A tragic flaw in our history

December 13, 2015

A giant of pre-partition Indian politics, Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy gets a footnote status in the political history of Pakistan

A tragic flaw in our history

Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy, one of the leading light of the independent movement, is pretty much a footnote in the political history of Pakistan. And this colossal neglect of a significant political figure reflects negatively on the way our history is taught in Pakistan and how majoritarian standpoint stubs out contributions made by the sterling political figures from minority provinces (In this case from East Bengal). This willed relegation of Suhrawardy is a tragic and lamentable flaw in our history books.

First, because Suhrawardy was a towering political figures in the pre-partition Indian. His contribution to the cause of the freedom movement is as singular as the other top brass of the Muslim League. Of all the leaders of the Pakistan movement Suhrawardy was distinguished by the fact he had the experience of managing the province of Bengal both at provincial and municipal levels before the partition sundered one Bengal into East and West zones. He was the prime minister of the Bengal province before the partition of India -- the only Muslim politician of stature to preside over one of the important provinces of pre-partition India.

However, soon after partition for which he toiled tirelessly, his political fortunes began to ebb in West Pakistan largely due to West-Pakistan dominated political elite and the machinations of the West Pakistani establishment. Together, this lethal combination of vested interests worked concertedly to do down the towering status of Suhrawardy. He was shabbily treated by the Pakistani establishment wedded to the monomania of reducing towering political leaders endowed with an ability to command large following. The purpose was the annihilation of any powerful political opposition to the project of the Pakistani establishment which has lived in dread of people’s powers.

In line with this retrograde thinking Suhrawardy was barred from politics by General Ayub Khan under the now infamous Elected Bodies Disqualification Order (EBDO). This mindset was to inform the subsequent anti-politician witch-hunt in the form of accountability drives which has continued under different labels till this day. The practice of hauling politicians before the unelected institutions was to prove detrimental to the evolution of unfettered democratic politics in Pakistan. Not only this, Suhrawardy was hounded by the Pakistani establishment all his life expect for a brief period of his prime ministership which was offered to him as an option of last resort.

The fact that Suhrawardy failed in his avowed mission to keep Pakistan to a democratic path constitutes one of the tragedies of Pakistan, the consequences of which we are still living with. In Suhrawardy’s humiliation we can also read the capitulation of Pakistani political elite to extra-democratic forces. Pakistani political elite’s pocketing of Suhrawardy’s appalling treatment without a whimper was to haunt the whole political class in a more fatal form in later years. Some accounts have also implicated ZA Bhutto in the conspiracy to do down Suhrawardy (If true, then Bhutto’s complicity in the maltreatment of Suhrawardy was to return to bite him when he was hanged by another military dictator).

The circumstances of Suhrawardy’s death are still murky and some hidden hands are serially invoked to explain his lonely death in a hotel in Lebanon. In fact, what began with the assassination of Liaquat Ali Khan and, allegedly, of Suhrawardy’s has continued in the tragic deaths of ZA Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto in our day. He was a democrat with biography in the struggle for labour rights which was to collide with the Pakistani establishment sooner or later. Unsurprisingly, his labour-rooted brand of politics did not sit well with the Pakistan establishment which was gradually morphing into authoritarian mould with the full backing of the capitalistic block. The privations which he suffered at the hand of the Pakistan state are too numerous to count.

The extent of Suhrawardy’s victimisation was such that even his legal practice was blocked under one pretext or another. The purpose of stalling his flourishing legal practice was to starve him into political submission. No court in the country would allow him to represent his client except the Montgomery district court where he represented the accused in the Attock Conspiracy case. Faiz Ahmed Faiz memorialized his legal acumen in a celebrated poem.

Born into a distinguished family, Suhrawardy was a giant of pre-partition Indian politics. His father Sir Zahid Suhrawardy was a judge of the Calcutta High Court. With one of his uncle serving as a surgeon general of India it was quite natural for the talented Suhrawardy to shine in his studies and politics.

After completing his MA in Arabic, he proceeded to Oxford for further education. In England, he was called to the bar. Upon returning to India, he threw himself into politics of Bengal. His early politics was shaped by his association with Swaraj Party where Chittranjan Das was the formative influence. Suhrawardy served as the mayor of Calcutta.

After partition, he grew disenchanted with the Muslim League and struck out by forming Awami League which was to shape history in the coming decades. The party trounced the Muslim League in the first regional elections held in 1954 in the then East Pakistan. The unexpected triumph of the opposition parties at the polls stiffened resolve of the anti-democratic Pakistan establishment to put off elections for the foreseeable future. The reluctance of the Muslim League to go back to the electorate also dovetailed with the strategy of the military elite actively seeking to subvert the process of democratic consolidation in Pakistan. The inevitable result was the first military coup led by General Ayub Khan.

Like Suhrawardy’s footnoted status in the Pakistan history, he has not been given due credit for his historic opening to China. This was to prove a durable alliance in the years to come when this alliance would be extolled to higher than the Himalya and deeper than the oceans. On the downside, he sided with the Western powers in the Suez Canal crisis against the drift of the Pakistani public opinion. Eventually, he left the country to go into exile. He died a lonely death in a hotel in Lebanon. The circumstances of his death are still wrapped in mystery.

A tragic flaw in our history