Some men make history and some create circumstances that lead to it. Syed Mahbub Murshed was a man that combined both these factors. He was a man with a vision and mission. Therefore, primarily historians will always take note of Justice Murshed for his bold and courageous judgments, which became a thorn in the flesh of the dictatorship of the Field Marshal Ayub Khan and his Basic Democracy government. When no one seemed there to defend our national pride and our identity, it was only Murshed stood up and stood tall. He championed the cause of the Bengali people. For these high principles of patriotism, Murshed is “living history”. Why I state this, I will explain in following paragraphs. However, I would like discuss his life and times into two parts Murshed as a judge and Murshed as a man.
Firstly as a Justice, whether as a High Court judge or being briefly in the Supreme Court and later as Chief Justice, he had fearlessly upheld the rule of law despite major obstacles from the highest political offices of the times. For his bold noteworthy mainly constitutional judicial pronouncements, Justice Murshed had not only established himself in the national focus but also earned international recognition for being independent and fearless. In many ways, he was the people’s justice.
To site a few examples from his judgments, Justice Murshed was the first to strike the teeth of the Martial Law government in 1959 when he declared the EPDO null and void as this debarred many leading politicians. In the Ministers case, he unseated Ministers. To quote Justice Murshed, “It is not the abuse of power that the Courts are meant to readdress.” In the Abu Mahmud case, summons was served to Governor Monem Khan and a Court commission was constituted. Justice Murshed told the Governors’ lawyer that “Tell the Governor, my Court is a temple of justice and not a chamber of horrors.” Such was his exemplary courage. In one of Justice Murshed early judgments, which was in the ‘Pan case’, it remains accordingly to international jurists as one of finest treatise in legal history.
To move on to second part of my article is a short sketch of Murshed as a man. He hailed from the most aristocratic family. His father was the first Divisional Commissioner of Bengal. His mother was the younger sister of Sher-e-Bangla. He was married to the only daughter of Mr Zakariah, a famous Mayor of the then Calcutta. Syed Mahbub Murshed was also a brilliant student all throughout whether it was his school final or at Presidency College or Calcutta University and all this culminated in finally becoming a barrister in Lincoln Inn London. From his youth he was outstanding.
The humanist in Murshed led him to form the 'Anjuman Mufidul-Islam', which rendered valuable service in the Bengal famine and the communal riots in 1946. Later in the fifties, he was in addition to a Judge Chairman of the Red Cross. He participated in many socio-economic causes throughout his life.
When Jinnah declared “Urdu and Urdu alone would be the state language in January 1948 Murshed, along with his uncle the Sher-e-Bangla and others, protested the decision. However, he turned briefly to Calcutta and Murshed became one of the men who were responsible for “Liaqat-Nehru” pact that aimed to end communalism in the Sub-continent. Upon return to Dhaka, he started to participate in the Language Movement. On the 21st of February 1953 after attending the Janaza of the Martyred heroes, Murshed along with his uncle joined the procession that was Lathi charged and both uncle and nephew were held by the police for a few hours. Justice Murshed believed in cultural freedom. He organised the Tagore Centenary all over the country in 1961 despite the opposition from the highest quarters in the state. A powerful orator Murshed would hold his audience ‘captivated and spell-bound’.
In early 1954, Murshed along with Abul Mansoor Ahmed, guided by his uncle, drafted the historic 21-points that led to the land slide victory of the then Jukta front Government. More than a decade later in early 1966, as Chief Justice he put the final touches to historic six points which Sheikh Mujib announced and was jailed for. Many Awami League leaders who were in Chhatra League at that time can recall the bravery of Justice Murshed who dared to attend their annual conference as chief guest. It was there where Murshed along with the jailed Sheikh Mujib gave the courageous and heroic call for provincial autonomy.
Again, “the prevailing agitation that Justice Murshed created out of respect he earned with the then High Court Bar and Lawyers on account of the Constitutional hiatus in March 1971 went to such an extreme that no Judge was willing or dared to give oath General Tikka Khan the Governor designate.”
His refusal to collaborate with the Pakistani military authorities during our War of Liberation is also recorded. His contribution to our struggle for freedom and nation building will be remembered forever.
The writer is a researcher and
retired official of World Bank