General Hussein Muhammad Ershad came up with some interesting observations about the 1982 military coup d’etat in Parliament the other day. He informed the nation that he had not been willing to seize power and that he had gone out of his way to make sure that democracy functioned undisturbed in the country. But then, it was none other than President Abdus Sattar who prevailed on him to take charge of the country and set things right. Ershad added that at the time Sattar happened to be presiding over a corrupt government. Indeed, all the ministers in the government, led by the BNP of course, were corrupt and President Sattar was desperate about a change to be brought about in the situation. He wanted the army to come in and deal with the mess created by the politicians.

And so it was that General Ershad stepped in, to save the country from imminent disaster. His goal, he told all those lawmakers arrayed around him, was to return the country to democracy and go back to serving the nation as army chief of staff. But, of course, since no political party — not the Awami League, not the BNP, not the Jamaat-e-Islami — was willing to help him arrange fresh elections in 1984, he was compelled to hang on, form his own political party, the Jatiyo Party, and call for elections in 1986. In other words, the entire responsibility for the coup which took place on Mar 24, 1982 lay with President Sattar and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. In similar fashion, the responsibility for the nine-year rule that Ershad foisted on the nation must be borne, if his words are to be taken seriously, by Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia and all other political figures who refused to give him a helping hand in restoring democratic governance in the country.

Are we surprised at Ershad’s revelations? Given the legacy of military rule in Pakistan and Bangladesh, two countries that once were part of a whole, wholesome, united India, it is not hard to imagine the real mindset of the men in uniform who have periodically and viciously sent democracy, however tenuous, packing through their vaulting ambitions. You recall General Mohammad Ayub Khan, the man who felt no embarrassment at declaring himself a field marshal and who as early as 1954 began toying with thoughts of seizing power in Pakistan. It was naked ambition at work and it would be a matter of time before Ayub Khan would seize the state. He and Iskandar Mirza put Pakistan to shame on 7 October 1958 by imposing martial law in the country. A mere twenty days later Ayub elbowed Mirza out, put him and his Iranian wife Nahid (poached from an Iranian naval attaché based at Tehran’s embassy in Karachi) on a plane bound for London and turned himself into Pakistan’s sole strongman.

Ayub Khan had little respect for politicians. Deep hate was there in him for democracy. And yet, in what would down the years turn into a cliché, he kept promising Pakistanis a democratic government they could all take pride in. In the event, it was his own brand of democracy — in the form of 80,000 Basic Democrats empowered to elect the country’s president and national and provincial assemblies — that he came forth with. In a nation of more than a hundred million people straddling the two wings of the country, only 80,000 men and women possessed the right of adult suffrage. Obviously, the system could not survive, as the popular unrest which overtook East and West Pakistan between late 1968 and early 1969 was to demonstrate so well. Ayub went and with him went his version of democracy.

Ayub Khan and HM Ershad seized power because they found corruption rampant among politicians. But that did little to stop them from corrupting politicians a little more, assuming we take their earlier presumptions seriously for a while, through bringing a fairly good number of them on board as props for their illegitimate regimes. The result was to prove disastrous for these politicians, for when their masters, in this case Ayub and Ershad, fell, it was their reputations that went through further decline. No politician who has been associated with military regimes has ever been respected, not in Pakistan, not in Bangladesh. You can think here of men like Manzur Quader, Fazlul Quader Chowdhury, Syed Sharifuddin Pirzada, Mushahid Hussain and SM Zafar  in Pakistan. In Bangladesh, among politicians who were never able to regain their earlier rather fairly good reputations, because they were associated with military rule, have been Korban Ali, Abdul Halim Chowdhury, AQM Badruddoza Chowdhury, Shah Azizur Rahman, Moudud Ahmed, Mizanur Rahman Chowdhury and plenty of others.

The heritage of military rule in Pakistan and Bangladesh has been one of disaster, both for the dictators who seized the country and for the country itself. General Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan should never have been permitted to replace Ayub Khan in March 1969 when Abdul Jabbar Khan, the Speaker of the National Assembly, was around. Yahya Khan’s ambitions came in the way and soon Ayub could not but hand over power to the army chief. And do remember that Yahya Khan was one of the military officers who, at Ayub’s behest and at gunpoint, forced General Iskandar Mirza to hand over the presidency to Ayub and fly off into exile in late October 1958.

In his first broadcast to the nation on Mar 26, 1969, Yahya Khan promised to create conditions conducive to democracy — his words — through general elections. He kept his word, up to a point. But when adult suffrage threw up results showing the Awami League emerging as the party of governance in Islamabad, neither Yahya Khan nor the Pakistan army nor Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (who constitutionally was poised to be leader of the opposition in the National Assembly) felt happy about the outcome. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, they decided, could not be allowed to take charge as Pakistan’s first elected leader. The result was disaster. Exactly two years to the day, following Yahya’s seizure of power, on 25 March 1971, the Pakistan army launched its genocide in the country’s eastern province. And precisely two years to the day, following Yahya’s promise of democracy for Pakistan, on Mar 26, 1971, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, majority leader in the newly elected National Assembly of Pakistan, declared  East Pakistan as the independent republic of Bangladesh.

Military rule saps a nation’s energy. It corrupts life to no end, for societies and nations. It leaves politics in disarray and pushes citizens to extremities of despair. It seeks to humiliate politics, tries to pin on politicians the label for everything that goes terribly wrong with society. Ayub Khan belittled politicians; Yahya Khan repudiated election results rather than have a legitimate civil government take over; Ziaur Rahman scandalized us all when he forced President ASM Sayem out of office and barred, through the infamous Indemnity Ordinance, the trial of the assassins of Bangladesh’s founding father; Ziaul Haq undermined everything of decency in Pakistan; Pervez Musharraf came down from the skies, literally, to push democratic rule in Pakistan to new stages of darkness; and Hussein Muhammad Ershad interrupted the course of democracy through his coup, leaving a nation wallowing in darkness and despair for close to nine years.

In all these instances, it was left to the political classes, once these strongmen passed from the scene, to step forward once again and sweep the detritus of extra-constitutional rule away.

And do not forget that no politician holding power ever asks a general or an army to throw him or her out of office and ‘save’ the country.

Syed Badrul Ahsanis a columnist.

7 Responses to “Ershad, his coup and stories of military rule”

  1. golam arshad

    Now that the Apex Court of the land unequivocally pass verdict to make illegal the Sixteenth Amendment of our Constitution. It signals the validity of the independency of the Judiciary. It is clear defeat of Awami League Government. It will prompt the un-grip of the captivating influence of the Government, the extra judicial high handedness of the Government. The Fifth Amendment has been resurrected. The Fourth Amendment has been rejected forever. But BNP should be careful, it is not their fruit of opposition. It is a clear victory of people and their craving for justice! Freedom of Speech can only be preserved by an independent Judiciary. The Nation hailed the historic verdict by the Supreme Court Chief Justice. Our respected Chief Justice deserves salutation from a freedom and judicial loving nation. Praying for the good health of our Honourable Chief Justice.

  2. Sarker Javed Iqbal

    As a university student at that time I can well remember that country was running very well under the leadership President Abdus Sattar. There was no reason for Ershad to jump in and grab the power. He was just crazy for power.
    Now we are looking for democracy to come back with its real meaning. To make it happen Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina should meet in a discussion with open mind. In that case Sheikh Hasina will need to come out of any predefined the stance. At least, we don’t want to see that Awami League wins again through walkover.

  3. Mahmudur Rahman

    We remember, AL went to elections under Ershad whereas BNP abstained. So at least for that period, it has to be treated as a democracy. Through all regimes political and otherwise, we have been hearing that the polls were not free and fair. The days of going through the motions of democracy just doesn’t work. A fully empowered election commission with teeth can probably ensure a good election.

  4. anwar A. Khan

    The rat-bag Ershad climbed the throne of Bangladesh illegally. His 9 years rule was always gainsaid by people of all walks of life. Rallies were held frequently across the country to boot him out. He earned the infamous name of “the thief of Baghdad” because of his colossal financial corruptions and grievous misdeeds in the country.
    Zia and his military dictatorships had a very extensive coercive network, and both the governments used spies to keep politicians and population in general in check. But the democratic ideals in Bangladesh possessed by the Bangladesh’s population, galvanised activists to work for social change by ousting the military regime. The campaign was not entirely ineffective. It managed to develop a unified network of resistance against their dictatorships, promote democratic ideals and aspirations, and delegitimise the regimes.
    Hundreds of thousands of anti-Ershad protesters around the country erupted in delirious scenes of joy with slogan, “Down with the rule of the military.” The above piece has depicted many mordacious emergences of this venal blackguard. The foliations bristling with perplexities have remained unfastened. The writer’s forethoughts deserve merits. This deservingness of merits is admirable.
    Ershad’s dictatorship culminated of an escalation of violence and authoritarism in a traditionally peaceful and democratic country, and existed within the context of other military dictatorships in the country. It resulted in the suppression of all former political activity, including the traditional political parties. Many people were imprisoned and tortured.
    We must not forget. Left unchecked, Ershad and the full Monty like shenanigans and the mass murderous- Jamaat-e-Islami evil force will continue to manipulate their inherited ill-gotten wealth and power toward reinvention and resurgence. Every step we take, every decision we make, every implementation we shall have to launch, it has to be under the constitution and the country’s laws. Any attempt of the Bangla-speaking Pakistanis and their buddies must be thwarted to come to power in future.
    Let’s start a new page, a new page based on participation based on the true spirits of our glorious Liberation War of 1971. Our hand is extended to all. Justice dictates that the voice of the masses from all squares except those mentioned above should be heard.

    • Sarker Javed Iqbal

      Excellent depiction of the political scenario! At present there is not a single political party which absolutely bears the spirit of our glorious liberation war. So, it has become an emergent need to “start a new page.”

  5. Khan

    Politicians do such things that we the people start hating them and arrive at a breaking point and think they should be punished by any one. This is the story of Pakistan, and Nawaz Sharif was the chosen son of Zia ul Haq. Now people know that he is corrupt and filthy. The people are looking for someone else like Imran Khan. About Bangladesh, the story is not very different, I think.

  6. golam arshad

    Dear Syed Badrul Ahsan: True! An elected politician will never hand over power to a Military Junta. In our Bangladesh political history, Military junta usurped power; General Zia after the fall of Mushtaq Government. After the brutal assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Gen. Zia usurped power. And after Zia’s tragic assassination in 1981, Chief of the Army Lt. Gen H. M. Ershad seized power knocking out a democratically elected President Justice Sattar. These are facts of history.
    Since 1992, we are having a Parliamentary Form of Government, changing hand between two major parties, The Awami League and BNP. There is a deep mistrust between these two Parties. The next General Election in the winter of 2018 will be decisive. BNP and AL should sit for a Dialog to discuss the issue of the Interim Government, BNP should play a pragmatic role to resolve this deadlock or political logjam. No Army intervention is possible after the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment of our Constitution. The War Criminal issue must be rested and acknowledge by two major parties.
    In the first place, Awami League did not do any political homework. The issue should have been resolved through a referendum, I think. This issue should be in the agenda of the proposed dialog. Let’s see how our two distinguish leaders play their role. But time is running out!


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