The end of Suhrawardy
Suhrawardy’s place in history
Huseyn Shaheed 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 was relieved, or almost, at being able to leave Pakistan rather than stay genuflect before the junta.
But then, around most 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 organised protest at this blatant seizure of power by the army. And yet for the regime he was a mortal threat, always. The army was acutely aware of Suhrawardy’s hold on the masses. While it could afford to ignore men like I.I. Chundrigar, Choudhry 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 portrayed 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 rickety carts of the false vendors of 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 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 entity with Suhrawardy leading the movement for change. His Awami League was a secular political party and so was, without being explicit in stating it, 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 reinvented itself? 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 revitalised it, in 1966, through the Six Point programme of regional autonomy for the federating regions of Pakistan?
Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy’s place in history rests on a couple of premises. The first relates to his role in the creation of Pakistan, with particular focus on what he did or would not do on the Direct Action Day called by Jinnah in August 1946. The second focuses on the ugly way in which Pakistan treated him after 1949 and the subsequent steps he took to assert himself in its politics. His worldview was centred on his enduring attachment to Western, especially American, understanding of geopolitics.
Suhrawardy’s was a complex personality. And he was a formidable politician. Not until the rise of his protégé Sheikh Mujibur Rahman after his death would Pakistan — and then Bangladesh — find itself dominated by a larger than life political leader. Where Suhrawardy was a pragmatist, the future Bangabandhu was a radical. Suhrawardy would not dream of turning his back on Pakistan. In his times, Mujib grasped the critical truth — Pakistan, having failed to deliver, could be dispensed with in East Bengal.
(Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy died on December 5, 1963 in Beirut).