The task of summing up the events that led Colonel Abu Taher (Bir Uttam) to organise the soldiers uprising of November 7, 1975 is not an easy one. It is more appropriate to call what Taher organised an 'uprising' rather than a 'revolution' because the objective behind what could have been a 'revolution' remained unrealised due to Ziaur Rahman's betrayal of Taher and the revolutionary soldiers of 1975. Perhaps had Zia kept his promise and allied with Taher and the revolutionary goals of the uprising, the November 7, 1975 events could have led to a 'revolution'.
Dr M ANWAR HOSSAIN
Taher was a valiant freedom fighter.
The events that led Taher to organise this uprising sparked off a long time before 1975. It was in fact the Liberation War of 1971 that transformed Taher into an individual who was very different from his traditional military colleagues fighting the war.
These transformations are reflected in Taher's approach to the liberation war. To Taher 'muktijuddho' was not a conventional warfare rather a people's war for the liberation and emancipation of our common masses. Taher believed that only a people's war led by the right kind of political leadership could engage the people in a protected guerrilla warfare that would lead to victory for the fighting Bengali nation. In fact it was only Taher amongst the whole lot of Sector Commanders that understood the dynamics of the politico-military situation of the time. He had in possession the in-depth knowledge of guerrilla warfare because of his political conviction which inspired him to join the Pakistan Army and later the Special Services Group (SSG) of the Pakistan Army and the Ranger Training Command of the United States Army. In his last testament Taher said, ''…the command structure had no theoretical concept of guerrilla war. Few conventional officers like Colonel Osmani, Major Zia, Major Khaled, Major Safiullah, and others, had any understanding of the organization of a guerrilla struggle. These conventional officers with their conventional military ideas were, in fact, a hindrance in the natural growth of guerrilla warfare.''
Among other unique proposals concerning the liberation war, Taher also believed in the deployment of all our fighting bases within Bangladesh territory instead of India. Quoting again from Taher's testament, he said, ''…the provisional government should have shifted inside Bangladesh into a liberated area. Sector Headquarters and all officers should have left Indian territory and taken positions inside Bangladesh. I put forward this suggestion and Major Zia readily agreed with me. We took the decision that all commands should be moved inside the border. We wanted that other sectors should do the same at an appointed time. Accordingly a conference of sector commanders was held. Colonel Osmani, Major Khaled Musharraf, and Major Safiullah opposed the proposal. Not only were we prevented from moving sector headquarters inside Bangladesh and off Indian territory, but Major Zia's Brigade was taken away from my sector.''
After the liberation war ended in December 16, 1971 and final victory was achieved Colonel Taher was appointed the first Adjutant General (AG) of the Bangladesh Army. AG Taher initiated disciplinary proceedings against certain senior officers, such as Col. Mir Sawkat (later retired as Lieutenant General) concerning illegal possession of wealth. Taher's position was that everything any officer had illegally acquired must be returned, so that they would be in a position to stand up as brave and clean men before the nation's freedom fighters.
Taher also presented an elaborate proposal to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman explaining how a standing conventional army in Bangladesh would be an unnecessary burden on its war-struck and destroyed economy. In place of such an army Taher believed in the formation of a people's army that would be fundamentally different from the colonial-styled army that Bangladesh had inherited from Pakistan after 1971.
As one of the most prominent officers of the Pakistan Army, Taher had seen how such a colonial, people-detached army could bring immense miseries for its people. This was exactly what he did not want in Bangladesh to happen. Taher, during his subsequent days as the Commander of the Comilla Brigade, tried to put his beliefs into practice.
Unfortunately, the people who surrounded Bangabandhu and also those within the army who did not adhere to Taher's visions were instrumental and successful in creating a distance between Bangabandhu and Taher. Eventually when Taher realised that his vision of a people's army remained a far cry to the Bangabandhu regime, Taher submitted his letter of resignation and left the Bangladesh Army in October 1972. In his historic letter addressed to Bangabandhu in the month of September 1972, Taher wrote, ''I envisaged that we would build a glorious army for Bangladesh. I served in an army which stays in barrack and understand how dangerous can such a barrack army be for a less developed nation. As the Pakistan army had no relation with the masses, it could enforce a rule of terror in Bangladesh with its autocratic type of governance which finally destroyed the country. I started my work with the idea of building a productive, pro-people army which would act as an instrument of effective development of the country. But unfortunately, the Chief of the Army staff and also some high ranking officers did never render any assistance or encouragement for my idea.
It was following Taher's resignation from the Bangladesh Army in September 1972 that he found himself in unity with the political ideology of the newly formed Jatio Somajtantric Dal (JSD) which was also the first opposition party in Bangladeshi politics. As a leading personality of the JSD, Taher gave leadership to the formation of the Revolutionary Soldiers Organisation and the People's Revolutionary Army as parts of the JSD's front organisation for the social revolution. The objective of the JSD was to create mass awareness about socialism and lead the nation to the formation of a revolutionary government that would truly adhere to the goals of our liberation war of 1971 bringing in qualitative changes in the livelihood of our common masses.
As the leader of the revolutionary soldiers, Taher staged the uprising of November 7, 1971.
After the brutal assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and most of his family members on August 15, 1975, Bangladesh entered into one of its darkest periods. August 15, or what we sadly remember as the 'Dark Night' was a joint exercise of primarily the killing majors and Khandoker Moshtaque Ahmed and his cliques, all of whom who were very much against the spirit of our glorious Liberation War of 1971. This coup was definitely against the spirit of 1971 because Pakistan was the first country to recognise the Khandoker Moshtaque Ahmed government on the first day of the changeover on August 15, 1975. Similarly, Saudi Arabia, which had withheld recognition of newly born Bangladesh for nearly four years after the liberation, also came to recognise Bangladesh on the second day of the changeover.
After the August 15 Coup-d'état Bangladesh was thrown into the rule of Khandaker Moshtaque with the killer majors guiding him from behind. The government formed was unconstitutional, undemocratic and was against the spirit of 1971. The important question here is: what role did Colonel Taher play during this period of time? It remains as a historic fact that the leading military figures from the Bangladesh Army such as the likes of General Shafiullah, Ziaur Rahman, Khaled Musharraf swore their allegiance to the unconstitutional regime of Moshtaque. In fact, Khaled Musharraf (Chief of the General Staff) and Shafayet Jamil (Commander of vital Dhaka Brigade) actively worked towards consolidating the power of the killer majors immediately after the assassination of Bangabandhu. Colonel Hamid, the then Station Commander of Dhaka cantonment in his book 'Tin Ti Shena Obhutthan O Kichu Na Bola Kotha' has described clearly how Khaled and Shafayet were in a jubilant mood on the morning of August 15. Instead of performing their sacredd duty of arresting the killer majors who were the minority men, Zia and Shafiullah did otherwise. In fact Khaled Musharraf was sending out orders to the Air Force so that fighter jets would fly over the Rakkhi Bahini as a show of force with the objective of quelling any resistance coming from them.
On the other hand, it was Colonel Taher who believed that 'palace coups' of such nature would not change the fate of the common masses of Bangladesh and that this conspiratorial political changeover was a ploy of the United States and Pakistan acting in connivance with Moshtaque and the killer majors. This prompted Taher to clearly convey his position against the Moshtaque regime. It is also an undisputed fact that members of the JSD i.e. the political party to which Colonel Taher belonged were subjected to the wrath of the Moshtaque regime because of their opposition. It is important here to understand that although the JSD had opposed the ruling Awami League government on the basis of a differing political ideology, it did not believe in palace coups such as August 15, 1975 where the common masses of Bangladesh had nothing to do with the overthrowing of the Father of the Nation. The decision of electing out of power the Father of the Nation was a decision of the people, not a group of conspirators like Moshtaque and the killer majors. This was what Taher believed.
Prior to the months leading to the November 3 coup led by Khaled Musharraf, Colonel Taher had approached both Ziaur Rahman and Khaled Musharraf with the hope of involving them in a possible uprising of the soldiers and bringing Bangladesh back on its track from the anti-liberation path of Khandaker Moshtaque. While Zia supported Taher, Khaled did not. Why Khaled did not became clear on November 3, 1975 when he staged a coup to supposedly re-establish the Chain of Command inside the Bangladesh Army.
This mainly happened because as the months progressed, certain quarters within the army (such as Khaled Musharraf and others) began to realise that they had no stake in the August 15 changeover of power. Leading a coup on November 3, 1975 Khaled Musharraf assumed power toppling the regime of Khandaker Moshtaque. What is interesting about this coup was that Khaled had done it not to bring back an Awami League government or any qualitative changes within our society. The coup was also therefore not an Awami League sponsored one. In fact if we look back at the facts and timeline of Khaled's coup we see him negotiating with Khandaker Moshtaque hour after hour in trying to convince Moshtaque to make him the Chief of the Bangladesh Army.
This is ironic considering the fact that Khaled's coup had toppled Moshtaque himself which prompts the question, why negotiate with the man you have removed from power? It is also worth noting here that Khaled also allowed for the killers of Banglabandhu and the four national leaders inside the Dhaka Central Jail safe passage out of Bangladesh. Among other things, it is also worth noting that in the name of re-establishing the chain of command, Khaled held Zia under house arrest and forced him to resign from his position as Chief of Staff. It was while he was under house arrest that Zia contacted Taher via telephone asking Taher to save his life and also the fate of the nation.
Taher was also trained in the US.
Taher freed Zia primarily because it was Zia who had appealed to Taher to save his life. Furthermore, Taher believed that once freed by the revolutionary soldiers Zia would not dare to go against them and their 12-point demands. Taher understood Zia as a passive character and a middle-roader who always maintained a wait-and-see policy to evaluate the tides of power. Thus he believed that if the JSD had consolidated its power and ensured its political presence during and after November 7 while the revolutionary soldiers led by Taher kept Zia under a tight grip, Zia would not be able to betray the ideals and objectives of November 7, those which he promised before the revolutionary soldiers that he would see that they were established. Unfortunately, the events leading to the November 7 uprising happened in such haste that JSD as a political party was unable to organise itself and properly ensure its political presence in the streets of Dhaka on the night of November 7 and the crucial days that followed. Simultaneously, once Zia realised that the uprising led by Taher meant an arrangement where he would be deprived of sole power to govern the nation, he too began to consolidate his power amongst the officers of the Bangladesh army. One must remember that Taher's mobility during the uprising was restricted due to the fact that he had only one leg. Therefore organising the revolutionary soldiers to maintain their hold over Zia was also a difficult task for him.
It was thus a series of the abovementioned events that led Taher to organise the soldiers uprising of November 7. As the leader of the Revolutionary Soldiers Organisation, Taher staged the uprising thereby freeing Zia and reinstating him as the Chief of Staff of the army. The revolutionary soldiers also presented before Zia their 12-point demands to which Zia gave his word of honour that he would establish. These demands were not the day to day demands of better facilities for soldiers within the armed forces. These demands essentially called for bringing in revolutionary changes into the way things were done in Bangladesh. It called for the formation of a revolutionary council that would involve people from all walks of life that would be bestowed with the responsibility of governing Bangladesh as a nation. The demands were of such a nature that the productive people's army that Taher had once envisioned would become a reality. During the uprising Taher had given the strictest orders to the revolutionary soldiers not to kill anyone. The soldiers followed their leader Taher's orders to the core. Whatever casualties that took place during the uprising were instigated by Khandaker Moshtaque and his group of henchmen inside the Bangladesh army. These were the same men who staged the killing of our four national leaders inside the Dhaka Central Jail on November 4, 1975. It was later revealed that General Zia himself conspired to kill Khaled, Huda and Haider by two army officers.
In November of that year (1975) my teaching career at the Dhaka University came to an abrupt end after the arrest of two of my brothers, Colonel M A Taher (Bir Uttam) and Flight Sergeant Abu Yusuf Khan (Bir Bikram). During that tumultuous period of time our whole family became victim to General Ziaur Rahman's wrath. I had to go in hiding. On March 15, 1976, I was arrested and interned in a secret torture cell known as “Safe Hole” of DFI (present DGFI) located in Dhaka Cantonment. On June 15, 1976, I was handed over to police custody and sent to Dhaka Central Jail from a court lockup. My three months DFI captivity was not recorded. I was shown arrested on the day of my police custody.
The so-called trial was designed to annihilate the vanguards of the Liberation War of 1971. It was through this 'staged' trial that General Ziaur Rahman initiated the elimination of those very people who could effectively resist the anti-liberation forces that had captured power immediately following the gruesome murder of the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on August 15, 1975. General Ziaur Rahman in cold-blood murdered Taher in the name of justice. Furthermore there were anti-liberation forces that collaborated with General Ziaur Rahman in this treachery.
Of the 33 accused, two were renowned Sector Commanders in the Liberation War of 1971. Almost all of them were renowned Freedom Fighters and frontline organisers of our glorious Liberation War. They were the politicians, military personnel, writers, journalists, teachers, economists and intellectuals. These were the very men who were prepared to sacrifice their lives to restore the spirit of the Liberation War in Bangladesh.
Taher received Bir Uttam award for valour in the Liberation War
On the contrary, the Special Martial Law Tribunal constituted by General Ziaur Rahman was headed by Colonel Yusuf Haider a person who had actively collaborated with the Pakistan occupation Army. None of the other members of the Tribunal had participated in the Liberation War. It is noteworthy to mention that the majority of the members of the Tribunal, i.e. three out of five were selected from the defence forces. The two civilian Magistrates were picked from administrative branch, not from judiciary. The government prosecutor of our trial was ATM Afzal who was later appointed a High Court Judge by General Ziaur Rahman and who later became the Chief Justice of Bangladesh. Special Public Prosecutor, Abdur Razzak Khan conducted the prosecution proceedings. Justice ATM Afzal and Abdur Razzak Khan were assisted by the Deputy Attorney General, Kazi Abdul Ohab.
General Ziaur Rahman took many steps which were in direct violation of the existing rule of the land. To ensure the minimum neutrality of the judicial modality, majority members of the Tribunal should have been selected from judiciary. This basic principal was not followed. The powers of the Tribunal were thus very wide. It encompassed both the general and defence laws to try both civil and military offences.
Although the Martial Law Regulation forming the Tribunal was dated June 14, 1976, it was on that same day that the Tribunal visited the Dhaka Central Jail. In fact, before June 12, 1976 the office room of the DIG Prisons was vacated and prepared to serve as the secret Court room of our trial. The Tribunal, therefore, was formed even before the promulgation of the Martial Law Regulation. In fact, the so-called trial was pre-planned and the verdicts had already been decided. Guards with firearms are never allowed inside the Dhaka Central Jail yet in our case this rule was violated. The newly raised armed battalion of the Police was deputed inside the prison by General Ziaur Rahman. Furthermore, machinegun posts were deployed on the rooftops of the nearby residential buildings. Even outside the doors and windows of the courtroom, light machinegun posts were set up. These were all done unlawfully. Our lawyers repeatedly pointed out these discrepancies before the Tribunal which remained indifferent.
Besides high ranking Army Officers, the then DFI (present DGFI) Chief Air Vice-Marshal Aminul Islam, the National Security Intelligence (NSI) Chief ABS Safdar, Home Secretary Salahuddin Ahmed and the Establishment Secretary Abdur Rahim conspired with General Zia to kill Colonel Taher (Bir Uttam).
Safdar, Salahuddin and Rahim were all senior Bengali Intelligence and Security officials of Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan's government. During the historic Agartala case, it was ABS Safdar who supplied all the relevant papers to the State of Pakistan. In fact, he was named “The Briefcase Carrier” of the prosecution side. During the Liberation War of 1971, ABS Safdar and Abdur Rahim were trainees in Office of Public Safety (OPS) programme in the United States. At that time, many Bengali officials abroad voluntarily left their government jobs and joined the Liberation War. On the contrary, these two officials returned to the besieged East Pakistan after their training was over in June 1971 and actively collaborated with the Pakistan occupation Army. Abdur Rahim was one of the main organisers of the Razakar forces during that period and later became the main advisor of Khondokar Mushtaque. Interestingly, ABS Safdar was also made the NSI Chief after the murder of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. General Ziaur Rahman who served in the Pakistan army intelligence for a long time conspired with these collaborators to annihilate the vanguards of our Liberation War through the secret military tribunal. In his book titled “Democracy and the Challenge of Development: A study of Political and Military Interventions in Bangladesh,” Barrister Moudud Ahmed, once a close associate of General Ziaur Rahman and currently a leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), wrote, “Why did Zia allow Taher to be hanged, the person who freed him from captivity?--the officers who had not taken part in the liberation war, had found a new ally in Zia after the killing of Mujib and removal of Moshtaque. They needed each other to survive both as a class and a force in the civil-military structure of the country. When it came to the sentencing of Taher, the repatriated officers wanted him hanged out of the forty-six senior army officers summoned by Zia to discuss the issue, all were in favor of this ultimate and final form of punishment.” (Page 29-30). In the footnote, Barrister Moudud mentioned, “This was disclosed to the author by Zia himself.”
The death sentence passed on to Colonel Taher (Bir Uttam) was not even decided by the mock Tribunal created by Zia. Rather, it was decided at the meeting of the Formation Commanders held at the Army Headquarters of the Cantonment where most of the officers present had not participated in the Liberation War of 1971. The verdicts against the other co-accused were also decided by them.
It is therefore evident that General Ziaur Rahman and his collaborators conspired to kill Colonel Taher (Bir Uttam) in the disguise of a mock trial. This is also reflected in a recent article by Dr AMM Shawkat Ali (District Commissioner of Dhaka in 1976) published in the Daily Prothom Alo on 19th September 2010. In his article, “Trial in Military Court The documents of the hanging order of Colonel Abu Taher,” Mr. Ali wrote, “At that time, there was martial law in the country. It was alleged that a summary trial was held by a martial law tribunal formed by the then army chief. It is apparent that extrajudicial murder was committed in the name of trial because if a death sentence is pronounced by a court which is formed outside the jurisdiction of the Constitution, it will be termed 'extrajudicial' by international standards.”
Colonel M A Taher (Bir Uttam) in his historic testimony which he placed before the secret Tribunal stated, “A law is not a law unless it is a good law aiming at the good of the people and the good of the country. The ordinance promulgated on 14th June 1976, is a black law. It was promulgated merely to suit the designs of the government. The ordinance is illegal. So this tribunal ceases to have any right legally or morally to try me.”
He also said, “The action of this tribunal has put to shame what good things human civilization has achieved through constant endeavor from the beginning of time until today. ”Colonel Taher (Bir Uttam) concluded his testimony saying, “I am not afraid. I love my country and my people. I am part of the soul of this nation. No one dare separate us. There is no greater asset in life than the possession of a fearless mind. And I have that. I offer a call to my nation to acquire the same determination.”
In the gallows, he pronounced, “I got message to break all the black laws, so I am born in a stormy month. I took up arms to keep away the sinners and their sins. History will say, I was the death blow to the oppressors. Mother Earth, for now, I hereby bid you farewell.”
Zia began to consolidate his power immediately after he had Taher arrested on November 24, 1975. At the very outset Zia attempted to disperse and weaken the strength of the revolutionary forces by transferring them from cantonment to cantonment and at the same time imposing a number of brutal punishments. It goes without saying that while he tried his utmost, he eventually failed to subdue the revolutionary spirit and consciousness of the sepoys. Thus, his dependence on the police force was increased at the expense of the army, with the consequent establishment of the 'Combat Battalion' and the 'Metropolitan Police', etc. Thus, certain units such as the Bengal Lancers were disbanded and new trouble among the troops was suppressed at Chittagong in March and Bogura in April of 1976.
The sepoys or the revolutionary soldiers did indeed react to Taher's hanging. In-between 1976 and Zia's assassination in 1981 there were a total of 17-21 mutinies led by soldiers belonging to our armed forces against him. As a result, Zia staged hundreds of summary trials followed by hangings of these sepoys giving rise to severe human rights violations. Zia therefore had the blood of countless soldiers of the Bangladesh Army on his hands. The principle reason behind these mutinies against Zia was that the sepoys felt that Zia had betrayed the spirit of 1971 and also the spirit of the uprising of November 7, 1975. The irony was that Zia himself was killed by disgruntled freedom fighter army officers who were befooled by Zia in the initial days.
Colonel Taher dreamt of an equal and egalitarian society for the people of Bangladesh. His thoughts on Bangladesh are found in some of his writings such as 'Shonar Bangla Gortey holey', 'Muktijoddhara Abar Joee Hobe' etc. His last letter from the Dhaka Central Jail bears relevance at this point. Taher wrote, ''When standing face to face with death, I turn to look back on my life and find nothing to be ashamed of. I see many events, which unite me irrevocably to our people. Can I have a greater joy or happiness than this? Nitu, Jishu and Mishu (his minor children) … everyone comes crowding into my memory. I have not left behind any wealth or property for them, but our entire nation is there for their future. We have seen thousands of naked children deprived of love and affection. We wanted a shelter for them. Is this dawn too distant for the Bengali people? No, it is not too far off. The sun is about to rise. I have given my blood for the creation of this country. And now I shall give my life. Let this illuminate and infuse new strength into the souls of our people. What greater reward could there be for me? No one can kill me. I live in the midst of the masses. My pulse beats in their pulse. If I am to be killed, the entire people must also be killed. What force can do that? None.''
If we look at the current rise in populist protests of people across the political scene around the globe it is quite evident that the people are beginning to re-exercise their rights in determining their own fate and shaping policies of the state. Wherever governments have failed to deliver as pledged people have exerted their presence in the form of organised protests. Whether it is the overthrowing of autocratic rulers as seen in Egypt or the student protests in the UK against the unjust tuition fee hike or working-class Americans fighting for their collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin it is crystal clear that there has been a reawakening of people wherever there is injustice. Even in places like Libya where it would be irrational to deny the kind of qualitative improvements Muammar Gaddafi ensured for the Libyan people, it is obvious that politics is no longer a 'one man show'. The days of familial dynastic politics are over. Therefore, just because Gaddafi led Libyan politics for 42 years does not automatically imply that his son will take the throne of power with his father's demise. In my opinion this growing sentiment against familial politics is stemming from the realisation that a functioning democracy is a prerequisite to any form of progress.
Our present generation can take lessons from these people's movements across the globe and take the initiative to change their own fate. I believe this is where Colonel Taher's life and teachings are of immense relevance. One of Taher's immemorial quotes is, ''There is no greater asset than the possession of a fearless mind. And I have that. I offer a call to my nation to acquire the same determination.'' It is the historic duty of our present generation to shed all fears and apprehensions and take hold of our nation's well-being and future, just as we did in our days of youth in 1971. Whether it be fighting against corruption, empowering our local government or devising the path to a self-reliant economy, the time is approaching for the youth to organise themselves as a collective entity in taking on these responsibilities.
Colonel Taher was a man who not only fought for the independence of our people but he also dreamt of an egalitarian and self-reliant Bangladesh where the army would be a friend of the people and where politicians would not be as detached as they are from the masses. In pursuance of this dream the one-legged Taher in the midst of all odds organised the historic uprising of November 7 in 1975. It this kind of dedication and commitment towards Bangladesh that was in Taher's possession that I believe the present generation will take lessons and inspiration from and lead the way forward.
Dr M Anwar Hossain, brother of martyred Colonel Abu Taher (BU), is professor, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Dhaka University. The views and opinions expressed in this piece are the writer's own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The Star.