Ziaur Rahman navigated his way into the history books in March 1971. Never mind that he made a faux pas when, in his first announcement of Bangladesh's independence on March 27, he called himself the president of the provisional Bangladesh government. It was his second announcement, in which he made it clear that the 'great national leader' of the Bengalis was none other than Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, which served as a turning point in those early stages of the War of Liberation against Pakistan. It was Zia's finest hour, one which heralded the beginning of a long twilight struggle for national liberty.
There is little question about the single-minded dedication Zia brought to his efforts for the liberation of Bangladesh. As commander of the Z Force, he acquitted himself well on the battlefield despite all the obstacles that came his way. He was not the finest soldier in that war, in terms of intellectual abilities or strategic skills. But he was as patriotic as all his fellow officers were in those nine months of blood-drenched struggle. He was stern, with that no-nonsense approach to discipline. He came home from the war, like all other freedom fighters, with his sense of politics and statecraft sharpened in ways that are characteristic of a revolution.
And yet there is and has always been a complex aspect to the Zia character. In 1972, he penned a fulsome article in praise of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in a leading weekly journal. Four years later, as deputy chief martial law administrator, he loudly intervened in a conversation between President A.S.M. Sayem and an Awami League team led by Mizanur Rahman Chowdhury with the protestation: "Who is a better Awami Leaguer than me? I have transmitted the directives of Bangabandhu from Chittagong radio station." It was a time when ambition had got the better of him. He was already out on a search for a place in national politics. He looked to the Awami League for support. The support never came. And it did not because Zia was a silent spectator on the morning when a band of unruly soldiers murdered the Father of the Nation. He was shaving when he was informed of the assassination. "So what?" He asked. "The vice-president is there." Like so many other leading figures of the armed forces on that dark morning, he did not move against the assassins. As the nation would later discover, Zia had known about the conspiracy of the majors and assassins since March 1975. He did not inform his chief, General K.M. Shafiullah, or the government about the conspiracy.
Only days after the coup, he found himself in office as the army's new chief of staff. That did not help. The assassin majors and colonels could not be disciplined. Unable to restore the chain of command broken on 15 August 1975, Zia was forced out of his job by Khaled Musharraf on 3 November 1975. Four days later, helped by a revolution-driven Colonel Abu Taher, he was a free man again, back in authority as chief of staff. Khaled Musharraf, along with his associates, was dead. His corpse lay before the Combined Military Hospital, spat upon by soldiers loyal to Zia. The circumstances of Musharraf's murder have never been known, though the finger of suspicion has always remained pointed at Zia. A young military officer stationed at the army base where Musharraf had been detained early on November 7 informed Zia of the doomed officer's presence. Moments later, Khaled Musharraf, Najmul Huda and ATM Haider were killed in cold blood.
And killed too were scores of other officers on the misleading directives of Taher. Zia was quick to comprehend the dangers attendant on Taher's convoluted philosophy of a revolutionary army. Zia had fought a guerrilla war against Pakistan in 1971, but he was not, thankfully, willing to fall for Taher's adventurism in 1975. In the inevitable battle that ensued between the two men, Zia turned out to be the shrewder of the two. Taher lost the struggle and then, to our intense discomfort, lost his life. It was an early instance of Zia's ruthlessness. The diabolical manner in which Taher was put to death was a sign of the medieval treachery Zia was willing to employ in his rise to power. It was cruelty that would subsequently be put to good use in October 1977, when thousands of air force and army men would be executed through trials that were a sham of the process of justice. Many of those men did not know what their crime had been. Many were the families who would discover two decades later that their fathers and husbands and sons and brothers had been summarily hanged and swiftly buried in nameless graves in Dhaka and Comilla.
Zia loyalists have consistently informed anyone who would listen that Bangladesh's first military dictator restored multi-party democracy through the general elections of February 1979. Nothing could be further from the truth. Spurned by the Awami League and other secular parties, Zia needed a political base. That base appeared in the shape of the rightwing elements rejected by the nation in December 1971 for their collaboration with the Pakistan army. Multi-party democracy was not inaugurated by Zia. The rehabilitation of communal politics was – through the entry of 'Bangladeshi nationalism' and an invocation to Allah in the constitution. Between 1975 and 1981, the war hero Ziaur Rahman would turn his back on the ideals of the war he had joined and fought in the cause of Bangladesh's liberty. He was happy in the company of the peddlers of 'zindabad' politics.
General Zia never questioned Bangabandhu's place in history. In the early part of his presidency, he had some officials of Bangladesh Betar bring him the tape of his March 27, 1971 independence speech. He listened to it a number of times. When a sycophantic radio official suggested that the speech could be edited in any way the general wanted, Zia coolly told him, and the others present with him, "History cannot be changed." He walked out of the room. And yet he would go out of his way to airbrush Mujib and the leaders of the Mujibnagar government out of history. In officialese, 'Pakistan occupation army' became 'occupation army'. The chronicles of the times he inhabited would have been different had he not provided protection, through the Indemnity Act, to the assassins of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and indeed repackage a good number of them as diplomats and send them off to places like Pakistan, Japan and the Middle East.
The career of General Ziaur Rahman was an endless interplay of light and dark where dark overwhelmingly dominated light. His voice inspired a fearful nation in late March 1971. His quashing of Taher's adventurism put a check to disaster and perhaps even prevented a civil war. He brought about a semblance of discipline in the army. That was light.
And then dark took over. His ambitions were overweening. He had no qualms about putting his fellow officers under the guillotine. He left behind a political legacy that was divisive, the ramifications of which are still being felt all these years after his death.
On May 30, 1981, General Ziaur Rahman died a tragic and gruesome death, as tragic and gruesome as the deaths to which he had pushed hundreds upon hundreds of officers and men in his years in power. His dictatorship was symbolic of the murder of not just men but of history and ideas in this secular country.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a bdnews24.com columnist.