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Justice S M Murshed

Syed Mahbub Murshed (February 11, 1911 -April 3, 1979) Syed Mahbub Murshed (February 11, 1911 -April 3, 1979)

Some men make history and some create circumstances that lead to it. Syed Mahbub Murshed was a man who combined both of these factors. He was a man with his 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 who stood up and stood tall. He championed the cause of the Bengali people. For these high principles of patriotism, Murshed is "living history." However, I would like to discuss his life and time in two parts -- Murshed as a judge and Murshed as a man -- marking his 43rd anniversary of death.
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 time. For his bold noteworthy, mainly constitutional and judicial, pronouncements Justice Murshed had not only found himself in the national focus but also got the international recognition for being independent and fearless. In many ways he was indeed the people's justice.
K Salahuddin writes, "As a judge, Mahbub Murshed remained committed to his life-long ideals of liberty, justice and excellence." Another writer states, "Late Chief Justice Syed Mahbub Murshed was arguably the most distinguished constitutional lawyer and the most eminent jurist that our South Asian subcontinent has ever seen. He was, in our part of the world, most articulate advocate of human rights and the most eloquent civil libertarian. Not only did Syed Mahbub Murshed discharge his duty to the nation with outstanding competence, he also set the high standard for all professionals to emulate."
To cite a few examples from his judgements, 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 were given to Governor Monem Khan and a Court commission was constituted. That is when Justice Murshed said to the Governor's defending lawyer, "Tell the Governor my Court is a temple of justice and not a chamber of horrors." Such was his exemplary courage.
To move on to the second part of my article, a short sketch of Murshed is given here 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 child of Mr Zakariah, Mayor of the then Calcutta. Syed Mahbub Murshed was also a brilliant student 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.
His article he wrote in 1942 was published simultaneously in the 'Statesman' in Calcutta and the 'Guardian' defending his Uncle Mr Fazlul Haq and it was found thought-provoking by the intelligentia. The humanist in Murshed led him to form the 'Anjuman Mufidul-Islam' which rendered valuable services 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 and participated in many socio-economic causes throughout his life.
Murshed with his uncle Sher-e-Bangla and others in January 1948 stood up and said, "no! no! no!" when Mr Jinnah said, "Urdu and Urdu alone shall be the state language." However, he turned briefly to Calcutta and Murshed became one of the men who were responsible for "Liaqat-Nehru" pact which aimed to end communalism in the subcontinent. Upon return to Dhaka he started to participate in the Language Movement. On the 21st of February after attending the janaza of the martyred heroes Murshed along with his uncle Sher-e-Bangla joined the procession which was baton-charged and both uncle and nephew were held by the police for a few hours. Justice Murshed believed in cultural freedom. He in 1961 organised the Tagore Centenary all over the country despite the opposition from the highest quarters in the state. A powerful orator, Murshed used to hold his audience "captivated and spell-bound."
In early 1954, Murshed along with Abul Mansoor Ahmed drafted the historic 21 points led by his Uncle which led to the landslide victory of the then Jukta Front Government. More than a decade later as Chief Justice because of his immense patriotism in early 1966 he put the final touches to another historic Six Points which was the matter Sk Mujib fought and was jailed for. In the same year, many very senior Chatra leaguers recall, it was only Chief Justice Murshed who dared to attend as chief guest their annual conference. It was there where Murshed along with jailed Sk Mujib gave the courageous and heroic call for provincial autonomy.
At the very end of 1967 Murshed resigned from the post of Chief Justice. Among the first thing that he had done was to organise the defence of the Agartala Conspiracy case. By this time Syed Mahbub Murshed seemed to be the only acceptable presentable candidate to contest against President Ayub Khan. He joined the mass upsurge in late 1969 and it was largely because of him that Sk Mujib came out without payroll and all fellow accused came out exonerated. Presiding over the historic Roundtable Conference, Murshed proposed 'one man, one vote' which got accepted. Because of this the eastern wing got 169 seats in the eastern wing out of 300 in the National Parliament. Prior to this there was a parity of each wing having 150 seats but since Murshed's 'one man one vote' proposal got acceptance, those who would get the majority seats would form government.
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 administer oath to General Tikka Khan, the Governor-designate." His refusal to collaborate with the Pakistani military authorities during our War of Liberation is also recorded. Murshed was the person to advise late President Ziaur Rahman about the concept of SAARC. Hence, the question remains: Will such a man be ever born again?

Razia Begum is a writer plus researcher and retired official of World Bank

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