Published:  01:03 AM, 15 August 2017

Our annus horribilis


The three months that elapsed between August and November 1975 were times that laid Bangladesh low, and not just in terms of self-esteem. What truly transpired during that period was an overturning of principles, of the values that had sustained the nation throughout the entirety of the War of Liberation and the period after that. And core among those values was secular democracy, the idea for which the Bengali nation had prepared itself through the long stretch of time between the Language Movement of 1952 and the final armed struggle for freedom in 1971. Go back to the sordid incidents of 1975 and what you will likely stumble upon is the sad discovery that the victory the nation had achieved in the war was hugely undermined the moment Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was gunned down, together with most of his family, in the predawn hours of 15 August 1975.

For starters, recall that energising Bengali slogan of Joi Bangla. In the minutes that followed the assassination, a clear sense of Pakistanisation came into the new order of things when Joi Bangla was swiftly supplanted by Bangladesh Zindabad, which was unequivocally a hearkening back to Pakistan Zindabad. And that was not all. Bangladesh Betar gave way, for reasons that were as absurd as they were unwarranted, to Radio Bangladesh. All morning, the macabre announcement of 'autocrat' Mujib having been killed was made over the radio.

It was one of those times when the nation, at once feeble and stunned, was unable to understand anything and everything that was going on. The fact that the President of the Republic, dead and sprawled on the stairway of his home in Dhanmondi, had been replaced by his commerce minister, made it obvious that other senior leaders down the line had either been killed as well or had been rendered immobile. The macabre took a new twist when Khondokar Moshtaque Ahmed came on air, to tell a disbelieving nation that those who had carried out the coup were children of the sun, surjoshontan. Irony took a new meaning. Murderers were being honored with the grandeur of the sun.

On 15 August, it was a cheerful Pakistan that celebrated the end of the man who had compelled its soldiers to leave the land of the Bengalis in ignominy in December 1971. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto lost little time in authorizing a shipment of rice for the 'brotherly' people of Bangladesh. And then he went further, and worse. His government, said he, was granting recognition to the new government of the 'Islamic Republic' of Bangladesh, when in actuality no announcement regarding a jettisoning of Bangladesh's original secular character had been made.

In the days following the assassination of the Father of the Nation, the country watched in disbelief mixed with dismay as nations that had long opposed its free status came forth to accord it diplomatic recognition. China, which had till September 1974 vetoed Bangladesh's entry into the United Nations and which had desisted from acknowledging the independence of the new nation, recognized Bangladesh by the end of the month. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Sudan had earlier done the same. It was an eerie set of conditions as a bunch of majors and colonels held the country in their grip, keeping it hostage to their whims. Stranger was the truth that almost all of Mujib's ministers continued to serve the Moshtaque usurper regime. Not even General M.A.G. Osmany, who had only months earlier resigned his position in the Jatiyo Sangsad to protest the arrival of the one-party Baksal system, could hold himself back from siding with Moshtaque.

He became his defense adviser but, as the weeks and months were to show, proved badly ineffectual in turning the clock back to decency. But Osmany's failing was minor compared to the embarrassing helplessness that had been demonstrated on the morning of 15 August by the chiefs of the three services, when they had all sworn fealty to Moshtaque. Following the murder of Bangabandhu, these men and the men under their command had a good number of hours to restore constitutional government. In the event, they had done nothing.

When you recall that dark period in Bangladesh's history, what strikes you is a consciousness of all the mistakes that were made and all the opportunities for a restoration of decency that went missing. Not a soul in the government's intelligence arena was aware of the large conspiracy at work to murder Bangabandhu. And through August to early November, no senior political or military figure was able to act against the killer-officers and so have normal politics put back on the pedestal. It was not to be until 3 November that Brigadier Khaled Musharraf, in company with some of his illustrious freedom fighters (you speak here of Colonel Huda, Colonel Shafaat Jamil and Major Haider), moved against the coup leaders.

That was the first instance of hope returning into the life of the nation. Between 3 and 6 November, a state of uncertainty kept the nation hovering between the shadow and the reality; and yet there was somewhat the sure knowledge that change was in the air. The change came on 6 November, indeed before that, when Musharraf had himself promoted to the rank of major general and took charge of the army from Ziaur Rahman. That was soon followed by the exit of Moshtaque from the presidency and his replacement by Justice Abu Sadat Mohammad Sayem on 6 November. If these changes reflected a return of sunlight into the collective national life, the villainy that had been perpetrated on the night between 3 and 4 November in Dhaka central jail promised long-term agony for the country. The four men who had shaped and led the Mujibnagar government in the struggle against Pakistan in 1971 --- Syed Nazrul Islam, Tajuddin Ahmed, M. Mansoor Ali and A.H.M. Quamruzzaman --- were coolly and coldly bayoneted and shot to death. It was, as we now know, a tragic finale to a plan of political liquidation the assassin-majors and colonels had set in place months earlier through the killing of Bangabandhu. And then the killers were let off, permitted to fly off into exile in Bangkok. Who let them out of the country is a truth we perhaps will never know.

Neither will we know the gruesome details behind the lie that a senior journalist peddled only hours before the four national leaders were put to death in prison. A letter from the Indian authorities, so said this journalist, purporting to a plan to spring the jailed politicians from incarceration and having them form a new government for Bangladesh had been intercepted. That was enough to cause a fresh new tragedy. Within hours the four great men of modern Bengali history lay dead in gory circumstances.

Years later the journalist behind the episode protested that he had never seen the 'letter' but had heard about it. He would go on to live a fruitful life, even as Bangladesh went through the long, searing pain of politics taking flight through the rise of ruthless men intent on battering Bangladesh's history beyond recognition. As if the murders of 3 November were not enough, the country was reminded only four days later that its tryst with tragedy was not yet over. Colonel Abu Taher backed the wrong man, in this case Zia, and quickly organized resistance to Khaled Musharraf. At dawn of 7 November, Musharraf, Huda and Haider, brave men who had inspired the nation in the sustained struggle against Pakistan in 1971, were pushed into a bloody death. Humiliation was heaped on their corpses by cannibalistic men determined to perpetuate the darkness that had set in on 15 August.

After 7 November 1975, hope died a slow, painful death in this country. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the leading lights of the Mujibnagar government were airbrushed out of history. Their killers, most of them, were sent off as diplomats to countries that on their own thrived on dubious reputations. An indemnity ordinance precluding any future trial of Bangabandhu's murderers, issued by the Moshtaque cabal, was quickly given legal sanction by the Zia regime through the fifth amendment to the constitution. But that was not the end of the story. The fall of Bangabandhu and his government would quickly take the country away from its secular and socialistic moorings.

It would inaugurate a process of anti-politics that would systematically purge the country of the men who had fought on the 1971 fields of battle for the liberation of the land. Taher would die, in dark circumstances, less than a year after he had helped Zia triumph over Musharraf. In 1981, Zia himself would be assassinated by officers unhappy with him. Days later, General M.A. Manzoor, a valiant freedom fighter and the moving force behind the abortive coup against Zia, would be murdered after his capture by security forces. Months after the Zia assassination, a good number of army officers would be tried before a secret military tribunal on charges of conspiracy and murder and executed. Their families as also people by and large have always had questions about the fairness of the trial and about the truth behind the assassination of General Ziaur Rahman.

The darkness of August-November 1975 would cause even bigger shame, in the collective sense, to Bengalis. The shame would come encompassed in the return to open politics of all those sinister elements which had, in association with the Pakistan army, gone about undermining the spirit of the Bengali war for freedom in 1971. Known and notorious defenders of the Pakistani 'cause' would happily take charge of Bangladesh.

The war that was won in 1971 would, in effect, be lost through the murders of 1975. In the forty two years since Bangabandhu was silenced for all time, Bangladesh has turned poorer, mediocre men have beaten it black and blue and self-esteem has long been fugitive for its people. We begin the struggle for a restoration of dignity all over again.


The writer is Associate Editor,  The Asian Age

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