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Justice S M Murshed: in remembrance

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I have often asked myself why Justice S M Murshed went into a state of silence in the 1970s. And I have not yet been able to respond to that query. But why do I raise the question in the first place? That is again something which takes me back to a particular stage in our lives, a moment in history which brought out some of the more glorious attributes in all of us.

It was a time when the dictatorship of Field Marshal Ayub Khan was beginning to come apart at the seams. All the symptoms of decline were there: the regime was trapped in its insidious move to trap Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in a kangaroo court, it was embarrassing itself through trying to humiliate Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in custody. All the signs were of things portentous, for the military and their friends. Even so, the cabal was not quite ready to give up. That is the beauty of philistines trying to govern a country. They know nothing about politics and statecraft to a certain degree of the aesthetic.

At the end of 1968, whatever was aesthetic in the life of the people of Pakistan had got lost deep in the confines of authoritarian ignorance; and yet the man who had not flinched in the job of occupying his own country ten years earlier was busy convincing himself that it was perfectly all right to carouse. He made Pakistanis believe that his decade in power was really a millennium. At least his friends thought it was. And then came the crash. The streets began, inexorably, to stir themselves into rebellion. That only led to more of the uncouth from the regime. And this is where S M Murshed came in. He walked into politics, as if to inform anyone who would listen that the one unequivocal manner in which a man can serve his country is to take the plunge into politics. But, and here is a thought, would Murshed have come into politics had things beendifferent?

It is never a good idea trying to answer questions about what might have been. But what appears to have been the truth way back in 1968 was that men like Murshed and Air Marshal (retired) Asghar Khan were conscious of the vacuum setting in with the absence of the country's premier politicians. They were in incarceration, weren't they? And there was too the fear in Murshed that the course politics was taking in Pakistan was rather ominous. The regime had made it difficult for opposition to it to be conducted constitutionally. But that, to Murshed, was no justification for a people struggling for a reassertion of consciousness reassert their moral links with constitutionalism, with the concept of rule of law. It was this very concept which came into Murshed's approach to active politics.

I would like to think it was this comprehension of objective reality which made him tell the country in the twilight of 1968 that he was there to contribute to the job of a restoration of the democratic ethos. The credibility of the man was beyond question, in both East and West Pakistan. And that was surely a reason why in the early part of 1969, as the Ayub government began to crack down on the streets of Dhaka and Karachi and everywhere, men of serious intent toyed with the thought of Justice Murshed taking over taking over from the dictator. The idea did not have time enough to be put into tangibility, for events quite overwhelmed everyone.

What if Murshed had indeed succeeded Ayub Khan in the presidency of Pakistan? True, he would be a transitional figure. But it would be a momentous transition, and a President Murshed would certainly have brought a degree of flair in the task of healing the wounds and the divisions in the Pakistani body politic. He would not have messed up things the way a second generation of generals with its political accomplices in West Pakistan was to do in 1971. Yes, these are all thoughts, pretty improbable thoughts. We will let go of them, lest we stand accused of glorifying a man who would have little to empathise with in paeans to deification.

But if Murshed cannot, must not, be glorified, he should certainly be remembered for the kind of being he was. Aware throughout the course of his life of the necessity of culture, he gave short shrift to men with little minds. In 1961, he reminded Bengalis on this side of the political divide that Rabindranath Tagore went beyond the narrow confines of communal politics. Which was one great reason why he went all the way to ensure, with the force of his moral and physical presence, an undisturbed observance of the poet's centenary of birth. It was a moment of renewal for the Bengali, and Murshed could not stay away from it.

And in the perspective of history, that event, bringing as it were Bengalis of all secular persuasions together, was to serve as a springboard to freedom a decade later. In 1961, then, S M Murshed was reminding himself as well as Bengalis that courage was all. Men of Murshed's mould, and of his times, laid great store by the morality inherent in the shaping of personality. They questioned a good deal.

Murshed knew when to question, and how. In 1942, he told Mohammad Ali Jinnah that his politics was flawed. Quo Vadis Quaid-e-Azam was an act of bravery. More than that, it was an inner question, way back in 1942. Was the Muslim political class equipped to provide intellectual leadership to the people it presumed to speak for? Murshed had his suspicions, which is perhaps the basis for his unwillingness to identify with the men who led the movement for Pakistan.

Murshed could have chosen not to come to the new country. But he did, once he understood the predicament Pakistan was in with the passing of Liaquat Ali Khan. He made the odyssey to the Land of the Pure. The rest is history, in that conventional manner of speaking. Within the ambience of that history comes the rather solitary struggle of S M Murshed. The struggle slowed down as the Pakistani military went on a genocidal spree in a part of the country whose people had voted only months earlier, for democracy. In free Bangladesh, Murshed seemed to opt for silence. In the mid-1970s, Murshed's twilight came as all beauteous things in the land of Bengal went into retreat in that season of unmitigated sadness. The assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman caused darkness to descend on the country. Like all of us, Justice S.M. Murshed felt the agony arising from that darkness.

[The article is a commemoration of the 45th anniversary of the passing of Justice S M Murshed.]

Syed Badrul Ahsan writes on politics and history.

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