“The greater number is generally composed of men of sluggish tempers, slow to act . . . they are unwilling to take early and vigorous measures for their defense, and they are almost always caught unprepared. . . .A smaller number, more expedite, awakened, active, vigorous and courageous, make amends for what they want in weight by their superabundance of velocity.’” — Edmund Burke
May 30 will be the 30th anniversary of the death of Ziaur Rahman. In March 1971, he had been one of the many junior Bengali officers in the Pakistani Army, junior to individuals like Brigadier Majumdar and Lt. Col. M. R. Chowdhury. Four years later, in November 1975, he was the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Bangladeshi Army, held in house-arrest as jets flew over Bangabhaban and Khaled Musharraf and Abu Taher played out their deadly game of thrones. In six more years, on the eve of his death, he was the President of Bangladesh.
In contrast to the lilliputs in uniform who followed him and aspired to be him, Zia never tried to overthrow a civilian government. The political party he founded, BNP, is alive and well, itself a minor miracle. Three times, BNP has formed a government by election; three times, it has had to face a coup by some parts of the military and civilian bureaucracy aimed at ejecting it from power. It is again winning elections, even after being subjected to the most intense program of repression that we have seen in post-1990 Bangladesh.
There is no need to rush and set down Zia’s legacy in stone; generations of future Bangladeshis (Zia’s term) will get to do so themselves. Suffice to say that history is unlikely to be unkind to him. Did he leave Bangladesh a more democratic state than he found it? Did he leave Bangladesh’s economy in better shape than he found it? Did he leave Bangladesh’s military force more organized and less rebellious than he found it? If the answers to these questions are yes, then his place is already assured.
Two hundred and twenty-four years before Zia’s death, the 50,000-strong army of the Nawab of Begal was defeated by 750 soldiers of the East India Company, and the world’s richest province disappeared into a morass of darkness. In March 1971, 100,000 Pakistanis tried to repeat history. That the Pakistanis failed, and Bangladesh emerged, was due to men and women like Ziaur Rahman, who acted in those fateful hours, as he lived his life, with a superabundance of velocity.