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August 1975: The cross of guilt we bear

  • Published at 03:32 am August 5th, 2021
August 15
In the end, the nation failed Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

Was the assassination of Bangabandhu a massive security failure, or a conspiracy by those meant to be loyal to the state?

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was deeply upset when news came in of the violent coup in Chile that had left President Salvador Allende dead. It was September 12, 1973 when the Father of the Nation was informed of the tragedy, which had occurred a day, or some hours, earlier on September 11. Only a few days preceding the coup in Santiago, Bangabandhu was in Algiers heading the Bangladesh delegation at the summit of non-aligned nations. It was a gathering of some of the more prominent of nationalist leaders, at a critical moment in the Cold War, statesmen whose leadership was focused on ensuring progress and dignity for their nations.

The murder of Allende was deeply concerning for Bangabandhu. He was too upset to consider the day with equanimity and went home from Ganobhaban early. The end of Allende was the end of a nationalist dream, for as Chile’s elected socialist president, he embodied the aspirations of his people for a better social order independent of fetters of any kind. 

But as the Allende tragedy was to demonstrate so amply, nationalist leaders were always targets of the world’s powerful nations and not many of them were able -- and that has been our experience -- to survive the predatory instincts of foreign and local powers. 

Today, as we in Bangladesh prepare to observe yet one more anniversary of the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and nearly his entire family, it is only proper to recall the intrigue, homegrown as well as foreign manufactured, which went into the disaster that befell Bangladesh barely two years after Allende’s fall. In the predawn hours of August 15, when the assassins launched their assault on his home, Bangabandhu took the phone from his personal assistant and told whoever was at the another end: “This is President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.” 

The phone then went dead. And the carnage got underway. 

It all begs the question: On August 15, was it a massive security failure on the part of the organizations responsible for ensuring that nothing went wrong in the state? Or was it a conspiracy abetted by people who ought to have demonstrated their loyalty to the constitution and the state?

The question of how much General Ziaur Rahman knew about the plot to bump off Bangabandhu and his government is a matter of public record. Khondokar Moshtaque dispatched the majors and colonels who would commit the misdeeds in August to Zia twice, first in November 1974 and then in March 1975, to ask that he join the conspiracy. Zia did not get directly involved, but he nevertheless left no doubt in the minds of the conspirators that he was not opposed to what they were planning on doing. 

Here was the deputy chief of army staff knowing full well that mischief was afoot, that a coup d’etat was being planned against the president of the country who also happened to be the Father of the Nation. And yet he saw no reason, despite being an officer in the service of the republic, to alert the government to the danger that was shaping up.

Zia’s abetment of the coup and benefiting from it is now a sordid part of national history. That said, there is the very valid question of why the senior officers of the army could not or would not move to foil the coup, even after Bangabandhu had been killed, and ensure that constitutional government remained in place. 

General KM Shafiullah has regularly, and for good reason, been berated over his failure to keep tabs on what the conspirators were up to in the weeks and months before August 15. But move on, and recall that some hours went by after Bangabandhu and his family had been murdered at 32 Dhanmondi. Those hours should have been good enough for the senior echelon of the army to strike back, disarm the assassins, and reassure the country that the government had passed, in the aftermath of the president’s assassination, into the hands of Vice President Syed Nazrul Islam.

The senior officers did nothing. What they did -- and among them were Shafiullah, Zia, Khaled Musharraf, MH Khan, AK Khondokar, Khalilur Rahman -- was to turn up to see Moshtaque sworn in as president, albeit an illegitimate one, and swear fealty to him. It all raises the question: Were these senior military officers in subtle if not overt agreement with the tragedy that had taken place? 

There was a good stretch of time that could have been utilized in overturning the coup and roping in the conspirators and putting them up on trial on charges of treason. These major generals, rear admirals, air vice marshals, and brigadiers, had their minds been exercised by the enormity of the crime that had been committed, should have taken Moshtaque and his cohorts -- Taheruddin Thakur, Mahbubul Alam Chashi, and the rest of the gang, including the assassins, under arrest. These men remain condemned in history, for while the killers violated the constitution, they failed to uphold its sanctity.

And then comes another question, one which has endlessly assailed so many of us and which Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina too has raised often: Where were all the leaders and workers of the Awami League who till late in the evening of August 14 were loudly proclaiming undying loyalty to Bangabandhu and yet were nowhere to be seen on the morning of August 15? 

A handful of renegade soldiers murdered the Father of the Nation, elements who could have been run out of town had the AL workers and leaders swiftly organized protests and demonstrations in the city within moments of the killings at Dhanmondi, Minto Road, and Jhigatola. Not a single prominent Awami Leaguer was visible on the day. Most of them were looking for safety. It was a whole nation they left disappointed.

Much has been written on the tragedy of August 15; many have been the reflections on the manner in which the nationalist politics symbolized by Bangabandhu was shot through on the day. The bigger truth, though, is that the men who could have salvaged the nation once the assassins had done their fiendish job of murdering the nation’s founding father chose to do nothing. 

That was a crime, for they showed no inclination toward preserving constitutional government. That was a sin, for they failed to come to the aid of the man to whom they -- and the nation -- owed their liberty as a people.

One final thought. The killers went out of the cantonment on tanks the night before the killings and those commanding the 46 Brigade had no idea of what was going on?

Let us be brutally frank. We the nation in the end failed Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He who had lit the lamp of liberty died, with his family, all alone on a fearful dawn. Much as we do penance for our pusillanimity on August 15, we who lived through those times will bear this cross of guilt -- today and for all time. 

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

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