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Dhaka Tribune

The rise and fall of Ziaur Rahman

General Zia, all these years after his assassination, remains a complex figure

Update : 30 May 2024, 02:33 PM

The dictatorship of General Ziaur Rahman came to a violent end at the Chittagong Circuit House on May 30, 1981.

A decade earlier, Major Zia’s moment of glory came on the evening of March 27, 1971.

In the name of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, he proclaimed to the world that the people of Bangladesh were a free nation, that to dub the majority population of Pakistan as secessionists was “a cruel joke” which ought to “befool none,” that indeed the world’s powerful nations should be according recognition to a nation struggling to be born out of calamitous darkness.

Ziaur Rahman’s place in history was assured through that coruscating declaration of Bengali political intent. In the nine months of war that followed, he was part of the guerrilla struggle against Pakistan. In the early years of a liberated Bangladesh, as deputy chief of army staff, he was careful to maintain professionalism in the performance of his duties. His patriotism was never in doubt. Neither was his loyalty to the Father of the Nation, whom he extolled in an article for a Bangla journal. He hardly ever smiled. He was one of those who rarely fraternized with his fellow officers or with others.

General Zia, all these years after his assassination on May 30, 1981, remains a complex figure, indeed one who sadly was to go out of his way, in a furtherance of his ambitions, to roll back the very principles which had underpinned the War of Liberation. In November 1974 and again in March 1975, he knew through the conspirators sent to him by Khondokar Moshtaque to solicit his support for a coup d’etat that mischief was afoot. Yet he did not inform the government. Again, the acts he undertook in the five or so years in which he wielded authority as Bangladesh’s first military ruler remain evidence of the calculated assaults he made on the soul of a nation born of a secular struggle for freedom.

Zia did not bring the army to power, of course. Khondokar Moshtaque and his assassin majors and colonels did. And then Khaled Musharraf’s bid to restore political and military discipline collapsed in a matter of days. One could argue that Zia’s rise to power was a fortuitous circumstance, a matter of unintended consequences. Had he not been freed by Colonel Taher and his unruly band of soldiers in the early hours of November 7, 1975, Zia would have remained a footnote, like so many other footnotes, on the pages of Bangladesh’s tortured history. Had he chosen not to turn his back on the principles of the War of Liberation, his reputation as a soldier would be on a scale that would arouse the envy of others.

History is all too often a study of riddles wrapped in enigmas couched in mystery. General Ziaur Rahman’s years in power were a study in the destabilization of the state caused by his intrigues and by individuals he was unable to put the leash on. Hundreds of soldiers as also airmen perished through the many abortive coups against him. Troops loyal to the left-oriented Taher tried pushing him into circumstances where the army would undergo radical change. Zia knew he needed to emerge from Taher’s shadow in order to be his own man. That was all understandable. What was not was the precipitate, ruthless manner in which he disposed of the man who had caused the so-called sipahi-janata biplob. It was suddenly a harsh Zia who sent Taher to the gallows in July 1976.

There was somewhat a kinder Zia only months before July 1976. Informed by Captain Nawazesh early on November 7, 1975 that Khaled Musharraf, Najmul Huda and ATM Haider, beaten in the power game, had taken refuge at second field artillery in Shere Banglanagar, Zia gave out the clear message: ‘Please see to it that they are not harmed.’ In the end, though, the three officers were killed, only minutes after Taher had left the room where they were in the captivity of soldiers they had thought were loyal to them. For perhaps that rare moment in his life, it is said, there were tears in Zia’s eyes. The bodies of the three men had been shown to him. He was unable to act against their killers, for he was not yet in a position to bring the army under his full command.

If that was a compassionate Zia, there was that insensitive side to him as well. Informed that Bangabandhu had been murdered, his response was almost flippant. There was the vice president to take charge, said he. In his years as the nation’s first military ruler, Zia never claimed that he had declared independence in March 1971. But on one occasion, he reportedly had some radio officials bring to him, at Bangabhaban, the audio tape of his 27 March speech from Kalurghat. In their presence, he heard his old speech no fewer than five times. When one of the officers, in patently sycophantic mood, suggested that all references to Bangabandhu could be edited out of the tape, Zia had a quick, brief retort: ‘History cannot be changed’. He then walked out of the room.

But history did go through terrible convulsions on Zia’s watch. Bangabandhu and the Mujibnagar leaders were airbrushed out of it; the Pakistan army was never mentioned in the state’s recapitulation of the 1971 war; the Indemnity Ordinance, designed to protect the August 15  killers from prosecution, was inserted into the constitution; and many of Bangabandhu’s assassins were sent off on diplomatic assignments abroad. Zia turned the country away from Baksal and then, curiously, replaced it with politics that left the old, unrepentant collaborators of Pakistan free to emerge from their dark caves into sunlight. Zia drove the knife into the concept of Bengali nationalism, attempting to supplant it with the spurious idea of ‘Bangladeshi nationalism’. As he struggled to stamp his authority on the army, he failed to note that it was his wartime soldier friends who were dying one by one, that officers repatriated from Pakistan were in the ascendant.

In the end, Zia perished the way others had perished before him. Then General Manzoor died. Within months, Brigadier Mohsenuddin was executed. The wartime generation of brave soldiers was gone within a decade of liberation.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is Consultant Editor, Dhaka Tribune

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