It’s Time Bengal Remembered a Certain Huq

The state needs historic development and with it, complete freedom of expression.

Credit: Reuters

Credit: Reuters

Bengal’s election results may have been a verdict on the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) and how it fared in 294 constituencies but in essence this is really a victory for just one person – Mamata Banerjee. As Banerjee’s second term in office takes off, a comparison with Bengal’s first chief minister might throw interesting light on the state’s propensity to vote for charismatic leaders, up and above the political parties they represent, and its implications for the state and its people. Few Bengalis remember the name of Bengal’s first chief minister, a fiery politician, better known as Sher-e-Bangla. He was as loved and popular as Banerjee is now but the consequences of the landslide victory, which armed him for two terms in office, were not pleasant for Bengal and hence, the warning.

Even as a history enthusiast, I did not know much about Abul Kasem Fazlul Huq. I first read about him while doing my master’s. Since then, however, his politics has fascinated me. I ended up writing my doctoral dissertation on his two tenures as chief minister, from 1937 to 1943. The years I spent researching on Huq, in Calcutta, Delhi, Dhaka, London and Cambridge, and writing about him, coincided with Banerjee’s final phase of struggle against the Left and her mercurial rise since 2011. Several times, and quite effortlessly, I could trace similarities in personalities between the two politicians. Admittedly, the world of politics was vastly different in the late 1930s but there are significant takeaways in this comparison.

Simplicity card

The Government of India Act 1935, the longest Act passed by the British parliament, had granted provincial autonomy to India. In 1936-1937, elections were held and provinces all across India voted all-Indian ministries to power. In Bengal, the Act expanded the electorate by 600%. This enabled a rural leader like Huq, party head of Krishak Proja Party (KPP), in his late sixties, to audaciously declare that he would contest from any constituency that Khwaja Nazimuddin, a Muslim Leaguer would contest from. Nazimuddin chose Patuakhali (now in Bangladesh), a constituency situated within his extensive zamindari and still lost. Huq had compared the contest to the Battle of Plassey and Battle of Waterloo. Huq’s historical references, a mainstay of his politics, were as common as Banerjee’s Tagore and Vivekananda citations. Unlike the Bose brothers (Sarat Chandra Bose and Subhas Chandra Bose), who were born into affluence and other notable Muslim politicians who, almost always, came from the landed gentry, Huq had humble beginnings. Banerjee too stands out in this regard, especially when compared with chief ministers like Jyoti Basu and Siddhartha Shankar Ray. While they are the bhadralok, Banerjee is anything but respectable.

Interestingly though, for the unlettered peasants of Bengal, main support base for Huq and now Banerjee, history war lessons and Tagore’s prose meant and still mean nothing. So, while Huq’s speeches were aimed at the middle class and the elite, with whom he had to negotiate political business, his strength lay in his common man credentials. These credentials Huq prized over everything else. So, in his election campaigns, he would ask for muri and phaane bhaat from villagers, and rhetorically ask if Nazimuddin could cross pole bridges like him. Banerjee won her second term in office but she is still the symbol of austerity and as is clear from her recent tweets, she intends to keep it that way.

In lieu of ideology

In 2011, Banerjee ran on one agenda, the Left must go. Of course, she promised development for Bengal and she delivered rather well but that can hardly be called an ideology or something specific to TMC. Can a party ever win by promising under-development? As is evident from the brief description of Huq’s election campaign, he too, did not have an ideology. His sole motive was to defeat Nazimuddin. Ideologically entrenched communist rule in Bengal left it as one of the most backward states in India, so it may not be essentially a blessing but it checks authoritarianism. In 2011, Banerjee saw her victory as a victory for democracy. But clearly there is no way to understand why she saw censoring newspapers in government funded libraries and arrest of Jadavpur University professor, on the ground of sharing cartoons of Banerjee, as protection of that said democracy. Inconsistency is not new to the political profession but the confidence with which she dismissed criticism was alarming. The national and international media hinted towards her defeat in 2016. Alas, the political predictions!

A.K. Fazlul Huq. Credit: Wikimedia

A.K. Fazlul Huq. Credit: Wikimedia

A quick flash back to Huq and see if he was as mercurial as Banerjee, if not more. British Reforms Officer, L. G. Pinnell, in his diary, calls Huq “amoral.” Governor John Anderson, who finally invited him to become the chief minister, thought that Huq was “completely devoid of principle.” Yet Huq took office in April 1937. In the midst of strikes and demand for the release of political prisoners from all quarters and a hard-to-pass bill that would abolish zamindari, Huq’s only solid electoral promise was that he defected from the KPP and joined the Bengal Muslim League by the end of the year. Huq had breathed life into the KPP and it made his victory possible but then he sabotaged its other leaders and rendered the party defunct within some years. His politics acquired communal overtones after he joined the Muslim League. He made blatant anti-Hindu remarks, which was surprising because one of the reasons Anderson invited him to become the chief minister was because he was the only candidate with whom both Hindu and Muslim leaders were happy to work with. But perhaps doubly surprising is Anderson’s letter to Viceroy Linlithgow in November 1937. He wrote, “Actually from an administrative point of view, I attach little importance to it and in fact he is not the kind of person to attempt to carry such threats into practice.” It seemed that Huq’s contemporaries understood some of his antics but no one knew the larger picture, his larger political game.

No one knew that in 1941, Huq would defect again, this time from the now powerful Muslim League. He wrote to Liaquat Ali Khan in September 1941, that he detested the “autocracy of a single individual,” referring to Jinnah. So, he secretly contrived to have a no-confidence motion passed against his own league ministry, while planning his next coalition with Sarat Bose and Shyama Prasad Mookherjee. In December 1941, he moved from one chief ministerial position to another. Poverty was all around in Bengal. His electoral promise from his first win was left unrealised. But on being sworn in again, Huq gave another hope to the people of Bengal and they believed again. He announced that Bengal would now have better “communal harmony” now that he was working with Bose and Mookherjee. For the record, Huq’s first ministry had Hindu ministers as well. His politics was impossible and daring and no one knew what Huq would do next, just like no one knew that the cotton-sari-clad Banerjee would have the grand oath taking ceremony she had recently. In both the cases, we see, in lieu of an ideology, what frames Huq and Banerjee’s politics is that they are both “uncertain quantity” in their political worlds. For any other politician this could be a liability but Huq, in his days, and Banerjee, now, get a pass on everything they do. Banerjee’s recent win only shows that her critics have to renege on their predictions about her eventual fall.

Charismatic mass leader

How did Huq manage to defect from two parties and yet retain the love and affection from the masses? In his times, noted scientist P.C. Ray called him a “true Bengali” from “head to toe.” His arch opponent, Huseyn Suhrawardy nailed it when he said that Huq had “deep insight into human character and mass psychology.” The few historians who have studied Huq have commented on his admirable quality of keeping his constituency beholden to himself and not to the party he represented. So when he joined the Muslim League, his rustic image was never challenged and his most grievous shortcomings like making communally charged statements and corruption were seen as minor aberrations. Huq was often seen as a victim and as someone who was too naive to play by the rules of organised city politics. Sounds vaguely familiar?

Banerjee’s charisma has also worked on millions of Bengalis. Her populist politics has not been great for the state but that kind of logic has not deterred the masses from loving her. But like Huq, she rises above the party. Has the party become stronger since its most illustrious member has become chief minister? Does it dominate over its members and keep them in check? Is there democracy within the party? Surfing the TMC website makes it clear that the party is Banerjee and Banerjee is the party. Banerjee’s innumerable publications, poems and paintings are curated on the website and all other party members are faceless. Of course, the TMC is rightfully Banerjee’s baby but since 2011, when the rumpus died down, through handling of Sharadha scam, the Park Street rape case, to name a few, Banerjee has shown herself to be adamant, dictatorial, irrational and intolerant. It was good that 34 years of communist rule ended in a democratic state and it is still great that Banerjee has earned the verdict to govern Bengal for one more term but govern she must, not dictate, not manipulate but govern.

End and beginning

Contemporary newspaper photo of Huq with Abinendranath Tagore

Contemporary newspaper photo of Huq with Rabindranath Tagore

So what happened to Huq? In March 1943, Governor John Arthur Herbert, finding Huq utterly incompetent in administering the province, manipulated him into resigning, after which Huq’s career went into a sharp decline. What is of greater consequence is what happened to the people of Bengal who loved and hero-worshipped him for decades and reposed their faith in him. Much has been said about the famine that hit Bengal in 1943 and killed millions. What the archives revealed to me, however, is that unchecked corruption, primarily because Huq was busy stabilising his position in his coalitions instead of serving the people, was also what made the famine worse. Mookherjee left a record of Huq’s incompetence and unwillingness to give his ministries a real chance at governance because he was so invested in maintaining his own power. But a few words here and there, an image propagated, a few trips to the countryside and Sher-e-Bangla reigned over people’s hearts again. Even when his rhetoric and actions had long parted ways, his charisma had remained intact.

If the discipline of history has haters, it is probably because it teaches lessons and no one wants to be taught. The peasants of colonial Bengal knew very little about the political world in which Huq was operating. Banerjee’s supporters know more as the public space has expanded exponentially in the last decade. Today, it is not just foolish to remain moonstruck by a leader’s charisma and not demand better governance. Lest, Bengal trades freedom of speech and liberty to read any newspaper it wants you to. For better jobs and more toilets (and Banerjee has done well on those fronts) – people must know that they can have both and deserve more. No politician should get away calling an election result “historic” like Derek O Brien did. What Bengal needs is historic development and with it, the complete freedom of expression.

  • ashok759

    Fascinating historical comparison. I was surprised by the extent of Ms. Banerjee’s victory, perhaps because the TMC has not done enough to bring prosperity to Bengal. Young Calcuttans are still moving to other parts of India for jobs. Hopefully, the second term will be put to much better use. If Didi has Delhi Dreams, those should not be pursued at the cost of much needed development for the state.

  • Madhuri Bose

    Very incisive and thought provoking article. The author has drawn very pertinent historical parallels including between the two public persona namely of Fazlul Huq and Mamata Banerjee. It is such a shame that the peasantry in Bengal and large sections of the urban poor can still be influenced and moved by superficial populist slogans. Mamata Banerjee’s electoral win was followed by what may be called mass hysteria. The priority for Bengal, as with the rest of India, is education for all. India has done well in higher education and advanced technical training for the privileged classes but has failed to provide basic education, a fundamental human right, to vast sections of the population. In the absence of an educated and informed electorate we cannot expect to defend democracy and uphold our rights.

  • kabir

    Interesting essay and comparison.


    Huq has not been given due importance in West Bengal political history. Specially, he was at the helm of affairs when British were on top and dictating terms. He stood for the peasantry and tried his best to uplift them. It is a pity that such prominent figures are buried in the annals of history.

  • Velamur Anand

    “Much has been said about the famine that hit Bengal in 1943 and killed millions. What the archives revealed to me, however, is that unchecked corruption, primarily because Huq was busy stabilising his position in his coalitions instead of serving the people, was also what made the famine worse.”
    In the light of histories of the Bengal Famine that have now come to be written , notably Madhusree Mukherji’s “Churchill’sSecret War” and Janam Mukherji’s “Hungry Bengal”, the famine was almost entirely due to Churchill and the Brits. The epithet Butcher of Bengal is most apt for Churchill, a worthy successor to his 17th century ancestor, Marlborough, who was the Butcher of Ireland in his time. Yes, Huq had his defecting habits, his love of position, but if Subash Bose’s proposal for Congress to support Huq had not been shot down by Gandhi on G D Birla’s advice, the history of India would have been different.(G D Birla , probably,did this at the instance of the Brits). Again, Nehru wanted him in the interim cabinet in 1946,but Wavell (himself, a lame-duck viceroy who had been appointed by Churchill and continued even after Churchill’s ignominous election defeat) would have none of it. As Premier of Bengal , Huq received complaints of police atrocities in Midnapore, and announced in the assembly that there would be a magisterial enquiry. Governor John Herbert wrote him a letter saying “…such enquiries are the prerogative of the Governor, and you know my views on the undesirability of such enquiries”. Huq was every inch a lawyer and replied that, yes , since you say that it is your prerogative, there will be no enquiry and tomorrow , in the assembly, I shall table both your letter and my letter. So, the whole world would ahve come to know, that when Britain is, supposedly fighting Germany for democracy, here in Calcutta, a foreign ruler was preventing an elected Premier from even holding an enquiry ! But no-one can be as sneaky as an anglo-saxon when he wants to plot and intrigue. Governor Herbert sidled up to Fazlul Huq and requested his resignation,saying at wartime, an all-party govt should be formed. Huq complied with a carefully worded resignation letter saying it was offered in view of the moves to have an all-party govt. But, lo and behold, after Herbert’s intrigues, a Muslim league-led govt. was brought in with support, inter alia of 25 European members of the assembly. Huq was not communal. After independence, he went to East Pakistan, served as Governor of East Pakistan and so on. He visited India and Calcutta in 1953 or 54 and said “desher bibhajan jaara koreche, thaara deshdrohi”. Typical of him, when he returned to Dacca and was questioned , he said that was an emotional remark.As Governor, of East pak, he inaugurated new premises for Law College and recalled that he was selected as a junior by Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee when he got his law degree. ” Sir Asutosh was known to be very picky in choosing his juniors and I take legitimate pride in having been selected for his chamber “. A man who had been Premier of Bengal and had been Governor of East Pak was expressing his pride in being a Junior to Sir Asutosh !.It was a very dignified era. At famine time, when Congress leaders were in jail, in 1943, Huq and Shyamaprasad Mukherji jointly addressed a public meeting in Howrah demanding a system of rationing to cover the entire population of Bengal. This,of course, did not happen even while Indan Ships were seized by the British Govt,and were used to transport grain from Argentina to UK and build up a huge 18-million ton stockpile in England. And there was a good system of rationing in England.
    All this is not to deny the relevance of the similarities between Huq and Mamta pointed out in the article. Only to emphasise that Huq was much more than an administrator, and held the key in his time to a better resolution than partition for the Hindu-Muslim issue

  • Anil Maheshwari

    An interesting read. Expects similar article on Huseyn Suhrawardy, the premier of Bengal at the time of the Partition.