A few days ago, Pranab Mukherjee finished his tenure as President of India and went home.
In Washington, Donald Trump yet struggles to understand what the presidency is all about. The historian Allan Lichtman has already let it be known that impeachment is in store for him.
Park Gyun-hye, the impeached South Korean President, is in prison on charges of corruption.
In Brazil, Dilma Rousseff has been thrown out of office on allegations of corruption by politicians who are themselves corrupt. Her successor Michel Temer is being pressured to resign, for he too is corrupt to the core. Her predecessor Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva looks about to go to prison, yes, for past corruption.
Turkey’s authoritarian President Recep Tayyep Erdogan punishes a newspaper and has its journalists locked up for speaking the truth.
In Egypt, having ousted the country’s first elected President and seized the position for himself, Abdel Fattah al Sisi presides over a brutal dictatorship.
All of this makes us reflect on the history of the presidency here in Bangladesh. How have our presidents fared? Here’s a look.
The election of Abdul Hamid as Bangladesh’s twentieth president a few years ago certainly made one feel good, for the simple reason that the new occupant of Bangabhaban was a good, decent man and of course a time-tested politician. He has a remarkable grasp on the ways in which parliamentary business is conducted. He is spontaneous in his dealings with people. And, above all, he has a wonderful sense of humour. There is a refreshing absence of arrogance and shallowness in him.
It always feels good when a nation comes by good men for its presidency. In Bangladesh’s history, we have had a good many presidents who have made us happy. And yet there have been all those others who, despite our expectations of them, have not quite been able to present themselves as assertive heads of state. The history of Bangladesh’s presidency begins, of course, with Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was made the country’s wartime president at Mujibnagar in 1971. His being away in prison of course led to Syed Nazrul Islam’s taking over as acting president, which position he occupied till January 1972 when the Father of the Nation returned home from Pakistan.
When Bangabandhu stepped down from the presidency on 12 January 1972, it was Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury who took over as president. It was a good choice, for Chowdhury was a man profoundly respected by Bengalis across the spectrum. And because he was, his resignation from the presidency in late 1973 came as a shock. An even bigger shock came in early August 1975, when Justice Chowdhury joined Bangabandhu’s cabinet as a minister without portfolio. A few days later, with Bangabandhu assassinated in a violent coup, Chowdhury took over as foreign minister in the Moshtaque dispensation.
The case of Mohammadullah makes intriguing reading. Once Bangladesh was liberated, he became deputy speaker of the Jatiyo Sangsad and then speaker. On Justice Chowdhury’s resignation, he took over as president and stayed in the job till January 1975, when the Fourth Amendment to the constitution propelled Bangabandhu to the position of an all-powerful president. Mohammadullah joined the cabinet as a minister, which was clearly a decline in position for him. During the Zia period, Mohammadullah turned his back on the Awami League, joined the newly formed Bangladesh Nationalist Party and became a minister in General Ziaur Rahman’s regime. When Justice Abdus Sattar was elected president in his own right in November 1981, he chose Mohammadullah as his vice president.
Badruddoza Chowdhury’s story is in a class of its own. A doctor who loved music and who went on humming songs as he treated his patients, he linked up at one point with Zia and became a founding member of the BNP. Post-Zia, he stayed loyal to the party and at one stage was rewarded with the nation’s presidency. His tragedy commenced when he tried to assert his authority as head of state, through deciding to visit neither Bangabandhu’s nor Zia’s grave in tribute to them. It was his way of suggesting that as head of state he would remain non-partisan. His party smelled ingratitude and soon drove him to a point where he had to give up the presidency. He ought to have stayed on and fight back. He did neither, to the disappointment of the country.
Among the more remarkable, more widely respected presidents was Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed. Firmness and a deep sense of purpose were the character traits of his presidency. It was his job to help the country transit to a democratic order following the collapse of the Ershad dictatorship in December 1990. And he did the job very well. It is a pity that the Awami League, which had so enthusiastically elected him president in 1996, eventually went after him for reasons that have not been very clear. Justice Shahabuddin’s reputation remains intact, nevertheless.
Had General Khaled Musharraf lived, Justice ASM Sayem could have played a glorious role in Bangladesh’s history. It was on Musharraf’s watch, on 6 November 1975, that Sayem took over Bangabhaban from the usurper Moshtaque. On that evening, he delivered a conciliatory speech before the nation. The next morning, though, darkness set in with Musharraf’s murder. Sayem then became a president who would live but by Zia’s leave. It was Sayem who signed away the life of the imprisoned Col. Taher in July 1976. The optimism with which he had come in soon was gone in the less than two years Sayem was president. He had to leave office in April 1977 once Zia had decided that he could not stay away from the presidency any longer.
In the tangled story of Bangladesh’s presidency, three men have seized the office by force of arms — Moshtaque in 1975, Zia in 1977 and Ershad in 1983. Some presidents, too weak to assert themselves, were quietly shown the door. Include in this group Justice Sayem, Justice Ahsanuddin Chowdhury and Dr. Badruddoza Chowdhury. One president who asserted himself, to everyone’s pleasant surprise, was Abdur Rahman Biswas when in 1996 he saw off an army putsch and sent the army chief out to pasture. The most powerful president was Bangabandhu, who of course had all the powers he needed by time he decided in the Baksal era that he had to be head of state as well as government.
Zillur Rahman was a soft, polite occupant of the presidency. It is now for President Abdul Hamid to give the country all the reasons for which history will remember him in positive light. He must be his own man. And he should leave, when the time comes, with his reputation enhanced.