May 2009

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.

Barack Obama stood out in a crowded field of contenders by opposing the War in Iraq, and speaking out boldly and forcefully for rule of law. In a country that prides itself on being “a nation of laws, not men,” this was an effective way for a freshmen senator with little political organization to stand out in a contest that was supposed to be a cakewalk for Hillary Clinton. And while his victory in November seemed almost preordained, this rhetoric kept him afloat at a time when his candidacy seemed very much a long-shot, an exploratory run for 2012, or 2016.

Signaling his intent to change the way things were under George W. Bush, Obama gave the Justice Department the lead in the handling of those imprisoned by the United States in Guantanamo during the last eight years. The Department of Justice (DOJ) is America’s equivalent of the Home Ministry and Law Ministry put together; and under a good leader, it is enormously powerful. Particularly heartening was Attorney General Eric Holder’s straightforward acknowledgement that waterboarding, along with other techniques used by the Bush administration, were indeed torture.

The nation’s attention was wrenched back to torture when the Justice Department released a set of memos written by the Office of Legal Counsel in 2002 that made it legal for American officials to torture those held in American custody. The Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) an office in the DOJ that interprets the law for the rest of the executive branch; effectively, if the OLC says that something is legal, then it is legal. The memo was authored by Jay Bybee, then Assistant Attorney General at the OLC, and John Yoo, his deputy. The memos effectively make a host of torture legal; including attention grasp, walling, waterboarding, and being put in a coffin-like space with insects.

Ann Coulter reacted: “This is what Muslims do to each other on first dates.”

CIA and the FBI’s professional interrogators have long made clear their disdain of torture, maintaining that a person will make any confession under torture that will make the pain stop. One of the individuals tortured, Abu Zubaydah, was later revealed to be insane. Even though the Bush administration maintained that torture was only used to prevent an imminent terrorist attack on the United States, allegations have arisen that torture was used to get any information linking Saddam Hossein’s regime to Al Qaeda that could have been used to justify President Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.

While releasing the memos, Obama made clear that he was neither going to prosecute Bybee and Yoo, the lawyers who authored the memo, nor the CIA personnel who actually carried out the torture. However, it was soon recognized that Obama had spoken prematurely, since in any matter involving potential criminal prosecution, the DOJ is able, independent of the more politicized White House, to press ahead on its own.

The question has now become, should torture be prosecuted and punished?

Torture is illegal in the United States. The Convention Against Torture was signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 and ratified by the US Senate in 1994. Under Article VI of the United States Constitution, it is the supreme law of the land, in par with laws passed by the Congress. Under this treaty, the United States is obligated to investigate any occurrences of torture. If it does not do so, another country has the authority to carry out these investigations. Spain has already indicted six individuals, including Bybee, Yoo, and Bush’s Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, in its own investigation of torture. The prosecution of lawyers for their legal advice has impeccable precedents in law: lawyers and judges for Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Reich were tried and sentenced by the Allied Powers after World War Two.

Bybee was appointed to the Federal Appeals Court, essentially our High Court, by Bush; where he serves for life unless Congress impeaches him. Yoo is now a professor at the elite Boalt Hall School of Law at UC Berkeley. Prosecuting either will not be painless, just like the self-examination that the Democrats must go through now will not be painless. Just like any good Washington scandal, this trouble is bipartisan: key democratic leaders, including then House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, were briefed by the CIA regarding the torture. She knew about the torture, and chose to keep silent.

This scandal has come at a time when Pelosi, now Speaker of the House, is at the height of her power. Commanding solid Democratic majorities in both chambers of the Congress, shepherding to passage a new President’s legislative agenda, and boosting impeccable liberal credentials, America’s first female Speaker was well-set to begin a reign of power unmatched since Sam Rayburn held the gavel, and his protégé, Lyndon Johnson, sat a heartbeat away from the Oval Office. An already-iconic figure amongst the liberals, she is despised by America’s conservatives. Her daughter Alexandra Pelosi, making a documentary for HBO, followed John McCain around the country during his presidential campaign. Describing Republican political rallies, she noted during an interview:

[T]he warm-up speakers that were criticizing the Democrats in Washington, would give these incredibly offensive speeches that all ended with the punch line of something really derogatory with the name Pelosi next to it. It really got the crowds worked up. And I had to call my father during the campaign and say to him, “Dad, did you know how hated you are in America? Did you know that your last name has become a symbol of just like every four-letter word?”

However, this scandal has already cast doubts on Pelosi’s political future. Her district, California-8, covers the liberal bastion of San Francisco; a seat held by Democrats since 1949, which has returned Pelosi eleven times with over 75% of the vote. Her constituents will not take easily to their own Member acting as an enabler for the Bush administration’s torture.

It would be unfair to characterize the outrage as coming only from the left. Fox News Host Shepard Smith, during a debate with his colleagues, responded to the argument made by many of his colleagues about the utility of torture in preventing future threats to America, when he banged his fist on his desk, and bawled out: “We are America! I don’t give a rat’s ass if it helps! We do not f****** torture! And the moment that is not the case, I want off the train.”

The current debate regarding torture prosecution have raised questions about ignoring violations of the law when it serves a purported greater good, and the extent to which former government officials should be prosecuted for breaking the law. Societies around the world have to grapple with these questions; and the answers they choose have grave consequences about their future trajectory.


After the ill-fated 1/11 coup, many cheerleaders of that misadventure engaged in a rather sexist and simplistic rhetoric to the effect that all our problems are due to two quarrelsome ladies. Like much else about the post-1/11 rhetoric, this allegation had a kernel of truth that was embellished to ridiculous proportion. The truth is that our political divisions have many complex causes, and replacing the two party chiefs with other individuals wouldn’t have solved them. And in any case, fortunately the coup has failed, so minus-2 1/11-styles is now a thing of the past.

However, it is also an unfortunate truth that the two party chiefs — Mrs Hasina Wajed and Mrs Khaleda Zia — did have a less than civil or cordial personal relationships, and that lack of civility has affected our politics over the past two decades.

This bitter relationship probably started with the AL chief’s infamous TV speech in February 1991, where she launched a vicious ad hominem attack on the husband of the BNP chief. It definitely increased when the BNP chief chose to celebrate her birthday on 15 August, a day of irreparable personal loss for her rival. It saw a new dimension when assassination attempts on the AL chief was ridiculed as ‘stage managed’ by senior BNP leaders in the presence of their leader. This bitterness was visible on 21 Nov 2006, when the two leaders sat within yards of each other, and refused to make eye contacts. One cannot but help feel that had they been on speaking terms then, 1/11 might have been avoided.

One also hoped the election of Dec 2008 would have ended that bitterness. Sadly, that hasn’t been the case. No, this is not about the rhetorics of Paltan meetings — that kind of language ‘you presided over unprecedented corruption’ vs ‘you are a failure’ is part and parcel of politics. This is about the government’s attempt to force Mrs Zia out of her house, an attempt that started with a partisan intellectual suggesting it in a very uncivil language in the presence of the AL chief.

The AL chief suffered a personal tragedy on 9 May. Within hours, the BNP chief was by her side, embracing and consoling her. Perhaps the BNP chief remembered that Dr Wazed stood by her in a time of personal need years before either of the ladies joined politics. Perhaps it was a realisation on the BNP chief’s part that this personal bitterness doesn’t help anyone other than the enemies of democracy — after all, it was their joint action that foiled 1/11.

Whatever it is, let’s hope that this is a new beginning. Let’s hope that the AL chief reciprocates by stopping the eviction procedures against her rival. And independent of that, let’s hope that the BNP chief marks her birthday this August not with an outlandish cake, but with a milad mehfil where all our national tragedies, from the martyrs of various movements to the Sheikh family’s brutal assassination to the Pilkhana massacre, are mourned.

There is no shortage of things that the two leaders can throw at each other. High prices, corruption, misuse of power, militancy — failures of the last BNP government is huge. Law and order, electricity, Pilkhana — AL’s failures are already rising. The leaders can use these issues, they don’t need to be nasty to each other.