Mujib was a statesman, a hero and martyr who will be remembered in history for his achievements, farsightedness and humility, all blended in one, a rare example in contemporary history, more so in a politician. He could rise above self and see the future. As a human being he had too much belief and confidence on the people for whom he struggled his entire life, not realizing that all good people had enemies. His brutal killing was not a loss to a family only but a greater loss to a nation he struggled to create, liberate and rebuild.
The death of Bangabandhu on that dark night of August 15th1975 put the country on back gear and for next two decades it had to reel under military or pseudo military dictatorship. Bangabandhu could have been killed on the night of March 25-26, 1971 when the Pakistani Army launched the operation to annihilate the Bengalis. It was sheer luck that he survived the night of mayhem only to be killed by the very people for whom he had dedicated his entire life. As a matter of fact, his death warrant was signed on March 26th 1971 when he declared the independence of Bangladesh before his arrest by the Pakistani army.
During the nine month long war of independence, a section of Awami League leaders led by the Khondakar Mushtaque, the Foreign Minister of the Government in exile, planned to backstab the independence movement. Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s Foreign Secretary in his memoir ‘White House Years’ writes, ‘on July 30, a Mr. Qaiyum (Jahurul Qaiyum from Comilla) an elected member of the Awami League closely associated with Bangladesh government in exile, approached our Consulate in Calcutta to say he had been designated to establish contact with the United States. He would return in two weeks for an answer. The Consulate reported this approach to State channels’. Qaiyum was acting on behalf of Khondakar Mushtaque knowing very well that the Nixon administration never supported our liberation war. Mushtaque was trying to send the message via US to Yahya Khan that if Mujib was released he would do his part to stop the liberation war. Kissinger writes, ‘on September 4, Farland (US Ambassador in India) suggested to Yahya that we contact the Bangladeshi “foreign minister,” ostensibly to check out Qaiyum’s bona fides; we would tell him of Yahya’s willingness to engage in secret talks….Such was Yahya’s quandary that he agreed.’
However Mushtaque and his cohorts’ plans fell through due to the cautious handling of the situation by Tajuddin Ahmed, the Prime Minister of the government in exile.
Once the liberation war was over, the conspiracy against Bangladesh, that had its roots in Calcutta, did not end. Mujib returned to a war ravaged Bangladesh on January 10, 1972 from Pakistani prison to inherit a devastated country. The economy was completely ruined and the task at hand was monumental. A day later a new cabinet under the Premiership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib took oath and immediately began the task to put the devastated country on its feet. Shafiullah was made the army chief superseding Zia which was the beginning of the second phase of the conspiracy, this time including Bangabandhu along with the country.
Zia was an ambitious army officer and he thought it was appropriate that he became the army chief. Somehow Mujib could understand Zia’s ambitious character and made his own decision while selecting the army chief. Zia never concealed his discontent at the decision but would always pose as an officer completely loyal to Bangabandhu. Zia would also pleaded with Nurul Islam Chowdhury, the State Minister for Defense, that once the tenure of Shafiullah was over in December 1975, he should be made the army chief. In an interview given to 1971 war correspondent Musa Sadek, Mr. Chowdhury disclosed that one day, either on August 4th or 5th 1975, he and Zia were having a meeting in his office when Bangabandhu called him over red telephone to tell him that Shafiullah’s tenure had been extended and his ministry should immediately notify it through a gazette. Zia overheard the conversation and asked Chowdhury whether it was a call from Bangabandhu announcing the extension of Shafiullah’s tenure? When Chowdhury answered in the affirmative Zia immediately asked for a paper on which he wrote his resignation and requested it be sent immediately to the President. Chowdhury tried to calm Zia down and promised that he would take up the matter with the President. But Zia was not convinced and left the meeting. Chowdhury immediately called Bangabandhu and told him about Zia’s resignation. Bangabandhu told Chowdhury to send over the letter and said that in the military there should not be any hesitation in taking a decision. But Chowdhury convinced the President that he needed the service of Zia till December to raise a new army division. On the other hand, earlier in March Zia’s service was put at the disposal of Foreign Ministry. Zia begged his course mate and friend, Dhaka Cantonment’s Station Commander Col. M A Hamid, to arrange for an appointment with Bangabandhu. Hamid in good faith did that using his political connections. Zia met Bangabandhu and told him he wanted to serve the army till his retirement as a professional soldier. Bangabandhu believed him and asked his deputation placement to the Foreign Ministry be cancelled. One of the killer’s of Bangabandhu, Col (Retd) Rashid confessed in an interview with the British journalist Anthony Mascarenhas in a televised interview after the killing of Bangabandhu, that they discussed the plot of removing Bangabandhu from power with Zia in March. Zia consented to it but told them that he could not be part of the implementation process as he was a responsible senior officer. Zia was the main beneficiary of Bangabandhu’s killing.
Mujib was appraised by different quarters including Indian intelligence sources that something was not right in the army. However, Mujib refused to believe that a conspiracy to unseat him was in the making.
From leaked documents and from independent researchers it is now clear that the US Embassy in Dhaka was also in the loop of the conspiracy. Kissinger made a short trip to Bangladesh on October 30th. 1974 and met Bangabandhu. Kissinger did not disclose what transpired between the two leaders but said that what ever aid was given to Bangladesh most of that was wasted. This was thought to be a green signal to the would be assassins that things were going in their favour. Earlier, when Mujib met US President Gerald Ford at the White House, Kissinger refused to be in the meeting as per protocol. He had a personal dislike for Bangabandhu.
Besides the hyper activities of the conspirators and US Embassy, Pakistan’s notorious ISI was also active in destabilizing Bangladesh. They established contacts with the extreme rightists and pro-Chinese elements in Bangladesh. Comrade Abdul Hoque of Bangladesh Communist Party (M-L) wrote to Bhutto on 16th December 1973, addressing him as ‘My dear Prime Minister,’ and requesting him to give him fund, arms and wireless equipment to unseat the ‘puppet’ regime of Mujib. Bhutto wrote in the letter that Abdul Hoque was an honest person and he should be given all possible assistance as he desired. Bhutto entrusted his trusted lieutenant Abdul Malek to ‘destabilize Bangladesh.’ Malek travelled the Arab countries with Maulana Kawsar Niazi, one of Bhutto’s advisors, to convince the leaders in the region that Mujib needed to be removed. Stanley Wolpert, the American researcher has all these and other issues vividly discussed in his well documented book ‘Zulfi Bhutto of Pakistan.’
Mujib was no superman. He was a statesman before his arrest on the night of March 26th 1971. On January 10th he returned to his country as a hero and began the gigantic task of rebuilding the war devastated nation. Due to his failings in understanding the depth of the conspiracy hatched against him, he fell to the bullets of the assassins and became a martyr. History will remember him as person who loved his country and its people – perhaps too much. Long live his memory. Heroes live for ever.
The writer is the Chairman, University Grants Commission, and Bangladesh.
AUGUST 13, 2015