Jinnah was fascinated by Suhrawardy's talents and ability to win the confidence of the people. He earnestly wanted Suhrawardy to work with him and offered him several positions including a cabinet post. Suhrawardy declined. Jinnah then offered him to become the Governor of Punjab. This was also turned down by Suhrawardy. Jinnah then invited Suhrawardy to become Pakistan's permanent representative in the United Nations or Special envoy in Europe. Suhrawardy showed no interest. Lastly, Jinnah invited Suhrawardy to be Pakistan's High Commissioner in India. But Suhrawardy declined the offer. Political analysts believe emotion more than anything else had worked in Suhrawardy in turning down all offers made by Jinnah. He was profoundly shocked at the change of leadership in East Pakistan and felt it was done at the instigation of central leadership in the Muslim League. But that was a grave mistake on the part of Suhrawardy. Had he accepted Jinnah's offer to be a cabinet minister, Suhrawardy could have earned for himself an indispensable position in the central government. He could have been the prime minister after Liaqat Ali Khan.
Following the assassination of Gandhi, India became inhospitable to Suhrawardy and he returned to Pakistan. By that time, his detractors had consolidated their positions in the government both at the center and in Dhaka. They abrogated his membership in the Constituent Assembly.
The Muslim League, after the death of Jinnah, gradually descended into conglomeration of vested groups devoted to power and opportunities. Senior civil servants and military personnel ascended to positions of influence in the government. The politicians lost touch with the people and became hostage to vested interests. In this backdrop, the general election was scheduled in East Pakistan. Suhrawardy, in concert with Fazlul Huq and Maulana Bashani formed a coalition of parties known as the United Front and challenged the ruling Muslim League. The United Front scored a landslide victory in 1954. The Awami League was the largest component of the coalition and could rightly claim the position of the Chief Minister. But Suhrawardy being the President of the Awami League convinced his cohorts to allow octogenarian leader Fazlul Huq to serve the country as the Chief Minister.
In September 1956, Suhrawardy became the prime minister of Pakistan. It was Awami League-Republican coalition government. Three months earlier, Awami League came to power in East Pakistan and Ataur Rahman Khan became the Chief Minister. In an address to the nation, Suhrawardy outlined, "the wishes of the people, not choice of individuals, would be the lodestars of the government." This was the period of highest level of civil liberty in the country. All political prisoners were set free and none was detained under public safety act. This was an extraordinary measure the government had taken unprecedented in the history of the country. Suhrawardy was keen to arrange the general election in the country but 'joint electorate' became a conundrum. He argued that separate electorate was essential in pursuit of a separate homeland for the Muslims. Since a new state has been created and under the changed circumstances joint electorate would strengthen the foundation of the new nation.
Suhrawardy was the only leader amongst his contemporaries who could make impression in both wings of the country. He was a charismatic politician, a brilliant parliamentarian and a distinguished attorney. His competence as the prime minister was beyond any doubt. His administration diminished the role of the civil servants in politics. Suhrawardy was comparable only to Pundit Nehru in merit and statesmanship.
Suhrawardy pursued a balanced foreign policy, established closer ties with China but at the same time kept the relation with western countries and the United States cordial. The leftist within the party and outside demanded repudiation of the CENTO and SEATO military pacts. Pakistan had joined these blocks in early 1950s. Suhrawardy kept the relation with the alliances at low profile but did not consider it prudent to withdraw in view of New Delhi's excessive leaning towards Moscow.
The leftists under the leadership of Maulana Bashani challenged Suhrawardy at the party conference in Kagmari in 1957. This marked a division in the party and eventually National Awami Party (NAP) was established. The split in the party weakened Suhrawardy. President Iskandar Mirza was growing uncomfortable with Suhrawardy's role as national leader and felt overshadowed by his charisma. Mirza took full advantage of the situation and demanded resignation of the government. Suhrawardy's removal exacerbated the political crisis and culminated in the abrogation of the constitution and imposition of the martial law in 1958.
Suhrawardy was imprisoned by the military regime for ten months. Following his release from jail, Suhrawardy created the National Democratic Front (NDF) in 1962 to restore democratic rights of the people. He travelled every nock and corner of the then East Pakistan and millions of people listened to him. His appeal was "democracy was the panacea of all ills and urged people to remain united until democracy was restored." Banghabandu and Manik Mia were his most trusted political lieutenants.
Suhrawardy did not live to see the emergence of independent Bangladesh. His death in Beirut on December 5, 1963 sent a shock wave all over the country. Suhrawardy is no more with us but his patriotism, commitment to rule of law and unfailing love for humanity would remain as our national treasure.
Abdur Rahman Chowdhury is a former official of the United Nations.