Come November, Bangladesh’s divided soul is even more cleaved apart as people remember. The events of 1975 make many feel sad, angry, celebratory and conflicted to cite a few emotions. People mourn the killing of Sheikh Mujib and his family, have no feelings for the killers and are glad they were hanged yet are relived that the BKSAL regime with its autocracy, end of free media and the general mismanagement of the era ended. Their relief is mixed with a sense of guilt. People mourn the death of the leader and the family but few mourn the politics of that era.
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Couple of years ago after the caretaker government regime was installed, I began to ask some of the involved people about 1975. I conducted a series of interviews but never got around to do the piece I had wanted to. But the information gathered was interesting and I mention a few in my journey to understand the 1975 transition.
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There are several positions on 1975 and like many things in Bangladesh, most are partisan views. What however most people agree upon is that the situation in 1975 was grim and the AL regime wasn’t popular. Some say, that BKSAL had potentials but that within the context of 1975, it’s misunderstood. It’s not a robust defence to make but most arguments say that nothing merited the kind of extreme responses that resulted. Most agree that the steps were extreme and insist it’s not Sheikh Mujib who was responsible but the sycophants surrounding him who did all the bad things. Nobody cheers his and his family’s death.
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Rather than limit it to August 1975, it makes more sense to stretch the lens over the entire 1975, from August to November. There were several parties involved in the events and their identity and characters range from far Right to far Left. Khandaker Mushtaq and his group formed the Rightist bloc, a fact that becomes clearer if one is familiar with the history of Mujibnagar politics of 1971.
Mushtaq was in touch with the US through his representatives — Zahirul Qaiyum, an MP from Comilla and a few others — peddling an anti-Communist line to gain US support. Two things must be stated in this connection. One, there is no evidence that Mushtaq was about to form a confederacy with Pakistan by giving up on Sheikh Mujib and his cause of freedom. The state department archives mention no such conversation or project. Two, the US backed off supporting the Mushtaq contact after Indian intelligence was tipped off and they put an end to Mushtaq’s travel plans and the US began to question the value of this contact as well.
Mushtaq was very miffed by Tajuddin’s takeover as the PM of Mujibnagar in April 1971, which he as the senior most AL leader thought was his right. Sheikh Moni was another contestant who even tried to shut down the April broadcast of Tajuddin Ahmed. Mushtaq was supported in India by the Rightist lobby inside the Indian government and bureaucracy and I had interviewed several of them for my BBC series on the history of 1971.
Mushtaq came together with a band of very disgruntled officers and deed was done in August 1975. Nobody has as yet given any evidence about the exact involvement of each other in the plan.
It was sold to the public as anti-Mujib-anti-BKSAL given the mood of times as anti-Indian.
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What people have said to me is that Ziaur Rahman was also a very disgruntled man and he wanted change. Was this a coup he was planning like the one we had? Those in favour and those against him say the opposite. That Zia was a patriot and he wanted to end one-party rule and give democracy to his people.
Those who opposed him say that Zia was a scheming plotter, openly talking about seizing power. A senior lawyer who was once an AL state minister and well known in professional politics told me that in pre-coup days, Sheikh Mujib was paranoid including about Zia. Even he was taken to task for attending a party where army officers including Zia attended. If so why Sheikh Mujib didn’t take protective measures remains a mystery.
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I have been told that after the August 1975 coup, a number of army officers in fact prevented the group of Faruk-Rashid from taking over many vantage points inside the city and that it prevented many khakis unhappy with Mujib from joining this group. The mainstream army was certainly unhappy with the August takeover but not by a takeover itself. Of the lot, Brigadier Shafayet Jamil with General Khaled Musharraf decided to act. There are contrary reports about Zia’s involvement but Khaled Musharraf was not about to give up leadership just because Zia was reluctant. They mounted a coup on Nov 4 which lasted from nearly three days till Taher’s coup took over.
Several people have told me about a curious connection. They say that Khaleda Musharraf who had many Leftist radicals as his friends contacted Md Toaha of the Bangladesh Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) for support. Toaha apparently went to his party members for support who said that, anti-Indian feeling was high and any anti Mushtaq action would be read as pro-Indian so they refused support.
I had heard this in 1975 and also heard this the last time I went asking. If so, the BCP (M-L) leaders were right because although Khaled Musharrf wasn’t pro-Indian, his coup was read as such and helped gather the emotions that created the environment for his ouster and death.
The procession at Dhaka University which his brother, an MP from the Awami League helped to organise was possibly the last sentence of his death sentence.
Toaha and his party went on to offer unconditional support to Zia after his takeover arguing that this was necessary to keep India and the Awami League away. They paid a price for this collaboration and soon disappeared entirely from political history
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Of all the participants of power takeover, few are as charismatic as Col Taher. He was like Zia and Khaled Musharraf, an iconic figure of the war who lost his leg in the last days of the struggle. Taher teamed up with the JSD cadres and worked together with Inu and others to get the soldiers involved in a Marxist takeover. For a few brief hours it worked and the NCO driven attempt which included annihilating many officers became a success and even the national radio passed on to rebel hands. But for all the Marxist rhetoric, Zia, lodged in jail by Khaled had become the great hero to the soldiers and by the end of next morning, he was out. Zia, the hero of the soldiers and civilians took over and Taher was in jail.
Taher has been seen by many eyes including romantic ones and the image of a one-legged war hero of impeccable reputation who delivers a Marxist revolution overnight is a hugely attractive scenario. His death by his own hands as many claims and his final letter to Lutfa, his wife describing his belief has added to the legend.
But history is full of such great failures and at the end of the day, it was Zia, freed by Taher and the rebellious soldiers who won. The soldiers wanted him and not the retired officer Taher. Zia was the imagined bulwark against Khaled who was imagined as a pro-Indian because he dislodged Khandker Mushtaq, the anti-Indian who had dislodged Sheikh Mujib, the perceived pro-Indian.
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1975 is full of shadows, real and imagined and many conspiracies from many sides. It was full of people deciding to act on their own leaving the people aside. Sheikh Mujib himself did this by imposing BKSAL and it was followed by the army factions who for reasons of their own tried a takeover. Even, Sirajul Alam Khan, the once Awami League leader of the party’s Marxist group who founded the JSD had always preferred to deal with history through conspiracies considering it as pro-people.
Nobody will buy such argument anymore. None of the 1975 combos have ever worked no matter how patriotic and the idea of killing class enemies as a solution to the class question has been discredited in more places including Cambodia and Ethiopia.
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I interviewed a gentleman who was near the top of the Rakkhi Bahini leadership in 1975 and was once posted abroad after the coup mess was over. I asked him, why he didn’t intervene from Savar when Sheikh Mujib was killed. He said, “We could have attacked and held off the army for two days and that would have been enough for the Indians to intervene. But I had been to India as a freedom fighter and didn’t think well of them. If they came, they would never leave I thought. So I didn’t order the troops to move.”
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So it seems it was not just about the death of an individual or his family who was killed but a wide range of politics, local and international that happened and led to the situation. It’s the worst phase in Bangladesh politics because at no time were the people of Bangladesh so absent in matters that concerned them. The idea that military delivers freedom, revolution and liberation has been proven wrong every time.
But it’s not just the military who acted in total disregard for public opinion and participation but the politicians and the conspirators who by definition believed they knew what was good for others. It’s the arrogance of having and wanting power perhaps.
In the end, all have been cast into the proverbial dustbin of history. Only the people remain but they have like the residents of Macondo lived for so long in solitude that nobody has ever given them a second chance.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher