A few months before his death on April 27, 1962, “Sher-e-Bangla” A K Fazlul Haq said this about himself: “In my stormy and chequered life, chance has played more than her fair part. The fault has been my own. Never at any time have I tried to be the complete master of my fate. The strongest impulse of the moment has governed all my actions. When chance raised me to dazzling heights I have received her gifts without stretched hands. When she has cast me down from my high pinnacle, I have accepted her buffet without complaint.”
Through the fluctuations of his varied career Abul Kashem Fazlul Haq looked upon life as a perpetual struggle that man wages on behalf of himself, against himself. He had his strengths and his failings but, like the other founding fathers of Pakistan, he never swerved from his commitment to the Muslims of the subcontinent. After the March 1939 communal riots in Chandur Biswa, a village in the Central Provinces, he sent an open letter to Mahatma Gandhi, accusing him of remaining a passive bystander during the subsequent trial in which witnesses, many of them from the Indian National Congress, “vie with each other in a gruesome festival of lies, their only aim being to swear away the lives of as many as they can just because they are Muslims... But Mahatamaji, not a word has dropped from your lips and not a word has flowed from your pen to indicate that you condemn this conduct...How are we to interpret your silence?”
Some of Fazlul Haq’s pronouncements reflect the spontaneity of an artless soul. The Bible says that “out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaketh” and for Fazlul Haq articulation was never a device to conceal truth but to express it openly, even if this meant that his own reputation would be sullied. For instance in 1937, after he became the first chief minister of Bengal since the battle of Plassey, the post of Chief Inspector, Registration fell vacant and he recommended his sister’s son, Yusuf Ali, a mere matriculate, for the job. Unlike the senior civil servants of contemporary Pakistan, the inspector general of registration refused to succumb to political pressure and appointed a qualified person to the post. However, Fazlul Haq had the decision overturned in favour of his nephew through the intercession of the governor, Sir John Anderson. There was furore in the Legislative Assembly. Fazlul Haq boldly stood up before the House and said that Yusuf Ali’s qualification was that he was the nephew of the chief minister of Bengal.
The same stubborn streak, regardless of the consequences, was evident in his sharp differences in 1943 with the next governor of Bengal, Sir John Herbert. Fazlul Haq announced an enquiry, despite the governor’s instructions to the contrary, into the disturbances in Midnapore during which outrages had been perpetrated against several women. Sir John demanded an explanation. Fazlul Haq responded immediately through his letter of Feb 16, which began: “I owe you no explanation whatever in respect of my conduct in failing to consult you before announcing what, according to you, is the decision of the government; but I certainly owe you a duty to administer a mild warning that indecorous language such as has been used in your letter should, in future, be avoided in any correspondence between the Governor and the Chief Minister.”
The altercation led to Fazlul Haq’s resignation, after which Khawaja Nazimuddin was inducted into office as chief minister through political manoeuvring by the governor. During the Nazimuddin ministry, one of the worst famines in the history of Bengal broke out, largely due to the government’s food policy which was prompted by the imminent danger of British India being overrun by the advancing forces of Japan during that phase of World War II. Thailand, Vietnam, Korea, Indonesia, Malaya, Singapore and Burma had already fallen to the Japanese onslaught. People fled Calcutta in panic and all food items were procured by the government in order to deny rations to the advancing Japanese troops.
Crop failures compounded the problem and more than three million people died from starvation and malnutrition, making the total number of fatalities higher than that of the two World Wars, the entire Indian independence movement and the carnage at the time of Partition. Added to this was corruption and hoarding of food. As leader of the opposition in the Legislative Assembly, Fazlul Haq demanded: “The Bengal administration must be completely purged of the disgraceful corruption which prevails from top to bottom...Stocks are requisitioned under Rule 75 (a) of the Defence of India Act, and handed over to chosen personages by processes which enable various grades of officers to pocket handsome commissions.”
Shortly afterwards, the Nazimuddin government, which lost its majority in the Legislative Assembly, collapsed. Many members of the ruling party defected and joined the opposition under Fazlul Haq. Though he now commanded a solid majority, Sir C R Casey, who had become governor, refused to commission Fazlul Haq to form the government. Cables were sent to the Viceroy and to Prime Minister Winston Churchill by Fazlul Haq’s supporters, requesting them to intercede and compel the governor to act constitutionally. However, the appeals fell on deaf ears, as a result of which no cabinet was formed in Bengal till after the general election of 1946.
Soon after Fazlul Haq moved the Lahore Resolution at the historic session of the All-India Muslim League on March 23, 1940, tensions emerged between him and the Quaid-e-Azam and several months later he was expelled from the Muslim League. During 1945-46 Fazlul Haq distanced himself from the Muslim League and many began to question whether he really supported the movement for Pakistan. He gave the answer himself in reply to a letter on Oct 13, 1945, from a student of Aligarh University.
He explained that he had been expelled from the Muslim League because of the machinations of Khawaja Nazimuddin and Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy. They had sent an ex parte report about him to Jinnah which had resulted, without proper investigation, in his expulsion and lifelong ban on rejoining the party. He recalled that the crowning achievement of his career had been the Lahore Resolution which he had drafted and to which he would always remain committed. He concluded his letter with the words: “Instead of addressing your appeals to me, you should write to Mr Jinnah to remove the ban...so that I may rejoin the Muslim League and serve the Muslim community to the best of my power and ability.”
Fazlul Haq never claimed infallibility and admitted that he had his “hours of penance and regret.” Despite this he never faltered in his commitment for the creation of Pakistan.
It is a pity that on the 49th death anniversary of the man who moved the resolution that eventually resulted in the creation of Pakistan, there is barely a mention of him in the media. One of the main roads in Islamabad is named after him. Some years ago the name of the road was miss-spelt as Fazle Haq Road, and it has been changed to A K M Fazlul Haq. What the letter “M” stands for remains a mystery.
The writer is publisher of Criterion quarterly. Email: [email protected]