A first-hand account of what transpired on that fateful day
I had had an exceptionally long day, the day before the fateful August 15, working till 9pm in Shilpa Bhaban. The Minister of Industries AHM Kamaruzzaman had a second office on the second floor of the building. The principal office was in the Secretariat.
As his private secretary, I had two offices also, the second one being in the same Shilpa Bhaban. The minister had long working hours split between two offices. The first half, from 10am to 2pm, he sat in the Secretariat, and the second half he spent in Shilpa Bhaban from 4pm onwards, sometimes ending at 9pm. I could not leave office until the minister left for the evening.
August 14 was a remarkably long evening. The minister had visitors who kept him occupied much of the time, and consequently, I could not get some important papers signed by him. I was getting anxious as that evening, I was invited by a friend to a movie (in a movie club) and dinner later in a hotel. That friend had invited a diplomatic couple also.
When the last visitor left around 9pm, I entered the minister’s chamber with files in my hand. The minister got up from his chair, signalling to me that I should go away and saying that he would attend to the papers tomorrow. Little did I know at that time that tomorrow would not see us both in the same office again.
Nothing out of the ordinary
My evening, or night rather, with my friends was joyful and spent in great merriment. It was well after midnight when we parted. The streets were pretty deserted then like they always were in Dhaka that time of night. I passed through Road 32 in Dhanmondi where Bangabandhu lived with his family in his private residence since he had declined to move to his official residence in Ganobhaban.
It may sound strange to many in this generation, but Bangabandhu would spend his whole day and a good part of the evening in Ganobhaban attending his official work, and then retire to his Dhanmondi house for the night. When I passed by his residence (my parents lived only a few houses away from Bangabandhu’s house) I saw the usual guards outside the house and police on duty in the shed constructed near the lake. There was nothing out of the ordinary.
I did not stop at my parent’s house that night as I had earlier told my parents that I would be very late that evening and they should not wait for me. I would sleep in a friend’s house nearby a few roads away. I asked my friend, who was driving, to drop me at that address. I slipped into my friend’s house quietly and went straight to bed, quite exhausted.
It was probably five in the morning when I woke up hearing sounds of thunder. I first thought it was really a thunderstorm that suddenly broke. But it was not. I went out of the room and heard the booming sound of guns and the rattling of machine guns from the verandah of the house.
Meanwhile, other occupants of the house, my friend’s family and servants, had rushed to the verandah, wondering what was happening. We soon figured out that the sounds were coming from the other side of the lake, likely Road 32. We were wondering if the sounds were created by bombs that could have been planted by some terrorists (there were indeed many incidents of bomb blasts in Dhaka at the time).
The gun fire and booming sound of explosives soon abated. But our concerns and worries did not abate. The nagging question of what and who caused this explosion and where it was happening would soon be answered when a relative called over the phone and asked us to tune in to the radio.
We tuned in to the radio only to hear that catastrophic voice of Major Dalim announcing the assassination of Bangabandhu and declaring a coup under the leadership of Khandakar Mushtaq Ahmed. He also announced a dawn to dusk curfew, the imposition of martial law indefinitely, and severe punishment to those who would defy this coup.
The day had hardly dawned and therefore there would be no traffic at that hour even on a normal day. But somehow, I felt that the entire neighbourhood had turned eerily quiet. The announcement of curfew and martial law over the radio shook me considerably. Is this true? Has Sheikh Mujib really been killed? Has the government really been toppled by the army? What about his ministers and above all, my own minister Kamaruzzaman?
As I was asking myself these troubling questions, not knowing what I should do, things had settled down quite a bit -- there were no more sounds of guns. Dhanmondi in those days was not a heavily trafficked place and therefore, an absence of cars was not a subject of notice. But nevertheless, I could hear sounds of rickshaws across the lake. Probably, these rickshaw-pullers had not heard of the curfew announcement.
My concern was, if I would be able to drive over to the minister’s house who also lived in Dhanmondi, a few streets away. Besides the curfew order, my other obstacle was the car itself. I had told the driver of my government car to take it to the Secretariat garage last night since I was being driven by my friend. Nevertheless, I called the minister’s residence an hour later, probably about 7am, to enquire about his welfare. He received the call and in a shaky voice asked if I could come over with my car. I told him that the car was in the garage a few miles away, but I could arrange a ride from my relative. He said he would wait.
It took another hour or so for my relative to get ready and take the car out. As his driver did not live in the same house, he would have to drive himself. Ignoring protests from his wife, we ventured out nonetheless, despite the so-called curfew order.
We passed several cars on Mirpur road and rickshaws as well. There were no police, not to speak of any soldiers, on the road that we took to reach Road 2 where the minister lived. This was an abandoned property that belonged to Nabisco, but it had been taken over by the government and used as a residence for the minister of industries.
A perplexing scenario
A big surprise awaited us when we reached the minister’s residence. The police guard on duty told me that the minister had left with his family in a private car. I wanted to know whose car it was and if the person taking the minister and family was from the army. The police security officer said he was certain it was not a police or army vehicle. He did not know the person’s identity.
I was really perplexed. If the minister was not taken away by the army or police, who took his family away. Where would he go?
I returned to my relative’s house again by the same route. The number of cars had increased in the streets, but still there was no police or army in sight.
Around 10, I received a phone call from a person who I had come to know through Mr Kamaruzzaman, a son-in-law of a prominent Awami League MP. He told me that Mr Kamaruzzaman and family were in his house, and he wanted to see me. His house was also in Dhanmondi, and I knew its location. I immediately set off to see him.
‘Mushtaq will kill us all’
Minister Kamaruzzaman was in a state of utter dejection and despair. He was not only crying at the loss of his dearly beloved leader, but was mortally afraid for his own life. He repeatedly said “Mushtaq will kill us all.” I could understand his despair and lament for the death of his leader, but I could not quite fathom why Mushtaq would kill him and his associates. I would understand this only much later when he and three other colleagues would be brutally killed a couple of months afterwards in jail custody. But that is another story.
Meanwhile, the minister asked me to find out, from whatever source I had, if it would be safe for him to return to his official home. Now this was a tall order given the circumstances. If I were to take the radio announcements that came on every 10 minutes about the dawn to dusk curfew and martial law, who could I reach and how could I get this assurance? I had no clue, but nonetheless, I set out on this impossible mission.
My first attempt was to reach out for the superintendent of police in Dhaka, and deputy commissioner of Dhaka, both friends of mine, who lived in Minto Road. I took this decision knowingly, since I had seen already there were no attempts at implementing the so-called curfew in the streets. Who would implement the curfew?
The roads had no police, not even traffic constables. And no sign of any army. The only instance of army presence was at the radio station where I saw a few army jeeps with soldiers inside. (For some time, a tank had occupied the road leading to Road 32.)
I passed through Minto Road with not a police constable in sight. Unfortunately, my attempts at locating both the SP and DC were futile as neither were in their residences. My only other thought was to go to the Secretariat and try to see the home secretary. But the Secretariat was completely deserted. In my whole journey from Dhanmondi to Minto Road, through Topkhana, Ramna, and Kakarail areas, I did not see any police or soldiers. There was some traffic, but everything moved as though in a trance. There were no processions of mourning, nor celebrations of any kind. Yet there was an eerie silence as people moved in the streets.
I spent my entire day in futile efforts to get an assurance of any kind for my minister, but I got none. All I learned was that a country could be brought to its knees, its leaders felled, in one swipe by a handful of rogue army officers, and everyone would cower.
It was too difficult to imagine that the streets that were filled with thousands of people only a day before, marching toward Ganobhaban carrying banners to cheer Bangabandhu and Baksal, would be so empty.
I still do not have an answer to how a people, who could rise against military power and army rule, could be so petrified simply by the use of guns. How the brutal killing of its leader would lead to passivity. There was not a single procession against this brutal act but an eerie silence that day. I still do not know if that silence was out of fear, or stoicism. We will never get Bangabandhu back. But can we assure the people that this kind of tragedy will never be repeated?
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.