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By Nazarul Islam,Copy Edited By Adam Rizvi, New York TIO: Year after year, India has celebrated ‘azaadi’ with much fanfare—while on the same day, its friendly neighbor Bangladesh has kept busy, mourning the demise of the nation’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He was ruthlessly assassinated on August 15, 1975.
History has moved quickly ahead, over a span of a half-century. When I look back, I feel It is the time to unravel the mystery about Sheikh Mujib’s assassination; this is crucial for the future stability of Bangladesh, and indispensable for their efforts to bring about a closure to the painful uncertainties that had prevailed in the first three years, after the birth of the country.
Indeed, Sheikh Mujib’s assassination had left a feeling of insecurity and vulnerability in the country, giving rise to some serious concerns about the stability of Bangladesh — something, that has continued to dominate the Bengali psyche.
In spite of the rapid strides that Bangladeshis have made in terms of economic progress as well as social cohesion, there is a lurking fear—that can be felt only by the people who live here. Did their country slip into a political vacuum, in the aftermath of the assassination?
It has now become necessary to Identify the ‘ghosts’ of distortion— to avoid a ghastly incidence like this, taking place in the future. A nation needs to be mindful of the key causes of their tragedy, that had unfolded in the dead of night and determine the underlying truth about the conspiracy hatched in the nascent years after its birth.
Fondly called Bangabandhu by his people, Mujib had his life abruptly cut short. This was the tragedy of the times. He was killed along with his family in the wee hours of August 15, 1975. The only two family members who had managed to survive were his two daughters — Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehana. Both sisters were in Europe when the military misadventure took place, in Dacca, and claimed the lives of Mujibur Rahman and his immediate, family members.
Obviously, the shocking assassination had come at a time when Bangladesh was making desperate efforts to find its feet as an independent nation—after years of repression at the hands of their previous rulers, lodged in Islamabad. It has been alleged that the assassination was the handiwork of the Pakistani ‘deep state’ that enjoyed the support of the anti-India forces, supplemented by a section of Bangladeshis as well. None of this could be verified, from an authentic source.
For a long time, it was believed that a conspiracy was hatched in Dacca in the early years of the nation’s birth, therefore events had remained shrouded in mystery; to the extent that no one could have a whiff of the planning of the attack on the life of the Sheik Mujib. Only it had emerged much later, that former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had personally warned Mujibur Rahman of an imminent threat to his life.
And rightly so, It had been reported that the then RAW (Indian army’s Research and Analysis Wing) chief had positioned a helicopter to pull out Mujibur Rahman from Dhaka and take him to a safe haven, in case there was an attack on him.
Unfortunately, that was not to be. The rest of what followed is history.
In December of 1970, General elections were held in Pakistan. Sheikh Mujib’s Awami League won the popular ballot, grabbing in, the majority of the seats in the National Assembly. This feat had surprised all, when the Awami League, bagged 167 of the 169 seats in East Pakistan. Not knowing how to respond, the Pakistani military government preferred to delay the handover of power to the elected representatives.
This was a watershed moment in history. By March of 1971, Mujib’s house had become the de facto headquarters of the (parallel) government in East Pakistan. In a demonstration of shock and awe, the Pakistani Army had triggered the Bangladesh Liberation War, by launching ‘Operation Searchlight’, and murdering hundreds of thousand Bengalis. The leader of the Awami League, Sheikh Mujib was arrested from his home by Pakistani soldiers.
However, in an act of pure defiance, his followers sought refuge in West Bengal (India). They had named their leader Sheik Mujib as the de facto President of the provisional Mujibnagar Government, (formed on 10 April 1970). Mujib was also named the chief of the Bangladeshi armed forces, in absentia, while the Bengali nation engaged the Pakistani soldiers, in the War of Liberation.
Following the independence of Bangladesh on 16 December 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was set free by his captors in Islamabad and was allowed to be flown to London immediately, making a stopover at Delhi, the capital city of India on his way to Bangladesh. For the next three years, Mujib had set about to hold the reigns of the government he had led, after assuming the office of the Prime Minister of Bangladesh.
In a short while, newer and harsher realities seeped in, abruptly changing the course of the nation’s social, political, and economic fallout as well as its direction. Suddenly everything seemed farcical, and the feeling of national spirit seemed to be diluted in the country. What had prevailed in Bangladesh, in many ways helped in dampening the spirit of their hard-won victory, in the war of Independence. Bengali guerrillas had bravely fought their war in their paddy fields, across broken village homes, and the banks of rivers and waterways that meander through the length and breadth of their country.
These freedom fighters had fought hard while the workers, students, and farmers had played their role well, by joining the popular struggle, in their effort to free their land from an ‘occupant’ army. Post-independence, Bangladesh Leadership had somehow slid into confusion—because it had lacked in vision and its direction. In the first two years after birth, Bangladesh had inherited a fair share of shock and awe, as the country moved from one crisis to another. Law and order had become a casualty and continued to show signs of decadence.
By this time, Sheikh Mujib decided to change his political course. Boldly, he took steps to usher in, fundamental changes. Next, he proceeded to take a fresh oath of the office of the President of his country. He had strongly felt that a new, presidential form of government was needed to offset prevailing chaos in his country.
Extreme circumstances demand harsh and extreme measures. In the face of a monstrous crisis, Mujib had managed to establish a national, unified (multi-party) government, BAKSAL on 7 June 1975, after banning all political parties, and the nation’s independent press. He was appointed as the president of the BAKSAL. Though the BAKSAL was meant to bring stability to Bangladesh and improve law and order, it created hostility among the bureaucracy, the literate, and civil society.
The political change had evidently resulted in chaos. As a result, a lot of his supporters were disappointed and had initiated voicing their concerns against their (undisputed) leader—who had then, willfully forced himself to become the head of an authoritarian, one-party state.
Mujib’s declaration of one-party rule had come into effect with the formation of the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League. This period is known to be the country’s dark era, marked by widespread gag orders and censorship. That era had also been marked down for the abuse of the nation’s highly respected, judiciary.
Not surprisingly, these lopsided directives had divided his people. Not all the adopted measures were welcomed— or, rather opposed by the civil society, intellectuals, and the sections of society which had become extremely disappointed and volatile. It had looked as though the whole country was engulfed in demoralizing chaos, where one could watch with disappointment, the ongoing, rampant corruption in the country— as it played in the hands of few influentials, who had held access to power. Again, the situation was further complicated due to food shortages and its poor, distribution, and management in the country.
And this gave way to a disastrous famine in Bangladesh. Nationalization of industries, Insurance, and Banks had simply failed to yield any outcome or tangible benefit. Bangladesh found itself struggling with a very weak government that looked around for a clear path to move forward—whereby the nation had begun sliding towards financial bankruptcy. Lawrence Lifschultz has shared the bitter realities in an article published in the far Eastern Economic Review.’.
Law and order In the year 1974, had declined devastatingly in Mujib’s country. Bangladeshis had by this time, begun to consider that the corruption and malpractices and plunder of national wealth had reached “unprecedented” levels. Then there was the left-wing insurgency which had carried on from 1972 to 1975. Insurgency in a new country had also been held widely responsible, for creating the conditions that had lead up to Mujib’s tragic assassination.
Earlier in this nation’s history, and—just after independence in the year 1972, Jatio Sramik Dal (JSD) was formed. The purpose was described: to establish scientific socialism in Bangladesh. This small entity was created to offset ongoing ideological rifts, which had by this time, split the ruling party into opposing factions of Bangladesh Chatro League —the student wing of the revolutionary party, that had spearheaded the country’s independence.
This new political entity—the JSD had also engaged in promoting a reign of insurgency in the country, with the support of its armed wing, called the ‘’Gonobahini,” led by freedom fighter Colonel Abu Taher and Hasanul Haq Inu. Both leaders had managed to push Bangladesh into deep anarchy, by the systemic killing of the supporters of the ruling party of the Awami League party members. Law enforcement officials were targeted and killed, ruthlessly by these forces.
All this had led to a terrible breakdown of law and order in the country, and paved the way for gross domestic ‘unrest and dissatisfaction’ in Bangladesh. Political leadership under the nation’s Founding Father was perceived to be lacking, dwindling…..and weak.
And, perception is what obviously creates the image of reality in our minds. Many people including young officers of the Army had held that the nation’s Founding Father was liable and responsible for the damning situation—which ultimately had led to his unfortunate assassination on August 15, 1975.
Perhaps the Founding Father’s weak responses and indecisions on crucial issues could be attributed to the fact that the armed struggle of Bengalis, during the bitterly fought War of Liberation, had been carried out in his ‘name’. This had given rise to a perception that many Bengalis had felt unhappy because they had been left to suffer bitterly in the last nine months while their leader Sheik Mujib had remained ‘safely’ confined in a Pakistani prison.
Nature had gifted Mujib with solitary imprisonment, while his followers were fighting the evil of genocide in a world that was lacking in sympathy for their cause, at least in the early days of the War. Was this a choice he himself had made, to save his life, and also to appease his enemy? Those who had suffered losses of life and property, in Bangladesh had kept demanding that their sacrifices were needed to be highlighted, and appropriately recognized. Chaos had clouded their faith.
What did Mujib miss in his leadership role….and what were the failed ‘sacrifices’ that had got the Father of the Nation into a bind. Was his leadership inept to the extent that people were losing faith in the nation’s Founding Father?
Mujib’s lack of active participation in the war zones and his missing leadership from the action during the Liberation War had caused deep anguish and anger. Some of his close confidants felt they had deserved greater respect, for their contributions because after all, their perception of Banghabandhu’s caliber and leadership had dipped—to be deemed at a very low level, making him unfit and unworthy of the titular image, which Mujib had carried in the struggle for Bangladesh.
By this time, Mujib too could feel the pulse of his Bengali nation. Beyond any doubt, his opponents and followers were equally alarmed. Extremists had held the view that Mujib had failed them terribly, in their war of independence, their survival and existence—therefore he must be replaced or summarily removed from the scene.
Bangladesh Army’s young, in-service officers had included Major Syed Faruque Rahman, Khandaker Abdur Rashid, and Haque (Dalim), Mohiuddin, Bazlul Huda, and Noor Chowdhury, who were also veteran freedom fighters, known to have engaged in combats during War of Liberation. Aggrieved by the conditions, they had jointly conspired to topple what they had called, the autocratic regime of Sheik Mujib.
Bangladesh army officers who were held in West Pakistani jails during the Liberation War of Independence had rendered Sheikh Mujib, their fullest support on the issue of the independence of Bangladesh. Unfortunately, they were in direct opposition to the pro-Indian sympathy and the support for the Soviet Union, which Sheikh Mujib had reflected in his policies.
As long as Sheikh Mujib was Bangladesh’s Head of State, their relationship with India had remained cordial and vibrant.
In his public expression of gratitude to Indira Gandhi, Mujib had rejoiced with the words:” the best friends of my people, are the people of India”. After his release from Islamabad, these words echoed by the Bangla speaking officers of Pakistan’s army were not well received. These sentiments were also shared by many in politics in Bangladesh and the military who were critical of India’s excessive influence, in their lives.
The subsequent 25-year ‘Indo-Bangladeshi Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Peace’ signed by Mujib and Indira Gandhi (thus also referred to as ‘Indira-Mujib Treaty’) on 19 March 1972 had further antagonized many who had sought to distance Bangladesh from India.
Issues such as India’s late, albeit crucial, entry into the Muktijuddho (officially on 3 December 1971 – eight-and-half months after West Pakistan’s attack), the dispute over water resources of the Farakka Barrage (resolved much later in 1996) and India’s perceived delayed withdrawal of troops began to diminish the level of friendship.
The charge of Mujib’s dependence on India was sometimes accompanied by wild allegations against India.
The weekly Hak Katha [Truthful Words] of Maulana Bhasani specialized in preaching that during the period of Awami League rule, India had looted from Bangladesh a larger amount of resources than the British did in course of 200 years…
Not a single opposition party has been on record to have sincerely praised India for accelerating the liberation of Bangladesh, and for repairing, at the request of the Awami League government, hundreds of bridges and culverts with extraordinary rapidity… Nor did any opposition party register appreciation for the withdrawal of Indian troops from Bangladesh in less than three months.
Bangladesh army officers enlisted in service prior to 1971, were also not in favor of Sheikh Mujib’s effort to restrict the role of Islam in national affairs by relegating it to a position of minimal importance. By proclaiming the four fundamental principles of “nationalism, secularism, democracy and socialism”, which would come to be known as the golden vibes of “Mujibad” (Mujibism), Sheikh Mujib had hoped to appeal to the international audience and maintain the goodwill gesture, with neighboring India. Religious-oriented political parties were, therefore, banned.
However, the people of Bangladesh have traditionally enjoyed a strong attachment to Islam—a fact acknowledged by all rulers and opposition parties who had dared criticize Islamic practices and beliefs—at their own risk. In a country where over 90% of the population are the Muslims and their belief in Islam is adamantly strong, Sheikh Mujib’s commitment to secularism, or non-religion, was highly disturbing for the intellectuals.
Even the leftist secular political parties which consider religion to be an instrument of exploitation did not make an anti-Islamic statement in public.
Bangladeshi Government announcements and/or notifications were often sprinkled with references to the establishment of Islamic values, and policies had been determined in such a way as not to have disturbed this sensitive narrative.
Sheikh Mujib did nevertheless, move more close to Islam through his prescription of state policies and his personal conduct during his last year in power. He revived the Islamic Academy (now Islamic Foundation Bangladesh) (which had been banned in 1972 for suspected collusion with Pakistani forces) and banned the production and sale of alcohol and the practice of gambling, which had been one of the major demands of Islamic groups.
Sheikh Mujib also sought Bangladesh’s membership in the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and the Islamic Development Bank and had made a significant trip to Lahore, Pakistan on 22 February 1974 to attend the OIC summit, where Pakistan officially had stepped forth to acknowledge the independence of Bangladesh.
In his public appearances and speeches, Sheikh Mujib had made increased usage of Islamic greetings, slogans, and references to Islamic ideologies.
He had also categorically declared a general amnesty to the (suspected) war criminals under some specific conditions to get the support of far-right groups as the communists were certainly on the prowl and were not happy with Sheikh Mujib’s regime.
Excerpts from Mujib’s speech, made during his participation in OIC summit, explains the mind of the Founding Father:
“I believe that the brokers, who assisted the Pakistanis during the liberation war have realized their faults. I hope they will involve themselves in the development of the country forgetting all their misdeeds. Those who were arrested and jailed in the Collaborator act should be freed before the 16 December 1974.”
The nation’s famine of 1974 was a major cause of discontent that had placed Sheikh Mujib’s government in doldrums because Bangladeshi people had felt ashamed, insulted, and demoralized as a nation. This famine was not due to a food crisis but, according to Nobel Prize-winning Bengali economist Amartya Sen, due instead to the lack of proper governance and democratic practices.
At some point, Independence had become an agony for the people of this country. If I stood on the street, I could see purposeless, spiritless, lifeless faces going through the rituals of life. In modern history, after the liberation war, the new spirit always carries through and the country builds itself out of nothing. In Bangladesh, the story was simple, the other way round…
Entire Bangladesh was either begging or singing ‘eulogies’, or shouting without awareness. The hungry and poor had been totally lost.
Freedom fighter Colonel Ziauddin had observed that of the socio-economic decline of Bangladesh post-independence, His (Sheikh Mujib’s) famine-relief effort was poorly conceived and executed. Among the more odious aspects of the relief program was the herding of 50,000 Bangladeshi destitute who had migrated to Dhaka into a camp bordered by a barbed-wire fence and bereft of any medical or sanitation facilities. One unfortunate resident told a visiting journalist I had known for long, perhaps mistaking him for an aid worker, “Either feed us or shoot us”
Alex Count, who is the author of “Small Loans, Big Dreams: How Nobel Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus and Microfinance are changing the world” (2008). He has stated in his book:
“Bangladesh army officers who fought during Muktijuddho were highly trained personnel and they expected to be absorbed in a regular and disciplined military force, after independence. These army officers were skilled and experienced individuals who received their training in Pakistan in the British tradition of strict military professionalism (pre-independence, when Bangladesh was East Pakistan) and believed in loyalty to the country first. The idea of serving an individual rather than an institution was deplorable to them and against their core belief system”.
However, Sheikh Mujib had enjoyed growing fondness for the peasants and ordinary men who made up the Mukti Bahini and risked their lives for the cause of Bangladesh. He had favored them by way of giving jobs and appointments in his civil government and particularly, in the new Bangladesh Army which was made up of over 50% of these guerrilla fighters, who were viewed as ‘undisciplined and politicized elements’ among the former army officers.
Tragically, most of the army officers were denied their well-deserved posts and some of them were denied promotions throughout the rest of Sheikh Mujib’s short tenure. The regular army officers had viewed this as a breach of discipline and threat to the integrity of the military and therefore, had felt no personal loyalty to Sheikh Mujib.
Ex-army officers were restricted to basic tasks such as disarming the civilians and taming Sheikh Mujib’s political opponents, and assigned to functionless jobs as “Officers on special duty”.
These policies of Sheikh Mujib had created enough discontent among the repatriated officers. There were always fears of a coup in the armed forces of the country.
I must confidently share with my readers, that during and after the War of Liberation, many unknown personalities became war heroes, simply out of the blue. Ironically, mere fighting bravely and selflessly for the liberation of the country was not enough—but identifiable political affiliation mattered, and was a must to get recognition. Obviously many war veteran freedom fighters became dejected and frustrated.
Amon Ahmed Chowdhury, Bir Bikram, a freedom fighter, and a retired Major General and former ambassador of Bangladesh, is on record to have stated:
“But for the Prime Minister, everything was work in progress. The mammoth task of rebuilding a broken nation would take time. It was not something that was going to be fixed overnight. And he was the best person to do it.”
Sheikh Mujib is on record to have said:
“Do not forget I have had only three years as a free government. You cannot expect miracles.”
Many army officers had experienced increasing political interference whenever action was taken against Awami Leaguers during their police-keeping operation. Hundreds of people were arrested by them for smuggling, hoarding and intimidation, and murder. However, after a telephone call from Dhaka to the local police, charges were quietly dropped against the most prominent of these men and they were allowed to go free. The police in the country had really no option but to obey the commands coming from criminal warlords, who were reportedly being used by the great leader himself.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the officers were warned that they’d be solely responsible for the people they arrested and non of their seniors would be held accountable. Even Syed Farook Rahman, the man who masterminded Sheikh Mujib’s assassination, claimed that he received a general order in writing informing him that should he arrest anyone he would be acting on his own responsibility and that his regimental commanding officer and brigade commander would not be answerable if anything went wrong.
At the same time, Farook and the officers were being told to have no mercy on the opposition, particularly Naxalites (Maoists) and other leftists who got caught in the army’s net. The order came straight from the top – which invariably meant Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. However, Farooq in particular had refused to comply with these orders—so whenever he apprehended one of these men, he had to let him go quietly.
I had remained a witness to the misfortunes of the land where I was born and raised—and that was a damning and awkward situation. Every time an offender was apprehended, he turned out to be either an Awami Leaguer or a very staunch Awami League supporter. They were getting protection from the top while security and army officers, were getting a shelling for doing their job.
None of the senior Army commanders would accept responsibility because the Prime Minister had said ‘If you take any funny action you will be hanged for it’. This had meant that the security forces were supposed to root out corruption and malpractices, but did not enjoy a free hand because they had orders to follow. They were supposed to stop short of the Awami League. The whole thing was a damn farce.
Again, the army gave orders to beat them (leftists) up, get information from them, and then throw them in the river. Colonel Shafaat Jamil (then Brigade Commander Dhaka) in on record to have said they were vermin and must be destroyed. As far as Sheikh Mujib was concerned the indirect orders to us were for leftists like Siraj Sikder and Colonel Ziauddin and such groups, if we catch them to kill them.
Obviously, no one was seriously interested in what Marxists were doing in Bangladesh, but what impressed had impressed others was the fact that these brave soldiers did care for the country. They may have gone the wrong way ideologically, but they had not so far done wrong to the country.
An escalating law and order situation, warring factions, and poor social and economic conditions saw many of the Government’s major support groups become antagonistic to the regime. By now rumors were rife in Bangladesh that Sheik Mujib was creating his personal political dynasty. Critics accused him of nepotism and appointing incompetent members of his family to the prominent roles and turning a blind eye to their flaws and mischief.
Sheikh Mujib’s only brother, Sheikh Abdul Nasser, became the largest contractor in the District of Khulna in the year 1975 from a position of near poverty in 1972. The husband of one of Mujib’s sisters, A.T.M. Syed Hossain, who was only a section officer in the secretariat in 1970, became joint secretary in 1972 and, three years later, additional secretary of the Establishment Division, the division which is entrusted with responsibility for appointments, promotions, and transfers of civil servants.
The husband of another sister of Mujib, Abdur Rab Serniabat, was made a minister in the cabinet. Sheikh Fazlul Huq Moni, Sheikh Mujib’s baghna (sister’s son, i.e. a nephew), commonly known as “the nephew of the nation”, rose from the position of a newspaper reporter before liberation to Editor of the Bangladesh Times and head of the National Jubo (youth) League.
At the age of 24, Sheikh Shahidul Islam, son of Mujib’s fourth sister, was given the rank of minister in the government of 1975. Sheikh Kamal, Mujib’s eldest son, was reputed to have been involved in a bank robbery and a number of corrupt activities. Sheikh Jamal, Mujib’s second son, was sent to the world-famous Sandhurst in England at the age of 20 for military training so that after the completion of the training he could take a leading role in what Sheikh Mujib termed as ‘my army”!
Again, the people who hurt Mujib’s image most were his two sons – Sheikh Kamal and Sheikh Jamal – and Mujib’s own wife. Kamal, a student at Dhaka University in the 1970s, unsuccessfully tried his hand at business after graduation. He was eventually elevated by his father to the post of secretary of the Bangladesh Sports Federation.
I had the pleasure of knowing this slain martyr of Bangladesh, through many cricket matches we played in Dacca’s outer stadium, as members of opposing teams in the Club matches of the League, taking place in 1969 and 1970. Unfortunately so, participating in a number of alleged robberies, Kamal had suffered bullet wounds, which his friends knew about and which Mujib and his physician tried vainly to conceal from the public.
The worst reputation by far of any of Mujib’s relatives was enjoyed by Mujib’s nephew (the son of another of Mujib’s four sisters), Sheikh Fazlul Huq Moni, commonly called the “nephew of the nation”. Moni, 36 when he was killed in the l975 coup, graduated from Dacca University in l960 with a third-class B.A. in political science. He joined the ranks of the educated unemployed for a number of years before securing the job of a newspaper reporter at a salary of Taking 275 (about $55) in l970.
After the liberation, he built a network of youth organizations as head of his uncle’s National Jubo League, and his henchmen were allowed to carry arms despite the fact that Mujib was demanding the surrender of arms from all of the militant groups that fought the Pakistanis during the Liberation War.
Those were disturbing times for journalism in Dacca. By becoming editor of the government-run English language newspaper, the Bangladesh Times, and through his ownership of a number of magazines, Moni wielded real power in the opinion-building elite of the country. He had also controlled a number of agencies and firms that imported relief goods into Bangladesh; this alone enabled him to amass personal wealth, including a number of automobiles and homes in Dhaka and elsewhere.
And the most talented young relative of Mujib was his second nephew, Sheikh Shahidul Islam, who was put in charge of Mujib’s Student League. At age 24, Shahid was already a ranking Awami Leaguer and was well-connected with a number of private enterprises as their director. Shahidul Islam was different from Mujib’s other relatives because he had been a brilliant student, having received a first-class in applied Chemistry from Dhaka University in the last year’s ‘Honors’ examination.
I strongly had felt that his reputation was gravely tarnished by persistent rumors that he was involved in a series of bank robberies with his cousins, Mujib’s sons, as well as in the 1974 killings of seven Dhaka University students in one of the dormitories. Rumors were also circulated that Shahidul Islam’s marriage to the daughter of M. Saleheen, who was a managing director of a bank and who came from an established, upper-middle-class Bangladeshi family, as a result of pressure applied by Mujib himself when Saleheen had proved reluctant about the marriage.
On that fateful day of August 15, 1975, All men, except A. T. M. Syed Hossain and Sheikh Shahidul Islam were murdered simultaneously, in one go. The killers had banked on the unspoken negativity that was felt by the majority towards the “Sheikh dynasty” and were confident that there wouldn’t be any widespread reaction which they couldn’t control and manage.
Just as importantly, as I have mentioned earlier, the two biggest sources of opposition to the Mujib regime had emerged from the leftist parties Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (JSD) – more popularly known as ‘Jashod’ – and the Sarbohara Party, who were both becoming more and more aggressive with each passing year.
It was significant for me to perceive that while Mujib was building the Sheikh dynasty, alienating his major support groups in the process, opposition political parties became very active. Among the opposition political parties, the two revolutionary parties – the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (JSD) and the Sarbohara Party – provided strong opposition to the Mujib regime.
In this vulnerable situation of the Awami League, we had felt any army coup was expected to be successful. The majors who planned the coup counted on the support of all the alienated groups dismayed by Mujib’s second revolution.
Obviously, the Army officers had harbored serious reservations, against the formation of BAKSAL. They had also viewed the government as being subservient to India and feared that the government in power might dismantle the regular Bangladesh Army and replace this with parallel armed force, which Sheik Mujib had created himself, to provide blanket security of the country.
After the deadly coup of August 1975–Khandaker Mushtaq Ahmed an Awami League cabinet minister, under the Mujibur regime, had consented—to assume the vacant office of the President. Journalist Lawrence Lifschultz has painted an alternative picture of the conspiracy, implicating Mustaque and the American Central Intelligence Agency, as the active participants.
It had been alleged that the chief of the army staff Major General KM Shafiullah ( well known to my father because of his allegiance to the common pit Saheb of Narinda), and chief of Defence Intelligence Agency, Air Vice Marshal Aminul Islam Khan had both been aware of the conspiracy, that had been hatched.
In the early morning of August 15, 1975, the conspirators had divided themselves into four groups. One group, consisting of members of the Bengal Lancers of the First Armoured Division and 535 Infantry Division under Major Huda, attacked Mujibur’s residence.
Sukharanjan Dasgupta, a correspondent for Calcutta based newspaper, during the Liberation War and in Dhaka until 1974, has written in his book Midnight Massacre in Dacca that “the exact details of the massacre will always remain shrouded in mystery”.
The noted Indian journalist had gone on record to say, however, that the army platoon protecting the President’s house could offer no resistance. Sheik Kamal, eldest son of Mujib was shot first at the reception area, on the ground floor. Mujibur Rahman was asked to resign and was allowed time to consider his position. He telephoned Colonel Jamaluddin Ahmed, the recently appointed chief of Military Intelligence.
It has been on record that When Jamil arrived and ordered the troops back to barracks, he was gunned down at the gate. Mujibur was shot and killed, instantly. Other occupants of the house, who were killed in the attack included Sheik Fazilatunnissa—wife of Mujibur Rahman (killed upstairs); Sheik Nasser’s younger brother of Mujibur and a couple of servants (in the lavatories); Sheik Jamal; and the youngest ten-year-old son, Sheik Russell.
Simultaneously, another group of soldiers had managed to kill Sheik Fazlul Haque (Mani), Mujib’s nephew, and influential leader of the Awami League along with his pregnant wife on 13/1, Residential Area, the city’s elite and posh enclave at that time.
Later, the witnesses have confirmed, Abdur Rab Serniabat, Mujibur’s brother-in-law, and a minister of the Government along with 13 family members who had lived on Mintu Road were attacked.
The fourth and most powerful group in the military was sent towards Savar to block the expected counter-attack by the Security Forces stationed there. After a brief fight and the loss of eleven men, the loyalists capitulated.
Four of the founding leaders of the Awami League, who had included first Prime Minister of Bangladesh Tajuddin Ahmed, a former Prime Minister of the country and Vice President Syed Nazrul Islam and another former Home Minister of the country A H M Qamruzzaman, were taken into custody without delay. Three months later, on November 3, 1975, the four close confidantes of Sheik Mujib and the founding fathers were brutally murdered in Dacca Central Jail.
Rumors had been rife Mujib’s own cabinet minister, Khondokar Mushtaq, who is believed to have been involved in planning the attack. He was Mujibur Rahman’s immediate successor. It is widely believed that many others involved in the brutal conspiracy were Bangladeshi politicians with pro-Pakistan leanings, and of course, a large segment of the highly politicized army—that had been deeply indoctrinated.
Significantly, the then deputy chief of the army staff, General Ziaur Rahman, who later became the country’s army chief and ended up being the President, was also regarded as complicit, to the brutal end of Sheik Mujib and his loved ones. He was reportedly indifferent when informed about the assassination and feigned ignorance, but couldn’t hide his complicity for too long. However, he wasn’t the only army officer involved. Investigations had later proved that almost the entire army had been compromised and had turned against Mujibur Rahman.
Major Farooque Rahman who had fired the first salvo with his inflammatory speech, the previous night, was directed against Mujib in which he had grieved about the President and his policies. That fateful speech was delivered a day ahead of the assassination, on August 14, 1975. Sadly, Faruque Rahman’s acerbic speech did not alert the security agencies to the impending threat to Mujib. Had that happened, a major tragedy could have been averted.
Mujib’s security force was only tasked with ensuring his personal security—the Rakkhi Bahini too proved completely ineffective in shielding their leader from the heinous attack. The fact that all relevant security agencies had failed to protect Mujib at every layer of security— tells a sad story of how a man revered as a father figure in Bangladesh was killed, despite doing so much for the country and its people.
Much to one’s chagrin Mujib’s assassins were gratefully honored and rewarded with coveted assignments and posts post his demise.
In the foreword to the Mujib’s biography, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman: From Rebel to Founding Father, written by Syed Badrul Ahsan, noted historian AF Salahuddin Ahmed, says, “Sheikh Mujibur Rahman remains the rare instance of a statesman in history in whose name, and in whose physical absence, a nation fought its way to freedom.
The surrender of Pakistani soldiers in Bangladesh on December 16, 1971, was indeed the culmination of Mujib’s long struggle for the emancipation of his people. He had asked his nation to give him three years to turn the country around. But, his enemies made sure he did not survive that long.
They had killed him, along with most of his family members on August 15, 1975. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman remains in death, as he was in a lifetime, as Bangladesh’s foremost political symbol.
Sheikh Hasina, who as Prime Minister of the country, is at the helm of the affairs today in Bangladesh. She must have taken a serious note of the security and intelligence lapses leading to her father’s untimely and avoidable killing. She must be doubly cautious today, in ensuring that her security staff doesn’t lower their guard even for a minute particularly when forces inimical to the country’s interests are on the lookout for an opportunity to meet their devilish designs.
At a high‐level White House meeting forty-four years ago, Ambassador U. Alexis Johnson, while trying to explain to his colleagues what a grim future had faced Bangladesh, then had described the new nation in South Asia as an “international basket case.”
Since then, as a witness, I had seen that life in Bangladesh had started to worsen. And I had strongly felt there was little hope that the poor country’s latest convulsion, a virtual military takeover of the Government in August of 1975 would bring any improvement to the lives of the people, most of whom had still remained illiterate, impoverished and ill‐fed, in the past.
With a population of 75 million, in the year 1971—crowded together in swampy, deltaic land, smaller than the size of New England, Bangladesh had appeared to many— in terms of international economic standards, the least promising country in the world.
In my childhood and my early youth, I had been exposed to the floods that inundate large areas every summer, bringing ruin and damaging staple crops. All this had disabled the country which could not feed its population without huge amounts of outside aid. Adding to the misery of the people were 10,000 more newborn people, every day than it had the day before. Some Bangladesh leaders had despaired of the nation, being ever in a position to be governed effectively.
Sheik Mujibur Rahman, the charismatic father of the nation—had tried, but met with less and less success. As his regime bogged down in nepotism and corruption, the public’s love affair with him had waned—till eventually, he was finally killed in a coup d’etat.
Khondakar Moshtaque Ahmed, who had been one of Sheik Mujib’s confidante in the long and bloody struggle for their independence from Pakistan, then by a stroke of fate had become the President of Bangladesh. Later on, this figurehead was removed by Maj. Gen. Ziaur Rahman, the army chief who had to move suddenly, to the fore.
I had always been doubtful whether the Army Chief as well, could find solutions to the country’s almost overwhelming difficulties. But then, it could be anyone’s guess. One knowledgeable former resident of Dacca had confided: “As is usually the case in matters relating to Bangladesh, there had been very little reason to be hopeful”
With military ranks being traded back and forth, and officers in and out of jail, discipline within the army progressed poor, and few people expected political stability to flow from the army’s ascent to power. Out in the marshy countryside of Bangladesh, armed gangs were still at large, with tons of weapons and ammunition available from the Arsenal left over, since the war of independence in 1971. Political violence had been commonplace; some reports had put the number of targeted political murders in the last few years at several thousand.
The short‐lived government of President Moshtaque Ahmed had arrested 1,000 people for illegal possession of firearms. But, according to the new Government, one of the last things that the former President’s military protectors did before they fled the country, was murder, several high-ranking political prisoners.
Economically, Sheik Mujib had left the country in calamitous condition, with the highest inflation where retail prices increased at a rate several hundred percent a year. Because of corruption and mismanagement, the jute industry, which earned almost all of Bangladesh’s foreign exchange, had been operating below capacity. That year, the international jute market had also suffered from the world oversupply of jute, a tough fiber that is used in burlap and twine.
Some of the deliberate changes that were made in the Mujib period, had affected so many Bangladeshis. All this had obviously impacted Bangladesh Government by way of the country’s foreign relations. While in office, President Moshtaque Ahmed had shown signs of moving the country out the political orbit of India, the powerful neighbor that was the Mujib Government’s closest ally.
Nearly a half-century ago, it was too early to tell whether that move would continue or be reversed, but India wasted no time in officially expressing its “great shock” at the jail killings, a sentiment that put it on the same side as the generals then in control of Dacca, the capital city of the nascent country.
President Moshtaque Ahmed had also made friendly overtures towards the Pakistanis, the Bengalis’ former countrymen. This had shocked many to hear that finally, Dacca had agreed to establish diplomatic relations with them, and possibly maintain trade and telecommunications links as well. But any move by the newest Government to elevate the memory of Sheik Mujib would likely have been a move—away from the Pakistani interventions.
It was amazing to observe that among the major powers, China was delighted with the Moshtaque Ahmed Government, while the Soviet Union had exhibited caution about it.
In the days, the nation had grieved, I could feel the country that had shown no particular sign that its relations with Dacca had been changed one way or the other by the events of the past few months, happened to be the United States. It had given Bangladesh nearly $1.0 billion in aid since independence and, as one American official had put “We’ll probably keep on giving because the problems we are trying to help solve remain so formidable.”
I always believed that Liberation is the path of transcendence. Manifestation is the path of immanence. Both lead to the same place: the divine. The legacy of Bangabandhu would prevail, and usher the country into another reign of prosperity in the coming years.
Was there no better way to manage than by looking around? Autocracy has never worked in history. The deadliest foe of democracy is not autocracy, but liberty that was frenzied in Bangladesh.