Justice Habibur Rahman: A life of subdued greatness | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, January 11, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, January 11, 2019

Justice Habibur Rahman: A life of subdued greatness

Remembering the former Supreme Court chief justice on his fifth death anniversary

His would not be an ordinary life. The year was 1952, and the movement demanding Bangla as a state language of erstwhile East Pakistan was nearing its crescendo with its epicentre at the Dhaka University. As a ban on any public gathering was imposed on Dhaka city through Section 144, Muhammad Habibur Rahman, a graduating Masters student of history department at the time, was the first student to break the curfew to bring out a procession as part of pre-announced programmes. He was arrested, and jailed for three weeks.

Born on December 3, 1928 (although on his birth certificate it is noted as May 1, 1930) in the small village of Dayarampur of India's Murshidabad, Justice Habibur Rahman—who became part of Bangladesh's history as the chief of the 1996 nonpartisan caretaker government—achieved in one lifetime that most people couldn't hope to in many, before he breathed his last on this day in 2014, at the age of 85. He taught at universities, served as a Supreme Court justice for 21 years, including as chief justice, and wrote 95 books on myriad subjects including pioneering publications like the first Bangla thesaurus.

After clearing his entrance and matriculation exams in Murshidabad, he moved with his family to Rajshahi in 1948, a year after the Partition. He passed BA (honors) from Rajshahi Government College and MA from Dhaka University in history, both times securing first class first positions. It is when he involved himself with politics, first with the organisation Progressive Front in 1951, and then in the founding of East Pakistan Chhatra Federation in 1952.

He joined as a temporary lecturer at Dhaka University's history department, but resigned only four days later, after allegations were raised against him of being “communist-leaning” and being involved with the language movement. In protest, he sold cigarettes on campus. He then taught history at Sirajganj College in Pabna and Jagannath College, before joining Dhaka University again in 1954. However, he left the job a few months later and joined Rajshahi Government College, to take care of his ailing father there. 

In 1957, he received scholarship to study in England, and did another BA (Hons) in modern history from Oxford University. This is when he also decided to pursue law, and received his Bar-at-Law from Lincoln's Inn in 1959. Returning home, he joined Rajshahi University in 1961 where he taught history and law, and served as dean of the law faculty.

Habibur Rahman chose the legal profession in 1964, joining as an advocate at the Dhaka High Court bar. He served as the assistant advocate general of Dhaka High Court briefly in 1970, before eventually serving as a justice of the High Court from 1976 to 1985.

By this time, he had found another passion that he would carry with him till his last days: writing. The first of his 95 books, Law of Requisition, was published in 1966, followed by Jathashabda, the first thesaurus in Bangla language, in 1974. He inaugurated the maiden edition of the Bangla Academy Book Fair (later named Ekushey Book Fair) in 1979, and was the recipient of the prestigious Bangla Academy Literary Award in 1984.

Justice Habibur Rahman was appointed an Appellate Division judge of the Supreme Court in 1985, and served until 1995. In a major transitional phase of Bangladesh's politics during the fall of the autocratic government in 1990, he took charge as the acting chief justice when the then chief justice Shahabuddin Ahmed took over as interim president of the country.

He was appointed chief justice on February 1, 1995, and served for four months until his retirement. In 1996, he was appointed the chief of the caretaker government as the “last retiring chief justice” according to the constitution, from March 30 to June 23. In his three decades as a judge, he delivered numerous verdicts, some 200 of which were included in various law journals.

After retirement from service, Justice Habibur Rahman wrote voraciously, on a wide range of subjects: from the history and politics of Bangladesh, to its language movement, law, travel, poetry (original and translations), and the Quran (of which he published a Bangla translation as well). However, one of his lesser-obvious areas of authority was Rabindranath Tagore, on whose life, work and philosophy he wrote 12 books. Many of his books were collections of his columns and essays, over 650 in number. National Professor Anisuzzaman termed him a “successful Renaissance man” who had an “encyclopedic approach” to knowledge.

In his professional life, whether it was a teacher, a lawyer, a judge or an administrator of the country, Justice Habibur Rahman led a life of strict principles and liberal and tolerant views. He was a man of few words, and a voracious reader. While serving as the chairman of Bangladesh Institute of Law and International Affairs (BILIA), he donated over a thousand books from his personal collection to the organisation, and 400-odd more books were donated to BILIA after his demise by his family.

Justice Habibur Rahman lived a simple life in a small family of wife Islama Rahman, and daughters Rubaba Rahman, Nusrat Habib and Rawnak Shireen who he loved dearly. He was a regular listener of BBC and used to watch drama series and comedy programmes.

His was a life of greatness, in more ways than one, but not the kind that is fervently celebrated by the masses. Justice Habibur Rahman served the country from the top positions in two of the three pillars of the state, and he did not rest in his pursuit to make this country a better place, whether it was imparting knowledge in a classroom or writing books that would serve as reference for his successors. His was a life of subdued greatness, like a lighthouse that stands in the middle of rough seas, guiding generations without ever calling attention to itself.


Fahmim Ferdous is the Deputy Editor of City Desk, The Daily Star.

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