M. Hussain, email@example.com
I recently found a dear old friend of mine from ages past, Mujahid. We met in college and without knowing each other's histories, became great friends - not just common friends but intellectual friends who shared ideological bonds. Perhaps it is one of fate's ironies, but we later found that our families had been friends for the past three generations, without each generation knowing the friendship of the other. His grandfather, Mahmud Ali, whose company at the dinner table I would greatly enjoy, was also a friend of my grandfather, and were leaders in the All India Muslim League, the organization that created Pakistan. One of my aunts as well as one of his aunts were also bossom friends (again without knowing that a previous generation in their family had been friends). I deeply loved their family and was always honored by being with his grandfather, who had many stories to share, and history that cannot be found in any history books, one of which is that the Pakistan Resolution was not passed on the 23rd of March, but in the wee hours of the 25th! (Pakistan to this day, continues to celebrate the 23rd). We would revel about it and about a million other things, perhaps far less trivial and more heartbreaking issues.
As time would have it, we lost touch as I moved out of Pakistan. In my last days in fact, in Pakistan, the last place I stayed at before my flight from Lahore was with Mujahid. This was in early 2005. When a few days ago I got back in touch, I replied back to my friend Mujahid that someone needs to write down everything that his grandfather knows, but the reply, although I feared it at the back of my mind, came as a hard, cold blow out of the blue: Mahmud Ali passed away. May Allah bless him. With him ends the last of the leaders of the All India Muslim League. May Allah bless us that we may be able to create something in the stature of our grandfathers. Pakistan is still achievable, but I do not know if I have the talent, strength, leadership or wits to achieve it.
Following is a tribute to the late Mahmud Ali by Mustafa Abdul Malik:
Mahmud Ali: turbulent life
shaped by tough calls
by Mustafa Abdul Malik
Posted From: NewAgeBD
Nothing could symbolize Mahmud Ali better than how and where he died.
The man who had a hard time reconciling with the break-up of the old Pakistan died in Lahore, where the Pakistan Resolution was passed in 1940, while giving a speech on the ‘common bond’ among Muslims in the subcontinent.
On Nov. 17, at 7:10 a.m. Pakistan time, I called Mahmud Ali from Washington on his cell phone. He took a while to answer, and I thought he had been sleeping at his Islamabad home.
‘Did I wake you up?’ I asked.
‘Did you wake me up!’ he laughed sarcastically. ‘I am sitting in a train, going to Lahore. I have two meetings today.’
‘Tehrik meetings?’ I inquired. In 1986, at the foot of Lahore’s Pakistan Monument, he founded Tehrik-i-Tekmil-i-Pakistan (Movement for the Completion of Pakistan), and through it was disseminating the idea of having ‘common roof’ for the sub-continent’s Muslim-majority territories such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Kashmir.
Those two meetings had been ‘arranged by others,’ he replied, ‘but the theme is the same … national solidarity [in Pakistan] and the common bond among Muslims’ in the subcontinent.
He asked if the Democratic victory in the US congressional elections would loosen America’s ‘stranglehold on Pakistan,’ and I gave my assessment. I asked about his health and was told he had ‘no particular problem.’ I mentioned my plans to visit Bangladesh, and he asked me to give his regards to his ‘Fufu’ (aunt), the widow of Abdul Matin Chowdhury of Sylhet, who was a close associate of Mohammad Ali Jinnah. The conversation lasted about 10 minutes.
About 10 hours later Ra’ana Dilruba Mahmud, his eldest daughter, called from Islamabad to let me know that the last of surviving leader of the Pakistan movement had passed away.
My mind raced back to a late-March afternoon in 1957 in our native Sylhet. Then East Pakistan Revenue Minister Mahmud Ali and three other ministers – Abul Mansur Ahmed, Dildar Ahmed and Nurur Rahman – were reclining at the Goainghat dak bungalow in his native Sunamganj after addressing a provincial bye-election rally.
I was 17 but small and scrawny and looked more like 14 or 15. Which probably was why the security guard didn’t notice or care as I slipped into the dak bungalow with a restaurant crew carrying food for the ministers.
Mahmud Ali had become well-known in Sylhet for his leadership in the 1946 referendum through which most of that Assamese district had joined Pakistan. The partition of Assam had, however, left many of my relatives on the Indian side of the border. And I told him that they were living in fear after several anti-Muslim riots.
The revenue minister said the Pakistan government was calling on India to protect its Muslims, but that Pakistan had to be created ‘to help poor Muslims who were suffering’ from exploitation by ‘caste Hindus.’ He had no quarrel with the ‘Hindu masses who are also the victims of caste Hindu zemindars and banias.’
I would be hearing his anti-poverty rationale for Pakistan during the next 49 years, the last time eight days before his death. During a phone conversation Nov. 9, he told me of an article entitled ‘Who Was Behind Liaqat’s Killing,’ published in the October issue of his newsmagazine Concept. He said the article missed two key reasons behind Liaqat Ali Khan’s assassination. The first Pakistani prime minister was eliminated at the behest of ‘landlord politicians who didn’t like an outsider to run the government,’ and secondly, were angered by Liaqat’s insistence on abolishing the zemindari system.
Pakistan’s main challenge remained, he added, ‘narrowing the huge class divide and improving the lot of the poor.’
Throughout his 70-year public life, Mahmud Ali was a lightning rod in politics. The controversies he sparked stemmed mostly from decisions he made based on his beliefs, some of which turned out to be flawed or unrealistic. But he pursued them tenaciously against all odds until he was convinced that they were wrong.
His belief that Pakistan is about the ‘emancipation of the downtrodden’ pitted him against right-wing politicians who wanted it to be a pseudo-theocracy. Many of them cited his anti-poverty statements to brand him a Communist. A second-year student at Sylhet Murarichand College, I was warned in 1959 by uncle A.M. Abdullah Chowdhury, the Sylhet municipality engineer, not to mess with Mahmud Ali. I could be ‘blacklisted’ as a Communist and denied any civil service jobs.
Mahmud Ali launched the most daring and fateful campaign of his life in the late 1960s when he frontally challenged the Awami League’s Six-Point program. He argued, along with several other East Pakistani statesmen, that the Six-Point ‘autonomy plan’ was a ruse for the secession of East Pakistan. But while Muslim League and Jamaat-i-Islami leaders maintained that the secession would endanger East Pakistan’s Islamic culture, Mahmud Ali warned that it would aggravate people’s economic plight there. He scorned as ‘pure demagoguery’ the ‘two economy theory,’ which said East Pakistan’s economic backwardness had resulted from exploitation by ‘Punjabi capitalists.’ Turning that argument on its head, he said, ‘East Pakistan needs West Pakistan economically, and West Pakistan needs East Pakistan politically’ to maintain Pakistan’s status as the world’s largest Muslim nation.
He said the greedy, mostly Punjabi capitalists were exploiting people, not only in East Pakistan, but in Pakistan’s western provinces as well, and that they were doing so under the cover of dictatorships. The East Pakistanis’ economic interests required the ‘restoration of democracy in Pakistan,’ which would enable people’s representatives to ‘clip the claws of capitalism.’ West Pakistan would then provide jobs for East Pakistan’s excess labour force and capital for its development.
His reasoning drowned in the growing tide of anti-West Pakistani sentiments in East Pakistan, but that didn’t temper his conviction, which he defended in the face of death threats.
On March 22, 1969, about 8: 30 am, Mahmud Ali and I were strolling the grassy strip linking Lalmatia to Road 27 in Dhanmondi. He had supported ‘wide autonomy’ for East Pakistan but opposed the Six Points and had been roundly denounced by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
As we approached Road 27, a flock of young men galloped toward us. One of them confronted Mahmud Ali with an open knife and another stood to his right, flinging his knife open.
Did he know the consequence of ‘attacking Sheikh Saheb and betraying Bangla’s interests’? the man in the front demanded. ‘I didn’t attack anybody,’ replied Mahmud Ali. ‘I have been serving the interests of our people all my life.’
Amid taunts and threats, he was taken on foot to a house on Dhanmondi Road 19 before a waiting crowd. I accompanied him. There he was ordered, at knife-point, to sign a statement apologising for his ‘misdeeds.’ I insisted that he signed the paper right away, and he did. Then his captors brought him to a microphone and instructed him to read the statement to the group.
When he came upon a sentence saying he realised that by opposing the Six Points he had ‘betrayed Bangla’s oppressed people,’ he looked up. ‘My position on the Six Points [is meant to] serve the people of East Bengal,’ he said. ‘I have been fighting against poverty and oppression of our people all my life.’ By then another crowd that was following us had gathered outside, and he was released.
The problem with Mahmud Ali, as with many other leaders of social and political movements, is that his goals, some of them unrealizable, required him to make tough choices. He did so in the 1940s when, as the general secretary of the Assam Provincial Muslim League, he plunged into the Pakistan movement, for which he was jailed by the British and harassed by Hindus. He helped bring the greater part of Sylhet into East Pakistan but left millions of Assamese Muslims, including pro-Pakistan activists, in India to face the wrath of Hindus riled up by the creation of Pakistan. In the 1960s I met some of them in Assam, and they said he had ‘betrayed’ them ‘to become a minister in Pakistan.’
Similarly, his staunch opposition to the Bangladesh movement has angered many Bangladeshis, including many of his former followers. Yet on the morning of Dec. 9, 1970, when he made that grim decision, he knew that could happen. Mahmud Ali told us that Sheikh Mujib had promised voters that ‘the Six Points are a plan for autonomy and not secession.’ If the Awami League leader ‘reneges on his commitment to the people’ and tried to wreck Pakistan, he would resist the move to the bitter end ‘come what may.’
Three-and-a-half months later when the Pakistan army launched its brutal crackdown on the Awami League-led independence movement, Mahmud Ali found himself in the most traumatic stretch of his political career. Having spent a quarter-century in the struggle for national independence and democracy, he accepted a request from Pakistani dictator Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan to go on a trip to prod foreign governments to dissuade India from invading East Pakistan. The Yahya government’s atrocities in East Pakistan were ‘horrible [and] despicable,’ he said later. But his own mission abroad was meant to ‘defend Pakistan, which Bengali and Assamese Muslims struggled hard to create.’
Mahmud Ali created the Tehrik organization based on ‘the lessons I have learned’ from Bangladesh, he said during my 1989 trip to Islamabad. The Muslims of the subcontinent couldn’t be put into a ‘Western-style state.’ Yet they would continue to consider themselves a separate religious and cultural category from the Hindus. The rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Hindu cultural resurgence in India had shown that the Hindus, too, would be treating them as such. He was certain that future generations of the subcontinent’s Muslims would realise ‘the need for a common political roof, whatever the form.’ Tehrik was ‘a small step’ toward that goal.
All geopolitical restructuring has its winners and losers. If the subcontinent’s major Muslim political communities should ever come under a common structure or adopt a common social or economic agenda, that would have its winners and losers, too. The former would perhaps recall Mahmud Ali’s ‘small step’ with approvingly. The latter would revile him.
The writer is a columnist in Washington.
M. Hussain, firstname.lastname@example.org