Forty one years after the four leaders of the 1971 Mujibnagar government were gunned down in the putative security of Dhaka central jail, the worries about who did what on that terrible night remain. Some years ago, it was given out – and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party was in office at the time with its Jamaat allies – that a lone killer named Muslemuddin had shot Syed Nazrul Islam, Tajuddin Ahmad, M. Mansoor Ali and A.H.M. Kamruzzaman dead in a cell of the prison. The story has been as improbable as it has been bizarre. One logically does not expect a single assassin to be allowed into a jail in the deep nocturnal hours and have him kill, singlehandedly, four men.
The full story of the murder, contrary to some of the conclusions which have already been drawn about the tragedy, has not yet been told. You go back to the matter of the assassins approaching the gates of the prison and demanding to be let in. The prison official in charge would subsequently make it known that a phone call from Bangabhaban, ostensibly Khondokar Moshtaq’s, made it clear that the men should be allowed in and permitted to do what they had come to do. It is rather strange to recall, after all these years, why that call from Bangabhaban should have frightened the prison official into opening the jail gates and letting the men, all armed, into its precincts.
Nothing would have happened if he had simply refused to accede to the order made through that phone call. It was his responsibility to ensure the security of all prisoners in the jail. He thought it was Moshtaq on the line and in all likelihood it was indeed Moshtaq, but by heeding the demand of the caller, the police official committed a grave dereliction of duty. Unknowingly and unwittingly, he became an accessory to murder.
And now go back to the sinister role played by an influential journalist of the time in the making of this horror story. With none too savoury a reputation – he had been a regular script writer along with a colleague for the Plain Truth programme vilifying the War of Liberation on Radio Pakistan in occupied Bangladesh and then, in 1972, turning up in Simla to observe the Indira-Bhutto summit – this newsman spread the canard over the Bengali service of a foreign radio network that a letter from the Indian authorities had been intercepted in Dhaka. The bottom line in that letter, said this journalist, was that the four national leaders, in prison since August 1975, should be freed and restored to power. In other words, his report mischievously pointed to what many would consider a conspiracy by Delhi to spring these politicians from jail and have them set up a government in Dhaka. That would send Moshtaq and his cabal packing. Only hours after the report was broadcast, all four men lay dead in Dhaka Central Jail.
Part of the tragedy related to 3 November 1975 is that no one in authority in subsequent years, and especially the Awami League when it returned to power in 1996 and again in 2009, thought of grilling this journalist over the veracity of his news report. Years after the report was circulated, he was asked by some his colleagues, all of them his contemporaries, if he still had the letter from the Indians in his possession. His answer was in the affirmative. Some more years later, he averred that the letter was with a friend of his. Some more time went by, at which point he stated that the letter had got lost. Thus, step by step we see the revelation of a lie, a lie on the basis of which the leadership which shaped the guerrilla struggle for freedom in 1971 lay dead in prison in the early hours of 3 November 1975. No one in authority ever questioned the journalist, who stayed on in his profession undisturbed. No one thought of initiating any inquiry into the making and dissemination of the lie for reasons of which the four national leaders were murdered.
Our worries do not cease here. It is today a sordid part of national history that on the very night the four leaders were murdered, the majors and colonels who had three months earlier assassinated Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family and who clearly went into a second spree of killing in Dhaka central jail were allowed to fly off to Bangkok with their families. That was part of the deal made by Brigadier Khaled Musharraf (who would soon be promoted to major general and army chief) with Moshtaq as he prepared to take over. The big question which has consistently been asked and which has never been answered to public satisfaction is: Why, if Musharraf was determined to re-establish a chain of command in the army and restore legitimate government in the country, were these assassins permitted to leave the country? If we recall the changes, indeed the happenings swirling around early November 1975, we remember that Khaled Musharraf, Shafaat Jamil, Najmul Huda and A.T.M. Haider – all revered freedom fighters – were clearly in a strong position and had pushed Moshtaq and his armed goons into a corner.
Why then were these assassins not taken into custody to be put on trial for murder and illegal seizure of the state? For that matter, why was Moshtaq allowed to go free, even three days later when on 6 November General Musharraf had him replaced as President by Justice Abu Sadat Mohammad Sayem, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court? These were grave mistakes made by Musharraf, who otherwise has always had a reputation as the most brilliant military officer on the battlefield in 1971. But in November 1975, he clearly stumbled, not least when he placed General Ziaur Rahman under house arrest but left the phone line at his residence in place. It was through that phone connection that Zia was able to galvanise his supporters in the army, men like Colonel Abu Taher, and see a swift rolling back of the 3 November Musharraf-led coup d’etat.
There is good reason to believe that Khaled Musharraf and his fellow officers were not aware of the murders committed in Dhaka central jail by the rogue majors and colonels. Probably they came to know of the tragedy only after the assassins were on board the flight taking them to Bangkok. But a significant question persists: Why did Musharraf and his team not make sure, even as they prepared to oust the Moshtaq cabal from power, that the security of the four prominent prisoners in jail was foolproof? Why were no calls made to prison officials, as they launched their coup, about the welfare or safety of the four national leaders?
These questions, and many others, have never been answered. When Khaled Musharraf took charge on 3 November, orders went out for the arrest of Taheruddin Thakur, Shah Moazzam Hossain, Nurul Islam Manzur and K.M. Obaidur Rahman. Did these men have any links to the jail killings or even to Bangabandhu’s assassination? Thakur’s role in August has always been suspect, along with that of Moshtaq, Mahbub Alam Chashi and A.B.S. Safdar. That episode calls for a fresh inquiry as does the matter of the four politicians taken into custody after Musharraf seized power on 3 November. Shah Moazzam is yet alive, having had a field day, in the four decades since the jail killings, as part of Moshtaq’s Democratic League before linking up with General Ershad’s Jatiyo Party and then ditching it for the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. He can yet be questioned. Perhaps that will elicit some of the answers to the many questions the nation has kept asking in the last forty one years.
On 3 November 1975, it was an entire upper tier nationalist leadership that was decimated in Dhaka central jail. There was little question, after the assassination of Bangabandhu, that sooner or later the assassins and Moshtaq would be compelled to quit and that political legitimacy could be restored through a reassertion of leadership by Tajuddin Ahmad and his three colleagues. That was not to be, for those who planned their murder and carried it out proved to be one step ahead of everyone else, and that includes General Khaled Musharraf and his fellow officers. Having guided the nation to freedom through their activist role in the 1971 war, these four national leaders, all still young at the time of their assassination, could have taken Bangladesh back to its original moorings as propounded by the four fundamental principles enshrined in the Constitution.
Reports have circulated since the tragedy of 3 November 1975, the source being probably some prison officials of middling rank at the time the crime was perpetrated, about the sense of optimism noticed among Syed Nazrul Islam, M. Mansoor Ali and A.H.M. Kamruzzaman as they were brought together in a single cell of the prison on that fateful night. If these reports are to be believed, the three leaders sensed a political change in the air and expected to be freed to return to government. Only Tajuddin Ahmad held a contrary opinion. He asked his three colleagues to pray, for it was his conviction that they had all been brought together into a single cell to be done away with. Tajuddin was, as usual, being prescient about his view of the future. When days after the murder of Bangabandhu the soldiers came to take him away — one of those soldiers was a major who subsequently rose to being chief of the BBC Bengali Service in London and who let it be known in a media interview years later that he had arrested the nation’s first Prime Minister – Tajuddin was asked by his wife how long he expected to be in prison. He turned to her, on the landing of the stairs, and deadpanned: ‘Take it as forever’.
On that macabre night of 3 November 1975, Tajuddin Ahmad’s fears turned into reality. Syed Nazrul Islam, M. Mansoor Ali and A.H.M. Kamruzzaman died instantly. There was yet life left in Tajuddin, despite the bullets that had pierced his body. A policeman noticed that Tajuddin Ahmad, Bangladesh’s first Prime Minister, was yet alive and groaning. He quickly called out to the assassins, who had already left the cell after the shootings. They came back. This time they did not shoot. They simply used their bayonets – and their hate – to put the life, whatever remained of it, out of one of the greatest of men in our national history.
And thus did the Bengali nation pass into a long night of medieval darkness.
But all those questions, those we have asked over the decades, remain.