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Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy

Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy

Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy (September 8, 1892 - December 5, 1963) was a politician from Bengal in undivided India , and later in East Pakistan , who served as Prime Minister of Pakistan from 1956 until 1957. He is also known for his controversial role in the Direct Action Day of August 16, 1946. Following riots in Bengal during the last days of India 's freedom struggle, he was considered a favourite of Muhammad Ali Jinnah. He is also considered to be the first populist leader in Pakistan 's history. He is the founder of the Awami League, one of the two major political parties of present day's Bangladesh . Suhrawardy was born on 8 September 1892 to a prominent Muslim family in the town of Midnapore ,

now in West Bengal . He was the younger son of Justice Sir Zahid Suhrawardy, a prominent judge of the Calcutta High Court. In conformity with the elite Muslim tradition of India , his family members spanned the entire subcontinent speaking Urdu and did not identify themselves as ethnic Bengali. But Suhrawardy learnt Bengali and chose to identify himself with the politics and society of Bengal .

Education and marriage

Suhrawardy completed his undergraduate studies at St. Xavier's College, and completed a masters degree at the University of Calcutta . Afterwards, he moved to the United Kingdom to attend Oxford University from where he obtained a BCL degree. On leaving Oxford , he was called to the bar at Gray's Inn .

In 1920, Suhrawardy married Begum Niaz Fatima, daughter of Sir Abdur Rahim, the then home minister of British India .

Return to India

Suhrawardy returned to the subcontinent in 1921 as a practising barrister of the Calcutta High Court. He became involved in politics in Bengal . Initially, he joined the Swaraj Party, a group within the Indian National Congress, and became an ardent follower of Chittaranjan Das. He played a major role in signing the Bengal Pact in 1923.

Suhrawardy became the Deputy Mayor of the Calcutta Corporation at the age of 31 in 1924, and the Deputy Leader of the Swaraj Party in the Provincial Assembly. However, following the death of Chittaranjan Das in 1925, he began to disassociate himself with the Swaraj Party and eventually joined Muslim League. He served as Minister of Labour, and Minister of Civil Supplies under Khawaja Nazimuddin among other positions. In the Bengal Muslim League, Suhrawardy and Abul Hashim led a progressive line against the conservative stream led by Nazimuddin and Akram Khan.

In 1946, Suhrawardy established and headed a Muslim League government in Bengal . It was the only Muslim League government in India at that time.

Direct Action Day

Under Suhrawardy's direction, the Bengal Government declared August 16, 1946 to be a public holiday to celebrate the Direct Action Day called by Jinnah to protest against the Cabinet Mission plan for the independence of India .

Suhrawardy's government allegedly provided support to Muslim League mobs who attacked Hindus en masse to press their demand for Pakistan . The intensity of Direct Action Day was at its worst in the capital Calcutta . There was also a genocide of Bengali Hindus in the Noakhali district. Suhrawardy was widely blamed for either orchestrating or not taking steps to prevent the carnage and for trying to suppress the news of the same from the media. The physical and emotional scars of Direct Action Day linger among millions of Bengalis even today.


In 1947, the balance of power in Bengal shifted from the Muslim League to the Indian National Congress, and Suhrawardy stepped down from the Chief Ministership. Unlike other Muslim League stalwarts of India , he did not leave his hometown immediately for the newly established Pakistan . Anticipating revenge of Hindus against Muslims in Calcutta after the transfer of power, Suhrawardy sought help from Gandhi. Gandhi was persuaded to stay and pacify tempers in Calcutta , but he agreed to do so on the condition that Suhrawardy share the same roof with him so that they could appeal to Muslims and Hindus alike to live in peace. "Adversity makes strange bed-fellows," Gandhi remarked in his prayer meeting.

Political life in East Pakistan

Upon the formation of Pakistan , Suhrawardy maintained his work in politics, continuing to focus on Bengal or East Pakistan as it became after independence from the British. In 1949 he formed the East Pakistan Awami Muslim League, which would develop into the Awami League.

In the 1950s, Suhrawardy worked to consolidate political parties in East Pakistan to balance the politics of West Pakistan.He, along with other leading Bengali leaders A.K. Fazlul Huq and Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, formed a political alliance in the name of Jukta Front which won a landslide victory in 1954 general election of East Pakistan.Under Muhammad Ali Bogra, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy would serve as Law Minister and later become the head of opposition parties.

Prime Minister of Pakistan

In 1956, he was made Prime Minister by President of Pakistan Iskander Mirza after the resignation of Chaudhry Muhammad Ali. Suhrawardy inherited a political schism that was forming in Pakistan between the Muslim League and newer parties, such as the Republican party. The schism was fed by the attempt to consolidate the four provinces of West Pakistan into one province, so as to balance the fact that East Pakistan existed as only one province. The plan was opposed in West Pakistan , and the cause was taken up by the Muslim League and religious parties. Suhrawardy supported the plan, but the vast opposition to it stalled its progress.

In order to divert attention from the controversy over the "One Unit" plan as it was called, Suhrawardy tried to ease economic differences between East and West Pakistan . However, despite his intentions, these initiatives only led to more political frictions, and was worsened when Suhrawardy tried to give more financial allocations to East Pakistan than West Pakistan from aids and grants. Such moves led to a threat of dismissal looming over Suhrawardy's head, and he resigned in 1957.

His contribution in formulating 1956 constitution of Pakistan was substantial as he played a vital role in incorporating provisions for civil liberties and universal adult franchise in line with his adherence to parliamentary form of liberal democracy.

In the foreign policy arena, he is considered to be one of the pioneers of Pakistan 's pro-United States stand.

Political pragmatism

Suhrawardy was reputed for his political pragmatism. For instance, before partition, considering the overall backwardness of the Bengali Muslim community, he was a staunch supporter of separate electorates. Nevertheless, soon upon establishment of Pakistan , he opted for joint electorate upholding the view that this was essential for the growth of a common nationhood among peoples irrespective of caste, creed, and religion.

However, to his opponents, this pragmatism was viewed as sheer opportunism.

Post-political life and death

Disqualified from politics under the military regime of Ayub Khan, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy died in Lebanon in 1963. His death was officially due to complications from heart problems, though some have alleged he was poisoned. After a befitting funeral attended by a huge crowd, he was buried at Suhrawardy Udyan in Dhaka .

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