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OP-ED: KM Subhan: Our departed keeper of conscience

  • Published at 06:55 pm December 30th, 2020
KM Subhan

Courage and conviction epitomized his remarkable career

His life drew to an end 13 winters ago, in perfect rhythm with the end of the year. It was the last sunset of December when he lapsed into eternal silence. And I have remembered him, remembered the moral principles upon which he carried himself, the integrity in him that was infectious, the affection he showered on those who came in touch with him. 

I speak of Justice KM Subhan, he who in his career as a lawyer and as a judge gave us all reasons to believe in the power of citizens to believe in themselves. Courage and conviction, indeed courage of conviction was what Justice Subhan epitomized in his remarkable career. He would not flinch in the face of the threats held out against him, against his equally morality-driven colleagues, by an illegitimacy that was a military junta. Coup makers like Hussein Muhammad Ershad could take his job away from him, but Subhan knew that in the judgement of history, it was perennially the tales of courageous men and women that was remembered and passed on down the generations. 

This morning, it feels hugely satisfying to recall Justice KM Subhan, for he was of that class of the courageous and the principled the likes of whom are hard to come by in these times of all-enveloping mediocrity. Subhan’s generation abjured mediocrity, had little time for displays of pusillanimity. For his generation, for him, for Justice Syed Muhammad Hussain, it was a simple matter of individual integrity and national self-esteem which mattered.  

In an era when some men felt gratified at being asked to serve in hollow offices of empty power, Subhan and his kind were different. Observe this reality: When the Awami League under Sheikh Hasina returned to power 21 years after the national tragedy of August-November 1975, Justice Subhan would have been quite justified in seeking a new place of power and influence for himself. He did not. Integrity mattered. Not many men in his circumstances would have acted in similar fashion. 

My interaction with Justice KM Subhan began sometime in the late 1980s, as the mass movement against the Ershad regime gathered pace. For the young man I was, it was sheer joy seeing Justice Subhan turning up at public rallies to demand that the military regime be shown the door. Subhan did not merely seek the ouster of the junta. He made it obvious that it was the entire history of the nation which needed to be reclaimed from those who had tried disfiguring that history.  

Democracy, he argued, needed necessarily to be based on secularism, on social justice. For him, for millions around the country, Bengali nationalism was an embodiment of all such ideals. We cheered him, for he was exhorting us to recover the old values. We were fired up through the intensity of his zeal.  

I was young, relatively new in the field of journalism. And yet my write-ups had come to Justice Subhan’s notice. He appreciated them, made me feel close to him, and to others like him. For me, being in touch with one who had been part of the nation’s higher judiciary was enlightening. It gladdened the soul in me then, as it gladdens the heart in me to recall today, that in Justice KM Subhan it was a whole march of judicial history I saw pass by.  

Justice Syed Mahbub Murshed, Justice MR Kayani, Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury were significant cogs in that moving wheel of judicial self-assertion, and Justice Subhan was part of the same caravan. These men shared a bond: They refused to kowtow before those who commandeered the state; they refused to be afraid. That refusal to be afraid injected rising fear into those who sought to drive fear into a nation.  

At a time when fanatics bayed for Taslima Nasrin’s blood, Subhan did not stay quiet, unlike so many others. He spoke in her defense, with little thought to any dangers that might come his way. Of course, danger was something he brushed away, in his career, in his public pronouncements. He was there, with Justice Ahsanuddin Chowdhury and Justice Syed Muhammad Hussain, as part of the team to inquire into the assassination of the four national leaders in jail in November 1975.  

The inquiry never got underway, for the forces of anti-history in the shape of the Zia dictatorship came in the way. That said, one can be sure that Subhan would have plumbed the depths of the tragedy and would have ferreted the murderers out into the open. The concept of justice, for men of his generation, was sacrosanct. It was this sense of justice which made him a significant presence in the Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee. It was his sense of history which informed his role in the Bangabandhu Parishad.

It was this link with history which Justice Subhan symbolized, that emboldened us in our resolve to reclaim the country for ourselves. With Jahanara Imam, he made common cause of organizing and strengthening the campaign against the Bengali collaborators of the Pakistan occupation army of 1971, traitors who had begun to creep back into our lives.  

Subhan condemned these sinister elements and the unscrupulous men and women -- the Zia dispensation, the Ershad cabal and their camp followers -- who had brought them out of their caves, reminding us again that all of them had to be thrown overboard lock, stock, and barrel if a restoration of national self-esteem was our objective.  

KM Subhan abhorred appeasement of all kinds. He saw men of shady character rearing their heads in the country, elements to whom intolerance was a weapon to strike at secular Bengali society. And he was not afraid to speak up. When the Khatme Nabuwat outfit went on a rampage against the Ahmadiyya community, he came forth to condemn their dark message of hate, to argue that no religious belief could be trampled on by men who did not know the meaning of respect for people who did not agree with them. The judge instilled courage in us. And we loved him beyond measure. 

It was an activist KM Subhan that I had the great fortune to interact with. He would enlighten me on the priorities the country needed to set for itself. There was no snobbery in him. He did not believe that hollow men had to be indulged.  

His forthrightness created enemies, who were legion. He was dismissive of them, contemptuous of the darkness they promoted -- in the garb of dictators, fanatics, and political opportunists and turncoats. In his advanced years, he was everywhere, indefatigable and energized by the light that shines through commitment to ethically driven causes.  

This morning, I recall the morning when, over tea, we conversed at his home in Malibagh. This day will pass into afternoon; and in the evening I will reflect on that recurring image of him waving me cheerfully over to his table at the Russian cultural centre in Dhanmondi. We shared coffee through the excitement of our conversation. 

It was the last time we met. He would fall silent on a cold winter day. The silence will not lift. 

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

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