The day it happened
Dhanmondi in 1975 had not changed much from how it looked in the 1950s, soon after Pakistan’s independence, when Dacca, as the city was then known, was the provincial capital of East Pakistan. The roads were lined with two-storey houses, the traffic quiet and unhurried. Today, there are multi-storey buildings, English-medium schools, new universities, shopping malls and hookah bars to lure younger crowds. Back in 1975, the area was quieter. In the evening, people strolled along the periphery of the large lake in the middle of the neighbourhood and at night you could hear the tinkling bells of cycle rickshaws.
On August 15, 1975, before dawn, 700 soldiers left their barracks and headed for the three homes where Mujib and his family lived. Everyone was still asleep at Mujib’s house, #677 on road 32. They first attacked the home of Abdur Rab Seraniabat, Mujib’s brother-in-law, at 27 Minto Road. Mujib heard about the attack. Seraniabat was a minister in Mujib’s government. Mujib called his personal assistant, Mohitul Islam, who was at his desk, and asked him to call the police immediately.
Mohitul tried calling the police, but was alarmed to find that the phones weren’t working. When he used another secure line to call the telephone exchange, the person at the other end said nothing. Mujib snatched the phone and shouted into the mouthpiece. “What’s going on?” he asked.
At the time soldiers arrived at Mujib’s house, the guards outside were hoisting the national flag. They were stunned to find army officers rushing in through the gate, ordering them to drop their weapons and surrender. A few shots were fired.
Major Bazlul Huda entered Mujib’s house with several soldiers. A frightened servant woke up Mujib’s son Kamal, who got dressed and came down. Huda took out his gun and pointed it at Kamal even as Mohitul tried telling Huda that it was Kamal, Mujib’s son. But before he could complete the sentence there was a loud burst of gunfire and Kamal fell down, dead. Huda heard Mujib’s voice at the top of the staircase and ran to face him.
“What do you want?” Mujib asked Huda, whom he recognised.
The soldiers pulled their triggers, spraying Mujib with dozens of bullets. Mujib’s body was thrown back and then forward, gushing blood which splattered the stairs and the wall. He was dead by the time his body stopped tumbling down the stairs. Before his burial the following day at his birthplace, Tungipara, the imam noticed at least 10 bullets still lodged inside Mujib’s body.
The killers then went inside the house, and one by one, killed everyone they could find: Mujib’s wife, Fazilatunnesa; Kamal’s wife, Sultana; Mujib’s other son, Jamal, and his wife Rosy; and Mujib’s brother Naser, who was heard pleading, “I am not in politics.”
Then they saw Russell, Mujib’s 10-year-old son, who was crying, asking for his mother. He, too, was killed.
Around the same time, another group of soldiers had killed Mujib’s brother-in-law Seraniabat at his home, and a third group had murdered the family of Fazlul Haque Moni, Mujib’s nephew, an influential Awami League politician who lived on Road 13/1, about 2km away from Mujib’s home.
Mahfuz Anam lived across the Dhanmondi Lake at that time, and had a clear view of Sheikh Moni’s house. “I saw what happened,” he recalled. “Early that morning I was awakened by the sound of firing. I got up. My room was on the side of the lake. I ventured out to the boundary wall. I saw troops enter Sheikh Moni’s house. I heard plenty of firing, followed by screaming. I heard shots -- some random, some from sub-machine guns. I saw the troops leave the house. It was all over in four to six minutes. I could hear the people inside groaning; it continued for some time.”
The junior officers’ coup had proceeded exactly as planned. There had been no resistance from the moment Huda and his team had reached Mujib’s home. After taming the Rakkhi Bahini, Farooq arrived at Mujib’s gate, eager to know what had happened there. Huda told him calmly, “All are finished.”When we met a decade after those killings, I asked Farooq: “And the 10-year-old boy: Did he have to be killed?”
Why did impunity last so long?
His name was Farooq Rahman, and he had been a major, and later, lieutenant colonel in the Bangladeshi army. He had returned to Bangladesh only recently, after several years in exile in Libya. What he had done in the past was not in dispute.
Before dawn on 15 August 1975, he had led the Bengal Lancers, the army’s tank unit under his command, to disarm the Rokkhi Bahini, a paramilitary force loyal to Sheikh Mujib. As Farooq left the Dhaka Cantonment, he had instructed other officers and soldiers to go to the upscale residential area of Dhanmondi, where Mujib lived. Soon after 5 a.m., the officers had killed Mujib and most of his family.
I had been rehearsing how to ask Farooq about his role in the assassination. I had no idea how he would react or respond. After a few desultory questions about the country’s political situation, I tentatively began, “It has been widely reported in Bangladesh that you were somehow connected with the plot to remove Mujibur Rahman from power in 1975. Would you…”
“Of course, we killed him,” he interrupted me. “He had to go,” he added, before I could complete my hesitant, long-winded question.
Farooq Rahman thought he was a patriot. He believed he had saved the nation. The governments that followed Mujib reinforced this self-belief and perception, rewarding him and the other assassins with respectability by giving them political space, and to some, plum diplomatic assignments. Farooq himself stood in presidential elections, which he lost badly. The Oxford-trained lawyer, Kamal Hossain, who was Mujib’s law minister and later foreign minister, told me, “The impunity with which Farooq operated was extraordinary. President Ershad encouraged Farooq to return because he wanted a candidate to stand against him in the rigged elections, so that the process would seem fair.
In the face of the refusal of the opposition parties to participate in the elections which would legitimise his rule, Ershad encouraged Farooq to contest in the elections to give Ershad credibility.” Farooq was able to operate with impunity for many years because the governments that followed Mujib were not keen to prosecute the killers and in the late 1970s, during the rule of General Zia, the 5th Amendment to the constitution was passed, granting them immunity. The political landscape in Bangladesh after Mujib’s murder was unstable. In its forty-two-year history, there have been several coups, and the form of government has switched from parliamentary to presidential to parliamentary again. The country has had 11 prime ministers and over a dozen heads of state, and there have been times when it has been ruled by generals, or by a caretaker government comprising unelected officials.
Mujibur Rahman’s daughter Sheikh Hasina Wajed had first come to power in 1996 but her majority was precarious at that time -- her party, the Awami League, had won 146 of 300 seats, and relied on the support of other parties to rule. But when she came to power with an absolute majority in 2009, Hasina was determined to redeem her father’s reputation and seek justice. Her quest has larger implications for Bangladesh’s citizenry. Hundreds of thousands – and by Bangladesh government estimates perhaps 3 million -- people were killed during the 1971 war. Tens of thousands of Bangladeshis now wait for justice -- to see those who harmed them and their loved ones brought to account.
But the culture of impunity hasn’t disappeared. Even for Sheikh Hasina, it took more than three decades before she received some measure of vindication, and one reason she was elected in 2008 was because she promised to set up tribunals to prosecute individuals accused of having committed international crimes, such as war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.