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OP-ED: Sher-e-Bangla: The folk tale we read, endlessly

  • Published at 12:30 am October 28th, 2021
A K Fazlul Haque
COLLECTED

To ignore AK Fazlul Huq would make sinners of us all

Here’s the first point to note about Sher-e-Bangla Abul Kashem Fazlul Huq’s place in South Asian history: Had he been in power in Bengal in 1946, there would not be the bloodbath which consumed Calcutta on August 16 and on the following days through Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s politically misleading call for a so-called Direct Action Day. The riots which erupted immediately after the leaders of the Muslim League -- and the League was in power -- finished their rally in the city were to leave anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 Muslims and Hindus dead all across town. 

As we recall Sher-e-Bangla, his birth anniversary having come to pass a couple of days ago, it is the quintessential Bengali in him which reasserts itself in our historical memory. He was an all-Bengal politician in the critical days before the partition of India and yet there was about him an all-India charisma which could not be ignored. In Lahore in March 1940, as Jinnah addressed the crowd to drum up support for what would come to be known as the Pakistan Resolution, Huq arrived on the scene, to be rapturously welcomed by the audience. He moved slowly and majestically through the crowd, bowing to left and right in response to the greetings coming his way. Jinnah, not a man used to being upstaged by others, ended his speech briskly. “Now that the tiger is here, the lamb must give way,” said he.

And that was Sher-e-Bangla, the man who moved the Pakistan Resolution on March 23, 1940 for the creation of independent Muslim states -- not state, mind you -- out of British India. He was his own man, unwilling to genuflect before Jinnah in the way so many of his contemporaries did. He was part of the Muslim League and he was prime minister of Bengal. More crucially, he was a political leader with an independent outlook on life.  

When he was compelled to leave the Muslim League, it did not worry him overmuch, for his roots lay with the peasants of Bengal. The hold he had on the masses was real. It was power which Jinnah, Liaquat Ali Khan, Khwaja Nazimuddin, and Suhrawardy would never have. Huq’s enemies were legion. Between 1937 and 1943, in office as Bengal’s elected leader, he was constantly undermined by Suhrawardy and Nazimuddin, their obvious goal being to push him from high office. When Huq allied himself with Shyama Prasad Mukherjee to keep his government afloat, it was not a dilution of his basic secularist credentials that came with the act. It was the higher goal of preserving Bengali identity across the Hindu-Muslim divide in the face of the onslaught by lesser men to show him the door. Sher-e-Bangla was a larger than life figure, not to be straitjacketed within the narrow domestic walls raised by communal politics.  This larger-than-life aspect to his political identity was manifested in 1954 in East Bengal. India had been knifed through and Pakistan had come into being. The old Bengal Huq had governed lay sundered, as parts of the Indian Union and the Pakistan Federation. And East Bengal needed to be freed of the clutches of an increasingly corrupt Muslim League. And to that end came the Jukto Front, the united front which had him share the stage with his old nemesis Suhrawardy and Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani. 

The larger truth was simple and unassailable: Sher-e-Bangla embodied the Jukto Front. The name “Huq Shaheb” resonated all across the province. It was Sher-e-Bangla’s populism, his Bengali nationalism which ran the Muslim League out of town.

The partition of India did little to dampen the Bengali soul which governed the thoughts of AK Fazlul Huq. His trip to Calcutta soon after taking over as chief minister of East Bengal in 1954 was a re-engineering of fundamental Bengali emotions despite the broken history of the nation. 

He was unambiguous in his statements on that trip -- that beyond partisan politics, beyond political division, Bengal was one and indivisible in culture and heritage. In Bengali hearts, there was no space for Hindus or Muslims, for everyone in Calcutta and Dhaka was a Bengali. The ruling circles in Karachi, alarmed at his remarks, excoriated Huq as a traitor to the Pakistan cause. He was not worried, though those Calcutta sentiments were a cause behind the dismissal of his ministry under Section 92-A.

Versatility was what marked Huq’s politics. Opportunism was what he abhorred. With the deep experience he gained as part of the Indian National Congress and then as a leading figure in the All-India Muslim League, with the administrative acumen he mastered through holding various offices in pre-partition Bengal and post-1947 Pakistan, the weight of his personality was unmatched. The dismissal of the Jukto Front ministry did not push him into silence. He would come back to serve as Pakistan’s interior minister before moving on to the office of governor of East Bengal. 

Sher-e-Bangla deferred to no one but Bengal’s peasants and suffering masses. It would be a cause later to be taken up in earnest by a future Bangabandhu, who notes in his memoirs that his parents made it a point to warn him to stay away from any criticism of Huq Shaheb in his public pronouncements. Sher-e-Bangla’s politics went beyond the voter. He went for the individual. 

In his laughter, in his witticisms, in his earthy conversations with people, he was a true man of the people, a proper son of the soil. Armed with intellect that dwarfed all his contemporaries, he knew how to put humbugs, British as well as Indian, in their places. He was beholden to no one, but the people of Bengal were beholden to him. Even today, the descendants of the generations whose political aspirations Sher-e-Bangla so eloquently articulated in his time, in both West Bengal and Bangladesh, recall him in the warmth which comes with undying love and unerring respect. 

More than a century after his birth and decades after his passing, it becomes our grave responsibility to undertake and promote extensive academic research on one of the foremost history makers in our part of the world. Sher-e-Bangla was a thorough political being, a man who never let go of the thought that he was a Bengali, our very own, a folk tale we read endlessly. To ignore him or push him out of the narrative would make sinners of us all.   

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

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