A tribute to Chief Justice SM Murshed

Published : 02 Apr 2023 09:31 PM

Syed Mahbub Murshed was a Bangladesh’s giant star lawyer and jurist. Born on January 11, 1911, he died on April 3, 1979 at the age of 68. Syed Mahbub Murshed was the Chief Justice of the-then East Pakistan High Court during 1964–1967 with every fibre of his being to validate our trust in his ability to be a wise and fair judge of every issue that came before the court. He could attest, as could every other Justice who sat with other Judges or Justices during his career in the domain of the-then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), that he had been true to that pledge. He brought to the-then High Court not only his abundant wisdom and fairness, but also his passion for the truth, his enormous capacity to listen (not only to what was said but to what remained unsaid), his uncommon good sense, his grace, his humour, and his extra-ordinary courage. He had patience for all, but he spoke truth to power.  

Popularly known as Chief Justice SM Murshed, he was undoubtedly among the most striking public figures that appeared in our national scene. Born in 1911 in Kolkata, India, he had shown signs of his vastly talented abilities from an early age. The late playwright and litterateur Prof Nural Momen, recalls in his essay the Precocity on the youthful Murshed in his Presidency College days at Kolkata. The great expectations he had aroused among his contemporaries stated late Dr. Nobo Gopal Das ICS from his student days were subsequently materialised.

After a brilliant academic career both in the Subcontinent and England, Syed Mahbub Murshed as a barrister began his life career as a lawyer in the late Thirties of 20th Century, where he soon made his mark in the Kolkata Bar. His attachment to the Bar and to members of the legal profession lasted till the end of his days in Bangladesh. Later on in life, while serving as a Chief Justice in the Bench, he would talk nostalgically about the Bar. "The Bar" he said is my professional home, a place where I shall continually return; even when I am dead my disembodied soul shall hover around the Bar." 

His affection for people of his profession was deep. During his farewell speech from the Bench after his resignation as Chief Justice while addressing the Bar to a standing ovation Murshed concluded his speech by stating "I salute you - you who were my erstwhile comrades, the members of the Bar."

In late 1954 Mahbub Murshed was elevated to the Bench of the High Court of the-then Pakistan’s Eastern Wing in Dhaka. As a judge, Justice Murshed remained committed to his lifelong ideals of liberty, justice and excellence. His Judicial pronouncements delivered as a High Court Judge and briefly in the Supreme Court and then as Chief Justice clearly reflected these ideals. Some of Justice Murshed's judgements created Constitutional history and not only won him national fame but international acclaim. He will always be remembered in history for fearlessly upholding the rule of law. He remained a reflection of courage despite pressures from the highest quarters.

As Chief Justice in a Judgement he stated that "it is not the use but the abuse of Power that the Courts are meant to readdress." Hence, he will remain as a Titan in the Judicial arena of South Asia for his landmark judgements. Not being a lawyer, I will not comment more, except I am told that Chief Justice Murshed is among the finest treatises in legal history and vastly quoted as references by lawyers not only in his native Bangladesh but also in other SAARC countries like Pakistan and India.

I would like to point out some other examples of Murshed's manifold social, cultural and political activities. A master in oratory, Murshed would hold his audience spellbound whether written or speaking extempore; he would captivate the listening gathering by his eloquent speeches. 

Being a humanitarian all his life the famine that griped Bengal in the early Forties of the last century and the communal riots in 1946 moved him to found the Anjuman Mofidul Islam. As a sitting Judge in the Fifties, he worked relentlessly as Chairman of the Red Cross. 

Murshed also fought for our cultural freedom and among his great achievements was that he organised Tagore Century in all over former East Pakistan what is now Bangladesh, despite the obstacles he faced from the-then Pakistani military leadership. Justice Murshed, being courageous never failed in any challenges.

In the political arena, Murshed in his early days will remain unparalleled. As a young Barrister in 1942, his article "Quo Vadis Quaid-e-Azam criticising Mr Jinnah and defending his Uncle Mr. Fazlul Huq that appeared in the "Statesman" of Kolkata created a stir in the-then Bengal. 

After the partition of the Sub-Continent in 1947 due to communal violence that spread, Murshed was among the persons who put to motion the process that culminated in the Nehru-Liaquat pact. 

In early 1954, before becoming a Judge, Murshed along with Abul Mansoor Ahmed drafted the 21-point Manifesto for the Jukta Front government which was led by his maternal uncle Sher-e-Bangla AK Fazlul Huq.

Again, it was Justice Murshed, who put the final varnish to the six points for which Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib fought and was jailed for. In the same year in 1966, when Mazharul Haque Baki, the-then President of the Chhatra League and leading student leader Serajul Alam Khan, no one dared, but Chief Justice Murshed to Chair their annual conference where Murshed also like Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman gave a clarion call for provisional autonomy.

On his resignation as Chief Justice, the first thing Murshed did was to organise the defence of the Agartala Conspiracy Case. It is mainly on account of him that Sheikh Mujib did not have to come out on parole and all others were set free unconditionally. Murshed’s active participation in the mass upsurge in 1969 further earned him respect. It was his protest resignation as Chief Justice that the public of both wings felt that he was the only acceptable candidate to run against President Ayub Khan.

Another significant matter was during the Round Table Conference while President Ayub Khan was virtually on his knees and in addition to the dissolution of the one unit in the western wing; Justice Murshed demanded one man one vote. Prior to this, in the National Assembly, there was a parity of 150 seats each for both the Eastern and Western wing. Since Murshed's one man one vote was accepted, the Eastern wing got 169 out of 300 seats in all-Pakistan based National Elections in 1970. Thus, he paved the way that whoever won the majority in the Eastern wing of the-then Pakistan would form the National Government.

The prevailing agitation that Justice Murshed created with the-then High Court Bar in March 1971 on account of the Constitutional hiatus that went to such an extreme that no Judge was willing to give oath to General Tikka Khan the Governor designate in March 1971. His refusal to collaborate with the Pakistani military authorities during our War of Liberation is also recorded.

Hence, Chief Justice Murshed is a living history. I can only conclude by saying about him the same passage he said about his uncle the Sher-e- Bangla, "In life and in death, he was a king without the trappings of a monarch, for he had built an empire in the hearts of his fellowmen." He has done what he had wanted to, to the best of his ability, but still he was not satisfied. So passes the man from Bangladesh, who became a grand man of his time.

Anwar A. Khan is an 

independent political analyst, who writes on politics, political and human-centred figures, current and international affairs