Vol. 5 Num 400 Tue. July 12, 2005  

Lest We Forget
Syed Ishtiaq Ahmed
Rare example of a committed personality

Syed Ishtiaq Ahmed, teacher, jurist, lawyer, Attorney-General, two-time Adviser in neutral Caretaker Governments and an eminent public figure, devotedly served the nation in different capacities in legal, social, economic and political arenas of the country.

He was born on January 18, 1932 at Ghazipur in United Provinces in British India, into an aristocratic feudal family. His father, Syed Zafar Ahmed, was a flourishing businessman and landowner at Hili, District of Dinajpur in North Bengal, now a part of India.

After the partition of 1947, his family migrated to East Pakistan. He passed his SSC from Mymensingh Zilla School in 1948 and HSC from the Dhaka College in 1950. He obtained B.A. (Hons.) and M.A. degrees in Economics from Dhaka University in 1953 and 1954, respectively, securing first position in both the examinations.

He was called to the Bar from Lincoln's Inn in England, and simultaneously acquired M.Sc. degree in Economics from the London School of Economics in 1954. Thereafter he taught in a secondary school in England from 1954 to 1960.

He started his legal practice in the then East Pakistan High Court in 1960, and continued until his death, on July 12, 2003. He also taught law at Dhaka University as a part-time teacher from 1961 to 1968 and served the university as a senior legal adviser from 1972 to 1991.

He was appointed an Additional Attorney General in 1972 and the Attorney General in 1976. He was twice elected President of the Supreme Court Bar Association, in 1978-79 and 1989-90.

He was an active member of the Bangladesh Institute of Law and International Affairs (BILIA), served as its alternate chairman from 1985 to 1991 and as chairman from 1992 until his death. He was the founder member of the Board of Trustees of Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust, and served in the capacity until his death.

Syed Ishtiaq Ahmed represented Bangladesh in the United Nations General Assembly in 1978. Recruited as a member of the International Election Observer Group, he helped to monitor national elections of Sri Lanka, Nepal, and the Maldives.

During his legal career spanning over four decades he deservedly earned a high reputation as a brilliant lawyer, specialising in civil law matters, and was universally acknowledged as a leading constitutional expert. His arguments in diversified legal matters are regarded as invaluable documents for elucidation and interpretation of laws. The Supreme Court often called him as amicus curie to assist the Court in deciding the most difficult and complex issues and aspects of the constitution.

Among the epoch-making cases where he provided his professional excellence mention should be made of the famous case of Anwar Hossain vs. the State widely known as the 8th Amendment Case. The 8th Amendment to the Constitution compromised the integrity of the High Court by creating several divisional benches in different parts of the country. Lawyers led by Ishtiaq Ahmed and a few others launched a relentless battle to undo it. They finally succeeded and the part of the 8th Amendment of the Constitution concerning the establishment of several high courts was declared void and unconstitutional in 1989. On the exposition of constitutional matters, Ishtiaq Ahmed's incisive legal mind hardly had any equal. This case is regarded as a milestone in the constitutional history of Bangladesh.

He held the freedom of the speech, especially of the press, close to his heart and fought exemplary legal battles in the court to uphold freedom of press. The famous instances of legal proceeding to annul the government ban, in which Ishtiaq Ahmed won resounding legal victories against the government, includes cases concerning the ban on the weekly Jai Jai Din in 1990 and 1996, the weekly Robbar in 1990, the weekly Khoborer Kagoj and the daily Manab Jamin. His arguments in favour of these weeklies and newspapers form a memorable chapter in the history of the freedom of the press.

Ishtiaq Ahmed made a significant contribution to the struggle for the establishment of democracy, rule of law, and independence of the judiciary. In the eighties, he was one of the undisputed leaders of the movement of the lawyers which eventually emerged as the peoples' movement heralding the fall of autocracy in 1990. He suffered imprisonment twice, in 1983 and 1987, in the course of the struggle of the lawyers to restore the dignity of the High Court.

After the restoration of the democratic system in 1991, he was instrumental in effecting the change-over from presidential to parliamentary system of government. He was one of the chief architects of the unique neutral caretaker system of government introduced in Bangladesh.

During the caretaker government of 2001, he laboriously worked on a legal framework to separate the judiciary from the executive in pursuance of the mandate of the constitution, but certain political compulsions stood in the way of its immediate implementation.

He was sought to be appointed adviser in the interim government of 1991 by the then Acting President, Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed, but declined the offer for personal reasons. Subsequently, he was appointed adviser to the caretaker governments of 1996 and 2001. The fact that he was invited to serve all the three successive neutral caretaker governments demonstrated people's confidence in his honest, integrity as a leader, conscience keeper and a guardian who steered the nation with his wise counsel during crucial periods of national crisis.

Ishtiaq Ahmed was a fire-brand political activist and eloquent speaker in Bengali and English, since his school days. He was closely associated with the Mukul Fouz and Bratachari Movements. In 1946, he joined the agitation and protest rally at Kolkata against the capital punishment meted out by the British to two Indian National Army pfficers and was interned. During the Language Movement in 1952, he courted arrest for the second time, and the third time in 1954 for opposing the imposition of Governor General's rule in East Pakistan after the arbitrary dismissal of the elected government.

In 1953, he joined the movement against the ban on meetings of students by the then Pakistan government. He also supported the agitation in favour of the demands of the fourth class employees of Dhaka University. During the first phase of his student life he was a supporter of the Pakistan movement and was influenced by pro-Islamic political ideals. During his university days at Dhaka and London, he went through a radical ideological metamorphosis and gained a wider political perspective. He transformed into a left-leaning, progressive, secular, non-partisan, anti-autocratic, passionately democratic persona with abiding faith in constitutional liberalism, and became a staunch defender of people's rights.

He was a rare example of a dynamic personality deeply committed to his profession who could still be interested and involved in so many activities of value to society. Ishtiaq Ahmed was a writer, a lover of Tagore's poems, a noted philanthropist, a collector of paintings by Bangladeshi artists and a keen gardener.

He has left behind three unpublished manuscripts on anti-autocracy movement, experience of caretaker governments, and judicial review.

Syed Ishtiaq Ahmed (1932 - 2003)