Aftab Ali, (Bengali: আফতাব আলী, Urdu: آفتاب علی; 1907–1972), was an early 20th-century Bengali social reformer, British Indian and East Pakistani politician and entrepreneur. His work is recognised to have helped thousands of British Asian lascars to migrate, settle and find employment in Britain.
Ali was born into a Bengali Muslim family from the Kathalkhair village of the Sylhet District in the British Raj's North-East Frontier. His father was a merchant on the Sylhet-Calcutta water route, owning a number of boats. At the age of 18, Ali left Sylhet Government School in class 10 moving to Calcutta where he worked alongside Bipin Chandra Pal.
In the 1920s, Ali was a sailor for the British Raj and jumped ship in the United States in search of employment. However, he later returned to Bengal a few years later. This experience led to the foundations of his social work for the rights of South Asian lascars. During this job, Ali saw the poor conditions which the South Asian lascars faced. In 1925, Ali joined the Indian Seamen's Union in Calcutta and eventually rose to become the organisation's general secretary. On January 1937, Ali united all of the various unions (namely the Indian Quartermaster's Union, Bengal Mariner's Union, Seamen's Welfare League of India and Karachi Seamen's Union) under one large federation known as the All-India Seamen's Federation. Ali also joined the Bengal Legislative Assembly in that year, following the 1937 Indian provincial elections.
During a visit to London in 1933 for the Round Table Conference, not only did he represent the interests of Indian seamen but also Indian labourers, film-extras and peddlers in the United Kingdom. Ali arrived to the United Kingdom in July 1939, spending a month in the country. He attended Surat Alley's Indian Workers' Conference in London. Ali appointed Alley as the London representative for his federation. Ali also had a good relationship with Krishna Menon and was invited by Menon to the Glasgow Trades Council meeting on 23 August. He was also invited to another meeting by Benjamin Francis Bradley in Manchester with some Trade Union executives. Ali was also known to have visited Dundee before proceeding off to Switzerland with Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Abdul Mannan Chaudhury for the International Labour Conference in Geneva where he put forward the proposal for a 56-hour week at sea and a 48-hour week at port balance for Indian seamen. As World War II approached Britain, Ali, Alley and Tahsil Miya played crucial roles in breaking the deadlock between British ship-owners and Asian lascars. Rallies were organised with lascars striking against their unequal treatment in income and working conditions. Finally reaching an agreement with the British government, Ali called off the strikes. However, the federation continued to campaign in other fields such as the release and re-employment of imprisoned lascars. They lobbied the Home Secretary, Samuel Hoare, and called on the Trades Union Congress in Glasgow for support.
On his return to Bengal, Ali became the vice president of the All-India Trade Union Congress and continued his role in the Bengal Legislative Assembly. He managed to persuade Abdul Motaleb Malik to join the All-India Seamen's Federation in 1936. In 1941, he left the All-India Trade Union Congress. The following year, the Royal Indian Navy appointed him as honorary lieutenant commander. Ali had close connections with the Indian Seamen's Welfare League led by Shah Abdul Majid Qureshi and Ayub Ali Master.
Following the Partition of India in 1947, Ali moved to East Bengal in Pakistan and became an independent Member of Parliament. His social work for British Asian lascars however, continued. He encouraged lascars to remain and settle in the United Kingdom. In the 1950s, he founded the Overseas Seamen's Welfare Association which campaigned for distressed seamen and their families to be granted British passports. Ali also played an instrumental role by opening a passport office in his house in Sylhet. He was a colleague of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy. He also became the first Minister of Labour for East Pakistan and member of the 3rd National Assembly of Pakistan. During this time, he lived in Mirboxtula.
Death and legacy
Ali died in 1972 while in London. He was buried in Brookwood Cemetery. A housing estate was built in 1995 on Tent Street (off Brady Street, East London) and named after him as Aftab Terrace.