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      Volume 11 |Issue 19 | May 11, 2012 |


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In Retrospect

Quest for Justice

Azizul Jalil

“That is the only issue (East Bengal) that has occupied my mind for the last three years. Now it has become the ruling passion of my life. Nothing else is of any interest.”
– Justice Ibrahim in his diary on January 1, 1963.

It is one thing to make strong demands for one's people from outside by mobilising the public, it is quite another to repeatedly cross swords with a military dictator while being a member of his cabinet. One can argue why a person of integrity and character should join such a government in the first place, knowing that it would be futile to assert the rightful cause of one's province in these circumstances. But that is what Justice Muhammad Ibrahim did. After his retirement from the Dhaka High Court and resignation from the Vice Chancellorship of the Dhaka University, he was appointed as the law minister in President Ayub Khan's government – a position he occupied from 1958 to 1962, in the last year only in name – staying mostly in Dhaka on grounds of ill-health.

Justice Muhammad Ibrahim, Photo: Courtesy

He may have retained a faint hope that a strong military government would be able to ensure a fairer distribution of power and resources between East and West Pakistan. Whatever the wisdom of the decision, he steadfastly persisted in his noble objective to ensure justice for East Pakistan in the face of all odds, even amid neglect and insults from the president. He did attempt to resign from Ayub's cabinet a couple of times but was persuaded not to, as that would embarrass the government, while it was busy drawing up a new constitution for Pakistan.

The diary of Justice Ibrahim covering the years1960-66 has recently been published by the Academic Press, Dhaka. It is an interesting, informative read. Coming from the horse's mouth, it contains a wealth of first-hand information and documents on the issue of power and resource distribution between East and West Pakistan during the early years of the Ayub era. The book is now available to the public for review, but it may be worthwhile to present here a few highlights of an insider's experience of working at the policy-making and cabinet level on important national issues.

The systematic and contemptuous way the powerful military and civil elite, all belonging to West Pakistan, were treating East Pakistan's legitimate demands for the removal of disparity between the two wings comes out of the Ibrahim diaries. Chapters and verses quoted mostly from official files and letters at the highest level reveal the highhandedness of the West Pakistanis in thwarting the demands of East Pakistan for its fair share of the development, economic resources and employment opportunities in Pakistan.

Admittedly, a new nation and country is not created by notes in government files and cabinet discussions. As Tajuddin Ahmad, the then general secretary of the Awami League, had wisely told me during the 1969 Roundtable Conference in Rawalpindi: “East Pakistan's just rights would be won on the strength and intensity of the people's movements and struggles in East Pakistan and not by notes and discussions in government files or by political and bureaucratic manipulations in Islamabad.”

There is no doubt that the declaration of the six-point programme by Bangabandhu in 1966, the mass movements of 1969 to 1971in East Pakistan led by Moulana Bhashani and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the overwhelming verdict of the East Pakistanis in favour of the six-point demands in the 1970 elections were the immediate causes of the emergence of Bangladesh. Without such, often violent, movements and sacrifices, not much would have been achieved. While we should admire Justice Ibrahim's steadfast and gallant efforts and that of many others, including senior civil servants working in the Government of Pakistan at Islamabad to bring sense and justice at the highest level of Pakistan government, we cannot lose sight of that important perspective.

The examples below, based on Ibrahim's diary, show how the demands of East Pakistan, its cabinet and Justice Ibrahim, and their efforts to extract a more favourable dispensation, were thwarted. The anecdotes also portray that the then rulers of Pakistan were oblivious of the consequences of their actions on the integrity and continued existence of the state of Pakistan.

In 1960, Zakir Hossain as governor of East Pakistan went to Karachi with his province's programme and proposals for the draft Second Five-Year Plan. The word disparity was mentioned and a greater (compared to West Pakistan) allocation of the plan funds was requested for East Pakistan. Ayub was furious and enquired who had actually prepared the programme. Zakir pointed to Azfar, the chief secretary of East Pakistan, and the latter took the responsibility (in fact, as Ibrahim points out, it was prepared by a West Pakistani CSP official by the name of Jaffery who was then posted to East Pakistan). Ayub then accused Zakir of instigating such a proposal himself. According to the president, more funds from the central plan go to the West as that province is able to utilise them; it has more opportunities and matching local resources and trained manpower. This was not the case of East Pakistan, which lacked local resources. Ayub opined that more foreign investments are naturally attracted to the West on the same ground.

During further discussions on the plan, Justice Ibrahim sent a note to the president giving his views on the allocation of resources between the provinces. Because of the existing disparity between the provinces, he proposed that funds planned to be allocated to the West should be reduced and given to the East for faster development. In a cabinet meeting, Ayub separately confronted Ibrahim and told him his statement was dishonest and that the mention of disparity was parochial, which should be avoided. He reiterated that funds should go wherever there is greater potential for investment and growth. Not all parts of the world are equally endowed and some areas cannot develop just by wishing it.

During the drafting stage of a new constitution for Pakistan in 1960-61, as the law minister, Justice Ibrahim expected to play an important role. He dutifully put up a written outline of the basic economic and political framework governing the distribution of powers between the centre and the provinces. In his view, Pakistan should have a parliamentary system and a federal structure with a weak centre and autonomous provinces having all the powers except defense, currency and foreign affairs (excluding foreign aid and trade).

Each unit will have its peace-time army: land, air and naval forces to be recruited locally in the respective provinces. There will be a special army for over-all defense at the centre. Each province will bear the expenditure in respect of its peace-time army and half the expenditure of the special army. The size of the army should be very limited.

The theory of one economy is inappropriate in Pakistan, not only because of the geographical factors but also because of economic inequality and different economic conditions. Justice Ibrahim believed that what should be aimed at is not one economy, but economic unity between two independent economic units with a common centre for defense, currency and foreign affairs.

The Ibrahim proposals, made five years before the Awami League's six-point programme of 1966 appear to be as, if not more, radical than the latter. It is interesting to note from the diary that, in conversations with Ibrahim in 1961, Ayub had entertained at least the notion of a confederation in Pakistan, if that was the best way to keep the country together. In the end, however, the Ayub government paid no heed to the wise counsel of Ibrahim, who was of course only an individual, honestly working for East Pakistan's cause but without any political following or support, and therefore ineffective.

Justice Ibrahim finally resigned from the cabinet in April 1962. The constitution having been promulgated in March of that year, his resignation was no longer deemed embarrassing to the Ayub government.

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