Vol. 5 Num 783 Wed. August 09, 2006  

Lest we Forget
Syed Murtaza Ali
Tribute on his 25th death anniversary

Syed Murtaza Ali, a top civil servant, renowned historian and distinguished literary personality of his time passed away on this day twenty-five years ago. A brilliant student of science, he graduated with honours in physics from the prestigious Presidency College of Calcutta in 1925 and joined the Assam Civil Service next year.

He is the middle brother among three well-known brothers from Sylhet. His elder brother Syed Mustafa Ali, also a civil servant and a literary figure, graduated with honors in English literature from Dhaka University in its first batch of honours students in 1922. Syed Mustafa Ali passed away in 1977, also in August. Late SM Ali, the internationally acclaimed journalist and the Founder Editor of The Daily Star was his eldest son.

The youngest Ali brother, the renowned Bangla writer Syed Mujtaba Ali needs no introduction. Although all three brothers were interested in Bangla literature, the two elder brothers could not pursue their interest in literature as they had to join the civil service to take charge of their large family after the death of their illustrious father Khan Bahadur Syed Sikandar Ali. They had five sisters -- Habibunessa, Hifzunessa, Nazibunessa, Zebunessa and Lutfunessa -- who were all meritorious students and received scholarships in primary school. However, they could not pursue higher education due to prevailing social restrictions.

Syed Murtaza Ali, after joining the Assam Civil Service, served in various districts in that province prior to 1947. After partition, he was posted as the District Magistrate (now called Deputy Commissioner) in the newly created district of Kushtia in 1947, and in 1948 he was posted to Bogra.

During his assignment in Bogra, his brother Syed Mujtaba Ali came for a literary meeting, and students and teachers of the district were so impressed with Mujtaba Ali's talks that they wanted him to take over as the principal of the local Azizul Huq College. Mujtaba Ali was most reluctant but some students went to Calcutta and finally persuaded him. He joined the college in early 1949 but the atmosphere inside the college was beginning to turn tense as the students were getting involved in the language movement. From the outset, the pro-government conservative group did not view his appointment favourably and they started conspiring against him.

The college magazine was published soon thereafter, and some students had written articles against the police repression of students. All the materials for the magazine were selected long before Mujtaba Ali had taken over but he was accused of "inciting students for writing articles against the Pakistan Government" and they even found fault with his highly scholarly "Message from the Principal" published in the magazine.

Bachelor Mujtaba Ali, in the absence of any college accommodation for the principal, was staying with his elder brother at the District Magistrate's house. So the conspirators not only harassed Mujtaba Ali but also tried to implicate Murtaza Ali.

Murtaza Ali came to Dhaka and met the Chief Secretary and told him point blank: "My brother received PhD from Bonn University fifteen years ago. He did not come seeking a job in an outlying place like Bogra. He can give up this job without hesitation." Mujtaba Ali soon thereafter returned to Calcutta in disgust at the behaviour of the Pakistani authorities. Murtaza Ali was demoted and posted as Additional District Magistrate in Chittagong.

However, the authorities could not suppress him for too long. The then Central Government of Pakistan in Karachi needed good officers and he was posted to the Commerce Ministry as a Deputy Secretary in mid 1951. He was the first provincial cadre officer from the then East Pakistan to have been posted in that capacity. On his way to Karachi, he had an emotional meeting with his younger brother Mujtaba Ali at Delhi Palam airport.

After serving in Karachi for two years, Murtaza Ali returned to Dhaka, and took over first as Joint Secretary and then as the Secretary in the Revenue Department. His principal task was to institutionalise government revenue collection in the wake of abolition of the Zamindari system. In 1957, he was posted as the first Bangali Muslim Divisional Commissioner and was given the charge of the largest division of Rajshahi. He retired in January 1959 and settled in Dhaka.

Writing was Murtaza Ali's main hobby. He wrote on various topics like Bangla literature, history of Assam, Bengal under Muslim rule. His articles were published in Calcutta Review, Journal of Assam Research Society, Sylhet Sahittyo Porishod magazine, Al Islam, monthly Muhammadi and Mahenau, etc. His first book "West Pakistan" was published in 1952 and his other book History of Jaintia was published in 1954.

After his retirement from service, Murtaza Ali spent his entire time in social services and writing. His books "Hazrat Shah Jalal" and "History of Chittagong" were published in 1965. He also served as the Director of the Gazatted Officers Training Academy (GOTA), as the Honorary Treasurer of Dhaka University, and as member of Bangla Academy, Asiatic Society, Dhaka Museum, etc.

Both Syed Murtaza Ali and Syed Mustafa Ali wrote their autobiographies, respectively entitled "Atmakotha" and "Amader Kaler Kotha," which were published in 1968. They are superb chronicles of their era. The prestigious Calcutta weekly Desh reviewed both the publications very favourably. It is really unfortunate that their youngest brother Syed Mujtaba Ali did not write his autobiography.

I would like to conclude this piece with some anecdotes about the brothers. Murtaza Ali was very slim in his youth. Before the medical test for entry into the Civil Service, at the suggestion of friends he decided to consult a doctor for medication for putting on weight. The Presidency College doctor found him fully fit and told him that once he gets the "silver tonic" (meaning first salary), he would put on weight. He did not understand the joke and searched for the illusory "silver tonic" in all the pharmacies of Calcutta.

Mustafa Ali, Murtaza Ali, and Mujtaba Ali were very close, and could talk among themselves for hours, mostly on books and literary works. They never indulged in backbiting or character assassination. We youngsters would sit in front of them and listen to their discourses with awe. There was so much we learned just listening to them talk among themselves.

Smoking was one of their weaknesses and they would occasionally take cigarette breaks as the younger brothers never smoked in front of the elder brother. They would complain how their publishers had cheated them and how they would deal with them sternly in future. But the publishers knew their weakness, and would come with tins of English tobacco; all their sins would be instantly forgiven.

After Mustafa Ali suffered a severe heart attack in 1974, he stopped smoking. However, he had some tobacco tins earlier sent by his sons. At one of their meetings, he placed the tins on the table nonchalantly, saying that he did not need them any more, and walked out of the room. Murtaza Ali looked at them, said that he had cut down on smoking, and left the room. Mujtaba Ali got up, collected all the tins and walked to his room. These gentlemen were in their seventies at the time!

I pray to Allah to grant eternal peace to my illustrious uncles Syed Murtaza Ali and Syed Mujtaba Ali, and to my father Syed Mustafa Ali.

Syed Muazzem Ali is a former Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh.