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Remembering a dictator of many colours

  • Published at 10:51 pm July 19th, 2019
Ershad wanted to stay in power by hook or by crook 

With Ershad gone, his party now has a chance to do some soul-searching 

I never thought I’d be writing a piece relating to Hussein Muhammad Ershad, who had ruled Bangladesh as a dictator for a long nine years. I first saw him in 1976 when I was a fifth grade student at Shishukunja Junior High School in Jhenidah Cadet College campus. He was the chair of the cadet college governing body, and came to the college annual sports meet as the chief guest. He came on the last day of the three-day meet.

Side by side with the cadet, the college authority used to organize a 100-metre sprint for the sons of the college employees. Somehow, I don’t know how, I came as the winner of the race. And therefore, I received a gold medal from none other than Ershad. 

That’s how I remembered him. I felt very proud to have received a medal from a big army officer who seemed to be very important for the teachers of the cadet college.

Then, over time, I forgot him and the medal.

Then in 1982, on March 24, we heard that Ershad had imposed martial law in the country and announced himself as the chief martial law administrator. That, too, didn’t mean much to me. We had already seen a military ruler after the killing of Bangabandhu, and thought he would follow the same path -- talk tall in the very beginning, show some tantalizing actions for curbing corruption and poverty, and then, form a new political party and try his best to stick to power as long as he could.

For a year, he, indeed, tried to show his benevolent face -- he rode a bicycle on his way to the office, roamed around the country to see the poverty level. His true colours became evident when he ordered his police to open fire on the students of Rajshahi University and ordered his men to run a bulldozer over the student procession in Dhaka.

After finishing in my HSC exams in 1984, it was time to seek higher education at the universities. By then, he was acting as a full-blown autocrat, wanting to subjugate the student movement that was brewing against his regime. In his pursuit to contain the students, Ershad tried various methods. Apart from forming the student wing of his newly-formed party, he tried to contain the university students by opening the flood-gate of drugs and illegal weapons into campuses.

The university campuses had to remain closed for a long time very often, because he feared the students’ movement against him. The students fell into a deep session jam across the country. We passed our HSC exam in June 1984, and we were scheduled to start our classes in September that year. 

However, we had to wait a year to begin our session at Dhaka University. The session jams due to the closure continued perpetually for as long as he was in power. We remember being in the second-year session for two-and-a-half years. Imagine what we had been doing for such a long time in a single session!

Ideally, we should have achieved our Master’s degrees in four years by 1988, but we received our certificate in 1992. Four years had elapsed from our lives due to his regime. Yes, we lost four years because he usurped power and wanted to remain in power by hook or by crook.

He tried all avenues to remain in power. The previous dictator, before Ershad, once said that he would make politics difficult for the politicians. The second dictator of Bangladesh actually implemented the vision of the earlier one. Many political leaders had stepped into the traps spread by him. Life for the politicians, indeed, became difficult.

His Jatiya Party started to play the power role in full-swing.

After his fall from power, he was sent to jail briefly. However, unfortunately, this man somehow convinced the post-autocracy leaders in power that he would still be useful in the country’s political arena. Strangely enough, the post-90 parties in power did utilize him to remain in power. This fact that they utilized a dictator to remain in power ached our generation, who have seen him during those days.

After his demise, many are seen to praise him as a ruler as well as a person. Although I don’t have any problem with that, sadly, those who are praising him now haven’t actually experienced the rule of this military strongman. The people who have been praising his rule are seen to be comparing the rules of the governments and parties that came after him. I would request them to have a deeper look at his regime if they could.

Recently, after Ershad’s demise, the acting Jatiya Party chief said they would uphold the ideals and values their late party chief left behind. To my mind, since 1982 and throughout these decades, I failed to understand the ideals and values of the party he left behind.

Since Ershad was an autocrat also within his own party, a long time after he had been deposed from power, I believe the party now has an opportunity to do some soul-searching about finding the reason to exist as a party. The current leadership should try finding out what this party means for common Bangladeshis.

It has to add value to the lives of Bangladeshis. 

Ekram Kabir is a story-teller. His other works can be found on ekramkabir.com.

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