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OP-ED: In memory of Suhrawardy

  • Published at 06:47 pm December 25th, 2020

His legacy deserves to be studied and passed on to future generations

Camelot was the royal court of the legendary English King Arthur. Camelot came to signify hope and the chivalry of King Arthur and the knights of his roundtable. In American parlance, Camelot often refers to the presidency of John F Kennedy. His widow Jacqueline Bouvier-Kennedy remarked after his assassination that: “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.”

Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, the scion of an illustrious family who served as prime minister in pre-independence Bangladesh, may have been our closest encounter with Camelot.  

December marks his passing

The month of December is commemorated for many occasions in Bangladesh, particularly as the month of victory during the Liberation War of 1971. December also marks the death anniversary of Suhrawardy, the last prime minister of British Bengal who later became prime minister of East and West Pakistan during the 1950s. Suhrawardy was the first statesman to propose an independent Bengali state in 1947 when he called for a sovereign Free State of Bengal. 

The proposed structure of the Free State included power sharing between Muslims and Hindus. Perhaps the strongest democratic element of the Free State proposal was the restoration of the joint electorate. Suhrawardy continued to campaign for the joint electorate after the Partition of India. The joint electorate based on universal suffrage was restored in 1970, seven years after his death in 1963. The 1970 general election paved the way for the independence of Bangladesh which vindicated his call for a sovereign Bengali state in 1947. 

But did Suhrawardy go far enough? The power sharing element of his proposal mirrors the current systems in Lebanon and Bosnia-Herzegovina. In Lebanon, the presidency is reserved for a Maronite Christian; the speaker of parliament has to be a Shia Muslim; and the prime minister is a Sunni Muslim. In Bosnia, the Dayton Accords established power sharing between Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs. Lebanon has often seen protests to demand secularism and an end to the power sharing arrangement. 

Suhrawady’s most significant electoral accomplishments were in 1946, when the Bengal Provincial Muslim League won two-thirds of the allocated seats for Muslims in the Bengal Legislative Assembly, and in 1954, when the Awami League-led United Front won a landslide victory in the East Bengal Legislative Assembly. The 1946 victory proved to be a mandate for the partition of India. The 1954 victory eventually catapulted Suhrawardy into the premiership of Pakistan. 

Suhrawardy had his fair share of critics. His premiership of Bengal saw the massacre of Direct Action Day in which Hindu and Muslim mobs rampaged across Calcutta. To quell the Noakhali riots, Suhrawardy worked with Mahatma Gandhi to promote inter-faith dialogue. 

Foreign policy

Suhrawardy’s most enduring legacy, from which there is much to learn, is the realm of foreign policy. Today, Asia is abuzz with talk of activities of the Quad and a potential Asian NATO-style alliance. During the middle of the Cold War, CENTO, and SEATO were formed as anti-communist blocs. Surhawardy was an ardent supporter of CENTO and SEATO and led his country to be at the forefront of these blocs.  

On May 3, 1957, while addressing a joint session of the Philippines Congress, Prime Minister Suhrawardy affirmed that the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) was established in accordance with the principles laid down in the United Nations Charter and the Bandung Conference. He issued a joint communique with the Filipino president which stated that both countries would coordinate efforts for collective defense, decolonization, and economic progress. 

During a banquet with the Filipino president, Surhawardy touched on the importance of decolonization, stating: “As long as grievous wrongs remained unredressed and as long as the right of self-determination was denied to peoples and UN decisions were flouted or evaded, lasting peace would remain a mirage.” 

Suhrawardy undertook a historic visit to the Kingdom of Afghanistan during which his talks with the Afghan premier led to the conclusion of an air services agreement. Suhrawardy was keen to rope in the Afghans away from the Soviets. American diplomats observed that Suhrawardy achieved visible progress on what had been a bitter bilateral relationship over the Durrand Line. 

A State Department memorandum states that Secretary of State John Foster Dulles “observed that the United States had been much pleased with the progress recently made in improving relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Expressing the belief that Prime Minister Suhrawardy was personally largely responsible for this improvement, the Secretary voiced the hope that the favourable trend would continue.” 

Several agreements were signed between the US, Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey for projects under the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) which were funded by the Eisenhower administration. Prime Minister Suhrawardy supported projects in telecommunications and connectivity under the activities of CENTO. Speaking at the ministerial council of CENTO, he remarked that “It is indeed fortunate for us to have the backing and help of those two great powers [Britain and the United States] in the political, economic and defence tasks, that lie before us. Without their aid and assistance, it would have been difficult, nay impossible, to realise the aims and objectives of the Baghdad Pact.” 

Suhrawardy was warmly hosted by President Dwight D Eisenhower and Secretary Dulles at the White House. Photographs show Surhawardy taking pictures of Eisenhower with his own camera. Suhrawardy also visited Hollywood and met with American film stars. He was, of course, a great lover of films. My grandfather, as a young man, once ran into him at a cinema hall in Dhaka.  

Suhrawardy emerged as a global statesman during his last premiership. His legacy deserves to be studied and passed on to future generations. As Bangladesh approaches 50 years of independence, it is worth remembering the man who first called for a free and sovereign Bengali state. 

Umran Chowdhury works in the legal field. 

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