Vol. 4 Num 138 Mon. October 13, 2003  

Lest we forget
Justice M Ibrahim and his sterling qualities

I first saw Justice Ibrahim in his sprawling two-storeyed house in Purana Paltan reclining in an easy chair in the verandah. This was around 1957 or 1958. I have vague memories of playing with his younger son Kochi (Tariq Ibrahim) in the spacious lawn in front of the house. That is about all I remember. Justice Ibrahim had already retired as a judge of the High Court, and I was hardly 10 years old at the time. They lived at 11 Purana Paltan and we lived in 19 Purana Paltan (now Little Jewels' Kindergarten School). Though only a stone's throw away, their house was the outer limits of my life at the time. In 1958 when we moved from Purana Paltan to Dhanmandi, I lost touch with Tariq Ibrahim. Some years later in 1967 we met again as students in Dhaka University, he in the Sociology Department and I in English; we graduated and lost touch again, only to reestablish contact recently. So when Tariq Ibrahim asked me to write about his father I was both flattered and flabbergasted. What could I write about Justice Ibrahim having seen him fleetingly at an age when older men didn't interest us much?

I agreed because I thought that one need not have private memories to write about a man whose accomplishments are public. I agreed because I felt that by writing about a great man who was dead, I could at least try to communicate part of that greatness to lesser men who are alive. I agreed because I could not say no to a friend who wished his father to be remembered; this, I think is the greatest tribute -- the living remembering the dead.

Justice Ibrahim was born in 1898 in a respectable Muslim family in Faridpur, his forbears having connections with Nawab Alibardy Khan, the independent king of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. He was an excellent student, passing his Matriculation examination from Barisal Zilla School with three gold medals in English, History and Mathematics. He studied in Dhaka College for two years where he also distinguished himself with a scholarship and passed the Intermediate examination in the First Division. He did his Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, later studied Mathematics briefly before joining the Non-Cooperation and Khilafat Movement. He was later persuaded to study Law by Dr Naresh Chandra Sengupta, then Vice Principal of Dhaka College and later a Professor of Law in the newly-established University of Dhaka.

After completing his studies in law, Justice Ibrahim began his illustrious career in the legal profession, practicing first in Faridpur and Dhaka. Later, he also taught law in Dhaka University, became a District and Sessions Court Judge, and was eventually elevated to the benches of the High Court in 1950. In 1956, he retired from the judicial service, after which he was offered the position of Speaker in the National Assembly, a position that he turned down. Justice ATM Afzal wrote about him: "Talented as he was from his earliest days, he always left his mark and touched great heights in every sphere of activity wherever and whenever he was called upon to provide leadership, be it judiciary, education or administration."

After his retirement from the judiciary, Justice Ibrahim was offered the position of Vice-Chancellor of Dhaka University, where he worked from 1956 to 1958. It was during his tenure that the British Council came to be relocated at Fuller Road, making the library much more accessible to students and faculty. He also founded the Dhaka University old Boys' Association. AZM Obaibullah pointed out in a newspaper article that Justice Ibrahim's role as the founder of the Association went unnoticed in a recent conference of the Alumni. Though such omissions are sad they do little to detract from the real contributions and achievements of the man himself. Professor Afsaruddin of Sociology recalls that as VC he was deeply concerned about the welfare of the students. On one occasion a group of students from Salimullah Muslim Hall stormed into his official residence while he was having dinner. The students complained about the poor quality of the food provided in the hall. Without changing from the lungi that he was wearing into something more becoming of a Vice-Chancellor, Justice Ibrahim accompanied the students to the dining hall to see the actual state of things. The food was pronounced to be bad and immediate action was taken to remedy the situation. His term as Vice Chancellor was short but he left his unmistakable stamp of leadership, vision, and authority in the administration of the university.

In 1958, martial law was promulgated by Field Marshall Ayub Khan and Justice Ibrahim was invited to become his Law Minister. These were difficult times in the life of the nation, and Justice Ibrahim was called upon to make a difficult decision. He gave it a good thought and accepted the offer. It is perhaps his short stint as Law Minister of a military, non-constitutional regime that many would consider to be the most controversial aspect of Justice Ibrahim's career. Justice Ibrahim's motives were however quite clear, at least to those around him. He had hoped to contribute meaningfully to the drafting of a new constitution. His hopes were that the new constitution would be secular and democratic, guaranteeing considerable autonomy for East Pakistan. Such were his hopes, but the real nature of politics in Pakistan was different. Differences of opinion between Justice Ibrahim and Ayub Khan led to increasing disenchantment with his ministerial position. In 1961, he suddenly returned to East Pakistan from Islamabad and submitted his resignation. President Ayub Khan tried to persuade Justice Ibrahim to reconsider his decision, and sent emissaries like Md. Shoeb, the then Finance Minister of Pakistan, Mr. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Hashim Reza and General Wasiuddin who held meetings with him informing the request of General Ayub Khan. Justice Ibrahim did not compromise and unflinchingly stuck to his note left submitted earlier to the constitution sub-committee which actually contained a detailed account of an autonomous East Pakistan which he believed in. Subsequently, in early 1962 his resignation was accepted.

Justice Ibrahim withdrew to a life of quiet retirement, supervising the renovation of his Purana Paltan residence, a large part of compound being appropriated for the construction of the North-South Road. He passed away in 1966, after a short illness. "Ibrahim Mansion" constructed later by his sons now stands as a monument to the past and as reminder to his presence in the Purana Paltan area.

Justice Ibrahim's contributions to the judiciary are remembered with great respect and admiration by many of his younger acolytes. Justice ATM Afzal, former Chief Justice of Bangladesh has written that Justice Ibrahim was "an ideal to me for his great learning in law." Justice Ibrahim "shed a lustre in the legal domain" that had lighted up the path of others to follow, and was particularly impressive in the lucidity and precision of his prose and clarity of legal concepts. Justice Afzal further writes that while it is necessary that justice be dispensed as expeditiously as possible, the quality of judgments can only be ensured if our lawyers and judges consider "our own precedents and examples set by Judges like Justice Ibrahim and try to emulate the path trodden by them".

In another article Justice Mostafa Kamal, Former Chief Justice of Bangladesh, writes "When I became a Judge, lawyers would often cite decisions from Justice Ibrahim in support of their arguments. His judgments were invariably short, precise, devoid of repetitions, direct, forthright and pregnant with legal insight. I have often quoted them in my own judgments and have always asked the new Judges to read his judgments to learn how to lay down the law without wasting words".

Late Mr. Azizul Haque has written that "Mr. Justice Ibrahim was Chairman of the Provincial Boy Scouts Association for several years. He was an invaluable inspiration to his younger colleagues. I had the privilege of working with him as the Secretary of the Provincial Council of Boy Scouts. At that time we were visited by John Thurman of Commonwealth Boy Scouts Association who was full of praise for Justice Ibrahim's interest in youth affairs". He was also the founder President of Bulbul Lalit Kala Academy (BAFA).

This is indeed apt and just tribute to the memory of a man whose contributions to the life of Bangalees is numerous and manifold. His daughter, National Professor Sufia Ahmed, wife of late Barrister Ishtiaq Ahmed, and his son Tariq Ibrahim, and many friends, admirers and disciples, carry on in their own ways to hold aloft the torch lighted by Justice M Ibrahim.

Dr. Shawkat Hussain is Chairman, Department of English, Dhaka University.