Bengali Muslim becomes India’s Chief Justice

Udayan C: A couple of weeks ago, Altamas Kabir was sworn in by President Pranab Mukhopadhyay as the 39th Chief Justice of India. As far as I am aware, this is the highest rank held by a Bengali Muslim in India since 1947.

Justice Kabir and his family are by no means typical, and hardly representative of the Indian Bengali Muslim experience, which lacks any kind of strong middle or upper class, and is virtually invisible in West Bengali socio-political elites, let alone those of Indian Muslims or of Delhi. So while this shouldn’t be seen as a breakthrough, there is symbolic value nonetheless.

As a Bengali with a soft spot for pan-Indian nationalism of the Nehruvian-Tagore “ভারতের মহামানবের সাগরতীরে” variety (cue the close up of Advani watching on in the linked video for full dramatic effect), I can’t help noticing the irony and happy coincidence of a Bengali President administering the Oath of Office in English, and then doing chit chat in Hindi afterwards. And as a Bengali with a soft spot for our neighbor to the east, I see some more irony in the fact that both these distinguished gentlemen have extended family and origins just a few miles from each other in what is now another country.

Meanwhile, Facebook commentators seemed affectionately (?) fixated on the new CJ’s Bengaliness being very visible in the close-up of him singing the national anthem at the ceremony – “joyo he, joyo he” he was mouthing, instead of “Juya-hai” as we are all supposed to do in the name of unity in diversity. Wait a minute … that’s a Bengali song he’s singing as well come to think of it …

Justice Altamas Kabir, the senior-most judge of the Supreme Court, has been sworn in as the 39th Chief Justice of India.

His ancestors came from an affluent Bengali Muslim family in Faridpur, now in Bangladesh. Although his father Jehangir Kabir was also influential in Bengal politics, the clan was made famous more by his uncle, Humanyun Kabir, a renowned academic. His branch of the clan chose to migrate to India after the partition in 1947. Times of India

26 thoughts on “Bengali Muslim becomes India’s Chief Justice

  1. Other Faridpur-ians (from Wiki):

    Sheikh Mujibur Rahman : First Head of State of Bangla Desh.
    Jasim Uddin: Country’s only pastoral poet
    Munsi Muhammad Abdur Rouf: Bir Shrestho (valiant war hero of 1971)
    Ambika Charan Majumder: President of the Indian National Congress (1916–1917)
    Nawab Abdul Latif: renowned Muslim educator and social reformer during the 19th Century
    Chowdhury Moyezuddin Biwshash: renowned zamindar, politician and social reformer during the 19th Century
    Humayun Kabir: eminent Indian politician, educationist and former adviser to the Government of India under Jawaharlal Nehru
    Buddhadeb Bhattacharya: Chief Minister of West Bengal
    Mohonmiah Yusuf Ali Chowdhury : Eminent Muslim League politician
    Chowdhury Abdallah Zaheeruddin: Former Central Minister of Labor, Federal Government of Pakistan.
    Chowdhury Kamal Ibne Yusuf: Ex- Minister Govt. of Bangladesh, Vice-President of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)
    Alamgir M. A. Kabir: Former Advisor to the Caretaker Government of Bangladesh, Former Inspector-General of Police & recipient of Independence Day Award
    Akber Kabir: Former Advisor to the Government of Bangladesh under President Ziaur Rahman & renowned philanthropist
    Altamas Kabir: Chief Justice of India
    Khushi Kabir: Founder of Nijera Kori
    Fakir Alamgir: Popular folk singer
    Ashique Mostafa: Famous Film Maker (Notable Film: Phulkumar, and producer of Meherjaan), Poet and Writer (author of the books “Moger Mulluk” and “auteur”).
    Geeta Dutt: Indian playback singer
    Sigma Huda: human rights activist, former United Nations Special Rapporteur on human trafficking
    Khushi Kabir: Co-ordinator of Non-Government Organization, Nijera Kori & social activist
    Babar Kabir: renowned environmentalist
    Sukanta Bhattacharya
    Advocate Sarwarzan Miah : Famous lawyer & Politician, Former MLA (East Pakistan), MP, Principal of faridpur LAW College, District President of Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
    Shah Mohammad Abu Zafar:freedom Fighter, member of parliament
    Shamsul Huq Faridpuri
    Syed Abul Hossain, Former Minster of Government of Bangladesh, Member of Bangladesh Awami League.
    Syeda Rubaiyat Hossain, Academic and Filmmaker (writer & director of Meherjaan)
    Mohammad Abu Yousuf, Former Editor, The daily Ajker Awaz, Ex-Director Multimidia Company Ltd(ATN Bangla),

  2. Faridpur also hosts the River Research Institute, which isnt an NGO.

    The new chief justice must have been such a cute baby. look at his cheeecks.

    thanks for sharing, good to know, will dig deeper.

  3. You have forgotten other eminent names which I now include and I am sure to have left many others out too. They are film makers Mrinal Sen, Gautam Ghosh, Tareque Masud amongst others that now come to mind.

  4. I am confused. Situation in East and West Bengal was so bad in 1947 that millions of typically homesick Bangalee Hindus and Muslims left their ancestral home of generations to take shelter in parts of the province where their religion had majority presence and where they could feel safe.

    Under what circumstances the family of Altamas Kabir migrated in the wrong direction?

    1. I think the term “migrate” (which the TOI article used) is the wrong one here. The Kabirs who opted for India were most likely already based in Calcutta for professional reasons and just chose to stay on, rather than go to the country where their home district was, or where the population was predominantly their coreligionists.

      Unlike in Punjab, where there was virtual exchange of population overnight amidst much carnage, in Bengal the migration was more in drips often driven by personal professional and economic calculations rather than ethnic cleansing. For the bulk of the nascent Bengali Muslim middle class in 1947, East Pakistan presented greater potential opportunities, and for those lower down the socio-economic scale, it probably didn’t make too much of a difference which is why so many stayed in West Bengal. But for superstars, unless they were going to replicate their professional or economic pre-eminence in the new set-up, India might have made more sense. Other examples who made a clear choice for India include Ustad Akbar Ali Khan (Comilla) and Comrade Muzaffar Ahmed (Noakhali), as well as people like Mujtaba Ali who went back and forth. I would assume the Kabirs fell into this superstar category.

      I think there were many people who tried to see what their options may have been for a short period of time; in retrospect one can rewrite one’s memoirs to suit contemporary or legacy needs. Suhrwarady, for instance, stayed on after 1947, and later claimed that this was a deliberate temporary measure to safeguard the rights of Calcutta’s Muslims who chose to stay behind before he eventually moved to Dhaka. But there are enough contemporary records showing his unease at the new political establishment in East Pakistan, and how he was trying very hard to carve a new long term role for himself in independent India (including by publicly expressing regret at partition and his contributions to that cause) but failed.

      1. Yes, that is the case most probably.
        Otherwise a Bangladeshi muslim migrating ( Or infiltrating into) to India is not a very nice thing to say under current standards! 🙂

        On this side of the border, those who climbed up the ladder to the top places in the Judicial or administrative service are mostly migrated muslims. Until mid 90s, nearly all chief justices of Bangladesh were from current west Bengal.
        Justice Sattar probably was the first migrant to become President of Bangladesh. He was CEC during 70’s election which AL won landslide. Even Khaleda Zia family has Kuch Bihar ancestry ( Sheikh Hasina leaves no chance in reminding people of this heritage). Ershad is another west bengal Muslim. BNP era speaker Mirza Golam Hafiz is also from Murshidabad.

        Current day eminent jurists Dr Kamal Hossain, Rafiqul Haque, Md Zahir, Azmalul Haq QC — I guess all have west bengal ancestry.

        If Justice Altamas Kabir migrated to Bangladesh, I guess his promotoin to CJ post would have been more difficult.

      2. Ziaur Rahman also had family connections from the other side (and unrelated, but interesting, both his parents are buried in Karachi).

        And even in the 2000s, CJs had West Bengal connection. KM Hasan probably was the first khash Bangal CJ.

      3. In Syed Mujtaba Ali’s case, Pakistan government also persecuted him after he published his famous “Purbo Pakistan er Rasthro Bhasha” essay. After this, he spent much more time in WB. Pakistan government, unable to reach him, slowed down the civil service career of his older brother Syed Murtaja Ali.

  5. Well, Bangal vs Ghoti is very different from Indian Bengali vs Bangladeshi. We of course had Jyoti Babu (Dhaka) and Buddhadeb Babu (Faridpur) at the helm for 35 years out of 65 years after independence. Jyoti was very proudly and openly East Bengali, Buddha less so.

    There’s a story of how Ershad was joking with Jyoti Basu when on a state visit to India, “had I stayed here, do you think I could also have been Chief Minister?” with Jyoti replying, “perhaps not, but you would have been more loved”.

    I wonder whether Altamas saheb supports Mohan Bagan or East Bengal?

  6. Its good that India has matured enough these days to give its minorities a chance (even a show-case job), a concept which was unknown before partition, when only the majority classes were allowed those choice appointments.

    1. If that is your criteria for India’s maturity on this score, you are several decades late in your observations about “these days”.

      Altamas Kabir may be the first Bengali Muslim CJ, but he is not the first Muslim in that – or other high ranking and prominent positions. Mohammad Hidayatullah was the first Muslim CJ – back in 1968, and during his term he also served as the acting President of India. Several others followed before the current CJ.

      In terms of minorities in similar “show case jobs”, there have been several Muslim Vice Presidents (including the current one, Hamid Ansari), Presidents (one of whom was Abdul Kalam, architect of India’s nuclear program, hardly a nominal role or one without sensitivity) as well as Christian / Parsi / Sikh Chiefs of the Armed Forces,

      And since you reference the era of partition, and seem dismissive of “show-case” jobs, let’s take the first cabinet in Independent India. Nehru’s first cabinet of 14 had 6 Ministers who were minorities in terms of how that term is used – a Sikh, 2 Muslims, a Christian, a Dalit, and a Dalit turned Buddhist.

      These statistics don’t necessarily reflect ground realities on economic, social or political mobility, and they don’t mean that India’s record is perfect on diversity, minority rights, or representation, but I am surprised at the criteria for your observation and I assume you’re making it without having examined your hypothesis in greater detail.

    2. A major complaint by Muslims **before partition 1947** was that they did NOT get the choice jobs, even when they clearly deserved it. Hindus dominated the scene when it came to top jobs. That was key thorn in the partition bush !

      AFTER 1947 a positive effort was made to redress that scenario, hence Nehru’s moves to diversify, and then came the Zakir Hussains & the Kalams as muslim Presidents in India.

      55 years after 1947, (the year of independence, secularism, freedom & democracy), it is interesting to see Indians celebrating the appointment of a certain section of society. “Wow, a Bengali Muslim has been appointed a CJ”. Finally, Bengalis can rejoice.

    1. You are right, it should be Bengali Muslim, not Bangladeshi Muslim.

      But then it raises another question. What is the cut off date after which one will be considered Bangladeshi Muslim and hence illegal and outcast – or Bangali Muslim. Is it 1971? How was the attitude between 47 and 71?

      Is there any different standard between Bangali Hindu migrant and Bangali Muslim migrant? Can India, being a secular state, officially or unofficially maintain a double standard?

      [ I know we are digressing way too much :)]

  7. I shared the discussion on this blog with a close relative of Altamas Kabir: Professor Ananya Jahanara Kabir, Professor of the Humanities, School of English, University of Leeds, UK. She wrote the following over email, and it is posted here w/ her permission.

    “Altamas Kabir’s father Jehangir Kabir was certainly professionally familiar with Calcutta, but took a very clear decision in 1947 to opt for India as he believed in a secular state and was not supportive of the Muslim League at all. He was also very influenced by his brother, Humayun Kabir, whose Congress politics obviously made it clear that he would remain in India.

    Jehangir Kabir was no ‘superstar’ (though arguably Humayun Kabir was more of one). He was just a secular idealist.

    The story of the Kabir siblings of Faridpur show yet again that, on the personal and familial level, most Bengali Muslim families had complex stories around 1947. Personal, political, professional and marital choices all came together on the individual level to confirm what the post 1947 arrangements would be.

    My forthcoming book, ‘Partition’s Post-Amnesias’ discusses in detail both these stories and their implications for post-Partition memory politics on the subcontinent.”

    1. Thanks for this. Humayun Kabir’s commitment to secular ideals is legendary, and I certainly didn’t mean it to sound a purely mercenary decision-making lens for him or the other examples. Muzaffar Ahmed, for instance, staying behind to face imprisonment and torture from the Indian police while leading the Communist Party, was hardly chasing riches or recognition. The whole drama over who should / could claim Nazrul’s legacy and his physical location in the post 47 years is another example of ideology and familial divisions, acutely illustrated when the person in question wasn’t in a position to make up his own mind.

      I know of many in my family’s social circles, for instance, who would fall into Humayun Kabir’s category of idealism dictating the choice (though they are not as well known). For some, it was a lifelong look over the shoulder at siblings and cousins across the border, and constantly needing to justify their gut wrenching decision in 1947. For some others, they made a decision to opt for Pakistan in 1947 or thereafter, but either disillusioned or for whatever reason, came back permanently after a few years if they still had the means and connections to do so. And another twist is that these family connections and shared nationalities between families across the borders provided a lifeline to thousands – maybe more – in 1971, by when the whole Pakistan experiment had unraveled.

      Bottom line: staying in or opting for India in 1947 was not an inconceivable notion to many Bengali Muslims, however irreconcilable that may be for many narratives.

  8. I was wrong (and surprised that no one has corrected me) — KM Hassan is not the first Bangal CJ of Bangladesh. Shahbuddin Ahmed was as Bangal as Nirad C Chaudhuri.

    Udayan, why do you think Janab Altamas must support either MB or EB — isn’t there a Mohammedan Sporting Club in Kolkata (not that I am suggesting soccer club support must be communally determined, though the MB/EB binary is based on a communal division of non-religious kind.)

    More seriously, if I am not mistaken, not all Kabir brothers opted for India. Didn’t one of them become a minister under the military strongman Ziaur “decidedly non-secular Bismillah loving” Rahman? Similarly, the Ali brothers are mentioned above. But the one who opted for East Pakistan was not sufficiently indoctrinated into the secular Bangali jatiyatabad of 1971 er chetona variety, and had seen his career suffer in 1972. So these individual choices are, indeed, very irreconciliable for many narratives.

    That said, one narrative we don’t hear is about a collective, political platform for Bengali Muslims to remain in India. Yes, there were individual stories. But was there any political coalition for a Bengali Muslim state in India?

    I wrote about it here:

    (Note the discussion about ‘superstars’ in the comment section).

    1. “I mean the affluent, propertied classes who made the political choices — chose particular paths instead of alternatives.”

      Aren’t there are also subalterns who made political choices, although perhaps not impacting politics with a capital P, impacting lives at the aggregate?

  9. Many secular idealists of undivided India opted for Pakistan though differed on the question of its own foundation. Despite of non-acceptance of the partition of India, the Kabirs in those days were more attached to the central political circle than with that of the then eastern Bengal. I have seen many Muslim families of this land who left a few connections on the other side mostly due to their social, political and financial involvements (better to say stakes). However most of them were from the highly educated and wealthy ones. Many thought to assess their position before migrating to their root in the then East Pakistan but later decided to stay in the backdrop of the mismatched socio-cultural structure here.

  10. we agree that some of the top gubernational posts in india being held by bengalis are those that came from bangla desh PLEASE JOIN US AGAIN

  11. Justice Sattar , a indian – migrant , becomes chief election commissioner in the then undivided pakistan (1970 election). Later on he became president after Zia’s death.

  12. 1st Chief Justice of Bangladesh AM Sayeem from Rangpur . Next one Justice Syed AB Mahmud Hussain from Sylhet. Justice Bad rul Haider Choudhury from Noakhali. After him is Justice Sahabuddin Ahmed .

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