Vol. 5 Num 1064 Wed. May 30, 2007  

Notes From History
The times of General Ziaur Rahman

On May 30, 1981, Lt. Gen. Ziaur Rahman, president of Bangladesh and its first military ruler, was assassinated in Chittagong. He had earlier survived eighteen attempted coups d'etat. It was to the nineteenth attempt that he succumbed. His body lay in the room of the Circuit House, where he had been lodged, until the plotters took it away along with the bodies of two other officers, and buried them in unmarked graves. A few days later, the graves were located and Zia's body was transported to Dhaka, to be buried beside the Crescent Lake in the Sher-e-Bangla Nagar area. Tens of thousands of people attended his funeral.

Zia's had been an unexpected and meteoric rise in the history of independent Bangladesh. As a major in the Pakistan army, he had been involved in the unloading of weapons and other military hardware at Chittagong port in March 1971 when the Pakistan army launched its genocide against the seventy five million Bengalis of what was then known as East Pakistan. It needed no prompting for Zia to know what he needed to do, even if in the early moments of the crisis he was unable to come to a decision. Once he did decide which way to go, he lost no time in taking action. He eliminated his Pakistani senior officer, and then, on March 27, he spoke to a confused and panicky Bengali nation over the clandestine Shwadhin Bangla Biplobi Betar Kendro. Zia declared Bangladesh's independence on behalf of, in his words: "Our great national leader, our supreme commander Sheikh Mujibur Rahman." That was in the dying moments of March 27, 1971. After that, Zia went off to wage, with scores of other Bengali officers and hundreds of Bengali soldiers, a war of national liberation.

During the war, Zia commanded the force that came to bear the first initial of his name, the Z force. Together with Khaled Musharraf's K Force and K.M. Shafiullah's S Force, Zia's troops devised a guerrilla strategy against the occupation Pakistan army. Following Bangladesh's liberation on December 16, 1971, Zia, promoted to the rank of colonel, was appointed deputy chief of staff of the new Bangladesh army under the chief of staff, Col. K.M. Shafiullah. Subsequently, the two men were promoted to the rank of major general. In mid-1972, Zia wrote what would turn out to be a well-read article in the Bengali weekly journal Bichitra, where he enunciated the story of the war of liberation inspired by the leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

The assassination of the Father of the Nation on August 15, 1975, propelled Zia into a new, necessarily productive course. The Khondokar Moshtaque regime removed Shafiullah from his position and appointed Zia as the new chief of army staff. But Zia's failure to re-establish the chain of command in the army, broken by the majors and colonels who had murdered Mujib and toppled his government, led to action by Brig. Khaled Musharraf.

On November 3, 1975, Zia was placed under house arrest and his position was taken by Musharraf, who had himself promoted to major-general. Four days later, soldiers led by Col. Abu Taher ousted Musharraf, murdered him and his associates, and freed Zia from confinement.

By the end of the month, however, Zia moved against Taher and had him taken into custody when it emerged that Taher was trying to bring about a leftist orientation in the military. Taher, a hero of the liberation war, was tried by a secret military tribunal on charges of sedition and hanged in July 1976.

After that, Zia went on to assume the office of Bangladesh's president upon the resignation of Justice Abu Sadat Muhammad Sayem in April 1977. He organised a referendum and had himself confirmed as head of state and government. In June 1978, despite holding the office of army chief of staff, he took part in a presidential election organised by his regime. He defeated his former commander in chief, retired general Muhammad Ataul Ghani Osmany, and in February of the following year held elections to the Jatiyo Sangsad.

In September 1979, Zia formed the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. He ensured the incorporation of an indemnity ordinance, earlier promulgated by the Moshtaque regime, into the constitution, thus making it legally impossible for the assassins of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the four leaders of the Mujibnagar government to be tried for their criminality. He then took the unprecedented step of appointing a number of the assassins to diplomatic positions at Bangladesh's missions abroad.

Among the positive steps he took was the restoration of the publication of newspapers earlier banned when one-party Baksal system was imposed on the country in January 1975. It is also to Zia's credit that he restored multi-party democracy in the country. In the Zia era, steps were first taken for changes in the economy to be made. Initiatives were for the first time taken to propel the state controlled economy towards a developing private sector.

General Zia is also credited for originally articulating the idea of a commonality of approach to political and social issues in the South Asian region. From that perspective, he is generally regarded as the man who envisioned the setting up of what would later come to be known as Saarc. As president, Zia toured the length and breadth of the country, promoting, despite a number of questions, such concepts as his canal digging program.