Memories of Justice Muhammad Ibrahim
Syed Badrul Ahsan, Editor-in-Charge, The Asian Age: Justice Muhammad Ibrahim came to Dhaka from Karachi in a state of grave disappointment; His disappointment centered on General Ayub Khan, the army chief who had seized power in 1958 and then given Pakistanis to understand that he meant to bring about reforms in national politics, and of course, politics between August 1947 and October 1958 had been in precipitous decline. It did not help that the country finally managed to give itself a constitution, and that was in 1956. The adoption of the constitution did not stem the hemorrhaging of the political system, as the swift appointment of prime ministers and their equally swift dismissals were to demonstrate so clearly. Pakistan’s first bout of military rule was, from that perspective, looked upon as an opportunity for a new beginning.
Among those who clearly believed that good would come of the coup was Justice Ibrahim. He was, after all, minister for law in the martial law regime, one of three Bengalis associated with Ayub Khan. More precisely, the new president (and chief martial law administrator) had encouraged Ibrahim into thinking that as law minister, the judge could develop his ideas on the ways in which Pakistan could be administered as a viable democratic state. And what other method of doing that than through working out the form and principles of a new constitution? But that is exactly where Ibrahim was to be let down.
His conviction that Pakistan ought to have a constitutional arrangement guaranteeing adequate safeguards for its federating units, essentially East and West Pakistan, took a jolt when it became obvious that Ayub Khan had precious little intention of seeing democracy taking roots in the country. Men like Manzur Quader and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, both lawyers, were around to reassure the dictator that the future could be as he wished it to be. And thus came, eventually, the 1962 constitution. Justice Ibrahim, ever the decent man able to hear the sounds of an oncoming train, left Karachi, then Pakistan’s capital, and made his way back home to Dhaka. It was in early 1962 that President Ayub Khan accepted his resignation.
In a memorial volume published some years ago, it is a vibrant life that comes to light. For those who have observed the twisted and tortuous course Pakistan’s politics took between the rise of Ayub Khan and the evolution of Pakistan’s eastern wing as the independent republic of Bangladesh, Justice Ibrahim’s career towards the end has been a tale that might have been different. Did he make a mistake in linking up with the martial law regime? Should he have opted for a different political course altogether? In the mid-1960s, as a campaign got under way for an electoral battle against Ayub Khan in early 1965, Ibrahim found himself getting closer to the anti-Ayub opposition. He clearly played a crucial role in the shaping of the Combined Opposition Parties (COP) in 1964.
The alliance would nominate Fatima Jinnah, sister of Pakistan’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah, as its presidential candidate. Given that the elections were being held under the Basic Democracy that Ayub had instituted and which Ibrahim had not identified with, Ms. Jinnah went on to lose in January 1965. Nearly two years later, in October 1966, Justice Ibrahim died. And so ended the life of a brilliant, dignified man on Pakistan’s national stage. Ibrahim’s passing was also the end of a good, cultured Bengali who might have played a part in the events that were to unfold after his death. After all, the first major step toward Bengali liberation had already been taken months before his death. The Six Point plan for regional autonomy had been publicly placed before the country by an increasingly assertive Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
There was a certain intellectual dimension to Muhammad Ibrahim. In the second decade of the twentieth century, sheer patriotism drew him to the non-cooperation policies of Mahatma Gandhi. The brothers Ali, Shaukat and Muhammad, charmed him through their dedication to the cause of freedom. Momentarily distracted by the rising crescendo of nationalistic politics, Ibrahim veered away from his academic pursuits. And then came back to them. There was no looking back after that. The trauma of Partition, the creation of a new state for Muslims, the dispossession of people surely must have made an impact on Ibrahim. But as a realist, he understood the exigencies of the times. By 1949, he found himself in the position of a judge of the Dhaka High Court. In 1956, when he retired, he found, almost to his chagrin, that he was being asked to take over as president of Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly.
Men like Hamidul Haq Chowdhury surmised, perhaps correctly, that Justice Ibrahim’s occupancy of the office would expedite the process of constitution making. Ibrahim declined the offer. His fans have suggested that he had little desire to enter politics ‘through the back door’. Whatever may have been the reasons, in subsequent times it appeared that the decision to stay out of politics may have been an act of wisdom on his part. Adequate compensation was to come, first through his appointment, briefly, as chairman of the Election Tribunal, and then, more substantively, as vice chancellor of Dhaka University.