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Sardar Fazlul Karim: The revolutionary in whose light we build dreams

  • Published at 12:53 pm June 15th, 2020
Sardar Fazlul Karim

Tribute to the academic, writer and philosopher. He was born on May 1, 1925 and passed away on June 15, 2014

In an era of receding values and rising anti-politics, there are all the illustrious individuals we remember. And we do that for a simple reason: they instilled moral force into us through the principled lives they led and the messages of integrity, of commitment they sent out to the world they were part of. Indeed, they were the world for us. Today, they are the intellectual cosmos through which we attempt to illuminate, however fitfully, the mediocrity which we live through.

Such a cosmic presence was Sardar Fazlul Karim. A man of many dimensions, larger than life, he was and will always be abiding proof that greatness comes cloaked in the softness of humility. A cloth bag on his frail shoulders, he would till a few years before his passing be spotted making his way from the Arts Faculty of Dhaka University towards Shahbagh, that gem of a smile assuming larger dimensions every time a passing student greeted him in somewhat abashed manner. On the way, as a young man greeted him, he would stop, inquire after the welfare of the young man, the smile making the day for the latter. And then Sardar would move on, softly, quietly, unobtrusively. Yet he filled the widening spaces around him as he walked.

And what was it that placed on the shoulders of this unassuming man the mantle of greatness? He did not create history; he did not go to power or seek it; he was, in his advancing years, not part of any political organization. And yet he suffered, for nearly the entirety of his life. A dedicated Marxist in his youth, he made sure his self-esteem did not slide every time the Pakistani authorities hauled him off to prison. And he was in incarceration for nearly the whole time the state of Pakistan remained part of our lives. When he was freed in the early 1960s, in the darkness typified by Ayub Khan and Monem Khan, he made his way, per courtesy of Syed Ali Ahsan, to the Bangla Academy.

And it was there that he spent the nine months of the War of Liberation. He had a simple, honest explanation for his inability to cross the frontier, as so many others did in those excruciating times. How would he leave his family behind, with all those wolves prowling all around? And if he decided to leave the city and make his way, with his family, to the rural interior, how sure would he be that he could keep his family’s body and soul together? He waited, patiently, for liberation to come. It did, one mesmerizing winter afternoon.

Sardar Fazlul Karim was of the school where deep idealism came in tandem with profound social commitment. He went on hunger strike in jail, along with his fellow prisoners, for weeks --- to protest the inhumane conditions there. A small man, almost to the point of being unnoticed, he remained a tower of strength in his various bouts of incarceration. His indispensability was proved beyond doubt when he was elected to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan in 1954, even though he was in prison. He would not be freed till the next year. And then he would speak out. The seemingly meek lamb would turn out to have been the roaring lion.

Sardar Fazlul Karim’s greatness is to be measured by his wide reading, by the erudition that lent verve and rich substance to his intellectual discourse. He was into Plato, Aristotle and Engels, translating them for his readers here. For him, revolution was a contemporary affair, a matter of necessary continuity. ‘It is not right’, said he, ‘to ask when revolution will come. We are living through revolution…Today I see women working in the garments factories marching on the streets. That is revolution for me.’

And that, for us in this forever struggling land of perennial dream-making, was Sardar Fazlul Karim. He was a metaphor for revolutionary zeal. The lamp he lit goes on illuminating our aspirational universe.


Syed Badrul Ahsan is a writer, journalist and biographer.

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