THE LEGACY OF HM ERSHAD
SYED BADRUL AHSAN
General (retd) Hussein Muhammad Ershad informed the country a few days ago that there have been bigger dictators in Bangladesh since he lost power in December 1990. He was, of course, referring to Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khaleda Zia.
The general is certainly entitled to his opinion. His has been a most intriguing career. Where military rulers in a good number of countries besides ours have either fallen by the wayside or fallen quiet once they were pushed from power, Ershad has remained a significant cog in the wheel of national politics. Both the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party have been careful to keep his ego well-massaged in order to be able to employ his services every time they need them. It is a bizarre situation when a putative democracy requires the support of a fallen dictator to keep itself going — or stagnating, as the case may be.
There is little question that General Ershad has inadvertently become part of our post-1990 national politics, that any future reference to him will focus on the skilful way in which he has turned out to be a survivor after a mass movement compelled him to relinquish power in 1990. You need to think back on other, earlier military rulers in other countries, on how they turned into non-entities once they lost the power and the glory. Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan went out of focus in Pakistan. Pervez Musharraf’s abortive bid to return to the limelight has only heightened misery for him. In much of South America, former military leaders have either lapsed into quiet retirement or have been made to face justice for the misdeeds they committed through the 1980s and 1990s. Some former coup makers in Africa, notably Olusegun Obasanjo, Muhammad Buhari in Nigeria and Jerry Rawlings in Ghana, have somehow created new space for themselves in post-military rule circumstances.
In Bangladesh, complaints about General Ershad, for all his protestations of innocence about the nature of his nearly nine years in power, relate to the many mutilations which marred the nation’s history and politics on his watch. As chief of staff of the army, Ershad demonstrated unpardonable insubordination when, in the months following the assassination of Bangladesh’s first military ruler Ziaur Rahman, he went around peddling the notion of a national security council comprising the chiefs of the three services.
It would have been different had he raised the issue within the inner councils of political authority. He did not do that, of course. He went public with his demands, giving people the impression that it was only a matter of time before he would seize power. And he did precisely that, on 24 March 1982, by overthrowing a legitimately elected president, in this instance Justice Abdus Sattar. That was an ill-motivated blow against democracy, for it disturbed the careful path to pluralism which the political classes were trying to smoothen at the time.
In his years in power, General Ershad oversaw the corruption which was to undermine the good reputations of such once influential politicians as Ataur Rahman Khan, Mizanur Rahman Chowdhury, Korban Ali and Abdul Halim Chowdhury. He had editors of reputed newspapers cast their journalism behind them and become part of his military regime. On his watch, the respected Awami League leader Moizuddin was stabbed to death by goons who swore fealty by him. And despite Ershad’s sympathies today for Nur Hossain and other individuals killed in the struggle for democracy, the fact remains that those deaths brought out the worst in the regime Ershad presided over. The crude manner in which elements of his Jatiyo Party and his young supporters went into the business of intimidating AL and BNP supporters on the streets remains a reality one cannot ignore.
General Ershad carefully engineered, through his intelligence services, the break-up of political parties as a way of strengthening his grip on the country. He had Moudud Ahmed, the often party-changing politician now back in the BNP, thrown into prison and then released, to be his minister, prime minister and vice president, in that order. He had Sardar Amjad Hossain, once a loyal Awami Leaguer, become part of his regime.
Today, when General Ershad tells us he wants the war criminals of 1971 to face justice, we recall the alacrity with which he inducted into his cabinet such anti-Bangladesh elements as Moulana Mannan and Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury. Those who defended the case for Pakistan in 1971, notably Justice Nurul Islam and Razia Faiz, were brought into his government, the former as vice president and the latter as a minister. General Ershad influenced Justice BA Siddiky into deserting the Muslim League, of which the latter was president, and go off to New York as the country’s permanent representative to the United Nations. He appointed Humayun Rashid Chowdhury his foreign minister and would do nothing, other than asking him to leave the cabinet, when the infamous chandelier scam came to light. Under Ershad, men like Shah Moazzam Hossain (now with the BNP as a Khaleda Zia loyalist) publicly hurled obscenities about Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, to our undying shame.
The legacy which General Ershad constructed in his years in power and which we have not been able to ignore in these past twenty four years is a part of our history we are not proud of.
Early in his rule, he travelled to Tungipara and offered prayers at the grave of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. It was a gracious act none of his predecessors — Khondokar Moshtaque, Justice ASM Sayem, General Ziaur Rahman and Justice Abdus Sattar — was able to bring into play. And yet only within a few years Ershad sanctioned the formation of the Freedom Party, an outfit cobbled into shape by Bangabandhu’s assassins, and permitted the arch-murderer Farooq Rahman to be a candidate at the presidential election in the late 1980s.
Ershad carried forward the process of the communalisation of the state of Bangladesh that had been initiated in the times of Moshtaque and Zia; and this he did through imposing on this secular republic the religion of Islam as the religion of the state. His decision to strike at the judiciary, by breaking up the High Court, will always be recalled as one of the darker episodes in the story of his regime. His role in the murder of General MA Manzur has always been suspect and so has his involvement in the execution of thirteen military officers in the aftermath of the Zia assassination in 1981.
There are, certainly, all the hallmarks of civility in General Ershad. He is a well-read man. He writes poetry. Conversations with him are occasions where he listens and does not interrupt you. And even if you do not share his ideas, he makes it a point to explain them in great detail to you. In his time, he did a remarkable job of promoting a decentralisation of the administrative process through the upazila system. His emphasis on an expansion of road communications in the country remains a remarkable achievement.
Hussein Muhammad Ershad could have been a remarkable benevolent ruler, could have taken Bangladesh back to the high ideals of 1971 so rudely wrenched away from us in 1975. He had a great opportunity to preside over a wholesale reform of the institutions of the state, if only he had not succumbed to the temptation, in the manner of Ayub Khan and Ziaur Rahman, of trying to don the mantle of a politician.
And let us not forget the precision with which, under General Ershad, Bengali military officers repatriated from Pakistan in the 1970s eventually succeeded in weeding out all the freedom fighter officers in the army through the 1980s. Back in 1973, Cuba’s Fidel Castro had warned Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman that the latter’s failure to subject all returning Bengali military officers to scrutiny and screening before inducting them in the army would lead to grave consequences for Bangladesh. Castro’s fears would come to pass in Ershad’s Bangladesh.
DECEMBER 27, 2014