The legacy of the Zia clan

Syed Badrul AhsanSyed Badrul Ahsan
Published : 5 Feb 2016, 05:17 AM
Updated : 5 Feb 2016, 05:17 AM

Some weeks ago, Begum Khaleda Zia publicly expressed her doubts about the number of Bengalis killed in the War of Liberation. A few days later, Goyeshwar Roy, one of her foremost loyalists in the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, enlightened us on the 'foolish way' in which the country's intellectuals died at the hands of the Al-Badr murder squads on the eve of victory in 1971.

A few days ago, Nazrul Islam Khan, a senior figure in the party, asked that a list of the 1971 martyrs be made available. Only a few days ago, Shah Moazzem Hossain, he of the Awami League-turned-Democratic League-turned-Jatiyo Party-turned-BNP, made the loud declaration that Sheikh Hasina had no contribution in the struggle for independence but that Khaleda Zia had been a freedom fighter.

All this spewing of nonsense has been going up in progressive notches, which is why it now becomes necessary for citizens, for the media, for researchers of history to wade into an intellectual battle to go back to a revelation of the truth behind the BNP's desperate muddying of the waters. And the truth involves two of the foremost individuals whose role in a mutilation of national history and a subverting of political heritage has been paramount.

There are all the questions which need to be answered by the acolytes of General Ziaur Rahman and Khaleda Zia, for it is these elements which have in the past played truant with the truth and are today busily engaged in striking at the fundamentals of the nation's struggle for liberty forty five years ago.

Perhaps they will not answer, or will not be able to answer, the questions we raise. In the interest of history, though, the many ways in which Ziaur Rahman and Khaleda Zia have between them inaugurated, perpetuated and presided over the politics of reaction and negativism must today be revealed in detail before the country.

The purpose is a reclaiming of history and a revival of political heritage. Both have been casualties at the hands of the BNP and its two leaders. We go point by point into a discussion of the damage General Zia and Khaleda Zia have carefully done to the ethos of the country. We do so in the expectation that from here on, as the participants on a recent television discussion so aptly pointed out, nothing of the nonsensical, nothing of the seditious must go unanswered.

What do we know and how much do we know about Ziaur Rahman? Observe:

At a certain point during the War of Liberation, Zia was placed in suspension by Colonel M.A.G. Osmani. Not until Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmad intervened in the matter would Osmani agree to lift the suspension. Note that Osmani did not act against any other sector commander, but he did act against Zia.

Some very dark questions remain about Zia's role in or knowledge of the conspiracy to murder Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in August 1975. The conspiring majors and colonels were in touch with him from March of the year. On the morning of the coup Zia, in the act of shaving, was informed of the assassinations at Road 32. His nonchalant answer was: 'So what? The vice president is there.'

Much though Zia apologists might tell you that the Collaborators Act was repealed by President A.S.M. Sayem in December 1975, do not forget that in military dispensations it is always the uniformed strongman who is behind all unsavoury acts. From November 1975 and till he seized the presidency in April 1977, Zia was the strongman. The collaborators breathed free because of him.

There has never been any inquiry into the murder of General Khaled Musharraf, Colonel Najmul Huda and Major A.T.M. Haider on 7 November 1975. When the three men were held prisoner by Zia loyalists at Sher-e-Bangla Nagar, no effort was made by Zia or anyone else to keep them alive. After their murder, Zia made absolutely no move to let the country know who had killed the three officers and on whose orders. The tragedy remains, and calls for a thorough investigation. Did Zia know the officers were to be killed? Did he issue the order for their dispatch?

The hand of General Ziaur Rahman in the secret trial and swift execution of Colonel Abu Taher in July 1976 was very prominently on display. The accused was denied due process of law, denied access to his family and was disposed of without thought to the consequences of such action. The case calls for a revival, to unearth the extent of Zia's involvement in what was clearly a sham of a trial of a prominent freedom fighter whose defence the nation was not privy to.

Zia's sins were manifold. In addition to giving legal cover to the Indemnity Act through incorporating it in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, he shamed the country through sending off Bangabandhu's assassins as diplomats abroad. That was not only an immoral act but a treasonous one as well. The general needs posthumous censure for such a macabre move.

Hundreds of air force men, innocent and guilty alike, were dispatched to their graves without proper trial and with only a sham of courts martial in the aftermath of the abortive coup of October 1977. Again, the families of the hanged men were never informed of their arrest, of their execution and burial. To this day, the wives and children of these families do not know where their husbands and their fathers lie buried.

The sins of the general accumulate. Having prised out, through dictatorial fiat, the principles of socialism and secularism from the Constitution, Zia went on to undermine Bengali nationalism through bringing in the spurious concept of 'Bangladeshi nationalism', thereby egging society on to divisiveness and conflict. Men loyal to the discredited two-nation theory, such as the journalist Khondokar Abdul Hamid, came in handy. And so did M.G. Tawab, the air force chief imported from Germany, to add fresh doses of communalism to the nation's body politic. In early 1976, Tawab organized a Seerat conference at Suhrawardy Udyan. The Spirit of 1971 was being turned on its head.

Having opened the door to political rehabilitation for the old collaborators of Pakistan, Ziaur Rahman conveniently looked away when the Bangladesh visa on Ghulam Azam's Pakistani passport expired in 1978. That an illegal alien and notorious quisling of the Pakistan occupation army was in the country did not bother Zia. He needed to keep secular forces at bay and these rightwing bigots were helping him to do precisely that.

In his eagerness to mend fences with Pakistan, Zia agreed to an exchange of ambassadors between Dhaka and Islamabad in 1976. To Pakistan went Bangladesh's ambassador, none other than M. Zahiruddin, once a Bangabandhu loyalist but in 1971 a full-fledged supporter of Pakistan's military action in occupied Bangladesh. In all this camaraderie, Zia waived the issue of the pre-1971 assets and liabilities which Bangladesh and Pakistan were expected to share. The two countries were suddenly 'brotherly' nations.

And the final sin? In the five years in which he dominated Bangladesh's politics, Zia made sure that Bangabandhu and the Mujibnagar government were airbrushed out of the history of the country. The government-controlled media – radio, television and newspapers – carried special programmes on Independence Day and Victory Day. The occupation army – hanadar bahini – was mentioned, but the term 'Pakistan' remained conspicuous by its absence.

And now, let us focus on the political legacy of the general's spouse Khaleda Zia. Observe:

Neither the chairperson of the BNP nor those enamoured of her politics have ever explained the circumstances in which Khaleda Zia was taken into detention by the Pakistan army in 1971. No study or analysis on the part of the media has been there on how she was treated by the Pakistani officers supervising her detention. Nor has there been any mention of the manner in which she attained her freedom from her captors.

Begum Zia has never told the nation why, in response to a note sent secretly to her through a courier by her husband, she did not consider it necessary to join him at Mujibnagar – and that was before she was detained by the Pakistan army. She declined to go even as the wife and children of Khaled Musharraf went off to be with him during the entire course of the war. In these many years, Khaleda Zia has never failed to belittle Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in a variety of ways, but she has never spoken of the immensity of good he did for her and her family at a critical moment in the days immediately after Liberation.

Systematic, sustained inquiries need to be launched into the curious case of the three dates of birth that have come to be associated with Begum Zia. Precisely when she decided that she was born on 15 August and whether it was a deliberate attempt to make a mockery of the anniversary of the death of the Father of the Nation is a truth which investigative journalism ought to unearth. The country needs to know too the academic background of an individual who has been prime minister twice – thrice if you take the vacuous election of February 1996 into consideration.

Back in 1986, it was agreed that as part of the movement to push the Ershad regime from power, the Awami League and the BNP would each contest 150 seats at the elections called by the regime. Simultaneous announcements were to be made by Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia to this effect. Sheikh Hasina went ahead with her announcement, but Khaleda Zia backed out. Worse, she and her party swiftly went into accusations of a betrayal of democracy by the Awami League. The truth was papered over. No one in the BNP has come forth with an explanation.

It should have been for Khaleda Zia and her government to have the trials in the Bangabandhu murder case go on after they assumed office for a second time in October 2001. Instead, for five years and not until the Awami League returned to power in 2009 did the trials resume and the wheels of justice roll again.

If General Zia's sin was the rehabilitation of the collaborators of Pakistan, Khaleda Zia's was worse. She gave berths in her cabinet to two of the most notorious collaborators and had another take on the role of parliamentary advisor to her. At one point, she and her government went assiduously into the job of trying to foist the last-mentioned war criminal on the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) as its new secretary general. A spirited and brilliant campaign against the nomination put paid to the whole sordid affair.

Begum Zia has never explained the 21 August explosions at an Awami League rally in 2004. Neither has she spoken on the presence of such foreign terrorist outfits on Bangladesh soil as ULFA while she was in office. How much she knew of the ten-truck weapons affair and when she knew it are questions that should lead to answers in the larger national interest.

On Khaleda Zia's watch, the Justice Aziz-led Election Commission committed the criminality of inserting the names of tens of thousands of false voters on the electoral rolls. No corrective measures were taken. Nor was there any acknowledgement of any wrong having been done. The transgression, as appalling as the move in 2006 by President Iajuddin Ahmed to appoint himself head of a caretaker government to oversee new elections, cost the country dearly.

And what does the BNP chief have on offer by way of an explanation of why she and her party went out on a limb in 2013 to encourage and support the Hefazat-e-Islam in its medieval campaign to dislodge the elected government of the country? And when will the terrible consequences of the blockades and strikes she called in 2015 to protest the process of constitutional continuity in early 2014 form the subject of focused research?

The story of the General and his begum has been a sorry tale of truth-bashing and history-walloping. It is time to put everything on the record – and get the country moving again.