SM Murshed, who was born on January 11, 1911, rose to pre-eminence as a jurist imbued with a deep sense of social justice. His contribution to the field of literature was no less outstanding. His legacy includes his vast store of wisdom on various issues ranging from jurisprudence to politics to innumerable social causes. As a jurist he was a pre-eminent exponent of the rule of law. Like many great legal minds he drew his inspiration from a variety of historical, philosophical and theological sources. Yet he was able to interpret these sources in his own inimitable fashion.
He was acutely aware of the fact that excessive insistence on the letter of the law often violates its spirit. In recounting his legal skills, one is reminded of the artfulness of Portia's intervention in Shakespeare's “Merchant of Venice”. The application of the rule of law is ultimately down to the deft, and even witty, handling of the law by legal practitioners. Murshed demonstrated his talent in this connection by reforming innumerable laws, unravelling their complexities; offering us something truly unique in the process. He can be compared to great jurists such as Marshall, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Lord Denning.
He was forever kind and generous with his affectionate advice for his juniors, without ignoring those senior to him. His relations in this area were governed by mutual self-respect and tolerance. Murshed's reputation as a great judge came through some famous cases like the Mahmud and Samabarton Mamlas, all of which are landmarks in the legal history of Pakistan. His forte lay in constitutional law as evidenced by the Minister's and “Pan” cases.
His fame was not just confined to the shores of his country, but he had an international reputation in this regard. Like all great judges his judgments were not only impartial but tinged with humanity and compassion. Indeed, few took exception to his judgments. But the hallmark of a truly great man is the ability to rise above the narrow confines of his profession. Murshed never allowed himself to be shackled by any particular ideology or dogma, but took a keen interest in the political developments of his time. He was distressed by the episodic communal violence that punctuated the politics of the 1940s.
Murshed also was an active participant of the Language Movement. In early 1954 he helped draft the famous 21-point manifesto of the United Front led by his uncle Sher-e-Bangla AK Fazlul Huq along with the late Abul Mansoor Ahmed. Similarly, further to his monumental work another significant contribution by then Chief Justice Murshed was that he gave the final touch to the drafting of the historic six points in 1966 for provincial autonomy which was the demand of Bengali intelligentsia. This was what Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman fought and was jailed for.
Later in 1966, Mazhural Haq Baki the then President of the Chattra League and also Serajul Alam Khan another student leader records that no one except Chief Justice Murshed dared to accept being the chief guest at their annual conference. This is where Murshed also like Bangabandhu made the clarion call for provincial autonomy.
It was also Murshed's courageous protest resignation in the late sixties as chief justice that made the intelligentsia find him in the whole country as the only acceptable presidential candidate against Ayub. He played a prominent part in the mass upsurge of 1969 against President Ayub Khan, and in the roundtable conference convened by Ayub in its wake. He gave his support to the 11-point demands of the students of what was then East Pakistan. What perhaps is most significant was that during the roundtable conference while Ayub was virtually on his knees and in addition, with the dissolution of the one-unit in West Pakistan, Justice Murshed demanded “one man one vote”. With the breaking of one-unit Murshed argued in his speech that it was the vote of the eastern wing that created Pakistan and we were the majority population prior to this. In the then Pakistan National Assembly, there was parity of 150 seats each for East and West Pakistan. However, it was because Murshed's one man one vote proposal was accepted that 169 seats out of the 300 came to East Pakistan in the next national election. Therefore, Justice Murshed paved the way for deciding who would be the majority in East Pakistan and who could form the National Government.
His commitment to democracy was demonstrated by his dedication to the freedom and well-being of his people. He protested vehemently against any form of corruption, venality and exploitation. When the education department of our country was becoming corrupt, Murshed stressed that the role of teachers is to instil values, indicating that they should be at the forefront in protesting against any undesirable situation. We should be cognisant of the range and depth of his knowledge which included writings on diverse subjects in top flight journals and magazines. His association with the Anjuman-e-Mufidul Islam showed his concern for the poor. He was President of Rotary and Lions clubs, and was deeply involved with many cultural and social causes. As a powerful voice of humanity, to him “man was the measure of all things”.
Inevitably, men like Murshed have to confront many obstacles. Socrates was forced to drink the cup of hemlock; Murshed too was subjected to many pressures by the government for his honesty, integrity and above all his independence. But unlike the proverbial Faust he did not sell his soul, remaining uniquely courageous in maintaining his freedom. As a man Murshed was loving to his family and affectionate to his friends. His compassionate vision of Islam still inspires us. Not only was he a truly international figure, but Murshed will continually inspire our nationalistic principals as someone whose values and principles, as well as his steadfastness in this regard, often without recompense, are worth emulating in an age of time serving convenience.
Halima Aktar is an Advocate and a researcher on Justice Murshed.