Memories of Ziaur Rahman

Syed Badrul Ahsan
Wednesday, May 31st, 2017


General Ziaur Rahman, having ascended to power through bloodshed and mayhem in November 1975, having survived a series of abortive coups, was murdered by soldiers in Chittagong on 30 May 1981.


What manner of man was he?


Zia’s moment of glory came on the evening of March 27, 1971. At a time of intense darkness in the life of the Bengali nation, the young major, having repudiated the Pakistan army of which he had been a loyal officer since joining it in the 1950s, persuaded the country that there was light at the end of the tunnel. In the name of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, he proclaimed to the world that the people of Bangladesh were a free nation, that to dub the majority segment of the population of Pakistan as secessionists was ‘a cruel joke’ which ought to ‘befool none’, that indeed the world’s powerful nations should be according recognition to a nation struggling to be born out of calamitous darkness.


There is little question that Ziaur Rahman’s place in history was assured through that coruscating declaration of Bengali political intent. In the nine months of war that followed, he became an inevitable and integral part of the process of the guerrilla struggle against Pakistan. In free Bangladesh, as deputy chief of army staff, he was careful to maintain professionalism in his performance of duties. His patriotism was never in doubt. Neither was his loyalty to the Father of the Nation, whom he extolled in an article for a Bangla journal. He hardly ever smiled. He was one of those who rarely fraternized with his fellow officers or with others. Discipline is the first word which comes to mind when Zia is the object of study.


The Zia character, all these decades since his assassination, remains a complex one. And it does because of the acts he undertook in the five or so years in which he wielded authority as Bangladesh’s first military ruler. He certainly did not bring the army to power. Khondokar Moshtaque and his assassin majors and colonels did. And then Khaled Musharraf’s bid to restore political and military discipline collapsed in a matter of days. You could argue that Zia’s rise to power was an accidental circumstance, a matter of unintended consequences. Had he not been freed by Colonel Taher and his suddenly radicalized band of soldiers in the early hours of November 7, 1975, Zia would have remained a footnote, like so many other footnotes, on the pages of Bangladesh’s tortured history. Had he chosen not to part ways with the principles of the War of Liberation, his reputation as a soldier would be on a scale that would arouse the envy of others.


History is all too often a study of riddles wrapped in enigmas couched in mystery. General Ziaur Rahman’s years in power were a study in the destabilization of the state caused by individuals he was unable to put the leash on. Hundreds of soldiers as also airmen perished in the aftermath of the eighteen failed coup attempts made against his authoritarian regime. Troops loyal to the left-oriented Taher tried pushing him into circumstances where the army would undergo populist, radical change. Zia knew he needed to emerge free of Taher’s shadow in order to be his own man. That was all understandable. What was not was the precipitate, ruthless manner in which he disposed of the man who had caused the so-called sipahi-janata biplob. It was suddenly a harsh Zia who sent Taher to the gallows in July 1976.


There was seemingly a briefly humane Zia in the months between November 1975 and July 1976. Informed by Captain Nawazesh early on 7 November 1975 that Khaled Musharraf, Najmul Huda and ATM Haider, beaten in the power game, had taken refuge at second field artillery in Shere Banglanagar, Zia supposedly gave out the message: ‘Please see to it that they are not harmed.’ In the end, the three officers were killed, only minutes after Taher had left the room where they were in the captivity of soldiers they had thought were loyal to them. For perhaps that rare moment in his life, there were tears in Zia’s eyes. The bodies of the three men had been shown to him. He was unable to act against their killers, for he was not yet in a position to bring the army under his full command.


If that was a compassionate Zia, there was that other side to him as well. Informed that Bangabandhu had been murdered, his response was almost flippant. There was the vice president to take charge, said he. In his years as the nation’s first military dictator, Zia never claimed that he had declared independence in March 1971. On one occasion, he had some radio officials bring to him, at Bangabhaban, the audio tape of his 27 March speech broadcast from Kalurghat. In their presence, he heard his old speech no fewer than five times. When one of the officers, in clear sycophantic mood, suggested that all references to Bangabandhu could be edited out of the tape, Zia had a quick, brief reply: ‘History cannot be changed’. He then walked out of the room.


But history did go through convulsions on Zia’s watch. Bangabandhu and the Mujibnagar leaders were airbrushed out of it; the Pakistan army was never mentioned in the state’s recapitulation of the 1971 war; the Indemnity Ordinance, designed to protect the 15 August killers from prosecution, was inserted into the constitution; and many of Bangabandhu’s assassins were sent off on diplomatic assignments abroad. Zia turned the country away from Baksal and then, curiously, replaced it with politics that left old, unrepentant collaborators of Pakistan free to re-emerge in the sun. As he struggled to restore order in the army, he failed to see that it was his wartime soldier friends who were dying one by one, that officers repatriated from Pakistan were in the ascendant.


In the end, Zia died the way others had died before him. Then General Manzoor died. Within months, Brigadier Mohsenuddin was executed. The wartime generation of brave soldiers was gone within a decade of liberation.

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