MAHMUD ALI’S BIRTH centenary on September 1 reminded me of a comment Jawaharlal Nehru made during his meeting with George Bernard Shaw in London.
Independent India’s first prime minister, a driven Fabian socialist, had been invited to attend the June 2, 1953, coronation of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey. That was “a formal occasion,” he told Shaw when the celebrated Irish playwright arrived to see Nehru at the Indian prime minister’s personal invitation, sent from Delhi nearly a month before.
‘Mahmud Ali (right), then minister of social work in Pakistan, is greeted by then Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai in Beijing in 1972.’
The more important event for him, Nehru added, was “meeting you,” the best-known ideologue of Fabian socialism. Shaw said he had been “deeply gratified” by his host’s compliment. But he asked why Nehru had said that.
“Because what I am is because of what you have written,” replied Nehru.
I’m no Jawaharlal Nehru. But I am what I am largely because of what I learned from Mahmud Ali – and Nurul Amin – during my years as a student, journalist and political activist in what used to be East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh.
I was 17 and about to graduate from high school when I first met Ali, then revenue minister of East Pakistan, at an election rally in his native Sunamganj subdivision, which is now a district (administrative regions). He was one of four visiting government ministers, and the shortest and youngest of them. They spoke at a public meeting in a rice paddy field, blanketed with crumbling stalks of harvested crops. Ali’s speech drew the most enthusiastic and sustained applause from the crowd. Their acclaim for the other speakers was lukewarm.
During his speech the revenue minister denounced the “exploitation” of peasants and workers by land owners and industrialists. And he told the audience, twice, that if he should fail to push through certain legislative initiatives to mitigate their plight, “I will leave the government and come back and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with you” to continue his struggle for their “lentil and rice,” staple food for poor Bengalees.
I was impressed by Ali’s expressions of empathy for the poor, and the passion with which he made them. Faking as a restaurant worker carrying food to the ministers, I slid through a police cordon around a government bungalow in Guwainghat town in which the dignitarieswere resting after the meeting. I asked Ali a couple of questions about the anti-poverty initiatives he had talked about. He flattered me as “an intelligent young man” and asked about my family and plans for further education.
My admiration for Ali soared a few months later when I, now a college freshman, heard over the radio that he had resigned from the East Pakistan government. Mahmud Ali was the only government minister ever to resign voluntarily in the 24-year history of East Pakistan. (In 1971 that Pakistani province would emerge as independent Bangladesh.) A couple of days after Ali’s resignation I buttonholed one of his close associates in Sylhet town, from where I was attending Murarichand College.
“Do you know why Mr. Mahmud Ali has resigned,” I asked Motassir Ali.
“He was not getting anything done” that he wanted done, replied kala (black) Motassir, as he was popularly known.
I realized that Mahmud Ali was delivering on his pledge to the people of Sunamganj.
His unswerving struggle for the rights of peasants and industrial workers earned him the label of “Communist” from his right-wing political adversaries. In the 1960s, as a student of Dhaka University, I became close to him, while also moonlighting as the press aide to Amin, the leader of the opposition in the Pakistan National Assembly and a former chief minister of East Pakistan. The political circle in Sylhet came to know about my being a close associate of Ali’s. To that circle belonged my former host at a lodge from where I had attended college.
Abdullah Chowdhury asked me one day why I had become a “henchman of that Sunamganji politician.”
What was wrong with that? I inquired.
“You are the son of an alem, you should stay away from him,” replied the social conservative belonging to Sylhet’s landed aristocracy. “Mahmud Ali is always fighting rich people, people richer than his family. Do you hear him talk about Islam?”
I replied that Ali was “fighting for economic and social justice,” which was a core Islamic value but was being opposed by Muslim aristocracy.
Ali is better known, however, as a trailblazer in the struggle to restore democracy in Pakistan, abolished by the military dictatorship of Gen. Mohammad Ayub Khan. He founded and led the Ganatantri Dal (Democratic Party) and was a top leader of the National Awami Party, National Democratic Front, Pakistan Democratic Movement and Pakistan Democratic Party all of which he helped organize to achieve his seminal goal of wresting democracy back from the clutches of Pakistani generals.
He faced the most crucial decision of his turbulent political career in the wake of the movement for East Pakistan’s secession from Pakistan and reincarnation as independent Bangladesh.He just couldn’t reconcile with the idea of dismembering the country he had struggled long and onerously to help create and build.
Ali knew too well about West Pakistani political and bureaucratic elites’ neglect of economic development in East Pakistan and abolishment of democracy by the West Pakistan-based military brass – the two issues that fueled the Bangladesh movement. But he believed,and argued over and over, that the answer to those abuses of power lay in the democratization of Pakistan. East Pakistanis, 98 percent of whom are Bengalees, made up the majority of the Pakistani population, and he believed that full-fledged democracy would empower East Pakistanis and get them to end the injustices done to them. Ali, Amin, and a host of other Bengalee leaders who were in the vanguard of the Pakistan movement also feared that Bangladesh would become a satellite of India, which would border three sides of the impoverished and defenseless country.
I shared Ali’s and Amin’s political prognoses and defended and promoted them through my column in the Pakistan Observer newspaper, published in Dhaka, the capital of East Pakistan. In the late 1960s Bangladeshi activists harassed and denounced Ali, kidnapped and persecuted him and bombed his house in Dhaka. (I, too, faced harassment and death threats for my writings against the breakup of old Pakistan.)
But despite those adversities and dangers, Ali never budged from his staunch support for the “unity of democratization” of Pakistan. On the eve of the birth of Bangladesh he and Amin, facing security threats in East Pakistan, moved to West Pakistan with their families. Nurul Amin served as Pakistan’s last Bangalee Prime Minister and Vice President, and Mahmud Ali as a federal minister .
Toward the end of his life Ali anguished over the “continued suppression” of Pakistani masses by the political-military-feudal elites. During my continual telephone conversations with him from the United States, he would lament the “economic plight” of everyday Pakistanis and maintain that “freedom and justice for which we have Pakistan” remained to be realized.
“Why?” I inquired of my mentor.
“Because of the power structure,” he replied.
Was it not “the same power structure,” I asked, that had disrupted democracy and sustained economic disparity between East and West Pakistan, driving that province into breaking away from Pakistan?
“You have a point,” he said, “but some politicians on both sides [East and West Pakistan] were busy exploiting the problems [instead of finding] their solutions.”
He believed to his dying day that unfettered democracy, restored in time, “would have saved [old] Pakistan.” He explained that the Ayub Khan regime should have re-established democracy in the early 1960s when the people of the two parts of Pakistan had “deep brotherly relations.” The military dictatorship of Gen. Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan held Pakistan’s first national elections in 1970, when many East Pakistanis had been “fed up with economic disparity and military rule.” That led to the “victory of the secessionists” in East Pakistan and its “rupture” with the western wing. “Military dictatorships killed Pakistan,” he added.
Ali, Amin and most other leaders of the democratic struggle in Pakistan blamed the United States for “abetting the killing of our democracy.” American administrations, Republican and Democratic, coddled each of Pakistan’s military dictators, who overthrew democratically elected governments and abrogated democratic constitutions. From the Cold War to the “war on terror, the United States has always used Pakistan to fight its strategic enemies. Never did an America administration put pressure on a Pakistani dictatorship to restore democracy.
I returned to the truncated Pakistan after the independence of Bangladesh and came away with a different take, however. I interviewed dozens of Pakistani politicians, military officers, journalists and civic society leaders about their thoughts on economic disparity between East and West Pakistan, dismissal of Bengalee-led central governments (of Prime Ministers Khwaja Nazimuddin and Hussein Shaheed Suhrawardy), the Bengalee demand for East Pakistan’s autonomy, and West Pakistani elites’ support for military dictatorships, all of which had poisoned relations between the two wings of old Pakistan. The mentality and priorities betrayed by those leading lights of Pakistani society showed that very few of them had the kind of commitment to Pakistan that Amin and Ali did. I figured that the Pakistani military and civilian leadership, centered in Punjab, wouldn’t have conceded real power to the Bengalees or allowed the establishment of real democracy, which would have done so.
As I was flying back to London from Islamabad, my mind was flashing with memories of my political activities and thinking during the pre-Bangladesh years, including what appeared now to be mymisinterpretation of events and mistaken judgments. In came rolling the last episode of Victor Hugo’s breathtaking novel Les Misérables.
Monsieur Gillenormand, the aristocratic grandfather of Marius, had bitterly opposed for years Marius’ marriage to Cosette, Jean Valjean’s adopted daughter. Valjean was a lower-class man who had served a prison term for stealing pieces of bread to feed his starving family. When Gillenormand finally realized that his aristocratic pride was destroying what would be his grandson’s lifelong pleasure and happiness, he consented to the marriage. As he was taking leave of Valjean after a glamorous wedding ceremony, Gillenormand apologized for his mistake of not approving the marriage earlier.
“Don’t most of us make mistakes most of our lives?” responded Valjean. It was better to learn of a mistake, he added, than never realize and come to grips with it.
- Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator in Washington, hosts this blog.