Of coups and killings, of hope and despair
Syed Badrul Ahsan re-examines the fateful month of November 1975
In a free Bangladesh, we looked forward to a political system where the old methods of forcing a government from office would be a tale of the past. It was not just a hope we nurtured. It was a belief we shared once Bangladesh emerged as a sovereign people's republic through the war of liberation in 1971.
Bangabandhu's murder put paid to that hope and that belief. The sadness was in the reality that a government based on popular sanction had been overthrown. The sadness took on an even more sinister hue when the ouster of the government came through murder and mayhem.
In that summer of cumulative pain, we watched as a group of young military officers, in connivance with a band of political predators symbolised by the likes of Khondokar Moshtaque Ahmed, pushed the country further down the path to disaster. It was in November of the year that matters came to a head, for reasons that had to do with the murders of August.
We were young, trying to live through life in all the idealism we had seen sprout in our consciousness since the later part of the 1960s. We had gone to war; and those who had been forced into internal exile in the occupied country in their own, diverse, silent ways contributed to an augmenting of the war effort. The Mujibnagar government was the repository of our loyalty. Our ideal was the incarcerated Bangabandhu.
As November came round in 1975, it was with a sudden twist to the heart that we realised how poorly off we as a nation were with Bangabandhu dead and all the great men of the Mujibnagar government in prison. Darkness was once again part of collective national life, as it had once been in the year we fought off the Pakistanis.
Power struggle at Bangabhaban
And yet there was that certain whiff of things happening in early November. No one knew the nature of the portents, but over the previous few weeks rumours had begun to circulate about a power struggle getting underway at Bangabhaban and in the cantonment.
Briefly, the story was this: senior officers in the army, among whom were Brig. Khaled Musharraf, Col. Shafaat Jamil, Col. Najmul Huda, and Maj. A.T.M. Haider, all heroes of the 1971 war, were determined that the chain of command broken by the assassin majors and colonels through the coup in August needed to be restored. The assassins of course remained ensconced inside the safe confines of the presidential palace, along with Khondokar Moshtaque.
The chief of army staff, Maj. Gen. Ziaur Rahman, having taken no steps to exercise authority over the assassin officers, was himself under threat of removal from his position. By the evening of November 2, it was obvious that changes of a major nature had begun to take shape.
By the next day, November 3, it became fairly clear that Musharraf had gained the upper hand and was putting pressure on Moshtaque to give up the presidency. What exactly was being done about the majors and colonels was not at that stage very clear. Outside the power circles, in various parts of the city, a certain sense of relief began to be felt in the expectation that Moshtaque and his cohorts were now under assault. No one needed any telling that they had to go, but precisely when that was to happen was not yet clear.
Khaled Musharraf, Taher, Zia
Meanwhile, Khaled Musharraf's elderly mother and his younger brother Rashed Musharraf took part in a procession, on November 3, that made its way toward Bangabandhu's residence, raising slogans demanding a trial of the killers of the Father of the Nation. It was a patent hint of which way things were going. More importantly, it was what clearly set Col. Abu Taher, no longer in the army, into organising a resistance in the military against people his supporters had already begun labeling as followers of an "Indo-Soviet axis." Gen. Zia, by then already under house arrest, was the figure around whom Taher and his men began shaping the resistance to Khaled Musharraf.
A good deal of mystery pervaded the political scene at the time. Even as his enemies went into planning strategy against him, Brig. Musharraf was found spending a long stretch of time trying to negotiate a deal at Bangabhaban that would have Moshtaque and his team leave office quietly. Musharraf, one of the most brilliant of tacticians in the 1971 war, was suddenly observed to be oblivious to conditions outside Dhaka, especially in places like Joydevpur and Comilla where forces arrayed against him were spreading the lie that he was a foreign agent and therefore leading the country to a new phase of servitude.
Murder of national leaders
As Musharraf remained busy in the presidential palace and as Taher went around developing his own plans of liquidating the Musharraf group, a macabre plan of murder was given shape to and then executed.
Prior to that, a day earlier, a senior Bengali journalist well-known for his pro-Pakistan stance in 1971 and at that point working for a foreign media organisation, disseminated the news that a letter purporting to be from the Indian authorities and suggesting that the detained Tajuddin Ahmed, Syed Nazrul Islam, M. Mansur Ali and A.H.M. Quamruzzaman, all leading figures in the Mujibnagar government then in prison, be freed and so enabled to form a new government for Bangladesh. The implication, as sinister as it was baseless, was that foreign forces, in this case Indian, were in league with the jailed politicians.
On the night between November 3 and 4, all four politicians were gunned down in a cell inside Dhaka central jail by the very men who had in August murdered Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family. Khaled Musharraf and his men clearly had little idea, even as they remained sorting out the mess of a power struggle at Bangabhaban, that the tragedy had already occurred at Dhaka jail.
A mere few hours after the murders had been committed, all the majors and colonels involved in the coup d'etat of August 15 (and the November 3), were allowed to fly off to Bangkok with their families. Musharraf had triumphed, but he remained as yet unaware of the price he had paid to ascend to the top.
On the morning of November 4, a newly freed from jail Korban Ali, minister for information in Bangabandhu's government, was spotted telling a crowd outside his Wari home of the horrific murders just hours earlier. A short while later, a young man was noted telling individuals at the mausoleum housing the remains of Sher-e-Bangla A.K. Fazlul Huq, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, and Khwaja Nazimuddin that the four leaders killed inside Dhaka central jail had to be buried inside the same compound.
New men in charge
Between November 4 and 6 a flurry of announcements and statements made by the president were aired over the radio. The queer part of the story was that no one exactly knew who the president was. The popularly held belief was that Moshtaque had been ousted by Brigadier Khaled Musharraf. But if that was true, who had replaced him? No one knew.
Meanwhile, fresh rumours began to make their rounds, all reinforcing the thought that for all his triumph in securing the departure of the assassins, that Musharraf was really on shaky ground. Rumblings of discontent were gaining in intensity inside Dhaka cantonment and elsewhere. Soldiers unhappy with Musharraf were organising themselves, through the active involvement of Col. Taher, in a plot to overthrow Musharraf, who had meanwhile been appointed chief of staff of the army in succession to the detained Ziaur Rahman.
As the country teetered on uncertainty, November 6 dawned with newspaper images of a beaming Khaled Musharraf being decorated with epaulettes reflecting his new rank of major general by the chief of staff of the navy, Rear Admiral M.H. Khan, and the chief of staff of the air force, Air Vice Marshal M.G. Tawab. The latter had been flown in from Germany, where he had been leading a retired life, to take over from A.K. Khondokar in the period following August 15.
As the day progressed on November 6, the pieces began to fall into a pattern. The announcement that Khondokar Moshtaque Ahmed had resigned the presidency was swiftly followed by news that the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Abu Sadat Muhammad Sayem, had replaced him. A new order appeared to be in place finally. In the late afternoon, President Sayem's motorcade was observed passing through Bijoynagar. He was cheered by many bystanders. The new president addressed the nation late in the evening and specifically condemned the killings of the national leaders in August and November.
Death of Khaled Musharraf
As the night deepened, rumours of an unsavoury kind began to make the rounds. Gen. Khaled Musharraf, they appeared to suggest, was waging a desperate struggle to hold on to his authority against the army units now beginning to move against him. In the cantonment, slogans of a "sepoy-janata" revolution were raised. The entire area began to resonate with them. A full-scale rebellion was on and for once the shrewd, brilliant Khaled Musharraf appeared unable to resist the tide against him and his loyalists.
As November 7 dawned, Dhaka passed into the hands of Col. Taher and his men, who lost little time in freeing Gen. Ziaur Rahman from confinement and restoring him to authority as chief of staff of the army. For General Musharraf, conditions had already gone from bizarre to ominous. He and his loyalists were on the run from the marauding men who had clearly thrown in their lot with Taher and Zia. Attempting to make their way out of Dhaka in the hope of organising resistance, Musharraf, Huda, and Haider found themselves in Sher-e-Bangla Nagar. Within minutes they became prisoners of the men they had once commanded. All three were brutally murdered. Their corpses were then subjected to varied forms of humiliation.
Sometime in the early afternoon, Gen. Zia made his way to Bangabhaban. Soldiers and a crowd of onlookers raised, for the first time in independent Bangladesh, the slogan of Nara-e-Takbeer, punctuated of course by another, Sepoy-Janata Zindabad.
As twilight descended on the country on November 7, 1975, Musharraf loyalists in the army, those who had survived death, were scattered and making their way to safety. Moshtaque and his cabal were out, sure, but those who took charge after Khaled Musharraf's murder appeared to promise to continue what had been inaugurated on August 15.
Bangladesh was to go through grave uncertainty in the years immediately after November 1975.
Col. Taher, instrumental in the freeing of Zia and killing of Musharraf, was to be put in prison by the Zia regime. Tried in secret before a military tribunal, Taher would be hanged in July 1976.
Justice A.S.M. Sayem, installed in power by Khaled Musharraf, would continue in office as president and chief martial law administrator (with Zia being army chief and a deputy chief martial law administrator) until April 1977, when Zia would push him aside and take over.
Khondokar Moshtaque would, in the Zia years, form the Democratic League and serve time in prison. He would live till 1996, protesting his innocence in the killings of August and November 1975. Following his death, he would be buried hastily in his village.
Gen. Ziaur Rahman would quell eighteen attempted coups against his regime and in the process preside over the execution of large numbers of officers and soldiers. He would form the Bangladesh Nationalist Party in 1979 and, on May 30, 1981, die in an abortive coup led by Maj. Gen. M.A. Manzoor.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Editor, Current Affairs, The Daily Star.