After I was transferred from Seven Cells to the block known as New Twenty, I came in contact with several other men who had played an important part in East Pakistan politics. They were Dr Abdul Malik, the last Governor of East Pakistan, Mr Akhtaruddin, a member of the Malik Cabinet, Khawaja Khairuddin, President of the East Pakistan Council Muslim League, and Maulana Nuruzzaman also a Council Leaguer. The youngest in this group was Mr Akhtaruddin, who was in his middle forties. I had known him as a student in the University. He was a member of the team of four students whom I led to Burma on a goodwill mission in 1953. Dr Malik has been known to me personally since 1962 when he was Pakistan’s Ambassador in the Philippines. It was during a visit to Manila in that year that I came to have some insight into his political views. Deeply religious, he had then warned me that Pakistan’s overtures to China following the Sino-Indian conflict, might prove embarrassing in the long run. Wasn’t Pakistan, he asked, playing a dangerous game in trying to form an alliance with a communist state which rejected the very basis of Pakistan’s existence, namely, religion?
I know there are no simple answers to political questions. China turned out in 1971 to be a strong friend. Yet it is questionable whether the leftist forces would have been as strong as they are today if the Pakistan government, because of the orientation of its foreign policy, had not given the leftists the patronage they received so openly. Communist literature was officially propagated; the idea that communism was panaceas was allowed officially to be cultivated. The government’s theory was that by so doing it would help strengthen Sino-Pakistani relations. It did, but the leftists who did not all belong to the Chinese school joined hands with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in breaking Pakistan up in 1971.
Dr Malik was a man of great integrity. Never accused during his long political career of corruption and dishonesty, he had been one of the trusted lieutenants of the Quaid-e-Azam who was included in the first Pakistan Cabinet. There was scarcely an aspect of Muslim League politics which he did not know. Among those surviving today, his knowledge of the difficulties and problems besetting the new state of Pakistan in the late forties is unrivalled, Dr Malik had never been a popular politician. Interested mainly in labour movements, he had an intimate. acquaintance with trade unionism. Quiet, sober and steadfast, he had among political opponents earned a sobriquet which was both a term of vilification and a compliment; he was called Malik the obstinate, Dr Malik had once been in the Congress and taken part in mass movement, but had never been quite a front-bencher. Successive administrations sought his co-operations; he was readily trusted. What he lacked, his critics said, was the ability to get great imaginative projects launched and executed. He was too quiet. I noticed a temperamental likeness between him and Mr Shafiqur Rahman who is of course much younger.
Dr Malik’s appointment as governor in the difficult period of 1971 had been due to a number of factors. Mr Nurul Amin is believed to have refused that office; others proved much too controversial. Dr Malik alone among the possible names had the courage to face the responsibilities of the position. But everybody said that someone slightly different would have met the needs of the hour better. It is perhaps true that he failed to arouse in the public any enthusiasm over the Pakistan issue; but could anyone else have stemmed the tide? His choice of Ministers proved unfortunate. They were perfect non-entities of whom with one or two exceptions the public had never heard before. They neither commanded their confidence nor did they have the competence to discharge the routine duties of their office satisfactorily. Dr Malik’s defence was that he had tried his best to select a team whose honesty and integrity would be unimpeachable. But his judgment had erred even here. For among his ministers were men like Mr Abul Qasem neither noted for his honesty nor possessing that strength of conviction which is such an asset in a crisis, Mr Obaidullah Majumdar was a rank Awami Leaguer. His inclusion was intended to demonstrate to the world that a reaction against the extremism of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had set in among his own followers. But actually it had a contrary effect. People thought that only a handful of self-seekers and opportunists had been found to join the Cabinet. The ‘credibility gap’, as they now-a-days say, between Cabinet and public was definitely widened by the conduct of these obscure politicians.
Like Mr Obaidullah, Mujumdar, Mr Solaiman, Labour minister in the Malik Cabinet, was a supporter of the Awami League thesis on East and West Pakistan relations. During his trial he made a long statement in Court expounding his political philosophy, which was, to those who did not know his his background, an unpleasant surprise. Not only did he say that he subscribed to the same political views as Sheikh Mujibur Rahman; he asserted that he had been forced to join the Malik Cabinet by the Army who would have shot him if he had refused. This was wholly untrue. Neither the public outside nor the Court believed him. By resorting to a falsehood of this kind, he only exposed himself to ridicule.
Mr Akhtaruddin was next to Dr Malik himself perhaps the only man who sincerely believed what he professed. But he had no standing in politics. He was not, however a wholly obscure figure. He used to be looked upon as an up and coming figure, likely to merge into the limelight in the future, but he was far from being a person who could command the allegiance of a sizeable body of opinion in East Pakistan.
What I am trying to convey is that the Malik Cabinet despite its intentions, was terribly handicapped by its mediocrity. The ministers did not draw crowds, their speeches inspired no idealism; their actions produced no thrills. The Cabinet had been sworn-in in September 1971 at a time when the internal crisis in the country was rapidly moving to a climax. Its existence made little difference to the situation. Had its members been more forceful personalities, the charge that they were puppets could not have been cast in their teeth by the enemy.
Naturally, the choice of these men to guide the country’s destinies at this difficult juncture reflected little credit on the governor. The failings of the ministers had to be atoned for vicariously by him.
In his conversations with us, Dr Malik sometimes admitted that that the men selected by him had not been the best possible; he showed himself completely disillusioned about some.
Prison had only steeled his own political convictions. He was more religious than ever before. He said that Pakistan’s cardinal blunder consisted in its failure to realize what a grievous mistake it was to deviate from the ideals of its founder. When the word Islam became a mere political label, when religion came to be invoked as a weapon even by hypocrites who openly defied its injunctions in speech and action alike, then it was that the public who instinctively recall from hypocrisy and can’t revolted.
Maulna Nuruzzaman turned out to be the boyhood friend of one of my cousins. I had heard of him, and had imagined him to be an old bearded savant. He had a beard, of course, but it was not very impressive. His figure had an athletic look about it; there was hardly any sign of fat in his body; he appeared sprightly, I rather lean, and supple. His movements, brisk and hurried detracted from the conventional image of a religious leader as a grave and serious person, soft-spoken and tolerant. The Maulana possessed a powerful vocabulary of invective and was prone to employ it against his rivals. He found it difficult to relate an anecdote---and he knew a large number----without resort to expletives and swear-words, which lent it colour but shocked more inhibited people. He had been connected with the Jamiat-Ulama-e-Islam which had been set up as a counterpoise to the Congress-minded Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Hind, and this connection had enabled him to make the acquaintance of a large number of All-India religious figures. Maulana Nuruzzaman had always been in the Muslim League until expelled from it by political enemies and thereafter he had gravitated towards the Pakistan Democratic Party. He owned his detention in prison to his ideological affiliations alone; for he could not be accused of any of the offences listed in the Collaborators Order.
The Maulana was a friendly figure, knew English fairly well and appeared to be very different from the average Mullah or divine. On better acquaintance I discovered however that family background (he was descended from a line of divines) and education had given him a rather narrow outlook; it was rather difficult to discuss religious matters rationally with him. He was a literalist or fundamentalist; he wanted no allegorical or symbolic interpretation to be put on the Quran or the Hadith, and felt infuriated if anyone did so. Literalism was carried by him to lengths where it bordered on the absurd. Passages in the Quran whose context suggested that they were intended to convey some truth symbolically would be taken by him to mean exactly what the words appeared to connote lexically. If anyone hinted that they were susceptible of a different interpretation he would howl, protest and express alarm at the decline of the Faith. Some of us wilfully said things which we knew would wound the Maulana’s feelings; it was amusing to watch his reactions. I used to quote Shakespeare and Freud occasionally to counter his arguments, and I believe he felt really hurt at the thought that any Muslim would invoke non-Muslim writers to make a point in discussions or religion or philosophy.
Maulana Nuruzzaman, despite his knowledge of English, was at heart not markedly different from the traditional divines in our society who showed an utter ignorance of all modern thought. A person may reject modern thought, as many Catholic teachers do, yet not be an obscurantist; he would study modern trends in philosophy, try to understand them and then reject them. On the other hand, one may blindly cling to an old mode of thinking by refusing to face modern challenges or by being wholly unaware of them. It is to the second category that Maulana Nuruzzaman belonged. Listening to him one could guess how and why religious scholars in modern society had alienated the sympathy of educated youth. The trouble with them was that they could not speak to University-trained young men and women in their idiom. The communication barrier was a formidable one. The scepticism so natural to youth was condemned by them outright as atheism or apostasy. Their attitude, harsh and unbending, led many inquiring minds to drift away from orthodoxy. They could preach to the converted. It was impossible for them to realise that arguments based entirely on the Quran and Hadith could be employed effectively only for those who unquestioningly accepted their authority. Non-Muslims and sceptics needed to be convinced by an appeal to something else, and in this the divines were wholly wanting. To try and silence a critic by reference to a solemn passage in the Quran is a futile exercise, if the critic is a non-Muslim or a rationalist Muslim.
Maulana Nuruzzaman persuaded me once to study a book on Islam by Maulana Abdul Khaliq and a series of lectures by Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi. Both works answered to the description of devotional literature, and were from my point of view disappointing, the first less so than the second. Maulana Khaliq had addressed himself exclusively to the very devout and was concerned only to restate the basic tenets of the Faith for their edification. Maulana Thanvi, on the other hand, had the attitude of a person who believed that his discourses would allay the doubts and misgivings of doubters and waverers; he would in places invoke history and philosophy to emphasise a point. But I had all along the feeling that he completely ignored the existence of the world outside Islam. His knowledge of general history did not strike me as profound; nor did the discourses I read show that he was well versed in modern logic and philosophy. I may be entirely wrong, for I am judging him by the few discourses which had come my way, and have not yet read his major works. I was impressed by this style though. I could see how, given a God fearing Muslim audience, he could make a tremendous impact on it.
The divorce between theology and contemporary thought has gone further among Indian and Pakistani Muslims than among any other comparable community. Muhammad Iqbal seems to have been the only exception. But he was not a theologian, and although his Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam helped thousands of educated Muslims to see the basic issues of Islam in a new light, it did little to open the eyes of the orthodox theologians themselves. They for their part were so alarmed by the implications of Iqbal’s thinking that a section among them condemned him as a heretic exactly as their forefathers had condemned Sir Syed Ahmad Khan as a heretic in the nineteenth century. The trouble seems to me to be that they do not or are incapable of differentiating essentials from non-essentials in Islam, and fear that any criticism of non-essentials implies an attack on the essentials also.
Time and again Maulana Nuruzzaman would astonish me by advancing what appeared to me to be wholly puerile propositions. These could not possibly survive logical scrutiny. But that little bothered the Maulana. I find it possible to admire the unalloyed simplicity of an unlettered person’s beliefs. Such simplicity can often be touching. The simplicity of the Maulana was of a different kind, compounded in almost equal proportions of the child-like faith of the unlettered and the ignorance of the semi-literate. He thought that to apply one’s critical faculties to the elucidation of religious issues was dangerous tendency apt to lead to heresy or apostasy.
I have intentionally devoted a great deal of space to Maulana Nuruzzaman, for he seems to me to typify an important class in in our society. Their utility cannot be denied outright; yet they seem also to have been responsible for much that is undesirable.
Having said all this, I must admit that I learnt a great deal from the Maulana about the background of our politics. He knew a great many sordid details about the personal lives of men prominent in the public eye, details of which I had been wholly unaware but which now helped me to understand much that had been incomprehensible before. Listening to him, I often marvelled at my own naiveté and simplicity in matters political. He debunked many imposing and august personages, and did so with such circumstantial proof in support of his thesis that it was impossible to disagree with him. He had little respect for either the learning or the practical commonsense of the late Dr Shahidullah, and regaled us with many anecdotes bearing on his foolishness. The best of these concerned a discussion in Islamic theology, in the course of which Dr Shahidullah is reported to have invoke repeatedly the authority of Sharh-i-Baqaya, a famous commentary on a standard theological work. Maulana Ishaq is said to have pointed out that instead of consulting the Sharh or commentary, they could more usefully turn to the original book for guidance. Upon this, Dr Shahidullah inquired what the Baqaya was. He had never heard of the original book, and had unthinkingly taken the words Sharh-i-Baqaya or Commentary on the Baqaya to be the title of an original work, which showed how shallow Dr Shahidullah’s knowledge of theology was. The Baqaya
There were other stories of this kind about Dacca University teachers of thirty or thirty-five years ago which I enjoyed enormously. They helped me re-live that past; a past which now seems almost prehistoric. Shared memories can be a wonderful bond, and both Maulana Nuruzzaman and myself felt that cutting across our philosophical differences there existed between us a tie forged by these memories of the past.
Politically, he did not appear to me to understand in concrete terms what he wanted. He always relapsed into vagueness when pressed to explain what he meant by Islamic administration. I used to tell him off and on that while loyalty to Islam was certainly to be welcomed, it could not be of much help in practical politics unless translated into such concrete realities as rights, duties and obligations. He considered such an exercise superfluous. The rights, duties and obligations were, he held, clearly enumerated in the Quran, and what need could there exist of further elaboration? To the objection that the Quran refers only to universal principles and seldom discusses details, he had no answer. He thought what is stated in the Quran was adequate and refused to countenance further investigation. At this point, his temper would register a change, he would begin to look offended, and I would withdraw feeling that a quarrel over abstractions was not worthwhile in prison. It was impossible to extract from him a satisfactory explanation of how political and economic problems in a modem society would be tackled in conformity with Islam’s tenets.
The truth is that most of those who believed in Islam as a practical code were content to be vague and abstract and feared to be drawn into discussion on concrete issues. They were incapable of logical analysis or definition. The apparent conflict between Quranic commandments and the principles drawn from modern political theory frightened them, and they suspected that those who spoke of modern theories were at heart sceptics.
I found this tendency also in Khawaja Khairuddin who was my next door neighbour in New Twenty for about four months. I had never known him before except by name, but in a few days we became good friends, discovering that we share many attitudes. We had the same horror of physical uncleanliness, a common weakness for cheese, and a shared faith in the validity of Islam. He understood and sympathised with my eagerness to view Islam in the light of modem thought, although his outlook was far more orthodox than mine. He was also much better read in the theology and early history of Islam than I was; his knowledge of Urdu, his mother tongue, gave him in this respect a decided advantage over me enabling him to read standard works on theology which, with my inadequate command of Urdu, I found it difficult to tackle, is so well-known a work that not to have heard of it was a surprise. It is also considered so difficult that most people consult the commentary rather than the original. Dr Shahidullah appears to have belonged to this group.
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