The passing of Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed brings to an end the narrative of a man integral to the post-liberation history of Bangladesh.
As acting President following the fall of the Ershad regime in December 1990 and later as President through election by the Jatiyo Sangsad, Justice Shahabuddin presided over a transformation so necessary to the nation's politics in order to lift the politics out of the atrophy it had slipped into.
President Shahabuddin Ahmed did the job remarkably well. And he did that because he had none of the ambitions which have often marred the reputation of men who started off well but then lost their way because of their own faults, because of a sudden spurt in their inordinate ambitions.
In Shahabuddin integrity was consistently the underpinning of character. One could easily suggest, and validate the suggestion, that in terms of our history, especially in the aftermath of the end of the unconstitutional and extra-constitutional rule, President Shahabuddin Ahmed served as a moral compass for the nation.
The resolute manner in which he navigated the country out of the political quagmire it had fallen into after August 1975 is a tale which needs to be retold --- through discussions and research and in the history books --- in order for us not to make the mistake of forgetting his era.
Shahabuddin Ahmed possessed the wisdom to choose some of the finest individuals to serve on his cabinet of advisors, who in turn were determined to have the nation become privy to a fresh new beginning in its tortuous journey through the political landscape.
As a duly elected head of state in the mid-1990s, Justice Shahabuddin made it a point to keep himself above every controversy. There were, of course, many who had their grievances against him. But to himself --- and to those who knew him and knew how he operated --- he remained true all the way to the end.
This was the moral Shahabuddin, the judge to whom nothing was more sacrosanct than respect for the rule of law and by extension respect for people.
The moral dimensions of the Shahabuddin personality came through in the simplicity he embraced all his life. As President, he made sure that the trappings of office did not interfere with his lifestyle. When he saw electricity being put to unnecessary use at Bangabhaban, he demanded explanations from those responsible.
In him lived a man whose arms were wide open for everyone, for he looked beyond politics and beyond the partisan, and saw people who were as simple as he was. He was, beyond the calling of high office, one of the people. Roots mattered to him.
The resources of the state remained, as long as he was President, a matter of particular concern for him. He was acutely conscious of the noble calling of his presidential office and went out on a limb to ensure that no infractions were committed by his family, that no hint of criticism was there to undermine him and the presidency.
His children travelled within the country and beyond, without making use of state resources or even expecting or asking for state protocol.
It should have been for researchers and historians to undertake serious academic studies of the Shahabuddin presidency, the better to have the nation as also the world beyond Bangladesh's frontiers know of the mettle Shahabuddin was made of, both as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and as President of the Republic.
He presided over two elections, the first in February 1991 and the second in 2001. He bore the criticism directed at him after the October 2001 elections with stoicism, without complaint. Fortitude was ingrained in him.
This nation owes President Shahabuddin Ahmed unbounded gratitude and the richest of tributes for a number of reasons. Suffice it to say here that the prestige he restored to the presidency in his occupancy of Bangabhaban was a refreshing new start for Bengalis in the restoration of democratic politics and its expansion.
A soft-spoken man, Shahabuddin Ahmed had little need for or inclination toward commandeering the limelight. He knew what a President needed to do, which was to do the job as ordained by the constitution, without being loud about it.
Pretence had no part in the Shahabuddin character. Pretension was unknown to him. His easy interaction with people removed the barriers of formality which generally impede communication between presidents and citizens. Human nature, the very best manifestations of it, powered the energy in him.
And yet the heart broke in him at a point. The tragic death of his daughter, a reputed academic, led him into withdrawing from the public eye. In all the years since he saw her pass into her grave, Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed remained confined to silence born of immeasurable pain.
Today, as Shahabuddin Ahmed --- Chief Justice, President, moral adjudicator --- passes into eternity, we raise a salute, in deep reverence, to accord him a sad, fond farewell. He is part of our history. He is history embodied in the gentleness of his being.
He was a lighthouse on our turbulent seas.
Farewell, Mr President!