What if Suhrawardy had not died?

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On 5 December 1963, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy died in Beirut. A cardiac arrest was given out as the cause of death. But there were --- and are --- all the suspicions of a role played by the regime of Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan, then in power, in Suhrawardy’s sudden end. Not long before Suhrawardy passed away, Ayub’s brash young Foreign Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had warned him, through a friend, against returning to Pakistan. Otherwise, said Bhutto, he would personally ensure that Suhrawardy never set foot in Pakistan.

It is part of the historical record that between Suhrawardy’s death and until his own death through assassination, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman --- disciple to the guru in Suhrawardy --- never believed that the sudden end to the life of Pakistan’s former prime minister and founder of the Awami League was a result of natural causes. There are, even today, people in Pakistan who share Bangabandhu’s suspicions.

All these years after his death, it is reasonable to ask, yet once again, the simple question: how do we remember Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, an ardent fighter for Pakistan, in a land his disciple Sheikh Mujibur Rahman prised out of Pakistan to give it the independent status of Bangladesh?

Suhrawardy died a deeply disappointed man. And there were all the reasons behind this disappointment. His imprisonment by the Ayub Khan military regime came as a clear shock to him, indeed to people all across what used to be East and West Pakistan. That an individual of Suhrawardy’s stature could be hauled away to prison, could be humiliated by a man who to all intents and purposes was an upstart in Pakistan’s increasingly chaotic politics was a reality no one had imagined could happen. Suhrawardy was not quite the same man after he was freed from jail. It would seem in hindsight that he felt a sense of relief, or almost, at being able to leave Pakistan rather than genuflect before the junta.

But then, often in the lives of politically important men, there are those questions which largely are not followed by responses, either because those men are dead or have gone beyond the stage where they had earlier taken huge interest. Even so, it is well to ask if politics in Pakistan would have been any different from what it later turned out to be had Suhrawardy not died in Beirut in December 1963. There are, to be sure, all those nagging questions about the manner of his death in a land far away from home. No one was with him when the end came. To what extent the Pakistan government had a hand in his death, if there was a hand at all, is a thought which has never gone beyond the region of conjecture. And so we leave this matter of Suhrawardy’s death aside.

But note that the man who was once prime minister of pre-partition Bengal and then served as prime minister of Pakistan for a year could not, once the Ayub martial law came, have the time to mount any significant degree of organized protest at this blatant usurpation of power by the army. And yet for the regime he was a mortal threat. The army knew of Suhrawardy’s hold on the masses. While it could ignore men like I.I. Chundrigar, Chaudhry Mohammad Ali, Feroz Khan Noon and the others, it could not avert its gaze from Suhrawardy. If any political figure could influence the people of Pakistan into opposition to the regime, it was Suhrawardy. There were the many factors which recommended Suhrawardy as a potential threat to Ayub Khan: Suhrawardy was a former prime minister and a founder of the increasingly popular Awami League. That apart, Suhrawardy belonged to a generation which had actively been associated with the events leading up to the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan. He was part of history; and historical figures could easily upset the carts of the vendors of faux politics in the country.

And so it was that Suhrawardy was carted off to prison, from where he wrote a scathing letter to President Ayub Khan who, of course, did not answer. It was an ailing, disillusioned Suhrawardy who was eventually freed and permitted to go abroad. What if Suhrawardy had not died when he did? The clearest of responses here is that politics in Pakistan would be different. Had Suhrawardy survived, he certainly would have played a leading role in mounting a challenge to the junta. With Ayub Khan having placed politicians in a straitjacket called the Elective Bodies’ Disqualification Ordinance (EBDO) and then imposing on the country a constitution which effectively circumscribed pluralism through the Basic Democracy system, politics was set to atrophy. And do not forget that the older generation of politicians, progressive as well as reactionary, was dying out. Sher-e-Bangla A.K. Fazlul Huq died in April 1962. Khwaja Nazimuddin would die in October 1964. Had Suhrawardy lived, he would have become the focal point of democratic change. And that might well have been a departure from the reputation (he had informed Bengalis, wrongly, that the 1956 constitution had given them ninety eight per cent autonomy and he had dismissed the non-aligned movement as an addition of zeros that only led to a zero) Suhrawardy had carved for himself through the 1950s.

But then comes the matter of whether the state of Pakistan could have become a truly federal state with Suhrawardy leading the movement for change. His Awami League was a secular political party and so was in clear opposition to the communal foundations on which Mohammad Ali Jinnah had created Pakistan. Could Pakistan have repudiated the argument on which it had taken shape? And to what extent would Suhrawardy, a staunch Muslim Leaguer in pre-partition India, change himself? Was he in a position to go for a dramatic change in course in the way his young disciple Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was able to in 1964, when the future leader of Bengali liberation revived a moribund Awami League and revitalized it, in 1966, through the Six Point programme of regional autonomy for the federating regions of Pakistan?

Postscript: Six years after Suhrawardy’s death, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman told a remembrance meeting in Dhaka on 5 December 1969 that East Pakistan would henceforth be known as Bangladesh. The Master’s politics would soon fade into memory. The disciple’s would prove to be enduring.

  • DhakaCourier
  • Vol 35
  • Syed Badrul Ahsan
  • Issue 22
  • What if Suhrawardy had not died?

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