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Dhaka Tribune

The coup d’etat of March 1982

The coup in March 1982 was an unprovoked act by an ambitious military officer and his associates

Update : 21 Mar 2024, 01:21 PM

General Hussein Muhammad Ershad, chief of staff of the Bangladesh army, seized power in a coup d’etat on the morning of March 24, 1982. Coming four months after the election that had placed Justice Abdus Sattar as the new president of the country in succession to General Ziaur Rahman, the coup was a shock. And it was because there was no good reason, other than Ershad’s vaulting ambition for power, for that action by the military hierarchy to move against an elected president.

Not much has been written on how the March 1982 coup undermined the national effort to restore political power to the political classes following the November 15, 1981 presidential election. Justice Sattar had defeated the Awami League’s Dr Kamal Hossain, which was a disappointment because much hope had been there of the Awami League returning to power for the first time after the tragedy of August-November 1975.

Even so, politics was beginning to shape up pretty well in the country. The Awami League had elected Sheikh Hasina, at a time when she was in exile in India, as its new leader. Her return home on May 17, 1981 saw an outpouring of emotion for the daughter of the assassinated Father of the Nation. In the same month, having survived as many as eighteen abortive coup attempts and having dispatched a good number of soldiers and airmen to summary death over their role, real or imaginary, in these attempts, General Ziaur Rahman was felled in a putsch in Chittagong.

The election of Justice Sattar was looked upon as a happening that would restore politics where it belonged, among the people. Sattar, who had served as vice president under Zia, had earlier earned a good reputation as chief election commissioner in Pakistan. On his watch the December 1970 election, one of the cleanest in either Pakistan or Bangladesh, had taken place. 

Once sworn in as Bangladesh’s president in November 1981, Sattar moved toward taking action against the corrupt elements in his Bangladesh Nationalist Party. It was expected as well that during his presidency democratic politics in the country would gradually come to recast itself as a unifying factor for the nation.

But, again, President Sattar was unable to curb the activities of General Ershad, who had publicly, in his writing and comments, begun advocating the creation of a national security council in which the military would clearly play a pivotal role. Ershad did not convey his sentiments to the president in the way he should have, which was to do it away from the public eye. 

Photo: WIKIPEDIA

It is said a disturbed President Sattar decided to dismiss General Ershad from his position but that move was thwarted when a senior bureaucrat informed the army chief of the president’s intention. In the end, irony took over. It was the army chief of staff who moved to dismiss the president.

The story of the 1982 coup and its aftermath is yet to be faithfully penned for history. On one hand, the coup was typical of all earlier coups, in Pakistan and Bangladesh, of coup makers seizing power in their self-serving belief that politicians are ruining the state and therefore the state must be freed of their stranglehold. On the other hand, the 1982 coup was typical in that it involved a turning back of the state from all earlier experience of politics in the country.

And then, given that General Ershad had his fiat run in Bangladesh for close to nine years, it is important to revisit the ramifications of his coup. Prior to the coup, there was the lack of clarity related to the May 30, 1981 assassination of President Ziaur Rahman. No light has yet been shed on the plot that led to the death of Bangladesh’s first military ruler, though General M A Manzur, GOC Chittagong, apparently wished to speak to General Ershad after the Zia assassination. Ershad did not take his call.

Within a few days of Zia’s assassination, Manzur was shot in captivity in Chittagong by a military officer sent from Dhaka. The mystery of who ordered Manzur’s killing has never been solved and in the years after his fall from power, Ershad’s involvement or otherwise in the incident was never investigated by the media or by those who replaced him in power. 

Likewise, the court-martial of 13 army officers charged with involvement in the Zia assassination has remained unexplained. General Abdur Rahman, who presided over the trials that sent the thirteen officers to the gallows, was later sent off as ambassador to France, where he died in mysterious circumstances. 

Bangladesh’s history post-1971 will remain incomplete without a thorough examination and analysis of the Ershad years. His followers refer to the upazila system as his contribution to decentralisation in the country, which is understandable. But there are too the negatives that followed the coup in March 1982.

Ershad’s attempt to break up the High Court into various segments undermined a core principle of the constitution. His decision to permit Bangabandhu’s assassins, for partisan political purposes, to form a political party and have the leading killer take part in the 1988 presidential election remains a blot on his record.

In the tradition of Ayub Khan and Ziaur Rahman, Ershad engaged in poaching leading figures from the political parties in order to cobble his Jatiyo Party into shape. Moudud Ahmed, whose political career commenced in the Awami League before he veered off to the BNP, was jailed and then released, soon after which he joined Ershad’s outfit. Other political figures, from both the BNP and the Awami League, were seduced into joining the Jatiyo Party. 

The veteran politicians Ataur Rahman Khan and Mizanur Rahman Chowdhury served in his regime as prime ministers. In a style reminiscent of General Zia, General Ershad created space for some notorious collaborators of the 1971 occupation Pakistan army, giving them ministerial places in his regime.  

This is history which needs explanation in the fullest of details. The Ershad era remains known for the militarisation of politics, for the democracy people expected to return through the election of Justice Abdus Sattar to the presidency being thwarted by the soldiers seizing the state in March 1982. 

Military rule anywhere has been a disaster. Be it Chile or Pakistan or Burma or Greece or Bangladesh, wherever ambitious generals have turfed out elected governments, societies have gone downhill. Spain is yet engaged in a sustained struggle to cleanse itself of the ghosts of the Franco era. 

In Bangladesh, the good part of the story is that the notorious Indemnity Ordinance, promulgated by the Moshtaq regime and incorporated into the nation’s constitution by the Zia dictatorship, was repealed in November 1996 and a good number of the 1975 assassins were marched to the gallows.

The not so good part is that the move against secularism, made by the Ershad regime through decreeing Islam as the religion of the state, has remained. It is a legacy of the March 1982 coup which continues to impede Bangladesh’s full progression to a modern democracy.

General Ershad did not fade away after his fall from power in December 1990. He served time in prison once the BNP formed the government in 1991, but then came a time when his support and services came to the aid of both the BNP and the Awami League. 

Overall, the coup in March 1982 was an unprovoked act by an ambitious military officer and his associates. Ignoring it or avoiding meaningful conversations on it will not be of help in the writing of Bangladesh’s post-1971 history.

 

Syed Badrul Ahsan is Consultant Editor, Dhaka Tribune.

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