Ishtiaq: An extraordinary legal mind | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, July 12, 2008 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, July 12, 2008

Lest We Forget

Ishtiaq: An extraordinary legal mind


I knew him since 1950 when we were enrolled in the 1st year BA (Hons) class in the University of Dhaka, he in the Economics Department, and I in the Department of Political Science. It took me some time to realise that he was not a Bangali by origin (he and his family came from Gazipur, Uttar Pradesh, India), because he was so fluent and flawless in Bangla and injected so much of colloquial corruptions into his Bangla conversations that it was difficult to discern any non-Bangali trait in his origin. It is only when I came into personal contact with his parents, his four elder brothers and one younger brother (who remains the only surviving brother till today) that I came to know of his roots. Later he told me that he started in infancy his elementary education in a toll run by a single Gurumashai under a banyan tree at Hilli, Dinajpur where his father had a business.
We became instant friends, more because of his expansive nature than because of my own ability to make friends. We shared at that time some things in common -- outlook on life, commitment to country and the people, simple life and so on. He was a powerful and skilful orator in English. He used to address in English huge public meetings on public issues at Purana Paltan Maidan while still a student of Dhaka University. His listeners did not perhaps understand him fully, but he kept them spell-bound. Those of us who are surviving witnesses to Ishtiaq's fiery speeches in English in the early fifties at the huge Purana Paltan Maidan are yet to find another Ishtiaq who can mesmerise countless ordinary Bangali listeners for hours on end in the English language. For many more like me, he was a rarity for all ages as an orator and gifted speaker with equal facility of expression in three languages, English, Bangla and Urdu.
Ishtiaq was outstanding in his University career in showing leadership, organising ability, persuasiveness and singleness of purpose. A few days before the language movement on the 21st February 1952 he was struck unfortunately with jaundice that physically prevented him from taking any active part in it. It is recognised on all hands that along with Marhum Ibrahim Taha he was a vanguard in the preparatory stages of the movement and remained a dedicated pursuer of the ongoing movement after his recovery. While remaining active in the language movement he passed the BA (Hons) examination in Economics in 1953 securing a high second class. He was arrested with others while attending a secret meeting of the leaders of language movement and was kept in prison for some time in 1954. That was the year when he passed the MA examination in Economics, securing the first position in the second class, none having secured first class.
He continued to be a student of the University in the 1st year LLB class. The whole student community very much wanted him to stand for election as Vice President of Salimullah Muslim Hall Union in 1954, but he disappointed them all so much so that as soon as he announced his decision not to contest, a group of highly charged supporters rushed to physically assault him. A few equally disappointed supporters saved him. He married in June 1955 our batch-mate Sufia Ibrahim, daughter of Marhum Mr Justice M Ibrahim. Later in life Sufia became National Professor, Dr Sufia Ahmed.
As already stated, Ishtiaq, Sufia and myself were batch-mates in the University of Dhaka during 1950-54 studying in three different departments and maintaining a steady friendship. We all three along with Justice Ibrahim's eldest son, Marhum Khaled Ibrahim (Manju), left for England for higher studies on the same day and on the same plane in September 1955. While Sufia pursued an MA and PhD degree in history at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, Ishtiaq was reading for the Bar at the Hob'ble Society of Lincoln's Inn. I was awarded a Merit Scholarship that helped me study the MSc (Econ.) course at the London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE) while keeping the dining terms at the same Inn. Ishtiaq retained as usual his student activism while pursuing studies in London. I was drawn into it too. We scouted London in our pursuit for political activities, cultural rallies and functions, widening social contact.
Ishtiaq-Sufia's first baby, today's Mr Justice Dr Syed Rifat Ahmed, was born in London in December 1959. I completed the Bar in October 1959 and rushed back home to have a last glimpse of my father who died exactly a month and a half since my return, after suffering a four-year long protracted illness. Ishtiaq and Sufia returned to Dhaka in 1960, after Sufia completed her Ph.D Ishtiaq waited for her to complete her studies and in the meanwhile obtained the MSc. (Econ.) degree from LSE. He started school teaching in London while Sufia braced herself for PhD. While in London we stayed close together. All through our later lives we harboured and nurtured many sweet memories of years of companionship and friendship. My father and Sufia's father went to London at different periods of our stay there for treatment. We came to each other's aid as much as we could. Our bouquet of friendship is strewn with flowers of comradely empathy and assistance.
Not many would know what struggle we both had to go through to establish ourselves in the legal profession. We both attended for some time the Chamber of Marhum Barrister ATM Mustafa at Ramkrishna Mission Road in the evening and returned to Purana Paltan in the same rickshaw at dead of night. At times none of us had even the eight annas rickshaw fare to pay. We literally started penniless and from a scratch.
It may be partially true that being the son-in-law of a celebrated former Judge of the Dhaka High Court and a former Vice-Chancellor of Dhaka University, Marhum Mr Justice M Ibrahim, Ishtiaq had a better head start in the profession than others who joined the profession on or about the same time with him, but it will be a travesty of truth if one ascribes his phenomenal ascendancy in the profession to just this one causal connection. He applied himself dedicatedly and in full to the profession. No digression to politics, no filtration with competitive pursuits, he utilised his working hours in gaining knowledge and experience to establish himself on a firm footing in the profession. He had a natural edge over others, in that his gift of the gab was given by Allah and was inborn in him. He made good use of it.
It was hard and dedicated work, sincerity and honesty that catapulated him into the summit of the legal profession in the earliest possible time. Once he started climbing he did not have to look back. From the very early stage of the profession he involved himself with international conferences of lawyers and jurists and soon became a frequent traveller abroad bringing glory to himself, the profession and the country. The law reports of the country since 1961 till his death in 2003 are full of reported cases in which he appeared in various types of cases that often set up precedents for the future generations of lawyers and judges to follow. This by itself is an enormous contribution by any standard. A lifetime of appearances in precedent setting cases can be a subject matter of envy and goal for any lawyer of any age.
Ishtiaq was a polite, respectful, and forceful advocate of the causes of his clients. His eloquence, measured submissions, analytical capacity and, above all, his wit, was a source of delight to all those who listened to him.
Marhum Justice SM Murshed, former Chief Justice of East Pakistan, was a great admirer of his advocacy. Ishtiaq, like all great lawyers, was an astute capturer of a Judge's psychology. He knew Justice Murshed was allergic to citing case laws before him. Being a judge of exceptional original thinking, he treated case laws almost with a disdain. Yet to bring home his point Ishtiaq had to cite two cases from the English jurisdiction that Justice Murshed might not have been aware of. He started by saying that he read two case laws on the point at issue for his own knowledge and assimilation and would not cite them, for he knew that the court was already aware of the principles contained in them. He would merely place those decisions before the court for his own satisfaction that he read the right decisions. Justice Murshed gave him a chuckle and started reading those two decisions in silence. Ishtiaq won his point and Justice Murshed referred to those two decisions in awarding a judgment in favour of the client of Ishtiaq.
Marhum Mr Justice BA Siddiky, another former Chief Justice of East Pakistan, told me very early in my career as a judge that he found two lawyers in his court at their very best when incited, provoked or contradicted. He mentioned Ishtiaq first and Khandakar Mahbubuddin Ahmed next. He said that these two lawyers could indeed take their arguments to lofty heights, beyond the imagination of their tormentors, if they were so waylaid. When I grew up as a senior Judge I sometimes used this technique on some selected lawyers and found out to my delight how very much true the keen observations of Chief Justice Siddiky were in respect of those two lawyers. These two lawyers flourished and flowered in their arguments when they were so provoked. Those were indeed the most delightful and enjoyable moments in their advocacy. Like myself, all judges will wonder if the same technique will yield the same result in respect of all lawyers of standing.
Although miles away from active politics, Ishtiaq retained a close association with politicians of all hues and colours. On matters of national importance he never shirked from making his views known. He was respected and trusted by those politicians who were respectable themselves.
Without joining active politics Ishtiaq quietly became a national figure. When the High Court Division was split up into seven permanent Benches scattered throughout Bangladesh he rose in fury and played an activist role in rescinding it courting arrest without trial twice. When the political parties drew up an agreed Charter to get rid of the presidential system, Ishtiaq's skill was used inevitably. No wonder that he was nominated twice to head the Law Ministry under two different Chief Advisers. He did not hold his office decoratively. His activist mind soon transformed this Ministry into a vehicle of change. The Judicial Administration Training Institute (JATI) and the Law Commission were activised by him. Those were so long in existence only in the statute book. During his second term he took all steps to materialize the separation of judiciary from the executive, but he was thwarted from finally doing it due to the last-minute intervention of the Prime Minister in the offing. He remained frustrated till his death for this tragic outcome of his sustained efforts.
It is a matter of history that Ishtiaq as an activist fought both in and out of court to realize his goals. His mighty arguments found the highest court's endorsement in the famous Eighth Amendment case. His powerful advocacy gained the court's support in Mazdar Hossain's case. For 20 years the Law Reports contain a chain of constitutional cases in which his advocacy paved the way for creative interpretation of various provisions of the Constitution by the highest court.
Not many will know, but Ishtiaq was a philanthropist all his life. His immediate and proximate family members, his near and distant relations, his closest and little-known friends, associates and employees and even rank strangers never returned from his door without being helped when help was asked for.
Death has taken away from us a lofty man with lofty ideals, a gentleman par excellence and a man of affection, gentility, with humour and kindliness. A chapter has been closed. We who are left behind can only pray to Almighty Allah to bless his soul with eternal peace.
Justice Mustafa Kamal is former Chief Justice of Bangladesh.

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