A New Beginning for Bangladesh: The Legacy of Ziaur Rahman,1975-1981

 

 

by Taj Hashmi*    11 August 2020

The August coup of 1975, that killed Mujib and most family members and toppled his one-party rule was as inevitable as monsoon rain after weeks of sweltering heat in Bangladesh. Mujib’s one-party dictatorship – his “personal dictatorship …. to convert the country into a personal fiefdom for himself and his family members”, as Lawrence Ziring[i] puts it – precipitated the thunderstorm. And, we know Mujib’s switching over to one-party dictatorship was not in reaction to some national emergency but in accordance with his preference for a dictatorship to democracy or rule by a constitution, which he publicly denounced as a colonial legacy.[ii] Now, the proliferation of so many conspiracy theories about who killed Mujib and why does not help us resolve the problem. One is not sure if Mujib’s successor Khandakar Mushtaque Ahmed, or the retired and serving majors who actually staged the coup and killed Mujib and his family members with “tacit support” of General Ziaur Rahman were the key players, or the US Administration played the decisive role in the coup! As Ziring argues that “the majors and possibly Mushtaque too were principals in these epoch-making events, but not the key players”, and that “the conspiracy to destroy the Bangabandhu … was not only more widespread, it also had a higher cast of players [emphasis added].”[iii] Whether Mushtaque had plotted the overthrow of the Mujib regime a year before it happened, and if the US embassy in Dhaka knew about it six months earlier, as Lifshultz suggests,[iv] one finds Ziring more convincing that the coup of August 1975 was “internally generated”, not orchestrated by America.[v] One may further agree with Ziring that Majors Farook and Rashid “did not have the capacity to reward Zia”, as Mushtaque was the lynchpin in the whole plot, and held the mantle political power after the coup. Nevertheless, although not a co-conspirator to overthrow Mujib, Zia was definitely the main beneficiary of the coup.[vi]

The day after the coup, the four newspapers which had survived the proscription order by Mujib government made anti-BAKSAL headlines. Two headlines of a Bengali daily read: “People are Heaving a Sigh of Relief”, and “Maulana Bhashani Lends Support to Moshtaque Government”.[vii] Soon after assuming power as the President of Bangladesh, Khandakar Mushtaque Ahmed took some drastic measures to undo the radical changes brought about by the one-party rule under Mujib. He formally declared the end of BAKSAL rule and promised the restoration of multi-party democracy. Most importantly, on 26th September 1975, through a presidential ordinance, he granted indemnity to the assassins of Mujib and his associates. The Indemnity Ordinance implied no courts in the country would be ever allowed to prosecute the Mujib assassins. His government arrested six ministers of Mujib cabinet, ten MPs, four bureaucrats, and several businessmen on different charges of corruption and misconduct. He made a list of 36 corrupt military officers. He also released political detainees, including Mashiur Rahman Jadu Mia and Oli Ahad. He made General Osmani the military adviser to the President and appointed General Ziaur Rahman as the new Army Chief. He also returned the ownership of two Bengali dailies, Ittefaq and Sangbad to the original owners. What is very noteworthy that in post-Liberation Bangladesh Muslim Bengalis who had tremendous misgivings about Mujib government’s “secular” and “socialist” policies, the sport welcomed the end of his regime. Following the end of the Mujib regime, Mushtaque played the Islamic card to legitimise his rule.  His assassins and their supporters also re-emphasized Islam and “swiftly pushed the national slogan of Jai Bangla [Victory to Bengal] aside and reverted to the old zindabad slogan”, which was “a throwback to the erstwhile Pakistan Zindabad [long live Pakistan]”, observes a pro-Awami League columnist Syed Badrul Ahsan.[viii] He blames Maulana Bhashani, who had been an ardent champion of socialism and freedom, as soon after the Liberation he “went for a total reversal of his political ideology … disseminating the idea of what he termed Muslim Bangla”.[ix]

It is noteworthy, the army officers and troops who toppled the Mujib regime had been freedom fighters – some highly decorated ones – in theLiberation War. As discussed earlier, Bangladesh under Mujib was going through a very turbulent, and uncertain phase of its history. Being a symbol of poverty and bad governance, the country was also too close to India and the Soviet Union for comfort for the bulk of the Muslim population in the country. While the bulk of the population was leaning toward Islam – both spiritual and political – out of frustration and in quest of an alternative political ideology, their government was “secular” and “socialist”, in the distorted sense of the expressions. So much so, that Indian journalist Basant Chattertjee’s eyewitness accounts of Bangladesh in 1973 revealed that Islam was the cornerstone of Bangladeshi identity, and the country had virtually become “Muslim Bengal”.[x]

As Mujib was losing his popularity in geometric progression during 1972 and 1975, his brutal assassination along with most family members did not move the bulk of the Bangladeshis at all, at least not during the first two decades following the August Coup of 1975. Not only Mujib’s very close associates took the reins of the government, but soon after Mujib’s assassination, Awami League stalwart Abdul Malek Ukil, who was the speaker of the Parliament, led a parliamentary delegation to London to seek British support for the Mushtaque government. He even told a journalist at the Heathrow Airport, who asked for his opinion about Mujib’s killing: “The country has been relieved of the Pharaoh”! Another senior Awami League leader, Mohiuddin Ahmed, went to Moscow to seek the Soviet support for the new regime.[xi] Maulana Bhashani, who welcomed Mujib at his residence in March 1975 – apparently, in approval of Mujib’s one-party rule – soon after his assassination, also supported the Mushtaque regime.[xii] Seemingly, personal loyalty and durable commitment to any ideology among Bangladeshi politicians, intellectuals, beneficiaries of powerful people, and the hoi polloi has been as elusive as anything.

Mujib’s death was followed by several coups and counter-coups, and finally, General Ziaur Rahman became the chief martial law administrator, and eventually president of Bangladesh. The cleavage within the Army, between Zia – having close links with the coup makers – and Brigadier Khaled Musharraf – “possibly” in collusion with the Awami League – was widened by early November 1975. However, thanks to the anti-Awami League sentiment of the people and the bulk of the armed forces (anti-Awami League was almost synonymous with anti-India) the pro-Zia elements in the Army successfully crushed the four-day-old coup by Musharraf on 7th November. Troops killed the counter-coup leaders, including Musharraf, and Zia virtually became the new ruler of Bangladesh, under the titular President Sayem, who had been appointed by Musharraf on 4th November.[xiii] Soon Zia crushed the pseudo-Leftist JSD (National Socialist Party), which was an offshoot of the Mujib Bahini, an Indian-trained outfit of freedom fighters, who soon after the Liberation had been championing ultra-leftist ideology, and publicly went against the Mujib government.[xiv] After the elimination of the ambitious Brigadier Musharraf in November 1975, and the radical pro-JSD elements in the armed forces, especially their leader Colonel (ret) Taher’s execution by a military tribunal in 1976 (Taher wanted to stage a socialist revolution with “people’s armed forces”) Zia emerged as the de facto ruler of Bangladesh.

However, neither Zia nor Bangladesh was free from during late September and early October of 1977, two major disturbances stirred up by sections of the army and air force posed security threats to the Zia administration and the country, as a whole. The August’75 coup leader Major (ret) Farooq went to his “own” cavalry unit at Bogra to mobilise the support of troops against Zia. Farooq managed to mobilise troops in some infantry units as well. He wanted to float his own political party in Bangladesh, which Zia was not in favour of.

No sooner had Zia tackled the situation at Bogra than some air force troops revolted in Dhaka and killed several air force officers on October 2nd, 1977. Zia ruthlessly crushed the rebellion and executed hundreds of rebels and their ring leaders. Ironically, these actions earned Zia a bad name as “ruthless” and even “ungrateful”! To Mascarenhas – who praises Ershad, the corrupt and ruthless military dictator a lot – “No general in the history of the subcontinent massacred his own troops the way Zia did after the aborted coup of 2nd October 1977”. Then again, he mentions that Zia was also “plagued by 20 mutinies, attempted coups and assassination attempts” during his five and half-years rule.[xv] An insider, Major (ret) Dalim reveals that the main architects of the August ’75 coup, Col (ret) Farooq and Major Rashid wanted to overthrow the Zia regime, as they were very unhappy with him.[xvi] We, however, find Ziring’s appraisal of Zia administration very correct and objective. Zia substantially increased expenditures for the armed forces as well on economic development, especially agriculture. He faced 26 attempted coups against his regime, and his armed forces were thoroughly divided, at least into four distinct groups: a) freedom fighters; b) repatriated from Pakistan; c) Islam-oriented, and d) radical “Leftist”/extremist group under JSD’s Colonel Taher and others. The above groups were again subdivided into conservative, moderate, and radical factions. Thus, he had to take drastic action against the radical/extremist group members. He had to execute “thousands of officers and men to death”. Ziring thinks: “Like Shakespeare’s Macbeth … Zia became so steeped in blood, that going forward was no more difficult than retreating, and retreating meant yielding …”[xvii] In short, Zia tried to maintain a balance between the politically ambitious military officers – who also wanted to a have a large portion of the economic pie, disproportionate to their number and qualifications – and the politically ambitious civilians, who did not want to lose their economic interests either. On the one hand, he appeased the August’75 coup leaders, Farooq, Rashid, Dalim and others by giving lucrative diplomatic positions abroad to most of them, on the other, he formed a political party, held parliamentary and presidential elections to introduce multi-party democracy and the predominance of civil administration. Meanwhile, Zia had also successfully overpowered the Indian-backed cross border insurgents under freedom fighter-cum-war criminal Kader Siddiqi in 1977. Soon after the overthrow of the Mujib regime, Siddiqi and his men (ardent Mujib loyalists) went to India, and the Indira Gandhi administration gave them sanctuary and arms to create disturbances across the Indo-Bangladesh border. Siddiqi’s men killed many Bangladeshi soldiers at the northern border during the eighteen-month confrontation until the emergence of Morarji Desai, as the new Prime Minister of India in March 1977. Meanwhile, India had also provided sanctuary and arms to the Chakma separatist Shanti Bahini militia in India. Although Siddiqi’s rebel group fizzled out in 1977, the Shanti Bahini insurgency continued till 1997. However, Zia’s uncompromising efforts kept the Chakma insurgents at bay.

Although marginalized by Mujib, superseded by his junior, Major General Safiullah – with no known military feats, unlike Zia’s, who was also a decorated officer in the Pakistan Army for his heroic performance in the 1965 Indo-Pakistan War – Zia’s ascendancy to power was meteoric. Soon after the overthrow of the Mujib regime, Mushtaque made him the Chief of the Army Staff in August 1975. He not only lifted bans imposed on Islam-oriented political parties and parties like the Muslim League, which opposed the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, but he also allowed the revival of the Awami League, which Mujib had formally proscribed in 1975, through the Political Parties Regulation order on 28th July 1976.[xviii] On 29th November 1976, President Sayem could no longer resist Zia’s pressure to relinquish the position of the Chief Martial Law Admininstrator (CMLA). Zia as the CMLA became the de facto ruler of the country, as under martial law the CMLA’s proclamations were more binding than the constitution. The Parliament was compliant and the President was just a figurehead. Soon after becoming the Chief Martial Law Administrator, he started the civilianization process by withdrawing martial law, holding parliamentary and presidential elections. On 21st April 1977, Zia asked ailing and old President Sayem to step down, which he did, and handed over the office of the President to Zia. On 30th May 1977, Zia held a country-wide referendum on the question: “Do you have confidence in President major General Ziaur Rahman and the policies and programmes enunciated by him?”, to confirm his presidency. He got more than 98.88 percent “yes votes”.[xix] Zia’s close associate and Director of the DGFI (military intelligence) Major General Mohabbat Jan Chowdhury told this writer that the poll figure (98.88%) had been “unnecessarily” inflated by some people in the Zia administration.[xx] Soon after the referendum, Zia wanted a proper mandate from the people. He formed a  political alliance of “like-minded” people from the Right, Left, and Centre who believed in his “Bangladeshi Nationalism”. The alliance – not a full-fledged political party – the Nationalist Democratic Group (JAGODOL), came into being with his blessings on 23rd February 1978. Meanwhile, he had publicly affirmed that he would make “politics difficult” for traditional politicians. He wanted a “rural-based” and “people-oriented” nationalist party.

Eight weeks after the formation of the JAGODOL, Zia declared that the presidential election would be held on 3rd June 1978. His JAGODOL formed electoral alliances with the National Awami Party (Bhashani Group), Bangladesh Muslim League, United People’s Party, and some smaller political parties. Zia’s main rival in the presidential election was General (ret) M.A.G. Osmani (who was the commander-in-chief of the Freedom Fighters in 1971). Osmani was the candidate of the joint front comprised of the Awami League and some like-minded parties. While Zia won the election by capturing more than 76 percent of the cast votes, Osmani managed to get only 21 percent. Not long after winning the presidential election, Zia publicly announced on 1st September 1978 the formation of a broad-based political party called the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) with a wide-ranging socio-economic manifesto based on his 19-Point Programme.[xxi] He brought about major constitutional changes and a change in the national identity. He restored law and order, revived political parties and political activities, and allowed the newspapers, which had been proscribed by Mujib in 1975.

After winning the presidential election, Zia held the parliamentary elections on 27 January 1979. Prior to the elections, he resigned from the Army but remained the commander-in-chief of the armed forces as president of the Republic. Thirty-one political parties, including the newly created BNP, Awami League (AL), Muslim League (ML) Islamic Democratic League (IDL), JSD, and others contested the parliamentary elections. While the BNP won 207 seats out of the total 300, the AL got 39, ML-IDL Alliance 20, JSD 8, and the remaining seats by 16 Independents and others. While the BNP secured 41.17 percent of the cast votes, the AL managed to get only 24.56 percent.[xxii]

Days before his assassination in May 1981, he also allowed Sheikh Mujib’s daughters to return to Bangladesh from India.

The ascendancy of Zia to the presidency of the country and the emergence of the BNP signalled some fundamental changes in the overall socio-economic conditions, popular and political culture, and the overall politics of Bangladesh. Bangladesh under Zia got rid of cheap and hyperbolic populism, unbridled corruption and drainage of national wealth in the name of socialism, political cronyism, favouritism and nepotism, the dominance of the Sheikh family in the state affairs at the micro and macro levels, unofficial impunity granted to Mujib’s family members – especially his sons, Kamal and Jamal – and to members/supporters of the Awami League and its affiliated organisations, and the promotion of Indian and Hindu culture in Bangladesh in the name of secularism and at the cost of Islamic values and symbols. Most importantly, the end of the Mujib era brought significant changes in the foreign policy of the country. The US and the West in general, the Muslim World and China in particular came closer to Bangladesh, diplomatically and economically.  Zia encouraged private investment, raising the ceiling of investment from Tk 30 million to Tk 100 million, initiated the de-nationalisation of industries and financial institutions. Despite the aid flow from the OECD donors and higher rates of money supply and bank credit Zia was able to sustain low inflation and higher annual GDP growth of around six percent.[xxiii] His grow-more-food also paid rich dividends.

There were significant qualitative differences between the AL and BNP governments, respectively under Mujib and Zia. While Mujib’s cabinet ministers/advisers, AL executive committee members, and MPs had been not so qualified or experienced as administrators, academics, journalists, or technocrats – they overwhelmingly represented rural/small town people, representing the middle and lower-middle classes, with the mediocre caliber and academic qualifications, BNP’s Executive Committee members, cabinet members/advisers, and MPs were highly educated professionals, lawyers, technocrats, doctors, engineers, retired bureaucrats, diplomats, and military officers. Out of Zia’s 17 cabinet members/advisers, three were retired bureaucrats, three retired military officers, two veteran politicians, four educationists, one lawyer, and four technocrats (engineers, doctors, accountants).[xxiv] The occupational background of the members of the BNP executive committee in 1981 (for example) was also very impressive. Out of the total 170 members, 57 were businessmen, 53 professionals, 28 agriculturists (rich peasants and petty landlords), 20 teachers, 11 retired bureaucrats, two trade unionists, and 7 others. And, more than 70 percent of MPs from the BNP came from the upper echelons of society, in wealth and education. Interestingly, while more than 33 percent of BNP MPs had previously belonged to the liberal Islam-oriented parties, such as the Muslim League and Islamic Democratic League, 13.4 percent had the previous affiliation to the AL, 22.9 percent had links with pro-Chinese Leftist organizations 30.1 percent had no previous affiliation to any political party.[xxv]

Zia’s socio-economic, political, and cultural policies reflected the socio-economic, cultural, and political backgrounds of the majority members of the BNP’s executive committee, Zia’s cabinet and MPs from the ruling party. As mentioned earlier, he dropped the corrupt, and inefficient “Socialism” and lopsided “Secularism”, which being hyperbolic and symbolic, had turned the Mujib government dysfunctional, and the country a famine-stricken “basket case”. Zia introduced market economy and democracy, although he also stressed the role of the armed forces as the defenders of national sovereignty and thus, ensured some extra privileges to them. Nevertheless, Zia’s rule was a big departure from Mujib’s one-party Soviet-style “socialist” rule. He also promoted Islamic values and identity as integral to the national identity of Bangladesh. His growth and development strategy, and his rural development projects, and women’s empowerment programmes (he ensured ten percent or 30 reserved seats for women in the parliament, in addition to the 300 directly elected by the people) drew the attention of the UN, international donors, and development agencies, including the World Bank and IMF. Despite his government’s “bias” toward promoting jotedari (rich peasant/landlord) interests in the countryside, [xxvi] his national, development, rural, and women’s empowerment policies, the promotion of liberal democracy and market economy, freedom of expression, and the rule of law, he was definitely the most statesman-like, honest, patriotic, pragmatic, innovative, and efficient ruler that Bangladesh has had in the last fifty years since 1971. No wonder, despite Mujib’s charisma, due to his ambivalence about the separation of East Pakistan from the state of Pakistan, his false claim about making the declaration of independence of Bangladesh on 26th March 1971, and above all, his corrupt, inefficient, and ruthless rule, Zia’s image outshines Mujib’s as that of a real hero of Bangladesh. His declaration of independence on 27th March 1971 on behalf of Mujib, while the latter had surrendered to the Pakistan Army, inspired Bengalis most, and gave them a sense of direction. Zia was definitely one of the founding fathers of Bangladesh, along with Mujib, Tajuddin, Osmani, and others.

Zia was not only the first prominent person to declare Independence, a brave freedom fighter, and an able and honest administrator, but he also gave the Nation of Bangladesh a new identity. His government introduced “Bangladeshi” as the new national identity of the people by removing the misleading “Bengali”, which paradoxically is the linguistic identity of all Bengalis within and beyond Bangladesh. It is, however, unbelievable but true that Mujib’s followers – as of today – believe their national identity is “Bengali”, not “Bangladeshi”! To put this hypothetically, it is as absurd as the German-speaking Austrians affirming their national identity as “German”! Now, was the adoption of “Bangladeshi” as national identity by supplanting “Bengali” purely a substitution for the linguistic identity of the people by the territorial one? It is a tricky question! Affirming “Bangladeshi” as the national identity of the people of Bangladesh makes sense, as it is an inclusive policy to include all ethnonational and linguistic groups, “Biharis” (Urdu-speakers), Garos, Santals, Chakmas, Hajongs, Larmas, Marmas, Mogs, and others as equal citizens of the country. As some Bangladeshi scholars have argued, supporters of the Zia government viewed the “Bangladeshi” identity as “a line of distinction between the people of Bangladesh and the ethnic Bengalees of West Bengal, and to project the image of Bangladesh as a distinctive Muslim nation”.[xxvii] Zia also removed “Secularism” and “Socialism” from the four-pronged State Ideology as they had existed under the Mujib administration. “Absolute Faith in Allah” and “Economic and Social Justice” replaced “Secularism” and “Socialism”, respectively. His government also added “Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim” (In the Name of Allah, the Beneficient, the Merciful) in Arabic in the beginning of the Constitution of Bangladesh, to highlight the Islamic or Muslim identity of the bulk of the population. One may, however, agree with Ghulam Kabir that, “With the resurfacing of Islamic symbols and images under Zia, the integration of the minorities [non-Muslims] has been halted”.[xxviii] It is, however, difficult to agree with him that, “With the rise of Bengali nationalism based on linguistic identity, the Hindu community was embraced by the Bengali Muslims as part of their nation”.[xxix] One does not believe that national integration is only subject to psychological factors or to people’s sense of belonging to Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities”. “Imagined communities” or nations fail to keep everybody under their folds. Pakistan is a glaring example in this regard. Despite Jinnah’s promise of equal opportunities and freedom to every Pakistani in 1947, Muslim or non-Muslim, Pakistan disintegrated because the reality was very harsh and different from what the Father of the Nation had promised. Bengalis separated themselves from their “promised land” or “imagined community”. As Muslim, Christian, and Dalit minorities are still subject to discriminations and persecutions in India, formally or informally, so are non-Muslim minorities in Pakistan.

A very lame thesis is in circulation among sections of Bangladeshi intellectuals, politicians, journalists, and students. This is about holding Ziaur Rahman responsible for the Islamization of the polity. This absurd thesis postulates that had General Ziaur Rahman not removed “Secularism” as a state ideology, and abstained from incorporating “Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim” in the beginning of the Constitution, Bangladesh would have remained “secular”, as it was presumed to be under Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Those who think Zia’s promoting Islamic symbolism eventually Islamized the polity must understand that despite their hardline approach towards Islam and Islamism, Nasser of Egypt, Ben Bella, and Boumedienne of Algeria, Reza Shah of Iran, Taraki-Karmal-Hafiz Amin-Najibullah of Afghanistan and Sukarno of Indonesia failed to save their countries from the clutches of Islamic fanatics and militants. While Nasser toyed with the idea of Arab nationalism, secularism (to the extent of proclaiming that Egyptians were descendants of the Great Pharaohs and builders of the pyramids) and socialism, and executed Muslim Brotherhood leader Sayyid Qutb for sedition, neither Muslim Brotherhood has petered away nor has secularism been well-entrenched in Egypt. The case of Turkey is also very interesting in this regard. Is Erdogan solely responsible for the Islamization of Turkey? It is too trite to assume that leaders alone can transform the political ideologies, economic systems, and cultural norms of people. Mujib’s appalling nemesis, his being portrayed as “pro-Indian” soon after his becoming the Prime Minister in 1972, unified most of the Islam-oriented people during his lifetime. Many of them either joined the apolitical Tablighi Jamaat or lent support to Maulana Bhashani who openly questioned and challenged Mujib’s modus operandi and “Indian hegemony”, real or as perceived by many anti-Mujib Bangladeshis since 1972.[xxx]

Zia’s untimely assassination on 30th May 1981, when he was only 45 and before the end of the first democratically elected term of his presidency and parliament was a big tragedy for Bangladesh. Seemingly, the country has not yet recovered from this trauma. His death was followed by almost a decade-long of one of the most corrupt and degenerative military and quasi-civilian rule under General Ershad. As, thanks to General Zia ul-Haq’s pseudo-Islamic military rule, Pakistan has become a socially retarded country where Islamism has permeated every layer of society, including the judiciary and parliament, similarly, Ershad had been the main contributor to the cultural degeneration of the bulk of Bangladeshis, who simply cannot think of honesty, self-respect, and integrity as other options in life. One does not have to eulogise Zia as the epitome of honesty and integrity, nevertheless, his honesty, integrity, and quest for preserving the national identity and sovereignty of Bangladesh led to his premature death. There are multiple circumstantial pieces of evidence to incriminate General Ershad in the assassination of Ziaur Rahman on 30th May 1981. Seemingly, the killing of Zia at Ershad’s behest was the prelude to his illegitimate overthrew of Zia’s political successor, the democratically elected President Abdus Sattar, on 24th March 1982.

Now, who killed Zia and why are more important than how his killers succeeded in achieving their goal. It is evident that both General Ershad and General Manzoor, the Army Chief, and the Chief of the General Staff (CGS) under President Zia, respectively, were instrumental in the killing of Zia. The former also overthrew the system of governance Zia had introduced to ensure civilian predominance in the overall administration of the country. In short, Zia’s killing triggered the end of the civil-military relations in Bangladesh that he had assiduously tried to establish in the country, signaling a departure from the ethos of the Pakistani military establishment, which since 1947, is virtually running a “garrison state” in Pakistan.[xxxi] Interestingly, although installed to power following the third military takeover of the country in one year, on 7th November 1975 (the first two took place on 15th August, and 3rd November) as a martial law administrator, Zia was far more democratic than all the civil and military rulers Bangladesh have had since its Liberation. His fast civilianization process was his nemesis.

In hindsight, it appears that military officers, in general, were unhappy with Zia’s rapid civilianization programme. Seemingly, his rewarding the medium and top brasses of the armed forces (trained in Pakistan, nurturing the dream of playing a dominant role in politics) by doling out diplomatic, police, and administrative positions did not make them happy. In January 1981, the Army Chief General Ershad wrote a piece in the Bangladesh Army Journal, where he wanted participatory role for the army “in the collective effort of the nation”. Mahmud Ali has aptly appraised this as “implicit rejection of the civil-military divide affected by Zia appeared to reflect an area consensus in the officers’ corps”.[xxxii] Apparently, the immediate cause of the abortive coup by Manzoor on 30th May that killed Zia was the latter’s decision to remove General Abul Manzur from his command position of the Chittagong-based 24th Infantry Division and transfer him to Dhaka as the Commandant of the Bangladesh Staff College days before his killing. Ziring believes that while Zia appointed repatriated General Ershad as his deputy-chief of army, not freedom fighter Manzoor, whom he did not trust as he had been a close friend of the executed Colonel Taher, “Manzoor’s desire to replace Zia was now an obsession”! Manzoor also believed in the elimination of Ershad and other repatriated senior officers, Ziring surmises. He also thinks the mutual mistrust between Zia and Manzoor was instrumental in the former’s decision to remove the latter from the command position of the 24th Division, and the latter’s decision to eliminate Zia.[xxxiii] So far so good! However, appraisals pinpointing Manzoor as the only general behind the coup and Zia’s killing out of sheer anger or miscalculation look too pedestrian to comment on! It is difficult to agree with Ziring that “Manzoor had a distorted picture of his chances of pulling off the coup against Zia”. And, that “He did not fully fathom the high regard in which Zia was held by his own forces or the larger public”.[xxxiv] However, several retired Army officers, including a general, told this author that Ershad, not Manzoor, wanted to kill Zia and that Ershad later got Manzoor killed. According to Major General (ret) Syed Ibrahim: “Ershad gave green signal to Lt Col Mati and Lt Col Mahbub [Manzoor’s nephew] NOT to Gen Manzur [to kill Zia]. Manzur did not want Zia to be killed. Ershad got ZIA killed, Ershad got Manzur killed”.[xxxv] Major (ret) Shariful Haq Dalim, one of the 1975 August Coup makers, believes that Ershad used Generals Chishti, Mahmudul Hasan, Nuruddin, Mir Shawkat, Atiq, and Brigadiers Nasim and Hannan Shah against Zia.[xxxvi] Dalim, however, does not imply that they were involved in the Zia assassination. Dalim, however, reveals something very interesting. He blames Ershad for playing a dubious game. He poisoned Zia against Manzoor and simultaneously assured Manzoor of his support in the event of his staging an anti-Zia coup. Dalim also believes that Ershad was keen on implementing the “RAW plan”, which was the removal of Zia from power![xxxvii]

Then again, Ziring has rightly tossed his above arguments up and finds out a more convincing argument, that is Manzoor, besides’ being angry with Zia (determined to kill him), possibly “did not act in isolation, but was, in fact, part of a larger conspiracy”.[xxxviii] So many questions remain unanswered. Contrary to some claim, did Manzoor really want to kill Ershad, or the latter was an accomplice in the whole thing? Did Ershad send one Captain Emdad to Chittagong, soon after the killing of Zia, who later is said to have killed Manzoor with his handgun, in police custody? Why would Ershad get Manzoor “killed” had he not been a co-conspirator of the coup? We do not have any concrete answers to these questions, but only some circumstantial evidence and arguments to incriminate Ershad in the abortive coup! One may take Mahmud Ali’s argument with a pinch of salt that Manzoor failed to secure the loyalty of his troops after some officers had gunned down Zia, which may have been a product of “the fear created by the executions which followed the October 1977 mutiny”![xxxix] One wonders, why would a smart and bright general like Manzoor “fail” to understand the implications of a coup at Chittagong – let alone, killing President Zia – while Dhaka would remain “unconquered”! The junior officers, Lt. Col. Matiur Rahman, Lt. Col Mehboobur Rahman(Manzoor’s nephew), and 14 others who killed Zia had to do the killing by themselves as soldiers would not do it, argues Mascarenhas.[xl]

Some fingers have been raised at Indira Gandhi who did not relish seeing Bangladesh being run by someone like Zia having close ties with China and Pakistan. India’s RAW masterminded the Zia assassination in collusion with Hasina and Ershad, so goes one theory.[xli] Lawrence Lifschultz believes that blaming Manzoor for the coup, as Ershad did soon after the killing of Zia “had all the characteristics of a classic “False Flag” operation”. Lifschultz’s investigative writing based on his long interviews with late General Moin Choudhury (freedom fighter and diplomat) and testimonies of several retired Bangladeshi civil and military officers and troops who were in Chittagong on that fateful night on 30th May 1981 proves beyond any doubt that Ershad, not Manzoor was the mastermind in the killing Zia and Manzoor.[xlii]

Among other administrative reforms under Zia, the restructuring of local self-government institutions, empowerment of women, even in rural areas, and granting the independence of the judiciary are worth mentioning. In sum, he emphasized self-reliance and rural development through people’s participation; “grow more food”; population control; administrative de-centralisation; and the promotion of market economy.[xliii] Consequently, Bangladesh drew foreign direct investment (FDI); started sending Bangladeshi unskilled workers to the Middle East and North Africa. He also encouraged people to start garment factories in Bangladesh, which eventually ensured the in low substantial amount of foreign currency growth and development. Thanks to Zia’s initiative, Bangladesh today has become self-sufficient in food, is the second-largest garment exporter, and one of the major manpower exporters in the world. These initiatives undertaken by Zia – with the help of technocrat ministers and advisers – helped Bangladesh get rid of its unflattering image as an “international basket case”. In short, his rule was very different from Mujib’s so-called parliamentary democracy and short-lived one-party dictatorship. It is intriguing that a military ruler – what Zia was initially –was far more democratic, civil, honest, and nationalist than all his predecessors and successors, so far. He re-introduced multi-party democracy in Bangladesh. His rule may be summed up as one which more or less restored discipline in the disorderly and fractured armed forces. This, however, cost him dearly as some over-ambitious and disgruntled army officers eliminated him physically. In sum, as Zia empathised with peasants and ordinary masses to undertake irrigation projects through his canal digging operation (which he emulated from China) with grassroots participation, so did he introduce participatory village government (gram sarkar) and rural employment-generating projects. As Ziring aptly calls Zia “A People’s President”,[xliv] he was a real visionary with regard to his domestic and foreign policies. No wonder millions of people attended his funeral and shed tears publicly! However, thanks to Indira Gandhi’s hegemonic policies towards Bangladesh, and some of India’s smaller neighbours, Bangladesh fast turned into a bête noire to her regime after the overthrow of the Mujib regime and the rise of Zia. Unfortunately for Bangladesh, Indira Gandhi’s successors, so far, have not abandoned India’s hegemonic policy towards Bangladesh. They assiduously try to have compliant regimes in the country, run by autocrats like Ershad and Hasina.

 

*Taj Hashmi PhD, FRAS is a  former Professor of Asian Studies at the UBC (Canada), and Security Studies at the APCSS (US). He is a historian, cultural anthropologist, and political analyst of global security and current affairs. He has authored hundreds of journal articles/popular essays, and several books, including Global Jihad and America (SAGE 2014).

[i] Lawrence Ziring, Bangladesh: From Mujib to Ershad, An Interpretive Study, University Press Limited, Dhaka  1992, p.105

[ii] Ibid, p.101

[iii] Ibid, p.108

[iv]Lawrence Lifshultz, Bangladesh: The Unfinished Revolution, Zed Press, London 1979, pp.114-17

[v] Lawrence Ziring, Bangladesh: From Mujib to Ershad, An Interpretive Study, University Press Limited, Dhaka  1992, p.110

[vi] Ibid, pp.108-13

[vii] Ittefaq (Bengali daily), 16 August 1975

[viii] Syed Badrul Ahsan, “The wounds inflicted onBangladesh’s secular ethos”, bdnews24.com, 23rd August 2016 https://opinion.bdnews24.com/2016/08/23/the-wounds-inflicted-on-bangladeshs-secular-ethos/

[ix] Ibid

[x] Basant Chatterjee, Inside Bangladesh Today: An Eye-Winess Account, S. Chand & Co, New Delhi 1973, pp.155-7

[xi] Syed Badrul Ahsan,“Bangabandhu’s men – on Aug 15 and after”, Daily Star (Bangladesh), August 15, 2012; Taj Hashmi, “1975: The Crime and Verdict in Retrospection”, bdnews24.com, 25th Nov 2009 https://opinion.bdnews24.com/2009/11/25/1975-the-crime-and-verdict-in-retrospection/comment-page-2/

[xii] Syed Badrul Ahsan,“Bangabandhu’s men – on Aug 15 and after”, Daily Star (Bangladesh), August 15, 2012

[xiii] Anthony Mascaranhas, Bangladesh: A Legacy of Blood, Hodder and Stoughton, London  1986, pp.90-1; Lawrence Ziring, Bangladesh: From Mujib to Ershad, An Interpretive Study, University Press Limited, Dhaka  1992, pp.115-21

[xiv] Mohiuddin Ahmed, Jashoder Utthan Poton: Osthir Somoyer Rajniti (in Bengali), Prothoma, Dhaka 2014, passim

[xv] Lawrence Ziring, Bangladesh: From Mujib to Ershad, An Interpretive Study, University Press Limited, Dhaka  1992, p.125

[xvi] Shariful Haq Dalim, “Zia to Khaleda and Beyond”, Zia-To-khaleda.pdf, p.186

[xvii] Lawrence Ziring, Bangladesh: From Mujib to Ershad, An Interpretive Study, University Press Limited, Dhaka  1992, pp.125, 138-41

[xviii] Golam Hossain, General Ziaur Rahman and the BNP: Political Transformation of a Military Regime, University Press Limited, Dhaka 1988, p.17

[xix] Ibid, p.18; Denis Wright, “The Rise of Zia: From Soldier to Politician”, in Habib Zafarullah (ed), The Zia Episode in Bangladesh Politics,University Press Limited, Dhaka 1996, pp.12-15; Mahfuzul H. Chowdhury, Muhammad A. Hakim, and Habib Zafarullah, “Politics and Government: The Search for Legitimacy”, in Habib Zafarullah (ed), The Zia Episode in Bangladesh Politics,University Press Limited, Dhaka 1996, pp. 23-8

[xx] Author’s interview with Major General Mohabbat Jan Chowdhury, Director of the DGFI (military intelligence), Dhaka Cantonment, 15th July, 1977.

[xxi] Talukder Maniruzzaman, “Civilianization of Military Regimes: A Comparative Analysis,” The BIIS Journal (Bangladesh), Vol. 1, 1980; Golam Hossain, General Ziaur Rahman and the BNP: Political Transformation of a Military Regime, University Press Limited, Dhaka 1988, pp.17-22; Mahfuzul H. Chowdhury, Muhammad A. Hakim, and Habib Zafarullah, “Politics and Government: The Search for Legitimacy”, in Habib Zafarullah (ed), The Zia Episode in Bangladesh Politics,University Press Limited, Dhaka 1996, pp. 25-31

[xxii] Mahfuzul H. Chowdhury, Muhammad A. Hakim, and Habib Zafarullah, “Politics and Government: The Search for Legitimacy”, in Habib Zafarullah (ed), The Zia Episode in Bangladesh Politics,University Press Limited, Dhaka 1996, pp.31-3

[xxiii] S. Mahmud Ali, Understanding Bangladewsh,Columbia University Press, New York 2010, p.139

[xxiv] Quamrul Alam, “The State: Weak and Fragmented”, in Habib Zafarullah (ed), The Zia Episode in Bangladesh Politics,University Press Limited, Dhaka 1996, p. 46

[xxv] Ibid, pp. 45-9

[xxvi] Ibid, p. 50

[xxvii] Mahfuzul H. Chowdhury, Muhammad A. Hakim, and Habib Zafarullah, “Politics and Government: The Search for Legitimacy”, in Habib Zafarullah (ed), The Zia Episode in Bangladesh Politics,University Press Limited, Dhaka 1996, p.26

[xxviii] Muhammad Ghulam Kabir, Changing Face of Nationalism: The Case of Bangladesh,University Press Limited, Dhaka 1995, p.217

[xxix] Ibid, p.215

[xxx] Taj Hashmi, “Was Ziaur Rahman Responsible for Islamic Resurgence in Bangladesh?”, Countercurrents, 11 July 2006, https://www.countercurrents.org/hashmi110706.htm

[xxxi] See Ishtiaq Ahmed, Pakistan the Garrison State:Origins, Evolution,Consequences (1947-2011), Oxford University Press, Karachi 2013, passim

[xxxii] Syed Mahmud Ali, “The Demise of Zia: From Bloody Mutinies To Abortive Coup”, in Habib Zafarullah (ed), The Zia Episode in Bangladesh Politics, University Press Limited, Dhaka 1996, p.149

[xxxiii] Lawrence Ziring, Bangladesh: From Mujib to Ershad, An Interpretive Study, University Press Limited, Dhaka  1992, pp. 141-3

[xxxiv] Ibid, p.143

[xxxv] Major General (ret) Syed Muhammad Ibrahim’s text message to the author, 10th August 2020

[xxxvi]Shariful Haq Dalim, “Zia to Khaleda and Beyond”, pp.241-2, Zia-To-khaleda.pdf

[xxxvii] Ibid, pp.235-6

[xxxviii] Lawrence Ziring, Bangladesh: From Mujib to Ershad, An Interpretive Study, University Press Limited, Dhaka  1992, p.143

[xxxix] Syed Mahmud Ali, “The Demise of Zia: From Bloody Mutinies To Abortive Coup”, in Habib Zafarullah (ed), The Zia Episode in Bangladesh Politics, University Press Limited, Dhaka 1996, p.161

[xl] Anthony Mascaranhas, Bangladesh: A Legacy of Blood, Hodder and Stoughton, London  1986, p.163

[xli] R. Chowdhury, “Begum Khaleda Zia: Personal Recollections and Beyond”, South Asia Journal, 17 June 2020

http://southasiajournal.net/begum-khaleda-zia-personal-recollections-and-beyond/

[xlii] Lawence Lifschultz, “The murder of Major General Abul Manzur, Bir Uttam”, 2nd of Part 4, Daily Star (Bangladesh), February 23, 2014 https://www.thedailystar.net/the-murder-of-major-general-abul-manzur-bir-uttam-12397

[xliii] Moudud Ahmed, Democracy and the Chllenge of Development: A Study of Politics and Military Interventions in Bangladesh, University Press Limited, Dhaka 1995, pp.35-115

[xliv] Lawrence Ziring, Bangladesh: From Mujib to Ershad, An Interpretive Study, University Press Limited, Dhaka 1992, pp. 144-9

[i] Lawrence Ziring, Bangladesh: From Mujib to Ershad, An Interpretive Study, University Press Limited, Dhaka  1992, p.105

[ii] Ibid, p.101

[iii] Ibid, p.108

[iv]Lawrence Lifshultz, Bangladesh: The Unfinished Revolution, Zed Press, London 1979, pp.114-17

[v] Lawrence Ziring, Bangladesh: From Mujib to Ershad, An Interpretive Study, University Press Limited, Dhaka  1992, p.110

[vi] Ibid, pp.108-13

[vii] Ittefaq (Bengali daily), 16 August 1975

[viii] Syed Badrul Ahsan, “The wounds inflicted onBangladesh’s secular ethos”, bdnews24.com, 23rd August 2016 https://opinion.bdnews24.com/2016/08/23/the-wounds-inflicted-on-bangladeshs-secular-ethos/

[ix] Ibid

[x] Basant Chatterjee, Inside Bangladesh Today: An Eye-Winess Account, S. Chand & Co, New Delhi 1973, pp.155-7

[xi] Syed Badrul Ahsan,“Bangabandhu’s men – on Aug 15 and after”, Daily Star (Bangladesh), August 15, 2012; Taj Hashmi, “1975: The Crime and Verdict in Retrospection”, bdnews24.com, 25th Nov 2009 https://opinion.bdnews24.com/2009/11/25/1975-the-crime-and-verdict-in-retrospection/comment-page-2/

[xii] Syed Badrul Ahsan,“Bangabandhu’s men – on Aug 15 and after”, Daily Star (Bangladesh), August 15, 2012

[xiii] Anthony Mascaranhas, Bangladesh: A Legacy of Blood, Hodder and Stoughton, London  1986, pp.90-1; Lawrence Ziring, Bangladesh: From Mujib to Ershad, An Interpretive Study, University Press Limited, Dhaka  1992, pp.115-21

[xiv] Mohiuddin Ahmed, Jashoder Utthan Poton: Osthir Somoyer Rajniti (in Bengali), Prothoma, Dhaka 2014, passim

[xv] Lawrence Ziring, Bangladesh: From Mujib to Ershad, An Interpretive Study, University Press Limited, Dhaka  1992, p.125

[xvi] Shariful Haq Dalim, “Zia to Khaleda and Beyond”, Zia-To-khaleda.pdf, p.186

[xvii] Lawrence Ziring, Bangladesh: From Mujib to Ershad, An Interpretive Study, University Press Limited, Dhaka  1992, pp.125, 138-41

[xviii] Golam Hossain, General Ziaur Rahman and the BNP: Political Transformation of a Military Regime, University Press Limited, Dhaka 1988, p.17

[xix] Ibid, p.18; Denis Wright, “The Rise of Zia: From Soldier to Politician”, in Habib Zafarullah (ed), The Zia Episode in Bangladesh Politics,University Press Limited, Dhaka 1996, pp.12-15; Mahfuzul H. Chowdhury, Muhammad A. Hakim, and Habib Zafarullah, “Politics and Government: The Search for Legitimacy”, in Habib Zafarullah (ed), The Zia Episode in Bangladesh Politics,University Press Limited, Dhaka 1996, pp. 23-8

[xx] Author’s interview with Major General Mohabbat Jan Chowdhury, Director of the DGFI (military intelligence), Dhaka Cantonment, 15th July, 1977.

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