Bangladesh: In Memorium: Salma Sobhan - a human being extraordinaire by Habibul Haque Khondker

The Daily Star - Dhaka
I often wondered what kept many of my compatriots from knowing some of the true heroes in their own midst. Is it because we are less enthusiastic about knowing the achievements of a fellow citizen than finding about their scandals?
Upon reflection, I realised that this could also say something about the personality in question.
Some people are reluctant to bask in the glory of success or media attention, they carry on with the jobs they have committed themselves to. Salma Sobhan, who passed away shortly after the midnight between December 29 and 30, 2003 was such a person. I often wished to see her as an ambassador of Bangladesh for the simple reason that apart from her enormous talents and brain, she was a rare person whose both parents were ambassadors. I cannot think of another such example.

Salma Sobhan's father was Mr. Ikramullah who was the first foreign secretary of the newly independent Pakistan and subsequently represented Pakistan as an ambassador. Salma Sobhan's mother Begum Shaista Ikramullah too was Pakistan's ambassador to Morocco. Her father-in-law too was once Pakistan's ambassador. It would be an understatement to say that Salma Sobhan was unobtrusive. She never told me that she was the recipient of the famous Human Rights award from the Lawyers' Committee in USA in 2001. It was Ms. Sigourney Weaver who presented the award to her in person. I had to find it out the hard way -- a search through Internet -- as I was preparing a brief resume on her. Salma Sobhan's maternal uncle was Hussain Shahid Suhrawardy and her paternal uncle was Justice Hedayetullah who later became the Vice President of the Republic of India. Her younger sister is married to Hasan Bin Talal, the uncle of Jordan's Monarch.

Such illustrious family background fades in comparison with her personality, which is full of wit and wisdom. A social activist driven by a conscience and a commitment to the causes of the disadvantaged, she was one of the founders (along with Dr Hameeda Hossain) of Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK). She left her teaching career in law at the University of Dhaka to commit herself fully to this organisation of legal aid to the poor women and became a champion of human rights, especially of women and children and other disenfranchised communities in Bangladesh.

Once I received Salma Sobhan at Changi airport of Singapore shortly after the assassination of Prime Minister Rajeev Gandhi and as we were heading to city she was discussing the tragedy and how shocking it was to her sister (at that time wife of the Crown Prince of Jordan) who knew both Rajeev and Sonia from her Cambridge days. As we were discussing the implication of this murder for Indian politics, our English-speaking taxi driver took part in our discussion. He said -- with a characteristic elitist bias -- why kill a Prime Minister, why not an ordinary peasant? Salma Sobhan interjected: "Why a peasant? His life is as precious as that of the former Indian Prime Minister", she argued. The exasperated driver then said: "Ok, if you have to kill someone, kill a dog". Salma Sobhan retorted, human beings have souls and according to many religions there is resurrection or transmigration of soul but the poor dog, many believe, has no soul; once it is dead, it is gone forever. Our friendly driver, at that point gave up. Little did he know that his passenger clad in a cotton sari with unkempt hair from a red-eye flight and an unassuming look was a barrister and a humanist. I asked her later whether she knew anyone in Singapore. Salma Sobhan told me casually that she once met the wife of Singapore's founding leader Lee Kuan Yew, Mrs. Lee. Before she was Mrs. Lee and a senior at Cambridge invited Salma Sobhan to a tea party organised for a handful of female Asian law students at Cambridge. Salma Sobhan quipped: you can imagine how small that group was. I did not press her for any statistics. Salma Sobhan was in Cambridge from 1955 to 1957 and in 1958 was called to the Bar at the tender age of 21.

In another occasion, Salma Sobhan was in Singapore along with Ms. Kamal (Lulu Apa). They gave a talk at a Singaporean NGO dominated by lawyers and other female professionals. The Singaporean feminist activists came to the talk but were milling around as they were not apparently impressed by the diminutive Salma Sobhan with her ordinary looking sari and less ordinary-looking mannerism. However, once she started her speech, I saw a gradual change in the audience behaviour. Those who were milling around stilled, those who were standing began to sit. In a few minutes, some of the Singaporean lawyers were sitting on the floor with rapt attention to her deliberations. What an engaging speaker she was! The audience was spellbound. After the talk, the documentary film "Eclipse" was screened to the feminists in Singapore.

Salma Sobhan, a personality extraordinaire is no more. I had the great privilege of dining in the company of some extraordinary individuals who glowed in their own light some years back. It was a small gathering where Begum Shaista Ikramullah (deceased), Mr. Obaidullah Khan (deceased), Dr. Rahmatullah, his daughter, Dr. Mehraj Jahan and myself sat around a Japanese styled table for a simple but sumptuous dinner hosted by Salma Sobhan and her husband Rehman Sobhan, a legend in his own rights. In that dinner, I reminded Begum Shaista Ikramullah of her essay published in the Reader's Digest on a promise that Mr. Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan made to her. The essay was a recollection of a conversation Begum Ikramullah had with Mr. Jinnah prior to the birth of Pakistan. For a moment, I felt I was talking to history. Like her mother, who authored the famous book From Purdah to Parliament, Salma Sobhan was an intellectual of great calibre and an unparalleled moral integrity. Salma Sobhan wrote a letter defending the publicity of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the pages of The Daily Star -- only when Awami League was out of power.

Salma Sobhan is survived by her loving husband Professor Rehman Sobhan and two adorable sons Baber, an economist and Jafar, who spurned a cushy lawyer's career in New York to choose a career of journalism in Dhaka. Such a move does not surprise me for both her parents Salma Sobhan, a personality extraordinaire, and Rehman Sobhan stuck it out in Bangladesh amidst adversities. For Salma Sobhan, Bangladesh was her base. She lived here and now she will be in eternal peace here forever. She will remain a hero for all those who share her empathy for humanity, especially for those who are socially excluded and disadvantaged. She was a voice for those needed it most. As a human being she was a personification of humility and decency, qualities we can collectively emulate.

Habibul Haque Khondaker is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the National University of Singapore.

Following is a letter Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy wrote from jail to his niece Salma Sobhan reproduced from her mother Begum Ikramullah's book Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy -- A Biography

Appendix XI

Central Jail According to the Newspapers

today is 8 May 1962.

Hello my Junior-never-to-be Congratulations to start with,

And now as an ancient relic I am expected to offer you some sterling advice -- as you are about to be hitched or nitched. Having made a mess of my own life, and still in the further process of doing so, I am the most competent person to guide others, particularly in the province of Dont's. What do these persons know of the shape of things who have lived a sheltered life, embosomed in the service of a providing government -- other than they know everything, they know and know what they will know. So I, am an outcast, I am certified.

Now let us start with a non-controversial premiso. You are preternaturally transcendentally intelligent. It just oozes from you and you can't conceal it. The above adverbs you have inherited from your mother and the adjective from your parents. Now the young man is also intelligent, and sound and well-versed in his subject. Let there be no conflict of intelligences. You may scintillate in your arguments, but he is sounder in his deductions. So learn how to give in and try to conceal the spark under a bushel.

Item number two -- you will have to mix with other people, relatives, friends, wives of friends, take a place in society -- such as will enhance the young man's prestige. But now -- the other people. Normally they resent intelligence. They happen to be normal, and have an inferiority complex in the presence of better-equipped people and they resent it. You will not realise it. You will go in your own way -- a little introverted -- and they will call you arrogant and proud, although you really are a very humble little creature, anxious to please dreading to hurt people. Hence, what are we to do! We cannot make them more intelligent, we can't go on defending ourselves. I am afraid that it is a little cross we have to bear. Afraid of you, they suspect you before you open your lips. Now I cannot ask you to shut your mouth -- it will be impolite to do so and equally impossible for you to comply -- heredity stands in your way. But it is best to let the other chatter and their talks will be inane. The female, the modern one -- thank Heavens, when I look at sundry females of our family I find that that they have a higher sense of dignity and social behaviour and harbour no ill-will -- thinks it clever to talk ill of other females -- slyly, by innuendoes. Do not fall into the trap, never speak ill of anyone, however much that anyone may deserve being spoken ill of -- this of course, I have not understood, why does one deserve to be libeled. If X is bad, well it is none of your business. In fact, speak well of everyone -- or not at all. Best is, to treat them as elder sisters, and give them a sense of superiority, at least in the social aspects.

Next item. Set your own house in order, before you start the social rounds or embark on social service. Most important you may even learn how to cook. Strange as it may sound it is a tradition of Midnapur and of your family, to cook well from the lowly pietha to the best qorma, qofta, pulao,biryani (kutchi and pucci), seekh kabab (I have never tasted anything equal to what my sainted mother used to cook), shami kabab (pharaira) murgh-i-musallam paratha (with several parads, and at the same time khasta, on top, and narm inside), feerni (sounds easy, but can be very tasty), meetha tookra (rich and poor), and I nearly forgot the exquisite (I am tasting it in imagination, and drooling, but I have forgotten the name, sign of sure senility -- I wish people would realise I am senile and played out) something sweet and sour with curd and onions and you can have meat, fish (very good) fowl, (very, very good) even shisah-rangea, nargisikabab, ananas, and kabule pulao: and chutnis of all kinds and bhartas (potatoes, brinjals, sutki, chingri, fish, etc. etc).

I know of a person who is doing so much social service that she is neglecting her home, allowing the expenses to outstrip a fairly comfortable income, and in her zeal, making enemies -- her sole satisfaction being that she is really doing good work and will go to heaven -- setting an example that others can't follow and hence they dislike her (inferiority complex I hope disillusionment doesn't await her to break her spirit). Begum tomatoes make excellent Chatnis. In fact, I think you should not think of social service now time is when you are a matron, and your sympathies need bestowal on a wider circle and here comes the crux (don't pronounce it as crooks) of life. I think firstly, it is absence of hate: and secondly, the positive feeling of love. I do not know why I have never been able to hate -- I almost think it is a weakness. Or it is perhaps a streak in me of always trying to see the other man's point of view and find justification for him. I think was born with it, and it has developed with legal training and a judicial sense. Even in my childhood days I always fought for anybody absent who was attacked. I find that there are a few, very few, I cannot think of but one or two who are just intrinsically spiteful and vindictive, but they can't help it, if God endowed them with a fiend's nature. Others -- and this is true of nearly all people seek to justify their actions by arguments, or by principles, which, however warped they may be, satisfy their conscience. Hence, even when I was in power, and I have been so for years together, with power to do harm to my enemies, I have never victimised them. Indeed, my party men, who understand more the ruthlessness of politics, have always blamed me for what they call my softness. Have I made friends by my leniency and consideration! I have yet to see. Unhappily it is those persons on whom you confer benefits who are apt to stab you in the back. Still, not to hate is morally satisfying, and then, to love I think I do, and would like to love everyone.

Only some won't have it. However, this is not the proper occasion to deal with a subject so abstrusely psychological it may have something to do with senile decay. The reason why I have digressed is that, I think that when one steps into society one is apt to like and dislike and it is more satisfying to like, and not to dislike. And as an outer sign do not backbite, there is nothing which I dislike more, and never hit a person who is down. They must have your sympathy, whether they deserve it or not.

Now, I think that is enough of sterling advice; I hope it is not dross. But it is quite heavy. It could be gold or lead. If lead, transmute it into gold. I hear you can now spout French. Let me see how far you have progressed when we meet. I took it up after my detention; I have eased off considerably: I find it easier to pass time being lazy than being-industrious for nothing. I have started Monte Cristo in French -- to discuss common experiences when I meet him in the next world.

I have received your mother's letter. She is always worrying and explaining that she has always replied to my letters etc, etc. Just ask her not to worry. I do receive her letters and they are as balm in Gilead or nectar to a thirsty soul I would love to hear from her if she will stop worrying about -- having written, or not having written etc....

Now Salma, behave yourself, be a good girl and accept my cordial felicitations.

Lots of love.

Shaheed Mama