MEMORIES OF DARK TIMES
Syed Badrul Ahsan
Bangladesh’s history took a bad mauling in November 1975. You need to sit back and reflect on all the good men we have lost, all the values we have seen take flight even as we have prayed that things will get back on track at some point or the other. It is when you come to 1975, when you remember that annus-horribilis, that you recoil from a recapitulation of what you have known.
If to know is to suffer, then we as a people have known much and have suffered excessively. The assassination of the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, with nearly his entire family, was a rude shock that left us reeling in the weeks and months after 15 August 1975. Yes, of course we had come through a series of coups d’etat, all of them in Pakistan.
In a free Bangladesh, we looked forward to a political system where the old methods of forcing a government from office would be a tale of the past. It was not just a hope we nurtured. It was a belief we shared once Bangladesh emerged as a sovereign people’s republic through a focused war of liberation in 1971.
Bangabandhu’s murder put paid to that hope and that belief. The sadness was in the knowledge that a government based on popular sanction had been overthrown. The sadness took on an even more sinister hue when the ouster of the government came through murder and mayhem. In that summer of cumulative pain, we watched as a group of young military officers, in connivance with a band of political predators symbolised by Khondokar Moshtaque Ahmed, pushed the country further down the path to disaster. It was in November of the year that matters came to a head, for reasons that had to do with the murders of August.
Khaled Musharraf’s coup d’etat
There was that certain whiff of things happening in early November. No one knew the nature of the portents, but over the previous few weeks rumours had begun to circulate about a power struggle getting underway at Bangabhaban and in the cantonment. Briefly, the story was this: senior officers in the army, among whom were Brigadier Khaled Musharraf, Colonel Shafaat Jamil, Colonel Najmul Huda and Major ATM Haider, all heroes of the 1971 war, were determined that the chain of command broken by the assassin majors and colonels through the coup in August needed to be restored. The assassins of course remained ensconced inside the safe confines of the presidential palace, along with Khondokar Moshtaque.
The chief of army staff, Major General Ziaur Rahman, having taken no steps to exercise authority over the assassin officers, was himself under threat of removal from his position. By the evening of 2 November, it was obvious that changes of a major nature had begun to take shape. By the next day, 3 November, it became fairly clear that Musharraf had gained the upper hand and was putting pressure on Moshtaque to give up the presidency. What exactly was being done about the majors and colonels was not at that stage very clear. Outside the power circles, in various parts of the nation’s capital, a certain sense of relief began to be felt in the expectation that Moshtaque and his cohorts were now under assault. No one needed any telling that they had to go, but precisely when that would happen was not yet clear.
A good deal of mystery pervaded the political scene at the time. Even as his enemies went into planning strategy against him, Brigadier Musharraf was found spending a long stretch of time trying to negotiate a deal at Bangabhaban that would have Moshtaque and his team quit power quietly. Musharraf, one of the most brilliant of tacticians in the 1971 war, was suddenly observed to be oblivious to conditions outside Dhaka, especially in places like Joydevpur and Comilla where forces arrayed against him were spreading the lie that he was a foreign agent and therefore leading the country to a new phase of servitude.
Murder in prison
As Musharraf remained busy in the presidential palace and as Colonel Taher went around developing his own plans of liquidating the Musharraf group, a macabre plan of murder was given shape to and then executed. Prior to that, a day earlier, a senior Bengali journalist well-known for his pro-Pakistan stance in 1971 and at that point working for a foreign media organisation, disseminated the news that a letter purporting to be from the Indian authorities and suggesting that the detained Tajuddin Ahmed, Syed Nazrul Islam, M. Mansur Ali and AHM Quamruzzaman, all leading figures in the Mujibnagar government then in prison, be freed and so enabled to form a new government for Bangladesh. The implication, as sinister as it was baseless, was that foreign forces, in this case Indian, were in league with the jailed politicians.
In the early hours of 3 November, all four politicians were gunned down in a cell inside Dhaka central jail by the very men who had in August murdered Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family. Khaled Musharraf and his men clearly had little idea, even as they remained sorting out the mess of a power struggle at Bangabhaban, that the tragedy had already occurred at Dhaka jail.
A mere few hours after the murders had been committed, all the majors and colonels involved in the coup d’etat of 15 August 1975 (and the killings of 3 November 1975), were allowed to fly off to Bangkok with their families. Musharraf had triumphed, but he remained as yet unaware of the price he had paid to ascend to the top. The triumph would be pyrrhic.
The new men in town
Between 4 and 6 November, a flurry of announcements and statements made by the president were aired over the radio. The queer part of the story was that no one exactly knew who the president was. The popularly held belief was that Moshtaque had been ousted by Brigadier Khaled Musharraf. But if that was true, who had replaced him? No one knew.
Meanwhile, fresh rumours began to make their rounds, all reinforcing the thought that for all his triumph in securing the departure of the assassins, Musharraf was really on shaky ground. Rumblings of discontent were gaining in intensity inside Dhaka cantonment and elsewhere. Soldiers unhappy with Musharraf were organising themselves, through the active involvement of Colonel Taher, in a plot to overthrow Musharraf, who had meanwhile been appointed chief of staff of the army and promoted to major general in succession to the detained Ziaur Rahman.
As the country teetered on uncertainty, 6 November dawned with newspaper images of a beaming Khaled Musharraf being decorated with epaulettes reflecting his new position by the chief of staff of the navy, Rear Admiral MH Khan, and the chief of staff of the air force, Air Vice Marshal MG Tawab. The latter had been flown in from Germany, where he had been leading a retired life, to take over from AK Khondokar in the period following 15 August.
As the day progressed on 6 November, the pieces began to fall into a pattern. The announcement that Khondokar Moshtaque Ahmed had resigned the presidency was swiftly followed by news that the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Abu Sadat Muhammad Sayem, had replaced him. A new order appeared to be in place finally. In the late afternoon, President Sayem’s motorcade was observed passing through Bijoynagar. He was cheered by many bystanders. A number of young men went into animated discussions of how the Musharraf triumph would soon lead the country back to normality. The new president addressed the nation late in the evening and specifically condemned the killings of the national leaders in August and November.
Death of Khaled Musharraf
As the night deepened, rumours of an unsavoury kind began to make the rounds. General Khaled Musharraf, they appeared to suggest, was waging a desperate struggle to hold on to his authority against the army units now beginning to move against him. In the cantonment, slogans of a ‘sepoy-janata’ revolution were raised. The entire area began to resonate with them. A full-scale rebellion was on and for once the shrewd, brilliant Khaled Musharraf appeared unable to resist the tide against him and his loyalists.
As 7 November dawned, Dhaka passed into the hands of Colonel Taher and his men, who lost little time in freeing General Ziaur Rahman from confinement and restoring him to authority as chief of staff of the army. For General Musharraf, conditions had already gone from bizarre to eerie. He and his loyalists were on the run from the marauding men who had clearly thrown in their lot with Taher and Zia. Attempting to make their way out of Dhaka in the hope of organising resistance, Musharraf, Huda and Haider found themselves in Sher-e-Banglanagar. Within minutes they became prisoners of the men they had once commanded. All three were brutally murdered. Their corpses were then subjected to varied forms of humiliation.
Sometime in the early afternoon, General Zia made his way to Bangabhaban. Soldiers and a crowd of onlookers raised, for the first time in independent Bangladesh, the slogan of Nara-e-Takbeer, punctuated of course by another, Sepoy-Janata Zindabad. An odour of Pakistan was in the air.
As twilight descended on the country on 7 November 1975, all hope, raised briefly only days earlier, of a revival of the spirit that had led Bengalis into the war of liberation in 1971 seemed to have been snuffed out. Musharraf loyalists in the army, those who had survived death, were scattered and making their way to safety. Moshtaque and his cabal were out, sure, but those who took charge after Khaled Musharraf’s murder appeared to promise to continue what had been inaugurated on 15 August.
NOVEMBER 15, 2014