By Khwaja Sayeed Shahabuddin
Perhaps the most misunderstood and little known politician in the history of Pakistan was the late Khwaja Shahabuddin, who passed away in Karachi on 9th February 1977, and was buried in the P. E. C. H. S. graveyard. One cannot understand what led him to make the mistake of allowing himself to be persuaded by President Ayub Khan – telling him that, “as a very senior politician the country needs your services” – to join his cabinet in 1964, when he was living a peaceful and having quiet life in his home in Dhaka.
He was one of the unknown pioneers who worked behind scenes, in Calcutta, for the attainment of Pakistan, and, soon after its creation, the Quaid-e-Azam sent him to Delhi to hold fort, for a few months, as the High Commissioner, until the arrival in New Delhi of Mr. Zahid Hussain who had been unwell. On his return from Delhi he joined the Cabinet with portfolios of Home Affairs, Information and Broadcasting.
In 1951, he was appointed Governor of North West Frontier Province, and, in 1955 he was sent as Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, and in 1958 to Egypt. His last posting was as High Commissioner to Nigeria, the mission which he opened, after which he retired from the Diplomatic Service, and returned to his home in Dhaka. As a matter of interest it may be stated that he had a flair for languages, and, learnt ‘Pushto’ well enough to converse with the people in the tribal belt when he was in Peshawar. Then he learnt Arabic and, while in Egypt, he surprised the audience at the Al-Azhar University by addressing them in their language.
It is unfortunate that, during his tenure as a Senior Minister in the cabinet of President Ayub Khan, the policy he followed made him very unpopular with the Gentlemen of the Press, and he came to be known as ‘the mouthpiece of Ayub Khan’. He also became unpopular in his home Province, the then East Pakistan, by making the gross mistake of banning the broadcasting of Rabindra Nath Tagore’s songs over the Radio and Television.
Looking at his achievements one would find it difficult to believe that Khwaja Shahabuddin had, very little formal education, while his elder brother, Khwaja Nazimuddin, was M. A. (Cantab) Barrister-at-Law. This is because, at a very young age he had serious problems with his eye sight due to which he was not allowed to read or write. A private tutor was engaged to teach him English, Urdu, Arabic and Persian orally. Later, when he was much older, he must have consulted various eye specialists in Calcutta, and, by the grace of God, his eyesight improved sufficiently to enable him to read and write. He became an avid reader of various newspapers and books, in English and Urdu, with particular interest in politics and religion and educated himself.
Khwaja Shahabuddin was born on 31st May 1898, the second son of Khwaja Nizamuddin, a zaminder and also a Commissioner of Dhaka Municipality. His maternal grandfather was Nawab Sir Khwaja Salimullah. In 1915 he married his cousin, Farhat Bano, daughter of Nawabzada Khwaja Atiqullah. They had several children but in the end seven – four boys and three girls – grew up to be men and women. At the time of writing only two – one son and one daughter – are surviving.
His interest in politics led him to enter public life at a very young age. He held various positions, beginning with his appointment as Commissioner of Dhaka Municipality from 1918 to 1921. In 1921 he became a member of Dhaka District Board and was its chairman from 1923 to 1924. At that time he was responsible for the construction of the Dhaka-Narayanganj road. He was president of Dhaka District Muslim League (1928-1944), a member of the Executive Council of the Governor of Bengal (1936) and the Treasurer of the Dhaka University (1930-1938). Khwaja Shahabuddin was elected to the Bengal Legislative Assembly in 1937 from Narayanganj constituency and his wife, Farhat Bano was elected to the Assembly in the Muslim Women seat from Dhamrai.
He was the Chief Whip of the government party from 1937 to 1941 when Mr. A. K. Fazlul Huq had formed a ministry in Bengal, and Minister of Commerce, Labour and Industry in the Muslim League Ministry of Khwaja Nazimuddin (1943 to 1945). He took active part in the Pakistan movement and was the Chief Whip of Pakistan National Assembly in 1947.