Bangladesh Past Must Be Resolved To Ensure Future
As Bangladesh celebrated its 40th Independence Day with pride and joy, there must have been tears of a different kind among those who sacrificed so much for the liberation of the country from Pakistani rule. They ask rhetorically what happened to their dream from that fateful day of August 15, 1975 when Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the nation, was assassinated along with most members of his family by a group of army officers. From then, Bangladesh went into a tragic spin for more than three decades and risked becoming a terrorist state under the BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) rule from 2001-2006.
It is difficult to explain why many of the Bangladeshi military officers who fought for liberation used assassination, murder and sabotage of the law to try and demolish the ideals of liberation. On many occasions they were as ruthless as the Pakistani army and the Razakars, Al Badrs and Al Shams, the rightwing Islamists who fought for Pakistan. Were they Trojan Horses? Will this question ever be answered?
The Awami League led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in East Pakistan (Bangladesh) had won the Pakistan general elections in 1971. Islamabad was not willing to allow the “racially inferior Bangalees” to rule Pakistan. On March 25, 1971 negotiations between President and Gen. Yahya Khan and the Awami League broke down in Dhaka. The Pakistan People’s Party President Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto was also present. Yahya Khan quietly flew back to Islamabad that afternoon. Late that night the Pakistani army unleashed a carnage that would last for the next nine months till their surrender on December 16 to the Indian army. But before surrendering, the Pakistani army and their Bengali collaborators tried to ensure that leaders of the liberation movement including intellectuals, journalists and teachers who were the moral platform of the movement, were eliminated. As many as possible were rounded up and killed in cold blood.
Much has been written on the liberation war and more needs to be written to keep the spirit of independence alive. After 1975 leaders like President Zia-ur-Rehman and his successors distorted the history of the war, trying to erase the memories of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and others. The post 1971 generation was brought up on distorted history and came to regard India as the enemy. In the Dhaka cantonment, the effigy of a Sikh soldier was used for target practice in the army till Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina stopped it recently.
Hard-line Pakistanis, especially among the army, intelligence agencies and politicians still hold India responsible for breaking up their country and continue to try and avenge this ignominy. This is not even half the truth. The truth is that the Punjabi dominated Pakistani army and politicians did not care to recognise the early warnings. Even the suave and urbane Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan, failed to understand the strong emotions of the Bengalis about their language and culture. The 1952 language movement, five years after the birth of Pakistan, did not ring a warning bell. To the Bengalis the imposition of Urdu language on them was unacceptable.
Unfortunately, the Pakistani establishment refused to understand and learn from ethnic and linguistic challenges. They did not care to see how India a multi-lingual, multicultural and multi-religious country was able to enjoy a happy national integrity. It is doubtful if they have learnt anything today.
Some Pakistani writers and civil society leaders are beginning to understand the real cause of 1971. They fear that Baluchistan may go the way Bangladesh did. On the other hand, the Pakistani army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) hold the hope they will make Bangladesh a confederate of Pakistan, and disintegrate India.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina must remember that 1971 is still alive with its poison and she, as the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and President of the Awami League, remains the prime target for elimination. At least three attempts on her life have been made, and the last one on May 21, 2004 was nearly successful.
Each of the following incidents and developments are a continuation of the frustrations of Pakistani and anti-liberation forces in Bangladesh. The chain of events started with the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Awami League politicians in 1975; imposition of Zia-ur-Rahman’s martial Law; indemnity of Sheikh Mujib’s killers and posting most of them as diplomats abroad; reviving the banned Jamaat-e-Islami (mostly collaborators) and legitimising their political role; illegally amending and distorting the 1972 democratic and secular constitution of Bangladesh; a long period of hounding secular and democratic opposition; keeping Sheikh Hasina out of the country till Zia’s own assassination in an army revolt in 1981; planned encouragement of radical Islamic terrorism for political and corrupt ends by the Khaleda Zia-led BNP; giving Pakistan and China a platform in Bangladesh to run offensive intelligence operations against India, to destabilise and disintegrate India (in which the BNP was complicit including Khalida Zia’s older son Tareq Rehman); attempting a coup in 2007; and finally the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) revolt in March 2009, in which circumstantial evidence suggest external and JEI involvement.
Investigations and trials in most of these cases have started. The Bangabandhu assassination case has been concluded and available assassins were executed in 2010 after a fair trial. An International war crimes tribunal has been set up to try the war criminals of 1971. Similar processes have started in other cases. The case of the military tribunal murder of Col (Retd) Abu Taher in July, 1976 by Gen. Zia-ur-Rehman, who was then the Chief Martial Law Administrator (CMLA) of Bangladesh, now being adjudicated by the Bangladesh High Court, could reveal conspiracies within conspiracies with salutary effect on Bangladesh’s post-Mujibur Rahman politics.
A highly decorated freedom fighter, Taher joined the left oriented Jatio Samajtantrik Dal (JSD). He rescued Gen. Zia from prison where he was detained for his alleged involvement in Bangabandhu’s assassination. Taher had his own strong ideological convictions and did not suspect Zia. But why did Gen. Zia institute a secret trial of Taher and some others by a military tribunal without any defence counsel for the accused and sentenced Taher to death for treason, and had him executed immediately after? And why did papers related to the trial go missing and can they ever be located?
Lawrence Lifshultz, an American journalist and South Asia correspondent of the Far Eastern Economic Review was in Dhaka at the time and wrote a telling book on the episode. He also deposed at the current hearing on the case.
The two-judge bench hearing the case has overturned the Zia appointed tribunal as illegal, declared Taher and other accused as patriots and Taher as a martyr, and will try the only living judge of the tribunal, Abdul Ali as the murderer of Abu Taher under Zia’s order. The bench has also directed the government to constitute a high level committee to investigate into the allegations that Zia-ur-Rehman was directly involved in the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and the killing of several thousand freedom fighters. A large number of Taher’s supporters in the military were also killed.
In a damning indictment, one of the justices, Justice AHM Shamsuddin Choudhury Manik charged Zia of erasing the slogan “Joi Bangla” (long live Bangladesh) erasing the basic principles of the war of liberation including secularism; appointing Shah Azizur Rahman, one of the worst collaborators of the Pakistan army as Prime Minister, and appointing other collaborators like Mustafizur Rehman and Abdul Alim as ministers. The indictment went on to many other details of the acts of Zia which aimed at erasing the hallmarks of Bengali nationalism, the liberation war and independence including introducing religious politics in the country. It is also well known that Zia and his political party, the BNP made every effort to claim that it was Zia and not Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who called for independence on March 26, 1971.
If the Col Taher case proceeds to its logical conclusion including investigations on Zia-ur-Rehman as it has directed the government to do, it will be the catharsis of Bangladesh and the country will be twice reborn.
Was Zia-ur-Rahman the mother of Pakistan’s Trojan Horses? Did he join the liberation war as he had no other option? Everything points to the conclusion that he was Islamabad’s “Assassin’s Mace” in Bangladesh, and spawned Trojan Horses that are active even today.
Under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh has broken through Henry Kissinger’s description as a “basket case”. It has been recognised as one of the eleven emerging under-developed countries by international organisations. Its international profile is at its all time highest, But there is much more to be done, and Sheikh Hasina must desist from the temptation of settling small, personal scores with the opposition.
The Awami League led government is entering its second half, and there is no certainty that the grand alliance will return with the same numbers in the next elections. They have been remiss in many areas and have to reconstruct. The young Bangladeshis are looking at their future, and at who can deliver on their hopes and aspirations. They will be the voters in the next hustings.
At the same time, a mountainous task weighs on Sheikh Hasina’s shoulders. It will not be enough to jail or execute a few perpetrators of crimes against the nation. She must find, expose and eradicate the serpent’s head and erase all threats to independence. Only then will Bangladesh be truly liberated. This can be done only by Sheikh Hasina, and the time table is limited to the current tenure.
By Bhaskar Roy