A Tribute to Justice SM Murshed

Published : 11 Jan 2023 09:17 PM

Syed Mahbub Murshed was born on January 11, 1911 in a patrician family - to his parents Syed Abdus Salek, a member of the Bengal Civil Service and Afzalunnessa Begum, a sister of Sher-e-Bangla A. K. Fazlul Huq, a giant politician of the Indian sub-continent – who also served as the first and longest Prime Minister of the undivided Bengal during the British regime. Popularly known as Chief Justice SM Murshed, he obtained his bachelors in Economics from Presidency College, Kolkata in 1931, Masters from Kolkata University in 1932, and L.L.B degree in 1933. In 1939, he became a Barrister from Lincoln's Inn in London.

Murshed was married to Lyla Arzumand Banu, a daughter of Mohammed Zakariah, an Indian Nationalist and Mayor of Kolkata in 1939. Together they had three sons – Syed Marghub Murshed, a former Civil Servant (CSP), Syed Mamnun Murshed, an academic and diplomat, and Syed Mansood Murshed, an educationalist, and one daughter, Syeda Shaida Murshed.

He enrolled a member of the Kolkata High Court Bar in 1934 in British India and started practicing as a senior advocate of the Federal Court of India. In 1951, he migrated to the-then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and joined the Dhaka High Court Bar in 1951. He was elevated to a judge of the Dhaka High Court bench in 1955. He served as an ad hoc judge of the Pakistan Supreme Court during 1962–1963. Later on, he was appointed Chief Justice of former East Pakistan High Court in May 1964. He resigned from the position in November 1967, because of his truehearted difference of opinion with former Pakistan’s military ruler president Ayub Khan.

According to the former Chief Justice of Bangladesh Latifur Rahman, some of the notable judgments delivered by Murshed was Abdul Haque's case, the Pan case, the Basic Democracies case and the case of Lt Colonel GL Bhattacharya. Murshed joined the mass movement against Ayub in late 1968. A contemporary report in Time magazine stated, “The opposition cause was also boosted by widely respected Syed Mahbub Murshed, who told the nation that “We are not destined to perish in ignominy, if we put up a determined and united resistance to evil.”

He understood and was instrumental as to how former East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) worked, the fundamental realities of our society, and how laws should be administered and applied to in our context so as to ensure good governance for the Bengalis. 

Justice Murshed, who took helm at the judiciary in 1964, also shook the Bar out of its lethargy and modernised it as far as possible. Its old habits were changed, sometimes kicking and screaming. And he transformed our judiciary, through a relentless push for progress and excellence within about four years of taking the vital office. 

His life traced a long arc of modern South East Asian history: the last vestiges of colonialism; the fighting for democracy, the decline of Pakistan and the rise of Bangladesh. Throughout his life Justice Murshed preached, berated, pontificated and counseled his own people. He always tried to be correct. 

His grandeur was rooted in his strong intellect and his prodigious ability to look beyond the horizon. It is stated by seniors in the legal fraternity "that Chief Justice had a lion's heart in a human body. During the regime of Pakistani military dictator Field Marshall Ayub Khan, Justice Murshed gave bail to Bangladesh’s Founding Father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman sitting in his car in front of the-then Commissioner’s office and now the Foreign Ministry. The Advocate General opposed this by stating that the-then East Pakistan’s Governor Monem Khan would not like this. To this he said "tell the Governor I am the law, that was Justice Murshed." 

Justice Murshed was the first since the fifties of the 20th Century who introduced Writ Petitions in higher courts in the country. It was through writ petitions that the executive powers were curtailed and people’s fundamental rights were protected. This happened particularly in the military regime of Ayub Khan where leading Bengali politicians who were arrested on political grounds, were released due to his courage and conviction to the Bengali body politic.

He actively participated in the language movement. On 21st February 1952, after attending the Janaza prayers of the Language Martyrs, then Barrister Murshed and his uncle the Sher-e-Bangla AK Fazlul Huq led a procession breaking section 144. As a result, near S. M. Hall of Dhaka University, the police charged truncheons and both uncle and nephew were arrested by the police for a few hours. 

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 the 20th Century era, 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. 

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. 

Being a humanitarian all his life the famine that griped Bengal in the early Forties of the 20th 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 to get rid of betting odds of human-kind. 

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, earlier Murshed along with Abul Mansoor Ahmed drafted the 21-point Manifesto for the Jukta Front government which was led by his uncle Sher-e-Bangla AK Fazlul Huq.

 It was Justice Murshed, who put the final varnish to the six points 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 Justice 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. During the Round Table Conference in 1969 while Pakistani 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 would form the National Government.

 Justice Murshed is a living history. Though even the sun will one day run out of energy, our love for him will never fail. It will survive to the last day of the universe. 

Anwar A. Khan is an independent political analyst, who writes on politics, political and human-centred figures, current and international affairs