President Zillur Rahman’s passing makes him only the third head of state, the others being Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and General Ziaur Rahman, to have died in office. The difference, however, is that Bangabandhu’s death was sudden and hugely tragic, given that it came through a bloody coup d’etat; and Zia’s murder came about through an abortive coup.
The life that the political giant lived ended yesterday at the age of 84 at Mount Elizabeth Hospital in Singapore, where he had been undergoing treatment for respiratory problems and other complications since March 11.
As the news spread, condolences poured in on the social media, and the government declared a three-day national mourning beginning today.
The president’s body is to be flown home on a special Bangladesh Biman flight today. He will be laid to the eternal rest by his wife at the Banani graveyard at 5:00pm tomorrow. His first namaz-e-janaza would be held at the Jatiya Eidgah Maidan at 2:30pm and the second janaza at the South Plaza of the Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban at 3:30pm tomorrow, reports BSS.
Zillur Rahman may be considered to have lived a political life to the full, an experience that truly was set off in his youth. Born on 9 March 1929 in Bhairab, Kishoreganj, he was destined, like so many others of his generation, to be drawn to the widening whirlpool of Bangalee nationalist politics through the Language Movement of 1952.
As one among the eleven Dhaka University students instrumental in the decision to break Section 144 on 21 February, Zillur Rahman made it known where his future would lead him. Politics was what began to matter to him, as his activism in favour of the Jukta Front in the election campaign of 1954 was to demonstrate so amply.
It was Zillur Rahman’s association with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, set in motion in 1946 when both men were students and when the future founder of Bangladesh was actively involved in the referendum for Sylhet to be made part of Pakistan, that was to deepen in the years when the Bangalee nationalist movement gathered pace in East Pakistan.
Zillur Rahman, in the manner of scores of others of his generation, burnished his political credentials through his participation in the struggle against the military dictatorship of Ayub Khan in 1962 and in the movement for the Awami League’s Six Point programme in 1966.
His engagement with the mass upsurge of 1969 was impressive enough for him to be elected to the Pakistan national assembly at the general elections of December 1970. As part of the political leadership which organised the War of Liberation in 1971, he found himself on a new and higher perch the following year when the ruling Awami League, led by Bangabandhu as president, elected him its general secretary. It was a position which he would occupy again, years later, under Bangabandhu’s daughter Sheikh Hasina.
For the brief period in which the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (BAKSAL) operated in 1975, he served as one of the four general secretaries of the party.
Zillur Rahman’s was always the spirit of a determined fighter for democracy. Four years in prison during the military rule of General Ziaur Rahman, following the murder and mayhem of August-November 1975, only served to harden his resolve to have Bangladesh return to democracy, a resolve which only reasserted itself in the nearly decade-long struggle against the Ershad autocracy in the 1980s.
As a career politician, he was eminently equipped to be part of a process which consistently emphasised the primacy of democratic order in the country. He was a parliamentarian who since his entry into national politics was hardly ever out of parliament. He served as a minister when the Awami League returned to power for the first time in more than two decades in 1996.
In simple terms, there was the seasoned politician in him. His career was given more substance when he married Ivy Rahman, a dedicated Bangalee nationalist, and together the couple went on to carve a special niche for themselves in Awami League politics. It was a deep relationship that was to go through supreme tragedy when Ivy Rahman fell victim to the grenade attack on an Awami League rally in Dhaka on 21 August 2004.
His wife’s death certainly led to a vacuum in his life. But Zillur Rahman, the quintessential politician, was not willing to have the tragedy undermine his faith in himself and in his country. Proof of such courage and fortitude came through his careful, determined steering of the Awami League at a time when, with Sheikh Hasina in incarceration following the imposition of a state of emergency in January 2007, the party was under pressure from within and without.
It was the veteran politician Zillur Rahman who was elected the 19th president of Bangladesh in January 2009 in succession to the rather discredited Iajuddin Ahmed. The new president, in terms of constitutional procedure, was seen to be fulfilling all the responsibilities the office enjoined upon him.
Even so, it was disturbing for the nation to be witness to as many as twenty one presidential pardons granted to various classes of individuals on Zillur Rahman’s watch. It was certainly not Zillur Rahman’s finest hour, for the figures were in sharp contrast to the mere four pardons granted by presidential fiat between 1972 and 2008.
Zillur Rahman’s death removes from the scene a president whose entire career had been made and moulded in politics.
At a time when a widening political chasm defines ties between the major political parties, especially with general elections only months away, it will be the responsibility of the individual who succeeds Zillur Rahman to reassure the country that the presidency is one institution which means to be inclusive for all citizens, which the nation can turn to in its search for a way out of the woods.