I recall on the 41st anniversary of the brutal assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and many members of his immediate family, the historic role that he played as the master helmsman in safely guiding our ship through troubled waters amidst a devastated post-war scenario.
We must not forget in this context the efforts undertaken by him in successfully providing relief and rehabilitation to more than 10,000,000 displaced persons, and in the undertaking of measures for restoring order and stability within a war-ravaged economy.
This was consistent with the courage and determination that Bangabandhu had demonstrated in the political arena between 1948 and 1971. He had welcomed incarceration on several occasions, stuck to his task and his conviction, and disagreed to compromises and half-measure solutions. This transformed him into the symbol of freedom and independence.
The August putsch was carried out by certain sections of the armed forces and a group of disgruntled politicians. They roamed the streets of Dhaka and swept innocence aside.
The voice of liberty was snuffed out by the very men trained to save, rather than maim.
Murder was bad enough, but what followed was even worse. On September 26, 1975, the usurper President Khandker Moshtaque Ahmed and his compliant, the secretary of the Ministry of Law, Parliamentary Affairs, and Justice informed the nation that under “the Indemnity Ordinance, 1975 (Ordinance No XIX),” restrictions had been put in place with regard to “taking any legal or other proceedings in respect of certain acts or things done in connection with, or in preparation or execution of any plan for, or steps necessitating the historical change and the proclamation of Martial Law on the morning of the 15 August, 1975.” What an abuse of the English language!
The consequence of such lack of accountability was only natural. Murderers did not hesitate to commit other crimes. That is exactly what happened on November 3, 1975.
Four prominent leaders of the Awami League, former ministers including the acting president and the prime minister during our War of Liberation, were brutally killed within Dhaka Central Jail. A three-member Judicial Commission, as expected, was immediately constituted to investigate the matter, but that was the end of that story. Nothing happened.
BNP’s espousal of lack of accountability for murder of innocent people came back to haunt them through the assassination of President Ziaur Rahman in May 1981.
Subsequently, it took 21 years before the crime committed on August 15 could be addressed. The Awami League government sworn into office in 1996 took two important steps: The overturning of the iniquitous indemnity provision, and the initiation of a normal judicial process (not through a Special Tribunal) for trying those guilty of the crimes committed on August 15.
This measure commendably reiterated the belief of the aggrieved victims in the fairness of our judiciary. The government also declared that day as National Mourning Day and a public holiday.
Unfortunately, the new BNP alliance government (elected to office in 2001) cast basic civility out of the window, and on July 28, 2002, cancelled the observance of National Mourning Day.
This was politics of hatred at its worst. The judicial process pertaining to the alleged killers of Bangabandhu was also more or less suspended through machinations between the politicised judiciary and the government in power.
It was amazing to see how the virus of “embarrassment” spread within the echelons of the judicial hierarchy.
Fortunately for the people, due process of law and the principles of natural justice were upheld on July 27, 2008, when the High Court declared illegal the cancellation of this significant Mourning Day.
I believe that the observance of this day as National Mourning Day has reaffirmed the establishment of the rule of law.
Since then, the country has witnessed the completion of the trial and the execution of the judgment pertaining to some of those who were directly involved in the murders that took place on August 15. There are still some others who were involved in the killing. One can only hope that this cycle is completed.
No allusion to the loss of Bangabandhu will be complete without reference to some of his performance as a charismatic leader. Dedicated and committed to the cause of Bangladesh, he encapsulated his vision for his new country at Palam Airport, New Delhi on January 10, 1972.
He described his journey as “a journey from darkness to light, from captivity to freedom, from desolation to hope.”
He reiterated that he was going back to his independent country “not with hatred in my heart for anyone, but with the satisfaction that truth has at last triumphed over falsehood, sanity over insanity, courage over cowardice, justice over injustice, and good over ill.”
Bangabandhu’s magnanimity and belief in the people of Bangladesh was reflected in his optimism. It was also this spirit that would inspire him to face the many difficulties that he would have to overcome in the coming months.
A statesman and gifted orator, Bangabandhu in his speech on January 10, 1972 at Suhrawardy Uddyan was masterly in his advice for the victorious people of Bangladesh. At this first opportunity, he warned that none should raise their “hands to strike against non-Bengalis.”
At the same time, he displayed concern for the safety of the Bangalees stranded in Pakistan. While re-affirming that he harboured no ill-will for the Pakistanis, he also pointed out that “those who have unjustly killed our people and assisted in this crime will surely be tried.”
Consequently, it is a matter of satisfaction that the present government has been able to activate the required war crimes trial for criminal acts perpetrated against humanity.
We owe it to the millions who lost family members and the tens of thousands of women who were assaulted.
In the same speech, he pointed out (to counter false and contentious Pakistani propaganda) that “Bangladesh is the second largest Muslim state in the world only next to Indonesia.”
He also drew their attention to the fact that “the Pakistani army had killed Muslims and members of the minority community and dishonoured women in the name of Islam.” He strongly admonished Tenku Abdur Rahman, secretary general of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference Secretariat, for not doing anything “during the nine months of 1971 when three million innocent Bengalis were killed in cold blood by the West Pakistani forces.”
Sheikh Mujib believed in nationalism, democracy, secularism, and socialism. He felt that they were required for the good of the common man.
Bangabandhu was also a firm believer in the rich cultural and literary heritage of Bangladesh, and for him that was the spring-board of the Bengali ethos -- its tradition and its nationalism.
That instilled in him the pride of being a Bengali living in Shonar Bangla. It is a pity that his efforts were snuffed out at such a relatively young age.
Muhammad Zamir, a former ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.