Who succeeded, and who failed?
When Mohammad Abdul Hamid was elected Bangladesh’s 20th president some years ago, the heart was made glad. Here was a veteran politician, a properly respected individual, a raconteur given to huge doses of wit, a man who would transform the strictly formal presidential palace into an enlivening one.
Hamid, having served as speaker of the Jatiyo Sangsad, has always had a remarkable grasp on the ways in which parliamentary business is conducted. There is a refreshing absence of arrogance and shallowness in him.
It always feels good when a nation comes by good men for its presidency. In Bangladesh’s history, we have had a good many presidents who have made us happy. And yet, there have been all those others who, despite our expectations of them, have not quite been able to offer themselves as assertive heads of state.
The history of Bangladesh’s presidency begins, of course, with Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was made the country’s wartime president at Mujibnagar in 1971.
His being away in prison of course led to Syed Nazrul Islam’s taking over as acting president, which position he occupied till early January 1972, when the Father of the Nation returned home from Pakistan.
When Bangabandhu stepped down from the presidency on January 12, 1972, it was Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury who took over as president. It was a good choice, for Chowdhury was a man profoundly respected by Bengalis across the spectrum.
And because he was, his resignation from the presidency in late 1973 came as a shock. But, of course, being a man with a legalistic bent of mind, he was unable to continue identifying himself with the policies of the government.
Bangabandhu understood Chowdhury’s grievances and reluctantly agreed to his departure from Bangabhaban.
The case of Mohammadullah makes for intriguing reading. Once Bangladesh was liberated, he became deputy speaker of the Jatiyo Sangsad and then speaker. On Justice Chowdhury’s resignation, he took over as president and stayed in the job till January 1975, when the fourth amendment to the Constitution propelled Bangabandhu to the position of an all-powerful president.
Mohammadullah joined the cabinet as a minister, which was clearly a decline for him.
During the Zia period, Mohammadullah turned his back on the AL, joined the newly formed Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and became a minister in General Ziaur Rahman’s regime.
When Justice Abdus Sattar was elected president in his own right in November 1981, he chose Mohammadullah as his vice president.
Badruddoza Chowdhury’s story is in a class of its own. A doctor who loved music and who went on humming songs as he treated his patients, he linked up at one point with Zia and became a founding member of the BNP.
Post-Zia, he stayed loyal to the party and at one stage, was rewarded with the nation’s presidency. His tragedy commenced when he tried to assert his authority as head of state, through deciding to visit neither Bangabandhu’s nor Zia’s grave in tribute to them.
His party smelled ingratitude and soon drove him to a point where he had to give up the presidency. He ought to have stayed on and fought back. He did neither, to the disappointment of the country.
Among the more remarkable, more widely respected presidents, was Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed. Firmness and a deep sense of purpose were the character traits of his presidency.
It was his job to assist the country transit to a democratic order following the collapse of the Ershad dictatorship in December 1990. And he did the job very well.
It is a pity that the AL, which had so enthusiastically elected him president in 1996, eventually went after him for reasons that have not been very clear. Justice Shahabuddin’s reputation remains intact, nevertheless.
Had General Khaled Mosharraf lived, Justice ASM Sayem could have played a coruscating role in Bangladesh’s history.
It was on Mosharraf’s watch, on November 6, 1975, that Sayem took over Bangabhaban from the usurper Moshtaque.
On that evening, he delivered a conciliatory speech before the nation. The next morning, though, darkness set in with Mosharraf’s murder. Sayem then became a president who would live but by Zia’s leave. It was Sayem who signed away the life of the imprisoned Col Taher in July 1976. The optimism with which Sayem had come in was soon gone in the less than the two years he was president. He was compelled to vacate office in April 1977, once an inordinately ambitious Zia decided that he could not stay away from the presidency any longer.
In the dark phase of Bangladesh’s presidency, three men have seized the office by force of arms -- Moshtaque in 1975, Zia in 1977, and Ershad in 1983. Some presidents, too weak to assert themselves, were quietly shown the door.
Included in this were group Justice Sayem, Justice Ahsanuddin Chowdhury, Justice Abdus Sattar, and Dr Badruddoza Chowdhury.
One president who asserted himself, to everyone’s pleasant surprise, was Abdur Rahman Biswas, when in 1996 he saw off an army putsch and sent the army chief out to pasture.
The most powerful president was Bangabandhu, who of course had all the powers he needed by the time he decided, in the BAKSAL era, that he had to be head of state as well as government.
Zillur Rahman was a soft, polite occupant of the presidency. His predecessor Iajuddin Ahmed was a disappointingly different kettle of fish altogether. Elected to the presidency by the party he identified with, he was unable to rise to the proper calling of the office. No one was sad to see him go.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist.