Memories of Mohammad Ali Bogra

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Syed Badrul Ahsan
Published : 19:21, Jan 13, 2019 | Updated : 17:31, Feb 06, 2019

Syed Badrul AhsanIt is rather intriguing how the term 'Bogra' came to be associated with the name of Mohammad Ali. Of course he hailed from the place, and of course the appendage to his name happened to be there because he needed to be distinguished from another individual of the same name. Even so, identifying a prominent politician through drawing attention to his hometown remains a rather curious proposition. Besides, the other Mohammad Ali was actually called Choudhry Mohammad Ali. Both the Alis were, at different points in the 1950s, prime minister of Pakistan. Of the two men, the man from Bogra was the more accomplished and more sophisticated. Indeed Mohammad Ali, whose life came to an end on 23 January 1963, was in more ways than one ahead of many other politicians who came to prominence in the movement for Pakistan and rose to pre-eminence after the creation of the country in 1947.
Born in 1909, Mohammad Ali died quite young in 1963 of a heart attack, an ailment that had earlier afflicted him when he was a mere 39-year-old. He died in harness, as Pakistan's foreign minister in the regime of Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan. You tend to wonder at the turn Pakistan's politics would have taken had Ali not died, had Zulfikar Ali Bhutto not succeeded him. Ali, having taken charge of the foreign ministry from Manzur Quader in 1962, soon after the promulgation of a new constitution by the Ayub government, was probably confident about his ability to take Pakistan back to proper democracy through utilizing his record and his influence in the administration. When he entered the Pakistan national assembly in 1962, in line with the rules laid out in the new constitution, he did so as an independent who imagined he could put up a strong opposition to the military-dominated regime.
But then came the moment when Ali was persuaded by Ayub Khan to join his government, a move that yet has many of his admirers, besides chroniclers of Pakistani history, puzzled. But Mohammad Ali, in whose 'cabinet of talents' in the early 1950s Ayub Khan served as minister of defence, probably believed that once in government he could persuade the president to return Pakistan steadily to proper representative democracy. It was quite logical for him to reason with himself in such a manner. There was his record in politics. Elected to the Bengal legislative assembly at the 1937 polls from the All-India Muslim League, Ali went on to serve as parliamentary secretary to Bengal Prime Minister Khwaja Nazimuddin in 1943. It was a critical year, with widespread famine engulfing the province even as the British colonial power, as subsequent historical details have revealed, diverted food for its soldiers waging war overseas. Two years later, in 1945, Mohammad Ali found himself on a higher perch, as minister for health in the government of new Chief Minister Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy. The following year tens of thousands of Hindus and Muslims died in unprecedented communal riots triggered by the Muslim League's call for Direct Action, a move controversially backed by Suhrawardy. No record exists of how Ali, in government, felt about the disastrous turn of events.
Muhammad Ali BograAnd then came Partition. Ali made his way to the constituent assembly of the new state. He appears to have started off on principled ground, urging East Bengal Chief Minister Khwaja Nazimuddin to dissuade Mohammad Ali Jinnah from pressing the Urdu issue on his visit to Dhaka in March 1948. Nazimuddin did not agree. And Pakistan's founder, furious at what he thought was an unwarranted request by the young Mohammad Ali, ordered that the young politician be sent off to Egypt as Pakistan's ambassador. In the end, though, Ali persuaded the powers that be to send him to neighbouring Burma. It was a heart attack which had the government re-assign Mohammad Ali to Canada in July 1949 as Pakistan's first high commissioner there. And there he remained, till Nazimuddin, having succeeded the murdered Liaquat Ali Khan as prime minister, sent him from Ottawa to Washington as the country's ambassador to the United States. It remains one of the ironies of history that when Governor General Ghulam Mohammad dismissed the Nazimuddin ministry in 1953, he had Mohammad Ali return home swiftly and take over as Pakistan's prime minister. It was on Ali's watch that the opposition Jukto Front routed the Muslim League at the provincial assembly elections in East Bengal in 1954. Ali was prime minister when the ministry was dismissed two months later. An interesting account of a pre-dismissal moment emerges from Bangabandhu's 'Unfinished Memoirs'. Chief Minister Sher-e-Bangla AK Fazlul Huq and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had travelled to Karachi to convince the prime minister on the inadvisability of taking action against the Jukto Front government. As Bangabandhu relates the tale, Ali, besides being rude to Sher-e-Bangla, told Mujib the government had a thick file on him. Mujib's retort was swift: he told the prime minister that the East Bengal government, for its part, had a file on Ali vis-à-vis the latter's financial contribution to the opposition at a time when Ali was bitter at having been left out of government.
Perhaps a significant point in Mohammad Ali's tenure as prime minister came through his proposal regarding a future constitution for Pakistan. Known as the Mohammad Ali Formula, it envisaged a bicameral legislature for Pakistan. The Upper House, comprising fifty members, would accommodate ten members from each of the five provinces. In the Lower House, with a total of 300 members, representation would be on the basis of population. Thus East Bengal would have 165 seats and West Pakistan 135 seats. The formula also suggested that if the governor general was from the west, the prime minister would be from the east and vice versa. Ghulam Mohammad shot down the idea. In 1955, Ali was back in Washington as ambassador. He would at a point welcome Prime Minister Suhrawardy on the latter's visit to the US at President Eisenhower's invitation. Following the coup d'etat of October 1958, Ali would be shifted to Japan as Pakistan's ambassador.
Mohammad Ali came of the aristocracy which underpinned the Muslim League leadership in the decades from the 1940s and all the way to the 1960s, by which time politics in Pakistan was beginning to pass into the hands of newer, grassroots political figures, especially in East Bengal. It is interesting to imagine whether Ali would have influenced change or whether a preponderant Ayub regime, having utilized his talent and his experience, would have dispensed with his services.
A revealing footnote: The year 1963 would claim the lives of Mohammad Ali Bogra, Moulvi Tamizuddin Khan, ATM Mustafa and Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, all Pakistani politicians with roots in Bengal.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Editor-in-Charge, The Asian Age.

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