Khwaja Khairuddin was a member of the Ahsan Manzil family, closely related to the late Khwaja Nazimuddin, Governor General and later Prime Minister of Pakistan. He had become President of the Council Muslim League in East Pakistan. Among the surviving politicians of the old school, he was the most popular in the city of Dacca and commanded a personal following transcending party labels. He had been Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s chief antagonist in the elections of 1970, had lost but the large number of votes cast for him had given some measure of his personal popularity. Having been Vice-Chairman of the Dacca Municipality for a long time, he knew the city inside out, and was considered even now (1973) to be a dangerous person who could perhaps sway popular opinion against the Awami League.
When I arrived at New Twenty, his trial had already begun. He showed me the statement he had prepared for delivery under Section 342, and readily accepted the few amendments and additions I suggested. It was a bold document. I was struck by its refreshing candour.
Of course, like all statements of this kind, it contained some rhetoric but what distinguished it from the statements of Dr Malik and some of his ministers was that its author made no secret of his faith in Pakistan and Islam and put no deceptive gloss on the part he had played in the conflict of 1971. He said he believed in democracy and had opposed the dictatorship of Ayub Khan, but could not conceive of carrying his opposition to the point of destroying Pakistan. Painting a lurid picture of the horrors of Civil War unleashed by the Awami League and of the sufferings in terms of life and property that had followed, he asked whether those who like him had rejected the Awami League creed did not today stand fully vindicated.
When he prepared his statement, Khwaja Khairuddin was little aware of the effect it would produce on the public outside. His argument against those who had advised caution had been that whatever he said would make no difference to the judge’s verdict, and he saw no reason why he should unnecessarily disgrace himself by disowning his past and resorting to hypocrisy. Events proved him right. Thousands flocked to the Court to watch his trial; his boldness, his frankness, his refusal to recant struck a responsive chord in their hearts. The feelings of remorse which agitated their minds, their reaction against Awami League corruption, tyranny, found a vicarious outlet in Mr Khairuddin’s criticism of the present regime. We heard daily from him of strangers greeting him in court and in the mosque where he said his early (Zohr) afternoon prayers, of people vying with one another for the honour of shaking his hand.
We heard before vaguely of a change in the climate of political opinion outside. The reports that Khwaja Khairuddin brought almost daily from Court confirmed the impression we had been developing. What did these signs portend? Could it be true that people had got disenchanted with their Sonar Bangla so soon?
The boldness of Khwaja Khairuddin’s court statement was well matched by the non-chalance and unconcern with which he viewed the court proceedings. The prospect of a long term in prison, most probably twenty years, did not spoil his good humour or interfere with his enjoyment of good food. I admired the resilience which enabled him to switch his mind off from lawyer’s arguments and judge’s remarks without the least appearance of effort.
He was frankly and openly a kind of bon viveur, fond of good food, good talk and good company. He spoke with pride of his ancestry, claimed that he was a politician by right of birth and thought that his antecedents gave him privileges denied others. He genuinely believed himself a true aristocrat. I think that despite his courtesy, which was not affected and reflected good breeding, there was a slight disdain in his attitude towards those not as well-born as himself. He referred to money with an air of frankness which was unorthodox, talked with unashamed nostalgia about the wealth and grandeur of the Ahsan Manzil family in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and even spoke of his father’s indulgences with some pride, implying that wine and women were the natural prerogatives of the rich, to which only the prudish poor could object. For his own part he said repeatedly that he was a teetotaller and had never had any affairs with women since his marriage.
I listened to all this with interest and tried mentally to size him up. Much as the leftists may inveigh against the privileges of birth, it is impossible to deny that in our society, constituted as it is, a person such as the Khwaja enjoyed certain natural advantages. The common people with long collective memories looked up to him as a man fitted to lead. It was these advantages that his ancestors had fully exploited. Of those who had gone into politics, three alone possessed exceptional gifts, Khwaja Salimullah, Khwaja Nazimuddin and Khwaja Shahabuddin.
Nawab Salimullah who helped found the Muslim League in 1906 was a truly gifted man with a vision. It was he who had worked tirelessly to get the province of East Bengal and Assam launched, realising that what the under-privileged Muslims of East Bengal needed was a habitat freed from the political and economic domination of the Calcutta Hindus. Khwaja Nazimuddin had a good education and had worked his way up from municipal politics. Though people sometimes called him a mediocrity, no one questioned his competence or honesty. His younger brother Khwaja Shahabuddin had received hardly any formal education but was regarded as one of the shrewdest of men. He rose by dint of merit to the position of governor of the N. W. F. P. in Pakistan. The others from this family, such as Syed Abdus Salim, Syed Abdul Hafiz, Khwaja Nasrullah, Kalu Mian Saheb and Nawab Habibullah dominated the political scene by right of birth alone. Their scheming, manipulations and stratagems at a period when Muslims of good family counted for a force to reckon with, no matter what their personal qualifications opened doors not accessible to others. The franchise in those days was limited; constituencies from which members were elected to the Bengal legislature were in fact pocket boroughs which could be made to return whomsoever the dominant group in the province favoured.
The Ahsan Manzil family began to face a serious challenge in 1935 when the franchise was extended to include elements not quite loyal to the landed aristocracy. The defeat of Khwaja Nazimuddin by Mr. A. K. Fazlul Huq in the elections of 1936 constituted a landmark in provincial politics in that it pointed to a definite shift in popular sentiment. But the family’s political ascendancy finally ended with the general elections of 1954 when the Muslim League was virtually wiped off the slate. The Khwajas as a group had no position in the United Front, the coalition of political parties which won those elections, but individually they continued to function as political entities. Khwaja Shahabuddin held ministerial office under President Ayub Khan, and when the question arose of organising an opposition to the Convention Muslim League of the President, it was on Khwaja Nazimuddin that the choice fell.
Regardless of changes in the provincial scene, the Ahsan Manzil family had continued till the elections of 1970 to enjoy in the city of Dacca a popularity which, as I have said before, cut across party labels. When Khwaja Khairuddin and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman engaged in a straight tight, many predicted that here at least the Sheikh would suffer a reverse. He won by a big margin, but it is doubtful whether the victory was real or fictitious. The elections had been rigged; the Awami League had resorted openly to intimidation and impersonation on a large scale. The same thing had happened elsewhere too. As the reaction to Khwaja Khairuddin’s trial showed, his popularity had not been wholly reversed, and now that the reigning party’s hold on the country was weakening, it was beginning to rise to the surface again.
Whether this popularity, in which gratitude for personal favours received from either the Khwaja himself or his family was a component element, signified support for the principles for which he stood, could not be said with certainty. Those principles could be broadly divided into two categories. First, there was his conviction that Pakistan had been a piece of exceptional good luck for the Muslims which they had failed to preserve. As far as this went, one had reason to believe that public sentiment in 1973 had decidedly swung over to those who subscribed to this view. But it is not clear, as I write, whether people in general want to return to the paternalism of the old days, with a few families like the Khwajas determining the country’s fate among themselves. This was also what he partly supported.
Khwaja Khairuddin sometimes gave the impression of believing that modern economic theories were all wrong. As a man with an intimate acquaintance with municipal politics, as a businessman fully conversant with the mysteries of letters or credit and foreign exchange accounts, he knew at first hand how economic forces operated. But it seemed to me---- I may be wholly wrong---- that he had no conceptual understanding of these forces, and tended to underrate the demands for equality or socialism. He believed in Islamic Justice, and spoke glowingly of the example set by the Khulafa-e-Rashidin, but like Maulana Nuruzzaman seldom let his mind dwell on the implications of Islamic justice in a modern context. He would often quote a verse from the Quran or a saying of the Prophet to illustrate a point and emphasise how insistent Islam was on the removal of inequalities and economic wrongs. This was all to the good, but provided no answer to the problem of applying these excellent ideas in a modern society. Reconstruction on Islamic lines sounds inspiring as a slogan but unless one thinks out the details, such enthusiasm is likely to be no good.
There was of course a vital difference between him and Maulana Nuruzzaman. The latter was wholly unresponsive to modern thought; Khwaja Khairuddin was not. I remember in this connection a discussion on the meaning of the word Truth in the light of the Quran. I had said---- rather indiscreetly, it now seems--- that the Quran calls upon men to probe the realities around them and understand them in the light of their intellect. The Maulana took this to mean that science in my view had a supremacy over the revealed word of God, and insisted that nothing could be less true. Science’s function, he maintained, was a subordinate one, and where a conflict between reason and faith was evident, man must unhesitatingly prefer faith to reason. As he talked on, the Maulana’s tone became almost acrimonious. I realised that I had inadvertently used words which had touched him on the raw, and that no useful purpose would be served by continuing the discussion. Khwaja Khairuddin was a listener, and I guessed from a word or two that he occasionally flung in, that his own attitude was far more flexible than the Maulana's.
I discovered one day that Khwaja Khairuddin despite his criticism of communism had never read a book on the subject. I persuaded him to read Crew Hunt’s Theory and Practice of Communism, of which I had a copy in jail. It was the right kind of literature for one who did not wish to be converted to communism but wanted a fair resume of the arguments for and against it. Maulana Nuruzzaman would have considered time spent on such a book a total waste.
The chief deficiency in Khwaja Khairuddin as a politician was his ignorance of Bengali. It is not that he does not know the language at all. He speaks it fairly fluently with an accent, but the dialect he uses is Colloquial Dacca, which is not what is employed for written communication. He cannot read the language, though when newspapers and books are read to him he can understand most of the material. It seems to me that his failure to master Bengali in an area where Bengali was spoken even before the tragedy of 1971 by over ninety-five per cent of the population was symptomatic of the complacency of Pakistani leaders. Khwaja Nazimuddin, Khwaja Shahabuddin and others from the Ahsan Manzil family had never bothered to acquire Bengali except of the rudest variety, and it was this fact that the Awami League exploited in full measure in its campaign against them and against the Muslim League. As the tide of linguistic nationalism rose in East Pakistan, these people appeared less and less and an integral part of the provincial scene, and it was possible to stigmatise them as agents of Urdu imperialism.
Mr Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy knew even less Bengali than the Khwajas, but clever man that he was he overcame the shortcoming by himself fanning the names of regionalism. Such was the effect produced that most people do not even remember today that Mr. Suhrawardy was perfectly innocent of the regional language.
Now the fact that neither Khwaja Khairuddin nor other members of his family who were involved in politics ever thought of acquiring Bengali is an instance both of amazing shortsightedness and of linguistic arrogance. It is true that there was a time, not too long ago, when the Muslims of this area contemplated adopting Urdu as their cultural language. It is also true that there had always existed in some urban centres in Bengal such as Dacca and Murshidabad small Urdu-speaking pockets. But Bengal had been for centuries overwhelmingly Bengali-speaking. A politician who had to depend on people’s suffrage cannot except at his own peril ignore this truth. In the nineteenth century, even right down to the times of Nawab Salimullah, when the character of politics was aristocratic, it little mattered what language leaders at the top spoke; they were treated by the populace as demigods, privileged beings who could use any dialect they pleased and yet claim the allegiance of their followers. But this position began to change the moment the question arose of seeking popular support for views advocated by the leaders. You could not have an effective hold on your following if you had to employ interpreters as intermediaries. The public made allowances for those like Maulana Muhammad Ali or the Quaid-i-Azam who did not belong to the province. But how could a local leader expect to be believed when he said he had identified himself completely with the interests of the local people if he did not speak the local language?
To believe that the Ahsan Manzil family did not understand this simple truth would be an affront to their intelligence. But I am persuaded that what prevented them from acting upon it and adopting a more realistic outlook was linguistic arrogance, a survival from the belief that the Muslims of the sub-continent had but one cultural lingua franca, which was Urdu, and that local languages could never have the prestige or importance which attached to it. Whatever justification such a belief might have had in the nineteenth century, it ceased to be relevant in the twentieth, at least in the eastern parts of the subcontinents. Those who did not recognise this truth clung vainly to an illusion. How tragic in its consequences the illusion turned out to be is known to those conversant with the history of the language movement in East Pakistan.
One had sometimes the feeling that even in prison Khwaja Khairuddin did not fully comprehend the important part that language had played in the collapse of Pakistan. I never heard him, when he tried to chart his future planning to master Bengali. He thought occasionally of migrating to Karachi but this was only in moments of despair. His roots, he said time and again, were in Bengal and unless forced by circumstances to leave, he could not easily reconcile himself to the thought of giving up Dacca for good. But he showed no serious awareness of the hard truth that whatever happened, persons who dreamt of engaging in any meaningful work in this area had to have a command of the local language.
But these shortcomings notwithstanding, he seemed to me the only person now surviving who because of his personality and outlook could possibly do something to arrest the drift towards anarchy and paganism, the only person around whom elements opposed to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman would willingly rally.
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