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Remembering the Tiger of Bengal

  • Published at 12:22 am April 25th, 2019
AK Fazlul
Nothing eroded his commitment to the politics of idealism

The history and politics of AK Fazlul Huq

Sher-e-Bangla Abul Kashem Fazlul Huq passed away on April 27, 1962. It marked the end of a tumultuous career in the politics of united India followed by unhappy years in the state of Pakistan.

All these decades after his death in 1962, it becomes important to ask what impact Sher-e-Bangla has had on Muslim as well as Bengali politics. Huq’s secular credentials were impeccable and because they were, it is often hard to understand why he chose to throw in his lot with the All-India Muslim League and thereby, find himself caught up in a resultant communal struggle that would tear India apart. 

The answer is, of course, easy to come by -- the momentum built up by Mohammad Ali Jinnah towards a guarantee of Muslim rights, if not exactly a demand for a Muslim state, had proved unstoppable by the time the Muslim League met in Lahore in March 1940. Besides, it will not do to ignore the fact that Huq was the one political personality who was nearly at par in terms of popular appeal with Jinnah, a truth the latter grudgingly accepted.

That was this difference between Huq and Jinnah. Where Jinnah’s was too legalistic a mind inviting absolute obedience, one unwilling to admit any other human emotions into it, Huq’s attitude to life and politics, in general, was a mix of the necessary seriousness with equally necessary humour, all of which endeared him to the crowds. 

Wit was part of his nature. Yes, he loved the taste of good food, was into gastronomic delights. But that again was a demonstration of the wider interest he had in life, the spontaneity which marked his dealings with people. 

A first-class mind and a brilliant academic record defined him, but none of that prevented him from embracing populism as part of his politics. He was at home in the company of a colonial official as he was comfortable in discourse with an impoverished Bengali peasant. Of course, there were the shifting sands of his politics, often disturbingly so. There is this sense, therefore, that he was always on a search for a more viable base in politics. The template, therefore, shifted constantly. That was a continuity of self-inflicted wounds.

But none of that eroded his commitment to the politics of idealism. As prime minister of United Bengal between 1937 and 1943, it remained his endeavour to promote, despite his progressive leaning toward Muslim demands, the cultural and political unity of Bengal on a secular basis. That Bengal mattered to him came through his readiness to align himself with Shyama Mukherjee and keep his government going. Huq had a sure sense of his own dignity, a fact made clear through his public disagreements over policy with Jinnah. For Huq in pre-partition India, therefore, politics was consistently a matter of staying attuned to popular wishes. 

He created his constituency among the wider masses. That was a prime reason why the Jukto Front (United Front) turned to him in the weeks prior to the East Bengal assembly elections in 1954. An ageing Sher-e-Bangla was yet a magnetic force and in alliance with his former rival Suhrawardy and Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani routed the Muslim League in East Bengal. It was a blow from which the Muslim League was never to recover.

Huq’s message in 1954 was unmistakable. Pakistan’s Bengali Muslims were not willing to subsume their cultural heritage and their political ethos to an increasingly communal Muslim League interpretation of history. It was a message which Sher-e-Bangla reiterated, on his visit to Kolkata after the 1954 election. 

This trip to Kolkata must have brought back for him fond memories of happier days. It was in Kolkata where all his friends and political disciples, Hindu and Muslim, still lived. And Kolkata was the place that had been his launch pad in politics. And so Huq waxed eloquent in remembrance of bygone times. For the increasingly entrenched Pakistani establishment, though, it amounted to sedition.

Huq was a born-again Bengali who, for Ghulam Mohammad, Iskandar Mirza, and a discredited Muslim League, was a potent threat to the Pakistan ideology. He would pay a price for it. A helpless Sher-e-Bangla would watch an arrogant Mohammad Ali, a fellow Bengali from Bogra, then prime minister of Pakistan, tell him in clear body language that the Jukto Front’s days were numbered. It was a sight that deeply offended the young Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as he sat beside his chief minister, repelled by the hauteur of the prime minister.

The dismissal of the Jukto Front ministry under Section 92-A was effectively the end of Sher-e-Bangla’s political career. And yet Huq was reluctant to call it a day. The fall of his government in May 1954 was followed by his taking on roles which left Bengalis in a state of bewilderment about the veteran leader’s motives. 

He served as central interior minister in a government which only a short while earlier had accused him of treason over his expression of emotions in Kolkata. That was followed by his assumption of office as governor of East Pakistan. All of this was to be his swansong.

In Sher-e-Bangla, a rural Bengali earthiness came in charming combination with urban political suavity. A big man, figuratively as also literally, he had an abundance of humour, and the kind of joie de vivre which underscores the lives of individuals who make a difference in the lives of those who look to them for leadership. His heart accommodated ideas. It was a heart that was generally in the right place, despite the unexpected surprises, even shocks, he sometimes threw our way.

In the interest of history, Abul Kashem Fazlul Huq’s life and career calls for a deeper, more dispassionate study than they have elicited thus far. 

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.