President Md Zillur Rahman, an out-and-out politician revered across the broad political spectrum, died on Wednesday in Singapore, closing the curtains on a colourful career lasting more than six decades.
The 84-year-old statesman breathed his last at the Mount Elizabeth Hospital at 4:47pm Bangladesh time, Mohammad Shafiul Alam, the Secretary to the President, told bdnews24.com's Moinul Hoque Chowdhury.
His is a legacy few in Bangladesh can match, for the sheer weight of his achievement and the vast canvass of his life lived with steady compassion and resolute courage.
Having risen from a mere member to the highest office of the state, he watched and was an active player in the watersheds in the nation’s political history -- 1952 Language Movement, 1962 anti-military rule movement, 1966 Six-Point Movement, 1969 Civil Uprising and 1971 War of Independence – all of which he had waged with Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – and 1990 Anti-Autocracy Movement.
A staunch defender of democracy, the politician known for calm demeanour had shepherded the Awami League at a time when party chief Sheikh Hasina was detained in 2007 by the military-backed interim government.
When the rulers were trying to fling her and BNP chief Khaleda Zia out of politics, Hasina had made him acting President of the party just before her arrest.
He assumed the presidency on Feb 12, 2009 and is only the third President of Bangladesh after his idol, Bangabandhu, and Ziaur Rahman, to have died while in office.
The visionary leader had been hospitalised on several occasions during his stint in office and gone for a check-up in Britain last December, was admitted to the Combined Military Hospital in Dhaka with severe respiratory problems.
There had been growing concerns about his health and he looked frail during the recent visit of Indian President Pranab Mukherjee to Bangladesh early this month, his last major engagement.
Yet, his demise left his legions of admirers, and perhaps occasional adversaries, equally in a state of grief and shock.
No wonder, then, that among the foreign dignitaries, it was Mukherjee who was the first to express his ‘heartfelt’ condolence and ‘profound sadness’ at the death of his ‘friend’, saying the leader’s demise brought ‘grief to us in India’.
The soft-spoken campaigner had endured the death of wife and comrade Ivy Rahman who was fatally injured in the gruesome grenade attack on an Awami League rally in Dhaka on Aug 21, 2004.
Not known for showing his emotions in public, he broke down alongside Hasina at a memorial meeting. He had met Ivy through party activism and romance bloomed. It was Bangabandhu who played the matchmaker.
Twice picked as General Secretary, once by no less a man than Bangabandhu, he displayed an unflinching commitment to his party and the people, and he made great personal sacrifices to further the cause.
Prime Minister Hasina, to whom Rahman was like a guardian, led the tributes which have been streaming in since the news of his demise, barely 10 months before the nation is set to go to general elections, broke.
Being the constitutional figurehead for almost four years, he would have burst onto centre stage in the lead-up to elections slated for early next year in this politically charged climate.
Ganabhaban sources said the Prime Minister was in a meeting when Rahman’s son gave her the news. Hasina rushed to Ganabhaban without ending the meeting and met senior party leaders to decide the issues about tributes, funeral prayers and burial.
In her message, Hasina mentioned his role as an ‘irreplaceable companion’ to Bangabandhu during the 1952 Language Movement – the fight for Bengali people’s right to self-rule – and during the liberation struggle of 1971.
She felt Rahman’s role in building the Awami League after Bangabandhu’s assassination in 1975 was ‘unforgettable’.
The Opposition Leader, Khaleda, lavished praise on him and said she was ‘profoundly shocked’ at the passing away of the ‘politician of wisdom and penchant’.
The BNP chief went to the extent of firing a broadside at the government for not officially announcing the news of President’s death, sending a minister to supervise his treatment and keeping the nation in loop about his condition through regular bulletins.
Widely revered, and hardly reviled, the effect of Zillur Rahman’s legacy was there for all to see when the BNP called off its planned shutdown in the upazilas of Dhaka district for Thursday – the day his mortal remains are scheduled to be flown back to the land he had fought to free from the repressive Pakistanis.
The government has declared three days of state mourning starting on Thursday and cancelled all scheduled programmes.
The body will be kept at the Bangabhaban to let the Acting President, Prime Minister, Cabinet members, former Presidents, Chief Justices and judges of the Supreme Court, lawmakers, diplomats, politicians, army and civil officials and people of different professions will pay their last respects.
The first Janaza or funeral prayers will be held at the National Eidgah after the Juma prayers on Friday. A second Janaza will be held at the South Plaza of the parliament complex at 3:30pm.
The remains would be taken to his private residence, Ivy Tower, at Gulshan ahead of his burial in the grave of his wife at Banani at 5:30pm.
Speaker Abdul Hamid, who has been discharging the President’s duties since Rahman was airlifted to Singapore on March 10, will be the Acting President until a new President is elected.
That has to happen by June 19 as per the constitutional binding, officials say.
LIFE AND CAREER
Born on Mar 9, 1929 at Bhairab Upazila in Kishoreganj, Rahman took to politics during his student days.
He played a significant role in the historic Language Movement in 1952 and the country’s Liberation War in 1971.
He did his master’s in history and law at Dhaka University.
A lawyer by profession, Rahman won five parliamentary polls in independent Bangladesh from his Kishoreganj (Kuliarchar-Bhairab) constituency. Apart from the ninth parliamentary polls he had also won in 1973, 1986, 1996 and 2001.
He became a member of the then Provincial Assembly of erstwhile East Pakistan in 1970.
Later, Rahman actively took part in the Liberation War that began in March 1971. He was involved with the broadcast activities of ‘Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra’ and publication of the ‘Joy Bangla’ newspaper.
He was the General Secretary of Awami League during the period 1972-74 when Bangabandhu was the President. Two decades later, Hasina also reposed her faith in him in 1992.
The Awami League leader had been imprisoned for four years after the assassination of the independence hero Sheikh Mujib in August 1975.
He was again thrown behind bars in 1986 while being a sitting MP during the movement for restoration of democracy.
He became the Local Government, Rural Development and Cooperatives Minister after Sheikh Hasina formed government in 1996. Apart from being a minister, he was also the Deputy Leader in Parliament until 2001.
He was also Deputy Leader in Parliament in the ninth Parliament in January 2009 before going on to become the head of state.
Rahman is survived by a son, Nazmul Hasan Papon, an MP who now heads the BCB, and two daughters, Tania Rahman and Oanima Bakht.