The day the villains murdered the Liberator

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Shortly after 3 am on 15 August, Colonel Farook Rahman gathered his fellow conspirators in the Dhaka cantonment to go over the final details of the operation against the founder-President of Bangladesh, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and his government. He was clearly the man in charge. With him were his brother-in-law Colonel Abdur Rashid, who was also related to Commerce Minister Moshtaq, and a handful of other officers and a good number of soldiers from the Lancers Regiment. In an inexplicable manner, the plotters had asked for, and been given, permission to take their tanks, gifts to Mujib from Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, out in those quiet hours in what was given out as a routine exercise. What was curious about the request was that no one in the senior ranks bothered to know why the exercises needed to be done at that particular time. Once the permission had been given, Farook Rahman and his men simply led the tanks and accompanying armoured cars out of the cantonment and into the city.

It was a little after 4 am when the tanks rumbled down the empty roads, on their way to their destinations. One team would head for the Dhanmondi residence of the president. Another would move towards Minto Road, the area that housed government ministers and a third would go to another part of Dhanmondi where Bangabandhu’s powerful nephew Sheikh Moni lived with his family. The plotters had evidently decided to attack the three places simultaneously and with a maximum of shock and surprise. The tanks headed for Bangabandhu’s residence went past the camp of the Jatiyo Rakkhi Bahini, situated behind the under-construction parliament building, where the Father of the Nation had been made to wait in March 1971 as Pakistan’s soldiers awaited instructions on what to do with him. It is quite possible that some members of the force witnessed the tank movements, but no one appeared to be troubled.

Bangabandhu’s political secretary Tofail Ahmed, responsible for liaising with the JRB, was at home in another area of the city, unaware of the approaching calamity. The coup leaders and their men swiftly covered the stretch of road before the JRB camp, rumbled past Ganobhavan, the president’s office, and turned left. Straight ahead lay the short distance to Dhanmondi Road No. 32, where the president and his family, as were the rest of the Dhaka population, in slumber. Road No. 32 led off the main Mirpur Road, on which was situated the Kalachand sweets shop. A few soldiers quickly climbed to the roof of the shop and placed a few machine guns there. The guns targeted Mujib’s residence, quite visible from the place. Meanwhile, a few tanks stopped at the head of Road No. 32 while a few others went in, coming to a stop at the gates of the presidential residence.

The first group of soldiers alighted and ordered the security personnel at the gates to let them in. The presidential guards, completely taken by surprise, refused and were swiftly mown down. Meanwhile, other soldiers approaching the house began firing into the residence, obviously to generate as much panic as possible. The sounds roused Bangabandhu and his petrified family as well as the entire neighbourhood. Sheikh Kamal quickly rushed down the stairs and ran smack into some soldiers who had already entered the passage downstairs. He was shot at close range. A young boy who worked as a servant was killed as well. Meanwhile, Mujib was frantically trying to contact the army chief. Finally, when he got through to him, General Safiullah, in what was surely one of the darkest moments in his life, proved unable to help his president. He asked the pretty pointless question, ‘Can you come out of the house, Sir?’ The next call made was to his security chief Colonel Jamil. The colonel, who had been repatriated from Pakistan the previous year, rushed out in his dressing gown and pyjamas, got behind the wheels of his car and drove towards the president’s residence. Meanwhile, Bangabandhu began receiving calls from Abdur Rab Serniabat, his brother-in-law and a minister in the cabinet, suggesting that his residence on Minto Road had also come under attack. At Sheikh Moni’s residence, a similar situation prevailed. The soldiers were running amuck everywhere.

Bangabandhu’s helplessness was complete when the telephone lines at his residence soon went dead. The commotion downstairs prompted the president to emerge from his bedroom, in his white kurta and lungi, his famous pipe in hand. As he stood at the top of the stairs, a major was seen running up. He suddenly stopped when he saw the Father of the Nation standing there, a looming presence. Mujib demanded, ‘Where is Kamal? What do you want?’ The major, Bazlul Huda, stammered, ‘You have to come with us, Sir.’ It is not clear what response came from Mujib, but there have been the varying nature of reports that have been flying around for years. There can be no knowing what Mujib thought as he stood facing a shaky Major Huda there. Suddenly, another officer, Major Noor, rushed up the stairs. Shrewd enough to guess what was happening, he shot Bangabandhu in the chest and stomach. The impact led to the president rolling down the stairs and coming to rest on the landing that led to the ground floor. He was dead. One of the bullets had gone right through his stomach and emerged from his back. Blood streaked the walls and the staircase. The sound of the gunfire brought the president’s wife Fazilatunnesa running out of the room. She was immediately shot. Her lifeless body lay sprawled in the corridor.

Once Bangabandhu and his wife had been shot, the soldiers ran berserk all over the residence. They stormed the rooms of the house looking for the other members of his family. Some of them had lined up a few individuals, one of them a personal employee of the president, by the wall near the gate and in due time Mujib’s youngest son, Russell (who had been named by the president after the British philosopher Bertrand Russell) was brought there. The ten year-old boy, shivering in fright and wailing to be taken to his mother, was made to stand in the line. He asked the personal secretary, Mohitul Islam, if the soldiers were going to kill him. Islam, terror struck himself, nevertheless reassured the boy that he was safe. In the house, the remaining members of the president’s family comprising his second son Jamal (a lieutenant in the army who had recently returned after completing a course at Sandhurst in the United Kingdom), Bangabandhu’s newly-wed daughters-in-law and his younger brother Sheikh Naser) took shelter inside the bathroom attached to the main bedroom of the residence. It did not help, as the soldiers soon broke down the door and mowed them all down with machine gun fire. Their bodies fell in a heap. Outside, as Russell kept asking to be taken to his mother, one of the soldiers, in a moment replete with unmitigated cruelty, brought him upstairs, across the body of his father on the stairs and to the spot where his mother lay dead. Without further ado, the soldier pumped a round into the little boy’s head.

Across town the group of soldiers which had earlier made its way to Minto Road, finished off Minister Abdur Rab Serniabat and his family. In another part of Dhanmondi, soldiers rushed into the home of Sheikh Moni and shot him and his pregnant wife Arzoo, before their two young children. When they left, one of Moni’s brothers rushed him and his wife, both of whom were still barely alive, to the hospital where they succumbed to their injuries. Meanwhile, Mujib’s chief of security, Colonel Jamil, who had earlier left his home when he heard of the attack on the presidential residence, approached Road no. 32. He certainly did not know that by then the whole family had been wiped off. Soldiers stationed there by Farook Rahman stopped him at the entry to the road and asked him to turn back. He refused. The soldiers murdered him in his vehicle.

The killings were over before dawn broke. As the call to prayer was heard in the mosques of the city, the assassins went about ransacking Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s house and laying hands on everything of value they could find. As the sun rose, Farook Rahman and a band of the men who had taken part in the killings, made their way back to the cantonment, obviously to rally other men as also to inform them of what had been done. Colonel Rashid, in the company of another group of soldiers, rushed to the residence of Moshtaq in the old part of Dhaka to inform him that Mujib and his family had been killed and that it was time for him to take over. In later years, Moshtaq was to deny that he had anything to do with the assassinations and that indeed the first time he knew anything about the coup was when the majors and colonels visited him and asked him to be the country’s new president. His protestations were contradicted by the killers themselves, who in various interviews with the media would all say emphatically that he had always had full knowledge of the conspiracy as his had been the leading personality behind the planning and implementation of the overthrow of the government of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Down the years, there have been unconfirmed reports that as Moshtaq would not take over as president unless he was sure that Mujib was actually dead, he had to be taken to Road No. 32 to be shown the body of the president.

At first light on Friday, 15 August 1975, no one in Dhaka and in the rest of Bangladesh, save for Bangabandhu’s neighbours in Dhanmondi, knew of the calamity that had come over the country. For the late president’s government, the vice chancellor, teachers and students of Dhaka University, it was going to be a momentous day because Mujib would address the convocation in his capacity as chancellor of the university in the earlier part of the morning. Sarkar Kabiruddin, the well-known newsreader on Radio Bangladesh, was on his way to his office in Shahbagh to read the first news bulletin of the day, around 6:30 am. He was surprised to see tanks and soldiers before the gates of the radio centre and quickly tried to turn back. The soldiers blocked his path and compelled him to enter the station, where he quickly realised the situation. A few army officers, who had occupied the radio station once they had killed Mujib and the members of his family, ordered him to broadcast the announcement that the ‘autocrat’ Mujib had been overthrown. Prior to Kabiruddin’s arrival, though, Major Shariful Haq Dalim had already gone on air to make the announcement, shrill and triumphant, that Mujib had been killed and that the country had been placed under martial law. For good measure, Dalim added that Bangladesh was now an Islamic republic under the leadership of Moshtaq. For the better part of the morning, it was this message, now in Sarkar Kabiruddin’s voice, that would be heard throughout a stunned country.

A stunned silence greeted the announcement of the coup and the murder of the president’s family. In the cantonment, the leaders of the coup swiftly got in touch with senior figures of the army. Breaking all rules of discipline, Farook Rahman and his fellow plotters marched into the office of the army chief of staff and ordered him to go with them to the radio station. Elsewhere, similar action was being taken in the case of the chiefs of the navy and air force. At the Bangladesh Rifles and police headquarters, similar indiscipline by the assassins was underway. Some of the plotters made their way to the offices of the chief of general staff, Brigadier Khaled Mosharraf, and acquainted him with the details. Likewise, Colonel Shafaat Jamil was informed of the coup. When some officers with no link to the coup turned up at the home of the deputy chief of army staff, Major General Ziaur Rahman, to inform him of the violent change that had taken place, they found him shaving. He coolly responded that the vice president was around to take charge. But even as Zia said that, other soldiers, having finished off Mujib and his family, went looking for other senior leaders of the fallen government. They quickly placed Vice President Syed Nazrul Islam, former Finance Minister and Prime Minister of the 1971 Mujibnagar government Tajuddin Ahmed as also A.H.M. Quamruzzaman under house arrest. Prime Minister M. Mansoor Ali went into hiding and would not be found until a few days later.

As the morning progressed, all the three services chiefs as well as the heads of the police and Bangladesh Rifles were brought to the Radio Bangladesh office in Shahbagh, where each one of them read out a statement of loyalty to the new regime. They were then escorted back home by the army officers, who were now clearly in charge of the country. After the statements of loyalty had been made, Moshtaq addressed the country, telling them that he had taken over as president of Bangladesh in what he described as a moment of historical necessity. He made no mention of Bangabandhu and his family, but he did not forget to salute the soldiers who had carried out the coup d’état as children of the sun who, in his view, had done the country proud.

As the day progressed to afternoon and then evening, the question that was being asked in whispers around the country was about the fate of Bangabandhu’s family. By now people were convinced that Mujib was dead. If he were yet alive, Moshtaq would not take over. But even as the bodies of the president and his family lay where they had fallen before dawn, no one in the country knew that an entire household had been massacred by the soldiers of an army that Bangladesh’s founding father had assiduously built in the three and a half years since the country’s liberation from Pakistan in 1971.

Early on the morning of 16 August, the soldiers collected the bodies and placed them in rough, makeshift coffins. Except for Bangabandhu’s body, which bore as many as seventy bullet holes, all the other corpses were hastily buried in the cemetery in Banani, an upcoming residential zone in the capital. The bodies were placed in one single, long grave and covered over without the rituals of an Islamic burial. Mujib’s body, the new regime shrewdly guessed, could not be interred in the capital since there was a chance of the place becoming in time a political shrine for the country. It was flown by helicopter to his village, Tungipara, where the accompanying soldiers made it clear that they wanted a quick burial. They cordoned off the entire village to prevent people from attending the namaz-e-janaza, or funeral, as also from a fear of a backlash from a constituency that had been Mujib’s own since he decided to make a career of politics in the late 1940s.

The soldiers ran into opposition from the cleric who would offer the funeral prayers. The body, said the cleric firmly, could not be buried until it had been washed and placed in a shroud according to Islamic tradition. The soldiers, jittery and nervous, asked him to make it quick. As no soap necessary for bathing the president’s body could be found in the village, the cleric made do with a thick ball of rough soap usually used for washing clothes. Late in the afternoon, the body of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, founder of the independent state of Bangladesh and its president, was laid to rest beside the graves of his parents in the village where he had been born fifty-five years earlier. Before leaving Tungipara, the army officers who had helicoptered to the village with the body made sure that soldiers and policemen would stand guard at the grave and allow no one to approach it.

It rained that evening.

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  • Vol 35
  • DhakaCourier

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