M Ali Siddiqi looks at a political career that was cut short
It was rather unfortunate for the politics of Pakistan that committed democrats were sidelined and Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy was persecuted for pursuing democratic political goals in Pakistan. There is a long line of committed democratic stalwarts who were denied their due role in the new state of Pakistan and after facing state persecution were sent into exile where they died in ignominy.
Even after their death, the arbitrary rulers tried their best to efface their memories and erase their role from the history books without realizing that history has its own yardstick to follow and it does not pay attention to their attempts at distorting it. This is the reason that now it is realized that Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy was one of the most gifted politicians that the Muslims of the subcontinent ever possessed and that he stood out amongst the Muslim stalwarts who participated in the freedom struggle against colonial rule.
Though he was the colleague of such outstanding political leaders of Muslim Bengal such as Abul Kasem Fazlul Haq and Maulana Abdul Hamid Bhashani yet he outshone them in all respects, particularly in political acumen and commitment to democracy. He achieved the highest office in Pakistan despite being bereft of the support of power circles calling shots by dint of his political sagacity and astute positioning. He was a liberal amongst the host of leaders who got carried away by the prevailing conservative scenario after Pakistan came into being.
Surrounded by versatile and volatile Bengali politicians, Suhrawardy was the epitome of political shrewdness. He descended from Suhrawardy saints of Baghdad and Multan and was a successful lawyer hailing from a family of lawyers in Dhaka. Suhrawardy had a long political career that began championing labor causes in Calcutta and in the process he successfully organized 36 trade unions.
Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy In Election Board
His ability as an able political organizer was proven when, as general secretary of the Calcutta Khilafat Committee in the 1920s, he organized wide support for it in Bengal. He had a penchant for organizing new political outfits. In the 1926 Council elections he founded Independent Muslim Party and for the next Council elections held in 1929, he organized a new body, Bengal Muslim Election Board. He founded United Muslim Party in Kolkata preceding the 1937 elections with himself as its secretary.
During his long political career Suhrawardy became deputy mayor of Calcutta in 1924, Labour and Commerce Minister in AK Fazlul Haq’s Praja-League coalition government after the 1937 elections, Civil Supplies Minister in Khwaja Nazimuddin Ministry during 1943-1945 and the Prime Minister (chief minister) of undivided Bengal during 1946-1947. Before the establishment of Pakistan Suhrawardy upheld the interests of the Muslim community and was an ardent supporter of separate electorates participating in the third Round Table Conference in London as a representative of his community in 1932. He was the mover of the official resolution of the Delhi Muslim Legislators’ Convention held on April 1946 at the behest of Quaid-e-Azam
Quaid-e-Azam undertook to reinvigorate Muslim League and at his call, Suhrawardy joined his fold along with his party. As its general secretary from 1937-1943, Suhrawardy organized Bengal Provincial Muslim League and it was largely owing to his efforts that the Muslim League won a comprehensive victory in Bengal in the 1946 elections securing 114 out of 121 reserved seats. This electoral success became a sound barometer of Muslim demand for Pakistan.
Proposal Of A Separate State By Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy
Though Quaid-e-Azam trusted Nazimuddin but realized that his future bet was Suhrawardy, a belief proven right in the case of the Calcutta uprising. He made it possible to successfully implement Quaid’s call for direct action day. His organizational abilities greatly assisted the Muslim League to draw its point home after it considered being betrayed by the viceroy in not forming the interim government despite Muslim League agreeing to the Cabinet Mission Plan.
Being a natural realist, just before partition, in a sudden twist, Suhrawardy proposed a separate state comprising the whole of Bengal and Assam and adjoining districts of Bihar but the proposal proved a non-starter. Though Quaid kept quiet on the proposal the British government was unwilling to hazard its departure by carrying out multiple divisions of the subcontinent. Suhrawardy did not come to Pakistan immediately after partition and stayed back in Kolkata engaged in a peace mission with Gandhi. In the process, his relationship with Muslim League went sour to the extent that in 1949, his membership of the Pakistan Constituent Assembly was terminated by the Liaqat government on the plea not to be a permanent resident of the country.
Once in Pakistan, he was unhappy about the rightwing leaning of the Liaqat government and never to be outwitted, in 1940 set up Awami League, the most potent opposition party in Pakistan. Although not very successful in the western wing of the country, his party gained ground in the eastern wing. Just seven years after the establishment of Pakistan, in coalition with A K Fazlul Haq’s Krishak Sramik Party, he managed to wipe out Muslim League from East Pakistan for good. Suhrawardy could not go along with Fazlul Haq for long and after the dismissal of his ministry, he returned to the center as Law Minister.
Entrepreneurs Of West Pakistan
Pakistani establishment was ultimately compelled to concede Suhrawardy his rightful place in the political arena and he was acknowledged as the only Bengali leader of stature to iron out representation differences the center reluctantly made him Prime Minister on three conditions: non-alteration of pro-western foreign policy, no meddling with the army and controlling left wing of Awami League, particularly Maulana Bhashani under control. The political situation had become extremely uncertain and Suhrawardy had to accept these conditions with the hope that he may be able to reverse the undemocratic authoritarian trend fast emerging in the country.
By becoming Prime Minister Suhrawardy practically reversed his erstwhile policies and now had to face virulent protests from his supporters. He was quite upset but trusted that his policies may soon win them over. However, he soon came to realize the limits of his premiership and tried to garner support by announcing small business-friendly policies for the eastern wing but failed in wake of tough opposition from entrepreneurs of West Pakistan.
Ayub Khan’s Coups
Similarly, his proposed agrarian reforms led to protests by landlords across the western wing. Recognizing the political threat he resigned after 13 months in office. The country which was veering towards authoritarianism finally witnessed Ayub Khan’s coup and the dictator arrested Suhrawardy, who is a true democrat who did not accept the forced usurpation of political power. Unfortunately, he was kept in solitary confinement before being released after seven months. He was welcomed by huge crowds when he went to Dhaka but by then his health had completely broken down and he left for convalescence in Beirut but sadly passed away there in 1963.
What would have been the history of Pakistan had Suhrawardy been given a proper chance to deal with its problems, is an open conjecture. It was however evident that he was the only Bengali leader acceptable to both wings as he would often say in his deep baritone that the English Language, PIA, and I are the only links between East and West Pakistan. Eight years after his death Pakistan got dismembered. In a final twist of fate the three inveterate opponents, Suhrawardy, Kh Nazimuddin, and AK Fazlul Haq were buried next to each other in Suhrawardy Udyan in Dhaka. The Weekender