A crusader for the oppressed

By Mustafa Malik

THE 14TH ANNIVERSARY OF Mahmud Ali’s passing fills my mind with memories of the man I had come to know as a human incarnation of Pakistan. Among those memories was his forecast that Bangladesh would establish good relations with Pakistan “sooner than you think.” The last time he repeated this prognosis to me was in June 2000, when he was visiting with me and my family in Washington. I remembered his prediction just yesterday as I ran into the headline “Hasina calls for strengthening ties with Pakistan” in the online edition of the Pakistani newspaper Dawn. Sheikh Hasina Wajed is the prime minister of Bangladesh.

Mr. Ali was the first of my two political mentors, the other being Nurul Amin, once chief minister of East Pakistan who became Pakistan’s last Bengalee prime minister. In 1970-71 both statesmen opposed the breakup of old Pakistan, which they had struggled onerously to help create, and they lived the rest of their lives in self-imposed exile in what was left of Pakistan after Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, had become independent. Years of repression and economic discrimination by West Pakistan-based military and political elites, culminating in a brutal military crackdown, led to Bangladesh’s secession from Pakistan. The two countries have since been estranged politically, diplomatically and economically. 

Mr. Ali (like me) was born in the British Indian province of Assam. In 1946, as the general secretary of the All-India Muslim League in Assam, the young leader helped split the old Hindu-majority Assam province through a referendum so our native Muslim-majority part of it could join the Muslim homeland of Pakistan.

Born into an aristocratic family, he cut his political teeth in the Pakistan movement and breathed his last during a speech in Lahore, having barely finished a sentence calling for the realization of one of Pakistan’s unfulfilled causes: the liberation of Indian-occupied part of the Jammu and Kashmir state.

Besides being one of Pakistan’s architects, Mr. Ali will be remembered as a top leader in its struggle to wrest democracy back from the clutches of military dictatorships. He was one of nine leading Pakistani statesmen who in 1962 issued the first clarion call to then military dictator General Mohammad Ayub Khan to restore democracy, which Ayub and a group of other army generals had usurped through a coup d’état.

It was Mr. Ali’s battle for “the emancipation of the peasants and workers,” as he termed it, which lured me to him at age 17.  The 38-year-old revenue minister of East Pakistan was presiding over a public meeting in his native Sunamganj district, in a field covered with the stubble of a newly harvested rice crop. The crowd of peasants, fishermen and a smattering of students greeted other speeches with mild applause. But when Mr. Ali began denouncing, passionately, the “exploitation” of impoverished people by zeminders (owners of large landed estates), money lenders and industrialists, they went wild with the slogans: “Mahmud Ali Zindabad” (long live Mahmud Ali), “Pakistan Zindabad,” and “Krishok-Mazdur ek ho” (Peasants and workers, unite).

I had just finished my matriculation (high school graduation) exam and was attending the meeting as a campaign activist for a progressive candidate for election to the East Pakistan legislature, supported by Mr. Ali, and was deeply impressed by his speech. The meeting over, I met him at a nearby dak bungalow and embarked on my lifelong association with him.

I had opportunities to come in contact with most of Pakistan’s major politicians and interview many of them for my column in the Pakistan Observer newspaper, published from Dhaka, now the Bangladeshi capital. Except for Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh, Mahmud Ali was the most politically courageous and ideologically committed statesman I have known in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Mr. Ali’s relationship with Sheikh Mujib alternated between close friendship and bitter ideological and political rivalry.

Bangladesh-Pakistan ties

Among the last of Mr. Ali’s political projects was the one to promote solidarity among Muslim communities in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Kashmir and other parts of the Indian subcontinent through his movement Tehreek-i-Takmil-i-Pakistan. He remained optimistic about this goal to the last days of his life.

During our discursive discussions, he recalled that “the enthusiasm that Muslims in Bengal and Assam” had demonstrated for the creation of Pakistan, they had never before shown for “any other movement of causes.” That was mostly because, he said, they saw Pakistan as a “promise of liberation from Hindu zeminders and money lenders. And from caste-Hindu oppression.” Lower-caste Hindus, he went on, also shared with Muslims that aspirations for “freedom from the oppression and suppression” and in the 1937 and 1946 elections in Bengal, many of them voted for Muslim candidates. Eventually, he predicted, Muslim communities in the subcontinent would revive some kind of “solidarity as they showed during the Pakistan movement.” Bangladesh and Pakistan would, he added, establish “good relations sooner than you think.”

The last time he shared this optimism with me was, as I mentioned, in our very last meetings during June 22-24, 2000.  A federal minister in the Pakistan government, Mr. Ali was on an official visit to Washington. He was staying in Omni Sheraton Hotel in Washington but was kind enough to visit with me and my family for dinner on two of those evenings.

All his life, my mentor was a staunchly secular, progressive man, whose struggle for workers and peasants earned him the “Communist” label from his conservative political opponents. Among them was one of my uncles who warned me against associating with him because “Communists don’t believe in Allah or Islam.” In reality, Mr. Ali had plunged into the Pakistan movement because he saw it as a struggle to alleviate the suffering of Muslims in the Indian subcontinent, who happened to be mostly repressed and impoverished, from exploitation of the landed and moneyed class, which happened to be mostly upper-caste Hindus.

In the course of his long political career Mr. Ali changed political parties and some of his political views. But he stuck with his two things that defined him. One was his trademark costume in social and political life, a sherwani and tight pajamas. The other was his advocacy of and deep empathy for the poor and oppressed.

  • Mustafa Malik is a writer in Washington. He hosts the blog Community.

Mustafa Malik
Mustafa Malik, the host and editor of the blog Community, worked three decades as an American journalist and as a researcher for U.S. think tanks. He wrote continually for major U.S. and overseas newspapers and journals. He also conducted fieldwork in Western Europe and the Middle East on U.S. foreign policy options, "crisis of liberalism" and Islamic movements.

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