I have seen General Ershad at close quarters on only two occasions. The first was when, at some point of his rule, he was going around visiting newspaper offices in what was obviously a public relations exercise on his part. He badly needed legitimacy and this was one of his ways of coming by it. At the New Nation and Ittefaq offices, we were informed by Anwar Hossain Manju, one of the owners of the newspapers and at that particular point a minister in the Ershad regime, that the President would be visiting us. I recall, to my surprise even today, how as we left Manju's room a number of my colleagues fumed and muttered in visible anger. They had no wish to welcome a dictator to as hallowed a place as journalism. Only hours later, however, as General Ershad stepped out of his car at Ittefaq Bhaban, some of those very indignant journalists began to push and pummel their way through their colleagues, eager to shake the military ruler's hand. Bemused, I watched, along with some others, who were equally bemused. It is a spectacle I will never forget.
My second experience of General Ershad's company was in the year 2000, when as associate editor of the Independent I went to his Baridhara residence with my editor Mahbubul Alam. Mahbub Bhai was close to Ershad and was planning interviews of political leaders, including Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, for the Independent. The interview plans for the Awami League and BNP chiefs never worked out, but talking to General Ershad was rather refreshing. He was extremely coherent in articulating his opinions on national issues; his English was admirable and of course his Bengali was impeccable. He was the symbol of good health. I came away impressed, but then also told myself that Ershad could have earned an enviable place in history as a benevolent ruler had he stayed clear of the executions of the thirteen military officers in the aftermath of General Ziaur Rahman's assassination and had he resisted the temptation of becoming a politician through shaping a political party.
Now that Ershad is dead at the ripe old age of eighty nine, there can only prayers for the salvation of the man's soul. We do not speak ill of the dead, for all of us are headed towards the same twilight. All of us will sooner or later wait for that inevitable boat to cross over to the other bank of Twilight River. Death levels us and we are made equal, without exception, when mortality descends on us in all its finality. And so there is this need for respect, for looking upon those who have made a misery of life for people with a certain degree of sympathy. And yet there is this critical need for historical analyses of the men and women who have for long years occupied spaces across the political landscape.
Ershad's spaces have been many, endlessly changing in colour. He is part of our history, though not of an enviable sort. He craved power and seized it through overthrowing an elected government. He was of course not the first soldier to indulge in such crass demonstrations of ambition, but he was surely a dictator who left much of the idealism we lived by ruined by his personalized approach to administration. Yes, there was the good he did. His upazila concept holds and ought to be improved upon. It was in his time that road communications underwent vast improvements in the country. We will also concede the fact that his pretensions to poetry, though they led to the creation of a new class of sycophants gathered around him, cheered us in a certain way. It is not every day that one gets to have a ruler willing to temper governance with dashes of poetry. And so we loved Ershad in his recitations.
But there was too the cruelty so manifest in the man. When General M.A. Manzoor wished to speak to him on the phone from Chittagong within hours of the murder of General Ziaur Rahman, he refused to take the call. A doomed Manzoor, once he had been taken into custody by the police, ought to have been brought to Dhaka to face trial. The general was handed over to the army, whereupon an officer was sent from the capital to Chittagong cantonment to pump those bullets into the captive freedom fighter. Ershad never spoke about the tragedy. Nor was he ever charged with complicity in the crime. And, therefore, even as people reflect on a dead Ershad, one cannot help recalling the manner in which Manzoor and the thirteen officers subsequently court-martialled and sent to the gallows were treated by the chief of army staff, which Ershad was at that point.
Ershad was an epitome of contradictions at certain points in his career. He travelled from West Pakistan to occupied Bangladesh in 1971, spent a month on leave here and then went back to his post. It did not occur to him to link up with the Mujibnagar government and join the armed struggle against Pakistan. Perhaps he did not think Bangladesh would ever emerge as a sovereign state? But then, how did all those colonels, majors, captains and others plunge into the struggle and he remained outside it? The question of conviction or principles comes in here. Not long after his coup d'etat in March 1982, General Ershad decided to visit the grave of the Father of the Nation. He prayed at the final resting place of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. And then, some years later, he did the unthinkable. He patronized the formation of a political outfit by Bangabandhu's assassins and made certain that the ring leader of the August 1975 coup took part in the presidential election against him.
General Ershad was not the first dictator to strike at the secular ethos of the country, but he certainly bore responsibility for deepening the communal roots, implanted in the nation's political culture by General Zia, through his arbitrary act of imposing Islam on a state which had waged war against Pakistan on the basis of secular Bengali nationalism. His appeasement of bigotry damaged us all, to a point where we find it hard, all these years after his fall from power and after his death, to roll back the darkness he injected in the nation's politics. His visits to mosques every Friday and explaining them away as follow-ups to his dreams of the preceding night did not fool anyone. He was using power to interpret Islam in his own way. His decreeing of Friday as the weekly holiday in place of Sunday did not take economic questions and acceptable global standards into account. The democratically elected leaders who came after him have proved singularly afraid of taking the country back to Sunday, for fear of ruffling fanatical feathers.
History will not treat Hussein Muhammad Ershad kindly, for he did not treat the people of Bangladesh well. His enticement of politicians into his political outfit, his dalliances with women, his contributions to the murder of his fellow officers, his friendship with the 1971 collaborators and his use of religion as a weapon to perpetuate his hold on power will all be part of objective historical research. That he transformed himself, in the eyes of many, from a fallen dictator to a democracy-friendly politician does not obscure the grave wounds he and his friends inflicted on the nation's body politic in the near decade in which he wielded power.
Even so, let him rest in peace. In a land where political leaders and generals have had bullets send them to their graves, Ershad was luckier. His death followed the course of immutable nature.
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