This Op-Ed is being republished on the occasion of National Mourning Day
August 15 is upon us again, a grim reminder of that gruesome event in which not only the Father of the Nation and most members of his family lost their lives, but also changed the course of history of a young nation.
The dastardly act was carried out apparently by a handful of army officers and their foot soldiers, but the real forces that propelled them to this act and which would install in power people who were on the wrong side of the Liberation War would reveal themselves later. In one sense, the people who carried out the initial task of killing Bangabandhu were themselves weapons of a far deeper conspiracy that had been brewing in the country since liberation.
We may call these sinister forces ghosts of Pakistan or enemies of liberation, but these were elements born and bred in our own soil, who our leaders that time either ignored or failed to recognize.
Every August, we lament the event and observe with sighs the tragic death of our founding father in the hands of some armed criminals who carried out this horrific event. We pray for the departed soul, bestow honour upon him, and thank him for giving us a free and sovereign nation.
At the same time, we smugly state how the goons who carried out this attack were brought to justice and sent to their deserved punishment. We also vow to bring to justice others among these criminals who are now those fugitives abroad. But is this how we should remember this horrific day and observe it, by paying homage to the Father of the Nation?
Is there no lesson to be learned from this terrible event, why it happened, and what can be done to prevent a recurrence of such cataclysmic happenings?
Let us recapitulate the circumstances that prevailed in the country when this terrible event took place. Earlier that year in February 1975, a political revolution of sorts overtook the country. Bangabandhu had introduced a new party -- Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (Baksal) and had banned all other parties under a constitutional amendment brought a month earlier giving him power to introduce one-party system in the country.
Now, for a person who had fought all his life for parliamentary democracy that advocates a multi-party system, this was unforeseeable and probably unimaginable. Yet, Bangabandhu did it because, in his parlance, a second revolution was needed to usher the country into reforms in the “administrative, legislative, and judicial systems” of the country. He was deeply worried that in the current environment no reform could be achieved in any area and he needed an unfettered hand in doing so.
There was not much opposition to the proposition, and the parliament with a few solitary exceptions, endorsed the amendment. So, the second revolution was ushered.
What is important to note is that it was not just the parliament (at least apparently) that whole-heartedly endorsed the one-party rule, there was tremendous support from non-political entities for this historic change. Dhaka streets witnessed processions of professionals -- doctors, lawyers, businessmen -- who would march carrying banners in support of the change declaring solidarity.
I was a witness not only to these momentous events, but also had some opportunity to peek into the minds of some political stalwarts that period.
In 1975, I had returned to serve AHM Kamaruzzaman as his private secretary, who I had the privilege to work with in the same capacity from 1972-74. I did not work for him in the interregnum as he was elected as president of Awami League in February 1974. In January 1975, Sheikh Mujib had been re-elected president of AL (the position that he had relinquished the previous year for Kamaruzzaman). Kamaruzzaman was reinstalled in the cabinet as industries minister, and I was appointed his private secretary.
This was indeed a period of turmoil. No one knew which direction the county was headed, as all opposition politics was banned, definitely not people outside of politics. As the country, at least seemingly, celebrated the birth of a new unified political system, the opposition to it was labelled as anti-state and few people dared speak against it. People who did this were usually from parties that had been banned, and gone underground.
Kamaruzzaman, a third-generation parliamentarian (both his father and grandfather were members of legislative assemblies in British India), was known for his stand on parliamentary democracy, contribution to the democratic movement in Pakistan as member of National Assembly, and finally his role as freedom fighter and a member of first Bangladesh cabinet in exile.
In my few years of working with him (I had not known him before my work with him) I had developed a great respect for his political sagacity, personal integrity, and patriotism. I knew he was very close to Bangabandhu, who despite being a few years senior in age, used to converse with each other as close friends. They had an informal relationship in personal life. I knew he had Bangabandhu’s confidence. In many cases, I had seen him give decisions on matters where his other colleagues would require the prime minister’s acquiescence.
A few weeks before the dreadful incident of August, I happened to accompany Kamaruzzaman to an official trip to Chittagong. The minister wanted to visit some industries in Chittagong and listen to workers and managers. This was a two-day trip that was loaded with industrial plant visits, meetings, and visitations by party people. I was exhausted in two days, so I looked forward to return to Dhaka.
The Chittagong trip was by train as the minister hated air travel. On our return trip I happily jumped into my reserved compartment after loading the minister into his saloon. The train departed at about 10pm. After about half an hour, when the train stopped at Sitakund, the minister’s personal bearer entered my compartment and informed me that the minister had asked for me. Wondering what emergency had prompted this command, I descended from the train and climbed into the minister’s saloon.
The saloon in railways was a luxurious mode of travel for the VIPs. It was a veritable apartment on wheels complete with a bedroom, a living room, dining tables, and a kitchenette. I found the minister in a sofa clad in his punjabi and lungi. He signalled me to sit on a chair opposite him.
I found him rather pensive. When I asked him if there was anything he wanted me to do, he handed me a bunch of papers that looked like petitions. He asked to me to deal with these when he got back. As I was preparing to leave, thinking that was all I was required to do and also because the train was about to depart, he waved his hand and asked me to sit. I complied.
As the train started to move, Kamaruzzaman asked me what my colleagues were thinking about the changes. I found this to be out of character for the minister. In my years that I had spent with him, he had never asked me of my political opinion. In fact, he had always asked me to stay away from his political meetings.
I was hesitant in my reply, saying something vaguely about not knowing or surveying opinions of my colleagues on the change. The minister replied calmly: “Never mind. I know you civil servants always take the shape of the bowl in which food is served.”
But this was not all. Kamaruzzaman then went on a speech that would amaze me and shock me. He started talking about the dreams that he and his colleagues over Bangladesh, what future they expected, what type of society they wanted, and lamented that all of these had now evaporated.
I was not only amazed but was afraid. If this is the future a leader of the country’s freedom fighter was thinking of, where would we be? Was the country headed to a precipice?
I collected my courage. I asked him why he, as one close to the leader, did not confide his fears to him? He smiled wryly, and replied: “Me? I am only a servant to the master’s wishes now ... I am his friend and well-wisher, but I cannot be a sycophant.”
“But remember, these sycophants will not be by his side in times of need,” Kamaruzzaman added.
These words rang in my ears some six weeks later when Bangabandhu lay dead from hundreds of bullets of the assailants who struck him in the early hours of August 15. I had gone to see Kamaruzzaman in a house in Dhanmondi where he had taken temporary shelter late in the morning that day.
He was in tears, bemoaning that Bangabandhu had not listened to his true friends and disciples and had gone his way. Now that he was gone, his true disciples like him would be gone.
The founding father and his colleagues were gone in one big conspiracy that reversed the political course of Bangladesh for next 20 years. Even after the terrible event of more than four decades ago, we have not been able to reconnect to the ideals of our freedom struggle or the basic principles of state policy.
This has happened because we have yet to practice the essentials of democracy, free speech, unimpeded right to vote, and tolerance of criticism. We have yet to create and sustain institutions that are immune from political pressure, earn faith and respect of people, and are ready to protect a rightfully elected government from threats of illegal ouster.
As we observe the awful event of August 15, we also need to remind ourselves that the handful of armed soldiers would not have dared to attempt that dastardly act, had we had the institutions that were ready to step in when the disaster happened. Unfortunately, we did not.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.