Independent Bangladesh took a major blow in the early hours of 3 November 1975 when the soldiers who had gunned down Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family nearly three months earlier swooped on the four national leaders in the putatively secure confines of prison.
These four men --- Syed Nazrul Islam, Tajuddin Ahmad, M. Mansoor Ali, A.H.M. Kamruzzaman --- had played pivotal roles in the formation of the Mujibnagar government-in-exile in 1971 and had decisively steered the nation to victory over Pakistan at the end of the year.
In a free Bangladesh, they would form the core of the government under the leadership of the Father of the Nation. With the assassination of Bangabandhu on 15 August 1975, the clique which seized hold of the country under Khondokar Moshtaque Ahmed and the assassins, took these four Mujibnagar men into custody and lodged them in Dhaka Central Jail.
The murder of these men occurred amidst the confusion in which Bangladesh was plunged on November 3. On the day, Brigadier Khaled Musharraf, a hero of the War of the Liberation, launched his own coup fundamentally as a move to restore the chain of command broken in the army when the majors and colonels around Moshtaque dislodged Bangabandhu's government in August.
One of the first acts undertaken by Musharraf was to place Major General Ziaur Rahman, chief of army staff since late August, under house arrest. With Colonel Shafaat Jamil, Colonel Najmul Huda and Major A.T.M. Haider, Musharraf moved swiftly to remove the Moshtaque cabal from office. In the face of his coup, the assassins capitulated. It was decided that all of them would be flown out of Bangladesh before the new regime entered upon its responsibilities.
Unbeknownst to Musharraf, however, the assassins had made up their minds before they went off into exile that they needed to eliminate the four national leaders then in prison. Their fear was one: that these men would soon emerge free to restore constitutional government in the country.
Meanwhile, the lie was spread by rabid rightwing journalists that the Indian government meant to spring Tajuddin and his friends from jail and have them set up a new government. They based their 'assessment' on a supposed letter to Tajuddin from the Indian authorities that had been 'intercepted' (years later, the elderly journalist who had first produced this canard lamely noted that the letter had been 'lost').
Moments after this 'revelation', the four leaders were brought together in a cell of the prison and shot and bayoneted to death. The killers had gained entry into the jail thanks to a call from Bangabhaban.
The police officer who received the call was quite certain that it was Khondokar Moshtaque at the other end of the line. And once the gate was thrown open, the assassins swiftly marched into the prison compound and were soon seen to leave after having their murderous mission accomplished.
There are reasons to believe, all these decades after the tragedy, that Khaled Musharraf and his fellow officers were not aware, as they went about sending the Moshtaque cabal into the wilderness, of the outrage that had been committed in the central jail.
The assassins were permitted to fly out to Bangkok along with their families. It would not be dawn until the full reality of the night descended on the nation. The calamity was complete. The Father of the Nation was dead. And now the four men who had shaped political strategy with him in the 1960s and early 1970s had been dispatched.
The four days between 3 November and 7 November would prolong the nation's agony. On 6 November, Brigadier Khaled Musharraf was promoted to the rank of major general and appointed chief of staff of the army, succeeding the detained Ziaur Rahman.
On the same day, Moshtaque was forced out of the presidency and replaced by the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Abu Sadat Mohammad Sayem. Meanwhile, inspired by Col. Taher, soldiers in the cantonment went around distributing leaflets against Musharraf, casting doubts on his patriotism.
Early on 7 November, Musharraf, Huda and Haider were brutally killed by forces loyal to Ziaur Rahman, who re-emerged into freedom and was swept to power as the strongman of the new regime, though Justice Sayem remained the nominal president of the country.
Later that month, Zia had his benefactor Taher, along with leading politicians from the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (JSD), arrested. In July 1976, Taher was tried by a sham military court and hanged. General Zia would himself be murdered only five years later.
The writer is Editor-in-Charge, The Asian Age
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