The politics and death of Colonel Taher -The Asian Age

Colonel Abu Taher was sent to the gallows by the military regime of General Ziaur Rahman on 21 July 1976. It was a sad denouement to a drama which had seen both men operate in comradeship on the morning of 7 November 1975 in bringing the counter-coup against General Khaled Mosharraf to a successful conclusion.

Mosharraf and his fellow officers, Colonel Najmul Huda and Major A.T.M. Haider, were murdered in what was only to be the beginning of an internecine war pitting freedom fighters against freedom fighters. 

It was a dark dawn when General Zia, assisted by Col. Taher and his soldiers, found himself free following four days of internment by General Mosharraf. For Taher, it was a personal triumph, considering that his leadership of the revolt against Mosharraf was key to the collapse of the coup which had sent the assassins of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman packing on 3 November. 

To all intents and purposes, Mosharraf was certainly on the right track in creating the conditions that would free the country of the usurpers who had been in charge since mid-August 1975. But, then, his strategy went badly wrong in the matter of sustaining his coup. 

Even as Taher mobilized troops from Comilla and other cantonments and had them move toward Dhaka to foil Mosharraf, the new chief of army staff remained busy in negotiations with Khondokar Moshtaq Ahmed on the need for the latter to go. By the time Justice A.S.M. Sayem was installed as President on 6 November, it was too late for Mosharraf to consolidate his hold on the army.

And thus did Taher emerge as the real strongman on the morning of 7 November. But that triumph too was short-lived, for within days it would be a wily Zia who would turn against his benefactor and prepare the grounds for Taher's tragic end. 

For the past four decades, General Zia has been blamed for the cruelty that was perpetrated against Col. Taher through his trial before a secret court martial and the clear lack of an opportunity for defence on his part. 

It had been clear from the moment Taher and the leading figures of the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (JSD) had been arrested between 23 and 24 November 1975 that Zia was determined to put Taher away for good. It was a travesty of a trial Taher was put through. 

He never had a chance, despite all the outrage the trial was causing in the country. The media was under strict censorship, with hardly any reports emerging on the trial. In the end, Taher was pitilessly done to death by Zia and his friends in the army.

In terms of national history, Col. Taher has always been emblematic of heroism, insofar as his contributions to the War of Liberation are concerned, and will always occupy that position in the pantheon of illustrious freedom fighters. 

That does not however detract from the truth that Taher's politics in post-liberation Bangladesh did not exactly conform to the needs of a nation born of the trauma of war. 

In the days between the murder of Khaled Mosharraf and his own arrest by an ungrateful Ziaur Rahman, his focus remained on transforming the army into an institution that would be classless in nature and functions. One only needs to recall the adventurism resorted to by the so-called Biplobi Sainik Sangstha. 

That was Taher's view of socialism, one truly convoluted in nature because it recommended an absence of distinctions between officers and soldiers. There were two flaws involved in Taher's brand of politics. 

One was his erroneous belief that socialism could be imposed on an army and on a country through a military coup. The other was his flawed assessment that a blurring of distinction between officers and the rank and file in the army would lead to the emergence of a disciplined defense force for the country. 

The results were predictable. Scores of officers were murdered, post-7 November, by frenzied soldiers drawn to Taher's dangerous vision of a classless army. It then became a tough job for Zia, for all the gratitude he owed Taher, to try restoring discipline in the nation's cantonments. Taher's approach to what he saw as the future shape of the military was causing chaos and horrific bloodletting in the cantonments. 

For Zia, it had become an absolute necessity to stem the decline in military discipline. He could only let Taher have the upper hand at risk to his own survival. One can hardly take issue with the point that when Zia acted against Taher days after being installed in power by the latter, he was on the correct course. 

No more officers could be murdered by rebellious soldiers in the name of leftist political indoctrination. No more could the army, which had been in disarray since August, be allowed to come apart through its chain of command being rent asunder.

At this distance in historical time, Taher's politics calls for rigorous analysis and right from the early stages of a free Bangladesh. He had lost a leg in the war; and in free Bangladesh he was obviously an unhappy man. A liberated country was certainly not giving him the space for performance that obviously was his aim. 

Again --- and this is important --- he was growing increasingly disillusioned with the state of politics in the country, to a point where he aligned himself with the young, callow leadership of the JSD  and clearly engaged in plans for an overthrow of Bangabandhu's government. 

The tale of the Ganobahini, the armed wing of the JSD, is a necessary point of reference here. Secret plans were drawn up --- historians have vouchsafed for it in recent times --- to blow up the Father of the Nation as his car made its entry into the government secretariat. It is inconceivable that Taher would not have known of such clandestine plans. 

Indeed, with revelations now emerging of his incendiary comments soon after Bangabandhu was hastily buried by his assassins in his village --- that the corpse of the Father of the Nation should have been cast into the sea --- it is not difficult to believe the detailed plans he and his friends had been making against a constitutionally established government.

Unbridled ambition was part of the post-liberation Taher. In his growing opposition to the government, he did not realize or refused to see the multifarious assaults Bangabandhu and his team were under. On the one hand, there was yet the conspiracy, at once local and international, which brought together the defeated rightist elements of 1971 against the secular Bengali state. 

On the other, extreme leftists in the form of Siraj Sikdar and Abdul Haq --- the latter the writer of an infamous letter to Pakistan's Bhutto government soliciting arms and money to overthrow Sheikh Mujibur Rahman --- were proving relentless in a pursuit of their violent politics. 

It was not merely the government that was under pressure. The state too had come under assault. When Taher and the elements of the JSD moved against the government, therefore, an entire country found itself in a bind.

An absence of the philosophical defined Taher's politics, or whatever there was of it. And, of course, there was naiveté aplenty in him. He was unable to understand the workings of the mind in Zia and remained under the illusion that Zia would be in thrall to him, indeed be his puppet. 

Zia would soon reveal himself as shrewder than Taher. And Taher was not willing to acknowledge the grave ramifications of the coup of 15 August and the dangers posed by Moshtaq and his fellow conspirators. 

It would have made good sense for him to cooperate with Khaled Mosharraf in early November in the task of putting an end to the Moshtaq cabal and helping to bring the criminals of August-November 1975 to justice. 

His pathological hatred of the Awami League came in the way. It is said that on the morning of 7 November, as the defeated and tired team of Mosharraf, Huda and Haider sat down to a sad breakfast amid their captors in Shere Banglanagar, Col. 

Taher and some other men appeared at the door, observed the prisoners and then went away. Minutes later, a new band of mutinous soldiers stormed the place, seized the three officers, took them outside and swiftly shot them down.

At the Shahbagh station of Bangladesh Betar, Khondokar Moshtaq, in the hope that he would be restored to the presidency, sat waiting to address the nation as president once again. Taher appeared there and made it clear that Moshtaq would not speak on the radio. In Dhaka cantonment, the soldiers had already begun murdering their commanding officers. 

Postscript:In the struggle involving General Khaled Mosharraf, General Ziaur Rahman and Colonel Abu Taher, Mosharraf was the man who could have stemmed the rot. Known as the most brilliant tactician in the War of Liberation, he nevertheless failed to sustain his coup in November. 

Colonel Taher became a casualty of his overreach. In the end, it was Zia who survived to preside over a regression of the country into the dark. Bangladesh is yet paying the price for Taher's mistakes and Zia's calculated moves in November 1975.

The writer is Editor-in-Charge,
The Asian Age