On Nov 7, 1975, the People’s Republic of Bangladesh was commandeered by elements determined to undermine the fundamental guiding principles on which the War of Liberation had been waged four years earlier.
It was no day of a so-called sepoy-janata revolution but one which humiliated the janata, the people, by drilling holes in their aspirations for progressive politics and a prosperous society. On Nov 7, the nation watched in stupefaction as a bunch of rowdy soldiers, loyal to Major General Ziaur Rahman and instigated by Col Abu Taher, made it known that they were yanking the country back to medievalism.
They raised slogans of ‘Bangladesh Zindabad’, one that had already been imposed on the country by Khandakar Mushtaque Ahmed and his cabal of assassins three months earlier. The Zia-Tahermen were merely giving it a more formal and sinister shape.
On that day of dark infamy, the old wartime cry of Joi Bangla was consigned to the woods by the new votaries of a spurious Muslim nationhood, for they raised the old bogey of ‘nara-e-takbeer’, a slogan raised by the Muslim League in its campaign to dismember India in the 1940s. The Bengali battle song of ‘Joy Bangla Banglar Joy’ was not heard on Nov 7, 1975.
The republic had slipped into the hands of its internal enemies, the saboteurs who had so long lain low. It would soon be time, once Zia had been freed by his friends and loyalists from confinement at home, for Bangladesh to slip further into the abyss.
On the morning of Nov 7, three of the bravest soldiers of freedom – Khaled Musharraf, Najmul Huda and ATM Haider – lay dead at Sher-e-Bangla Nagar, done to death by rogue soldiers ordered by men in the shadows to do away with them. All these decades on, an inquiry is still awaited into their deaths.
In the weeks and days after his seizure of power, General Zia was asked repeatedly by the widow of one of the slain officers why the men had been killed. He came forth with no response, but offered to look into the welfare of the families of the murdered officers. There is the other part of the story.
Once the three officers had taken refuge in the army camp at Sher-e-Bangla Nagar, a call went out to Zia about their presence there. No one knows what Zia told the caller, a military officer. Moments later, Taher and some of his political associates appeared in the room, watched the scene briefly and went away. Not long afterward, a group of soldiers barged into the room where the three men had sat down to breakfast, seized them, took them outside and shot them.
The corpses of General Khaled Musharraf, Col Najmul Huda and Col ATM Haider lay on the ground before the Combined Military Hospital, to be humiliated by soldiers loyal to Zia. These three men, celebrated for their heroic performance in the 1971 war, had scorn heaped on them on the basis of the lie that they had been Indian and Soviet agents.
No effort was made by Zia, on that day or in the five years in which he wielded power, to identify the men who had ordered the murder of the three officers. And since Zia’s own assassination in May 1981, no government has opened an investigation into the killings of Nov 7, 1975, not just of the three officers but also of scores of others cut down brutally in the cantonments of the country.
From the perspective of national history, Nov 7 remains a blot on the nation’s conscience. It was a day when Col Abu Taher and his Ganobahini, along with elements of the JatiyoSamajtantrik Dal, inflicted a bad wound on the collective national conscience by installing Zia in power. They chose to support the wrong man.
It did not occur to Taher to throw his weight behind Khaled Musharraf, who had clearly been waging a battle for a restoration of the chain of command in the army that had been disrupted by the violent coup of Aug 15.
Taher paid the price for his blunder less than a year later. And the JSD was effectively emasculated by a wily Zia. It was never to recover in terms of political health. The curse of military rule, a legacy carried over from Pakistan, had descended on Bangladesh.
The dark deeds perpetrated on Nov 7 would have their ramifications, on that day and in subsequent years. Zia used his illegitimate authority to prise the principles of secularism and socialism out of the Constitution. He encouraged the expatriate air force officer MG Tawab, a rabid Islamist, to organise a ‘seerat’ conference in the capital.
It was a gathering of bigots that was a repudiation of the State as it had been established in 1971, for it demonstrated a clear veering away from secularism and towards a restoration of the infamous two-nation theory of the Muslim League as propounded in the 1940s.
The viciousness of Nov 7, 1975 pushed the country into deeper levels of darkness. In February 1976, Zia had his point man, the journalist Khondokar Abdul Hamid, launch the false theory of ‘Bangladeshi nationalism’ — or a slightly more refined version of the ‘two-nation’ theory.
The Bengali nation was being told that it was really a Bangladeshi nation, that indeed everything Bengali was but a negation of the new order Zia was attempting to build as a way of perpetuating himself in power. Hamid set the idea afloat and Zia added flesh and bones to it, to the detriment of the republic.
On Nov 7, therefore, it was Bengali heritage and mores and traditions which came under brazen assault from the gun-toting pygmies who had seized the State.
The so-called sepoy-janata revolution, minus the participation of the janata, was a harbinger of the rise of the military in Bangladesh’s politics. It was at the same time a broad hint of the coming struggle between those who had fought on the battlefield and those who had been repatriated from Pakistan.
The original mistake had, of course, been made by Bangabandhu’s government. No screening was undertaken of the Bengali officers of the Pakistan armed forces and civil service when they began to return to Bangladesh from Pakistan against the backdrop of the tripartite agreement between Delhi, Dhaka and Islamabad in 1974. A very good number of these officers, but certainly not all of them, did not or could not reconcile themselves to the idea of Bangladesh.
But none of them was prevented from finding positions in the Bangladesh military and civil administration. Not one of them was retired, save for Lt General Khwaja Wasiuddin, who was sent off as ambassador to Kuwait. That everyone who came back from Pakistan, in both the civil administration and the military, was absorbed in the administrative and military structure of Bangladesh without any questions asked was a gross blunder. The nation was to pay a high price, once Nov 7 came to pass.
In the Zia and Ershad times, it would be the repatriated civilian officers, many of whom had been hugely critical of Bangabandhu even as they were incarcerated in concentration camps in Pakistan in the post-1971 period, who would rise to prominence in Bangladesh. Over a period of time, it would be the repatriated military officers who would elbow out freedom fighter officers, helped of course by a repatriated General HM Ershad, and gain ascendancy in the army.
Zia’s assassination in 1981 was to be a catalyst for a large-scale weeding out of freedom fighter officers in the army. All the military officers, save for Brigadier Jamiluddin Ahmed, killed between August 1975 and September 1981 fought in the War of Liberation.
The criminality involved with Nov 7 would take a new and more sinister dimension through General Zia’s act of appointing the assassins of Bangabandhu as diplomats in various Bangladesh diplomatic missions abroad. General Ershad would carry the idea still further by allowing some of the assassins to form a political party and take part in elections engineered by his junta.
On Nov 7, anti-Liberation elements celebrated the fall of secular Bangladesh. In time, they would return to the political stage — with the Muslim League and the Jamaat-e-Islami making a re-entry into politics in a land whose independence struggle they had violently opposed. Such notorious collaborators as Ghulam Azam and Shah Azizur Rahman would emerge from the dark and help Zia in his odious mission of pushing the State deeper into communalism.
The legacy of Nov 7 will forever be associated with the Fifth Amendment (read Indemnity Ordinance here) to the Constitution, through which General Zia effectively halted any move for a trial of the assassins of August 1975.
The legacy would extend to General Ershad’s times, when the communalisation of the State would reach a peak through the foisting on the nation of a religion for it and thereby narrowing the space for liberal discourse even more.
On Nov 7, 1975, it was infamy the nation lived through. In essence, it was the first step in the distortion of history. It was a day which inaugurated the process of a mutation of the State into little pockets of tribalism.
On and by Nov 7, 1975, all our good men lay dead. In the fast-gathering gloom, denizens of the dark engaged in bacchanalian celebrations of unbridled evil.
[Syed Badrul Ahsan writes on politics, international affairs and South Asian history. The views expressed here are those of the author.]