Murders and political mayhem
Syed Badrul Ahsan recalls 1975, a darkly dramatic year for Bangladesh, in which assassinations, a coup and counter-coup pushed the country off its secular perch
In November 1975, the darkness engendered by the assassination, in August that year, of Bangladesh’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman deepened, pushing the country inexorably on to a path away from its founding principles of democracy, secularism, socialism and nationalism. The ramifications were to be felt for decades, indeed are yet being felt, as reflected through Bangladesh’s turbulent politics.
The murder of the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, with almost his entire family, was a rude shock that left the Bengali nation reeling in the weeks and months after 15 August 1975. Of course Bengalis had come through a series of coups, all of them in Pakistan. In a free Bangladesh, they looked forward to a political system where the old methods of forcing a government from office would belong in the past. This was not just a hope that was nurtured; it was a belief shared once Bangladesh emerged as a sovereign people’s republic through a focused war of liberation in 1971.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s murder put paid to that hope and that belief. There was sadnessin the knowledge that a government based on popular sanction had been overthrown. And the sadness took on asinister hue when the ouster of the government came about through murder and mayhem. In that summer of cumulative pain, Bangladesh’s people watched as a group of rogue military officers,in connivance with a band of political predators symbolised by Khondokar Moshtaque Ahmed, pushed the country further down the path to disaster.
November 3 coup
There was that certain whiff of things happening in early November. No one knew the nature of the portents, but over the previous few weeks rumours had begun to circulate about a power struggle emerging at Bangabhaban, the presidential palace, and in the cantonment. Senior officers in the army, among whom were Brigadier Khaled Musharraf, Colonel Shafaat Jamil, Colonel Najmul Huda and Major ATM Haider, all heroes of the 1971 war, were determined that the chain of command broken by the assassin majors and colonels through the coup in August needed to be restored. The assassins, of course, remained ensconced inside the safe confines of the presidential palace, along with Khondokar Moshtaque.
The chief of army staff, Major General Ziaur Rahman, having taken no steps to exercise authority over the assassin officers, was himself under threat of removal from his position. By the evening of 2 November, it was obvious that changes of a major nature had begun to take shape. By the next day, it had become clear that Musharraf had gained the upper hand and was putting pressure on Moshtaque to give up the presidency. What exactly was being done about the majors and colonels was not at that stage evident. Outside the power circles, in various parts of the nation’s capital, a certain sense of relief began to be felt in the expectation that Moshtaque and his cohorts were now under assault. No one needed any telling that they had to go, but precisely when that would happen was not yet apparent.
A good deal of mystery pervaded the political scene at the time. Even as his enemies went into planning a strategy against him, Brigadier Musharraf, who had been promoted to the rank of Major General, was found spending a long stretch of time trying to negotiate a deal at Bangabhaban that would have Moshtaque and his team quit power quietly. Musharraf, one of the most brilliant tacticians in the 1971 war, was suddenly observed to be oblivious to conditions outside Dhaka, especially in places like Joydevpur and Comilla, where forces arrayed against him were spreading the lie that he was an Indian agent and therefore leading the country into a new phase of servitude.
Four leaders killed in prison
As Musharraf remained busy in the presidential palace and as Colonel Taher, associated with the radical Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (JSD), went around developing his own plans of liquidating the Musharraf group, a macabre plan of murder was shaped and then executed. Prior to that, a day earlier, a senior Bengali journalist, well-known for his pro-Pakistan stance in 1971 and at that point working for a foreign media organisation, disseminated the false news that a letter purporting to be from the Indian authorities and suggesting that the detained Tajuddin Ahmed, Syed Nazrul Islam, M. Mansur Ali and AHM Quamruzzaman – all leading figures in the Mujibnagar government then in prison – be freed and thus enabled to form a new government for Bangladesh. The implication, as sinister as it was baseless, was that foreign forces, in this case Indian, were in league with the jailed politicians.
In the early hours of 3 November, all four politicians were gunned down in a cell inside Dhaka central jail by the very men who had in August murdered Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family. Khaled Musharraf and his men clearly had little idea, even as they remained sorting out the mess of a power struggle at Bangabhaban, that the tragedy had already occurred at Dhaka jail. A mere few hours after the murders had been committed, all the majors and colonels involved in the 15 August coup (and the killings of 3 November 1975) were mysteriously allowed to fly off to Bangkok with their families. Musharraf had triumphed, but he remained as yet unaware of the price he had paid to ascend to the top. The triumph would be pyrrhic.
New men in town
Between 4 and 6 November, a flurry of announcements and statements made by the president were aired over the radio. The queer part of the story was that no one knew exactly who the president was. The popularly held belief was that Moshtaque had been ousted by Major General Khaled Musharraf. But if that was true, who had replaced him? No one knew. Meanwhile, fresh rumours began to make the rounds, all reinforcing the notion that, for all his triumph in securing the departure of the assassins, Musharraf was on shaky ground. Rumblings of discontent were gaining in intensity inside Dhaka and other cantonments. Soldiers unhappy with Musharraf were organising themselves, through the active involvement of Colonel Taher, in a plot to overthrow Musharraf, who had meanwhile been appointed chief of staff of the army in succession to the detained Ziaur Rahman.
As the country teetered on uncertainty, 6 November dawned with newspaper images of a beaming Khaled Musharraf being decorated with epaulettes reflecting his new position by the chief of staff of the navy, Rear Admiral MH Khan, and the chief of staff of the air force, Air Vice Marshal MG Tawab. The latter had been flown in from Germany, where he had been living in retirement, to take over from AK Khondokar in the period following 15 August.
The pieces began to fall into a pattern. The announcement that Khondokar Moshtaque Ahmed had resigned the presidency was swiftly followed by news that the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Abu Sadat Muhammad Sayem, had replaced him. A new order appeared, finally, to be in place.
The new president addressed the nation late in the evening and specifically condemned the killings of the national leaders in August and November. He announced the formation of a committee to probe the assassination of the four national leaders in prison.
Khaled Musharraf dies
As the night deepened, rumours of an unsavoury kind began to make the rounds. General Khaled Musharraf, they appeared to suggest, was waging a desperate struggle to hold on to his authority against the army units now beginning to move against him. In the cantonment, slogans of a ‘sepoy-janata’ revolution were raised. The entire area began to resonate with them. A full-scale rebellion was happening and for once the shrewd, brilliant Khaled Musharraf appeared unable to resist the tide against him and his loyalists.
As 7 November dawned, Dhaka passed into the hands of Colonel Taher and his men, who lost little time in freeing General Ziaur Rahman from confinement and restoring him to authority as chief of staff of the army. For General Musharraf, conditions had already gone from bizarre to tragic. He and his loyalists were on the run from the marauding men who had clearly thrown in their lot with Taher and Zia. Attempting to make their way out of Dhaka in the hope of organising resistance, Musharraf, Huda and Haider found themselves in what they thought was an army camp loyal to them in a part of Dhaka city.
Within minutes they became prisoners of the men they had once commanded. All three were brutally murdered, and their corpses subjected to varied forms of degradation.
Sometime in the early afternoon, General Zia made his way to Bangabhaban. Soldiers and a crowd of onlookers raised, for the first time in independent Bangladesh, the slogan of Nara-e-Takbeer – punctuated, of course, by another, Sepoy-Janata Zindabad. An odour of Pakistan was in the air.
As twilight descended on the country on 7 November 1975, all hope, raised briefly only days earlier, of a revival of the spirit that had led Bengalis into the war of liberation in 1971, seemed to have been snuffed out. Those Musharraf loyalists in the army who had survived death were scattered and making their way to safety. Moshtaque and his cabal were out, sure, but those who took charge after Khaled Musharraf’s murder appeared to promise to continue what had been inaugurated on 15 August.
Bangladesh’s sufferings would be prolonged after November 1975. As many as 18 coup attempts would be made against the Ziaur Rahman regime. General Zia would succumb to the 19th on 30 May 1981. His murder would swiftly be followed by that of a senior general suspected of having led the operation against him.
In terms of politics, the incidents and events of November 1975 would pull Bangladesh back into a communal mould, with Zia forming a party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, whose political programme was clearly at variance with the principles of the war of liberation. Politicians and parties, notably the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Muslim League, which had actively collaborated with the Pakistan army in the genocide of March-December 1971, were permitted to resume roles in the very country whose birth they had opposed.
In the times of Bangladesh’s second military ruler, General Hussein Muhammad Ershad, Bangladesh was pushed further back politically when the regime imposed Islam on the country as the official state religion. Political figures who had vociferously supported Pakistan in 1971 were inducted into the government by the Zia and Ershad regimes and subsequently into the civilian government led by Khaleda Zia, General Zia’s widow.
Bangladesh wallowed in darkness for 21 years after the coup of August 1975. It was not until Sheikh Hasina, daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, led the Awami League back to power in 1996 that the darkness lifted somewhat.
But is everything back to where it was before August 1975? Secularism remains in a straitjacket, for Islam remains the state religion. Religious political parties, banned soon after Bangladesh’s liberation but restored after Mujib’s murder, remain active in a state which the constitution defines as secular.
The detritus left behind by illegitimate military rule and rule by the political heirs of General Zia is yet to be mopped up. The country is still divided right down the middle between those who espouse Bengali nationalism and those who, in a clear departure from history, have continued to mouth the idea of ‘Bangladeshi nationalism’.
Politics in modern Bangladesh remains an unpredictable beast.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a Bangladeshi journalist and political commentator based in London. He is the author of biographies of Bangladesh’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the country’s first prime minister Tajuddin Ahmad