I hear… of your recent saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator. Only those generals who gain success can set up military dictatorships. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.”
- Abraham Lincoln, message to General Joseph Hooker, Army of the Potomac
May 30 is the 28th anniversary of President Ziaur Rahman’s death. It came approximately 10 years and 2 months after he gave a radio announcement, from Chittagong, declaring the Independence of Bangladesh on behalf of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, then in the custody of the Pakistani Army.
During our Independence War, he was Sector Commander over much of today’s Chittagong Division, and commander of Bangladesh Army’s ‘Z” brigade. At the end of the war, with Pakistani forces crumbling before the assault of joint Indo-Bangladeshi forces and surrendering on 16 December 1971, he was awarded the Bir Uttom.
At the onset of independence, Zia became one of the senior-most officers of the Bangladesh Army. His performance during the nine-month war and his radio announcement at the onset of the war marked him as different from his fellow officers. He was made Brigade Commander of Comilla, close to where his force had done most of the fighting during the war.
The Government brought him to Dhaka in June 1972 and made him Deputy Chief of Staff, under Major General Shafiullah, who commanded the “S” Brigade during the Independence War. It is as Deputy CoS that he moved into the 6 Shahid Moinul Road residence, where he would live the rest of his life. It is from this post that he observed the imposition of one-party dictatorship in Bangladesh when Sheikh Mujib, by a constitutional amendment, made Bangladesh a one-party state, banned all other political parties, all but four newspapers, and named himself President.
After the brutal assassination of Sheikh Mujib and most of the members of his family by a group of army officers, Zia was elevated to Chief of Staff but placed under Major General Khalilur Rahman, who was made Chief of Defense Staff. The regime, after killing Mujib’s four most-trusted political lieutenants, heroes in their own right, planned to send Zia abroad, as it sent Shafiullah. However, before that could transpire, the murderers were toppled by a counter-coup led by Brig. Khaled Musharraf, Chief of General Staff, one the most valiant leaders in our Independence War. Zia was placed under house-arrest. He was then freed by a counter-counter-coup by Col. (rt) Abu Taher, fellow Sector Commander, and leader of the banned Jatiyo Samajtrantik Dal (National Socialist Party). The counter-coup also tragically resulted in Brig. Mosharraf’s death.
Shafiullah, Zia, Mosharrah, and Taher were all awarded the Bir Uttom, the highest gallantry decoration awarded to living participants. Under normal circumstances, they should, by all right, have been able to look forward to long careers in our defense forces, promotions to command rank, and eventual retirement with the whole-hearted blessings of a grateful nation. Instead, Shafiullah was abroad, Mosharraf was dead, and Taher advoced a left-leaning revolutionary state. With the adoption of one-party statehood by the Parliament, the Awami League, until then Bangladesh’s pre-eminent political party, had also been disbanded. Zia found himself with no credible political establishment to hand over power to, a faction-ridden armed forces that was more dangerous to Bangladeshis than to foreign enemies, and an economy on the brink of collapse.
His subsequent actions, becoming Chief Martial Law Administrator, founding BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party), introducing multi-party democracy, allowing the publication of newspapers, holding parliamentary elections (in which Awami League became the largest opposition party in parliament), trying to revitalize the country’s industrial sector, and adopting a muscular foreign policy, were the attempts of an imperfect man to try and make the best of an imperfect situation. He survived eighteen coup attempts, before being killed by the nineteenth one, in his beloved Chittagong, the scene of his life’s greatest hour, where he had come to resolve inter-party factions in his young BNP. Bangladehis from all walks of life poured into his funeral prayer service, making it the single largest such gathering in Bangladesh’s history.
I can not know, but I imagine he must have been a little tired by the end of his life. If the last thought that flashed through his mind was his young widow and the two little boys he left behind; maybe, after death, he found the peace he had been denied in life. The generation which should have together led Bangladesh, together turn old and hale and watched their children grow up in a free country as free men and women, and in the twilight of their lives accepted our accolades as Bangladesh’s greatest generation, had together torn each other apart. His would be the last life to be lost in that decade-long bloodbath, but by the sacrifice of his own life, he would bring the killing to an end; all subsequent transfers of power in our country would be bloodless, if not voluntary.
Testimony is paid to Zia, throughout the year, by Awami League leaders who slander and villify him every chance they get. They try to tear down the man who allowed them to re-form, and graciously accepted their leader’s return from exile in India. His statues are broken down, and bridges leading to his memorial in Dhaka, beside the National Parliament, are mysteriously removed under the cover of night. All debates about the fate of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, his great predecessor, inevitably contain someone viciously belittling him.
Yet, the idea of Zia remains. Our only head of state to have actively fought the Pakistanis in a field of battle, today he sleeps the well-deserved sleep of those who have fought the good fight. It remains to us to do our best in the imperfect world he left for us.