The late Chief Justice Syed Mahbub Murshed was arguably one of the most distinguished constitutional lawyers and eminent jurists that our South Asian sub-continent has ever seen. He was indisputably, our nation's most articulate advocate of human rights and the most eloquent civil libertarian. Not only did Murshed discharge his duty to the nation with outstanding competence, he also set a high standard for all professionals to emulate.
Murshed was a person of discipline and built up his brilliant academic career which culminated in his becoming a barrister from the honourable society of Lincoln's Inn in London. However, despite Murshed's aristocratic background, he had his roots with the people. He always tried to systematise within the realm of the rule of law to ensure more adherence to the fundamental rights of citizens.
In late 1954, he was elevated to the bench of the High Court. As a judge Murshed remained committed to his life-long ideals of liberty, justice and excellence. His judicial pronouncements delivered while sitting on the bench of the Dhaka High Court and the Supreme Court of Pakistan briefly as an ad-hoc judge in 1962 plus as Chief Justice in early 1964, reflected the ideals of judicial independence. Some of his judgments created constitutional history and international acclaim.
Justice Murshed remained unique and exemplary. The power of public understanding and knowledgeable oratory at public functions, were characteristic of his personality. In many ways he was the aristocrat in the finest sense of the term. He was firmly committed to the ideals of democracy, by upholding the cause of justice even against extreme odds.
Murshed fearlessly upheld the rule of law without fear or favour. Mentioning, what some other jurists said about him, the late Justice Abu Sayed Chowdhury describes Justice Murshed's courage-cum-boldness and wisdom as a worthy successor of his uncle Sher-e-Bangla AK Fazlul Haque. Justice Abdur Rahman Choudhury in his tribute called Murshed a giant among men. Late Justice KM Sobhan mentions “In life and in death Murshed was a king without the trappings of a monarch.” The great HS Suhrawardy termed Murshed “as an unfailing protector of civil liberties.”
Syed Ishtiaque Ahmed observed “that when true history of the 20th century be written a period might as well be called the age of Murshed.”
When our country was under Pakistan rule, when those who governed our country from a thousand miles away were determined to impose their culture upon us and erase ours, it was Murshed from the Bengali intellectuals who stood up to fight for our age-old traditions and cultural identity. It will always be remembered that in 1961, he was one of those who organised the “Tagore centennial celebrations” and this was in defiance of the then Pakistani rulers. When the great tide of nationalism which swept the country in the 1970s, originated from ripples that were noticeable in the fifties and sixties the distinguished person who figured prominently in this process was Murshed. The stirrings of a nation in the making in the late 1950s and 60s found eloquent expression and these were reflected in the manifold speeches, judgments' and writing of Justice Murshed. He became among the most articulate spokesmen of Bengali nationalism.
In his earlier professional life as a lawyer despite preoccupations, Murshed found time to write and publicly speak with brilliance and participate in political, social and humanitarian activities. His article “Quo Vadis Quid-e-Azam”, where he criticised the policies of Jinnah in defence of his uncle Fazlul Haque appeared in The Statesman in Calcutta and The Telegraph in London in 1942 and created a huge stir. During the famine in 1943 and the communal riots later in 1946, Murshed worked actively founding the Anjuman Mofidul Islam. Deep down, Murshed was a Sufi and a liberal who spoke of tolerance which was against any form of communalism. During the communal violence that shook the sub-continent in the partition year, he was one of those men responsible for setting into motion, the process that culminated in the Liakat-Nehru pact. Murshed was also drawn into the language movement.
In 1966, Mazaharul Haq Baki the then President of the Chattra League records that no one except Chief Justice Murshed dared to accept to be the chief guest at their annual conference.
At a critical time in our history, when President Field Marshal Ayub Khan was about to celebrate his so-called decade of reforms and the Agartala Conspiracy case was being framed, Murshed resigned from the post of Chief Justice to join the masses in the fight for democracy. Among the things that he did was to help organise the defence of the Agartala Conspiracy case. Subsequent to this, Murshed entered politics directly, which added momentum to the anti-Ayub movement.
Murshed's joining the mass movement added momentum to the struggle. Subsequently, the movement forced the Ayub regime to withdraw the Agartala Conspiracy case and release SK Mujib and all co-accused unconditionally.
Perhaps what is most significant was that during the round-table conference while Ayub was virtually on his knees and in addition, with the dissolution of the one unit in West Pakistan, the demand for one man one vote became a reality. Prior to this, in the then Pakistan National Assembly, there was parity of 150 seats each for East and West Pakistan. As the “one man one vote” proposal was accepted, 169 seats out of 300 came to East Pakistan for the next national election.
It was Murshed's protest resignation as chief justice that made the intelligentsia in the country find him an acceptable presidential candidate against Ayub. During our war of liberation, his refusal to collaborate with the ruling military-junta is also recorded by historians. Hence, in fact it can be said that Justice Murshed is among the keeper of our national conscience.
Barrister M Tamijuddin Ahmed practises law in London and is a researcher on Justice Murshed.