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  • Writer's pictureSyed Akhtar Mahmood

From the Elite to the Awam: Suhrawardy, Hashim, Mujib and the origins of the Awami League

Updated: Apr 12, 2021

The year is 1937. The Muslim League comes to power in Bengal in partnership with the Krishak Praja Party (KPP). The KPP leader A. K. Fazlul Huq becomes the Prime Minister (equivalent to today’s Chief Minister) with Bengal’s most dynamic Muslim League leader, Huseyn Shahid Suhrawardy, as an important member of his cabinet. Suhrawardy decides to put the Bengal Provincial Muslim League (BPML) on a strong organizational footing. The leader of the All-India Muslim League, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, is wary of giving a high profile to the ambitious and charismatic Suhrawardy, whom he finds too independent-minded for his taste. But Suhrawardy pushes ahead, pro-actively and decisively.

One of his first acts is to ensure that the membership base of the Muslim League is broadened. An important hurdle to this is the steep membership fee of the Muslim League. Suhrawardy seeks to correct this as he helps draft a constitution for the BPML. Harun-or-Rashid, who has written a definitive history of the Bengal Muslim League in the pre-1947 period, informs us that the constitution, adopted in December 1937, stipulated that ‘each and every Muslim inhabitant of Bengal (male or female) who was not less than 18 years of age was entitled to become a member of the BPML, provided he or she paid two anna yearly membership fee and signed the League pledge. ….The constitution also provided a pyramidal structure for the organization comprising primarily sub-divisional, district and provincial League.’ [1]

Harun-or-Rashid further informs us that, in a letter addressed to the Joint Secretary of the All-India Muslim League in November 1938, Suhrawardy claimed that he had established League committees in ‘practically’ all districts or sub-divisions of Bengal.’[2] Harun-or-Rashid concludes: “The mantle of the BPML had, now, formerly fallen into the hands of Suhrawardy, an organizational genius. Expressing his desire to make Bengal ‘an ideal province for the Muslim League’, Suhrawardy stated, ‘The Muslims have become League-minded. All that is required now is organization.’”[3]

It was around that time, i.e., in 1938, that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, then barely coming out of his teenage years, had his first encounter with Suhrawardy. Years later, he would recollect that experience in his autobiography, “He took me by the arm and asked me affectionately, “Don't you have the Muslim League in your area”? I told him that there was no such organization and that not even the Muslim Students League was active here. He made no other comment. He wrote down my name and address in his notebook. A few days later I got a letter from him thanking me and asking me to meet him if I ever went to Calcutta.”[4]

This anecdote, fondly remembered by Mujib many years later, demonstrates the ‘organizational genius’ at work, bent upon extending the tentacles of the Bengal Muslim League into the countryside, in places such as Mujib’s home district Faridpur, way beyond the parlors of Dhaka and Calcutta. Little did Suhrawardy know then that it was another organizational genius, albeit in the making, that he had just met.

Fast forward to 1943. After an interlude of two years, the Muslim League is back in power in Bengal. Two years ago, Fazlul Huq had sent shockwaves by deserting the Muslim League and joining in a coalition with the Hindu Mahasabha to form the Bengal cabinet. It would last only two years, and in 1943, the Muslim League would return to power with Khawaja Nazimuddin as Prime Minister and Suhrawardy as Minister for Civil Supplies. The party takes a decision that leaders can no longer simultaneously hold cabinet and party positions. Suhrawardy, then General Secretary of the Bengal Muslim League, needs to choose. He opts to remain in the Cabinet.

An election is held to elect a new President and General Secretary. Maulana Akram Khan is unanimously elected as President but there is no unanimity on the choice of the General Secretary position. The power brokers of the Bengal Muslim League, led by the Nawab family of Dhaka, favor a politician from Khulna named Abul Quasim. But the elite are challenged. Despite their opposition, a member of the Bengal parliament from the Burdwan district, Abul Hashim, succeeds Suhrawardy to this important position.

A man of falling eye-sight – he was to become fully blind in a decade – but clear foresight, the 37-year-old Hashim was believed by some to be a communist in disguise. That was a misperception. Believing in both secularism and a certain version of Islamic socialism, this rising politician from Burdwan knew exactly where he wanted to take the Bengal Muslim League. His goal was to free it from the clutches of the elite - the Nawab family of Dhaka, the British-anointed Knights and Khan Bahadurs, and rich financiers such as the Ispahanis - and make it a party of the masses. Sho Kuwajima, the eminent Japanese historian and biographer of Hashim, writes:

“In his address of thanks, Hashim declared that he would do his best to organize the Muslim League as a broad based democratic and progressive political party of Bengal. The following day at the general session of the Council, Abul Hashim said that the Muslim League in Bengal was mortgaged in three sectors. One was the mortgage in ‘leadership’, which was imposed by the Nawab family of Dhaka or the Ahsan manzil from the time of Sir Salimullah. The second was the mortgage of ‘propaganda’, which was brought by Maulana Akram Khan’s newspaper, Azad. The third was the mortgage of ‘economy’, which was forced by M.A.H. Ispahani, a business magnate who the Treasurer of the Bengal Muslim League. Hashim promised to liberate the League from these three mortgages and provide a suitable place for the Muslim middle class. Though the old leaders understood that these words came from a person who did not know politics, it encouraged young Muslim activists in Dhaka where the League was in the grip of the Nawab family or the Khwaja family.”[5]

One of Hashim’s lieutenants was Sheikh Mujib. He had similar views. Years later, Mujib would write in his autobiography:

“Under Mr Suhrawardy’s leadership we wanted to make the Muslim League the party of the people and make it represent middle-class Bengali aspirations. Up to this time the Muslim League had not become an organization that was rooted in the people. It used to serve the interests of landlords, moneyed men, and Nawabs and Khan Bahadurs. They would prevent anyone else from playing a role in the League. In district after district these people had monopolized the League.”[6]

With superb organizational skills and indefatigable energy, Hashim goes from district to district, from small towns to villages, encouraging ordinary people to become paid members of the Muslim League. What Suhrawardy had initiated in 1938, Hashim now takes to greater depth. By 1944, i.e., within a year of taking over as General Secretary, Hashim is able to report that 500,000 new members have been recruited, the membership fees paid by whom has substantially reduced dependence on the financial largesse of the elites. Harun-or-Rashid informs us:

“Hashim proceeded to set the provincial office of the League in order. It was equipped with necessary furniture and fitted with the library. A regular bank account in the name of the League had been opened. The system of auditing the accounts and submitting the statement of financial position along with the Annual Report was introduced. A circular letter was issued to subordinate Leagues, giving instruction in organizational matters, insisting upon every district and subdivision League having an office of its own in the headquarters town, with at least one whole-time worker and a small library.”[7]

Abul Hashim’s efforts to democratize the Muslim League did not go down well with everyone. Perhaps not surprisingly, the old guard had reservations. Hashim gives a flavor of this in the ‘Review of the Bengal Muslim League 1944’: “Not only is there a complete lack of perspective in matters organizational, but at the same time I also noticed a definite resistance on the part of the District leaders against building the League. They have a lurking fear in their minds that if these organizations were democratized and strengthened, their leadership in the process of democratization may be eliminated.”[8] But Hashim had a band of competent, enthusiastic and dedicated workers with him who took on the task of making the Bengal Muslim League a broad-based party with missionary zeal. They were enthused both by the challenge and by Hashim’s charismatic leadership. One such person was Sheikh Mujib, then in his early twenties. Mujib writes in his memoires:

“Around this time Mr. Abul Hashim managed to infuse new vigour into Muslim League workers. …. Because Mr. Hashim too was devoted to Mr. Suhrawardy, I used to admire him and listen to his views. Mr. Hashim would do nothing without consulting Mr. Suhrawardy. …. Mr. Hashim would tell us that we would have to rescue the League from the clutches of reactionaries. He declared that we would have to base our organizational activities in villages. You couldn’t build an organization from the top. We would also have to take the organization out of the pockets of zamindars. After consulting with Mr. Suhrawardy, he embarked on a tour of the whole of Bengal. He was an excellent speaker. He had a good command over the language. He was at ease in both Bengali and English.”

While Mujib had done organizational work before he started working with Abul Hashim, it was under his guidance that Mujib’s experience at organization-building expanded and became more varied. One of his major responsibilities was to organize the Muslim League in his home district of Faridpur and increase the influence of Abul Hashim’s progressive track within the Muslim League there. This proved to be a challenging task given the strong position of the traditional Muslim Leaguers, i.e., the followers of Khawaja Nazimuddin in that district. Kojiwama quotes Hashim’s recollection:

“With the exception of the districts of Comilla and Faridpur, the leftist workers of the Muslim League had the full support of people in their campaign for democratization of the Muslim League … Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was deputed to organize a strong leftist group of the Muslim League in the district of Faridpur. Shaikh Mujibur Rahman had a very difficult task to perform. Khandaker Mushtaque Ahmed, then a student, was the leader of the leftists of the district of Comilla. The rightists in Comilla conducted their opposition to the leftists in a peaceful and constitutional method but in Faridpur, …. the reactionaries indulged in unconstitutional and violent methods. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, of necessity, had to meet violence with violence.”[9]

This was not the first, nor the last, time that Mujib had to resort to violent means to counter violent opponents. But that is a story for another day.

For Sheikh Mujib, the period from 1937 to 1947 represented the first phase of his political career. He was fortunate that, during this nascent stage of his political career, Mujib got first-hand experience in organization building under the tutelage of Huseyn Shahid Suhrawardy and Abul Hashim. As the Muslim League was being democratized and put on strong organizational footings, young workers and nascent leaders such as Mujib learned how to take an organization from the comfort zone of big-city parlors to the challenging environments of rural and small-town Bengal. They got trained in the rigors of travelling long distances, from town to town, from doorstep to doorstep, often on foot or difficult modes of transport such as boats, launches or crowded trains and buses.

Many of these upcoming leaders, Mujib included, came from a middle-class background and had to learn how to align with the peasantry. They learned how to respond to the piercing questions of ordinary people, and to explain in simple language complicated concepts such as the idea of Pakistan, the meaning of Bengali nationalism and what would be done to protect the interests of the peasants. They also learned the discipline of a structured party organization, of maintaining rosters of members, ensuring timely collection of membership fees, documenting meeting minutes and putting in place proper offices – all things that Suhrawardy and Hashim insisted on.

Sheikh Mujib was fortunate that his baptism in political organization-building happened under these two superb, and disciplined, organizers. This perhaps explains the extraordinary organizational skills that Mujib himself demonstrated throughout his political career and his life-long dedication to organization-building.

The Urdu word for masses is Awam. Thus, it is not farfetched to suggest that Abul Hashim is the true father of the Awami Muslim League, the one who turned the Muslim League of the elites into the Muslim League of the Awam. Mujib acknowledges the significance of Hashim’s work: “If Mr. Suhrawardy and Mr. Hashim hadn’t made the Muslim League popular among Bengali youths and students and if they hadn’t attracted Bengali Muslim intellectuals to the party, the movement for Pakistan would never have become popular among the people of Bengal who came mostly from the peasant class.”[10]

The ‘Awami Muslim League’ is, of course, the name chosen for the new party that was formed in 1949 by a group of secular and progressive Muslim Leaguers, a party which later dropped the word Muslim, in line with its secular ideology, to become the Awami League. It is a sad irony of history that the man from Burdwan found no place in this Awami Muslim League, and slowly drifted away from politics to find refuge and solace in Islamic writing.

Abul Hashim was an extraordinary man with an unlikely blend of three powerful characteristics: deep philosophical understanding underpinned by religious thought, a genuine commitment to democratic political structures, whether for a province or country or for a political party, and finally discipline and adherence to procedures and processes. With the first, Hashim could have been a leading academic or a religious preacher, with the second, a leader of the masses and, with the third, a top bureaucrat or the CEO of a multinational company. Instead, he slowly drifted into the background, falling victim partly to his physical handicap, i.e., his falling eyesight, and partly the internecine politics of the Bengal Muslim League. But his legacy remained. One of the proteges who carried it was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

[1]Harun-or-Rashid, The Foreshadowing of Bangladesh, University Press Limited, 2003, page 96. [2]Ibid., page 96. [3] Ibid., page 97. [4] Shaikh Mujibur Rahman, Unfinished Memoires, University Press Limited, 2012. [5]Sho Kojiwama, Muslims, Nation and the World: Life and thoughts of Abul Hashim, leader of the Muslim League, LG Publishers Distributors, 2015, page 31. [6] Rahman, op. cit. [7] Harun-or-Rashid, op. cit, page 153. [8] Quoted in Ibid., page 154. [9]Kojiwama, op. cit., page 31. [10] Rahman, op. cit.

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