The Fate of Freedom Fighters in Bangladesh

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Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi

The Bangladesh government recently took away the posthumous Independence Award (Swadhinata Padak) conferred on former president and founder of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party Ziaur Rahman from Bangladesh National Museum. There were also demands to remove the grave of Ziaur Rahman, who ruled the country from 1976 to 81, from the Jatiya Sangsad Bhavan (parliament house) area. Reports indicate that there is a move to relocate the grave to a public cemetery where ordinary people are buried.

Sheikh Hasina, prime minister and president of the ruling Awami League party, recently termed Ziaur Rahman a “so-called freedom fighter.” “Both of them (Zia and Khaleda) patronized the anti-liberation forces through appointing them in different posts including that of the prime minister,” she said. Earlier, the government rechristened the Ziaur Rahman International Airport of Dhaka as Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport. Hazrat Shahjalal was a celebrated Muslim Sufi figure, who played a key role in the spread of Islam in the northeastern part of Bangladesh. Though this saint was a highly respectable figure in the country, I don’t think that the renaming of the airport after him was made simply out of love for him.

President Ziaur Rahman or Gen. Ziaur Rahman (as some people still like to call him) was a graduate of the Pakistan Military Academy and then commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Pakistan Army. During the India-Pakistan War of 1965, he played a heroic role as the commander of a company unit and for this he had won the prestigious Hilal-i-Jur’at (Crescent of Courage) medal, Pakistan’s second highest military award. In 1966, Ziaur Rahman was appointed military instructor at the Pakistan Military Academy, and later he enrolled in the Command and Staff College in Quetta, Pakistan, where he completed a course in command and tactical warfare. Then, he traveled to West Germany to receive advanced military and command training with the German Army and later on spent few months with the British Army. Upon his return, Zia was promoted to major and transferred in October 1970 to be second-in-command of the 8th East Bengal regiment stationed in Chittagong in East Pakistan. When the civil war or the Liberation War broke out, it was Ziaur Rahman who revolted against the government of Pakistan and defected the Army prior to broadcasting the announcement of the Declaration of Independence from the captured Kalurghat radio station in Chittagong. He organized an infantry unit gathering all Bengali soldiers from military units and fought along with Mukti Bahini, the militia associated with the Awami League party.

During the Liberation War, Pakistan Army suffered defeat mainly because of Indian Army’s support. When Sheikh Mujibur Rahman took over as the first president of Bangladesh, Ziaur Rahman was elevated to higher military ranks until becoming the deputy chief of army staff. On Aug. 15, 1975 Sheikh Mujeebur Rahman and his family were assassinated at home following a military coup. One of Mujibur Rahman’s Cabinet ministers and a leading conspirator Khondaker Mostaq Ahmad gained the presidency and Ziaur Rahman was appointed as army chief. The coup caused a period of instability and unrest in Bangladesh as well as in the ranks and files of the army. In the midst of this, a brigade of army officers staged a counter-coup, and Ziaur Rahman was forced to relinquish his post and was put under house arrest. This was followed by Soldiers and People’s Coup, a mutiny staged by the National Socialist Party under retired Lt. Col. Abu Taher and a group of socialist military officers. The mutineers were either killed or arrested and Ziaur Rahman was freed and re-appointed as army chief. Subsequently, an interim government was formed with Justice Abu Sadat Mohammad Sayem as chief martial law administrator and Maj. Gen. Ziaur Rahman as one among his three deputies.

However, discipline in the army had totally collapsed and it was difficult to disarm the soldiers and put them back to the barracks. Ziaur Rahman realized that the disorder by the mutiny had to be suppressed firmly if discipline was to be restored in the army. He became the chief martial law administrator following Justice Sayem’s elevation to the presidency and tried to integrate the armed forces. He declared emergency, restored normalcy and thus started a new era in the history of Bangladesh.

Ziaur Rahman introduced several political and economic reforms, the most important of which was the abolition of the single-party system imposed by Sheikh Mujeebur Rahman. He re-introduced multi-party politics and made amendments in the country’s constitution so as to transform its secular nature into that of an Islamic one. He issued a proclamation order amending the constitution, and in its preamble, he inserted the salutation “Bismillahir-Rahmaanir-Rahim” (In the name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, and the Most Merciful). He released thousands of people who were imprisoned following their protest against the single-party system imposed by Sheikh Mujeebur Rahman.

As part of his foreign policy reforms, Ziaur Rahman moved away from India and got out of the big neighbor’s hegemony over the new nation. He also moved to harmonize ties with Saudi Arabia and China, and normalized relations with Pakistan. He allowed Sheikh Hasina, daughter of Sheikh Mujeebur Rahman, to end her exile life and return to the country. On the economic front, Ziaur Rahman announced a “19-point program” of economic emancipation which emphasized self-reliance, rural development, decentralization, and free markets. He focused on boosting agricultural and industrial production, especially in food and grains, and to integrate rural development through a variety of programs. These reforms had gained him much popularity, especially because of his determination to combat corruption, improving living standard of people, as well as his simplicity and honesty.

The attempts of the incumbent government in Bangladesh to wipe out the history of Ziaur Rahman and discredit him through measures such as renaming the airport and removing his medals from the National Museum will result only in increasing his popularity among the people of Bangladesh. Similarly, the government’s attempts to rid of political opponents either through executing them after framing false charges and conducting mock trials or putting them behind bars or moving to re-introduce single-party rule, won’t succeed in the long run as it happened in the past.

Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi is a former Saudi diplomat who specializes in Southeast Asian affairs. He can be reached at [email protected]

Courtesy: Saudi Gazette

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