In the pre-dawn hours of 15 August 1975, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman — Father of the Nation and President of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh — frantically worked the phones at his 32 Dhanmondi residence. His home had come under vicious attack by soldiers led by a bunch of serving and retired majors and colonels. Bangabandhu tried to reach a number of individuals to ask them to move against the soldiers, who had already killed his eldest son Sheikh Kamal. At one point, the phone lines went dead, snapped by the assassin-soldiers.
What followed was carnage. Or call it a massacre. Save for his two daughters then abroad, the entire family of Bangladesh’s founding father was murdered in cold blood. Except for his security chief Colonel Jamil, who had only months earlier been repatriated from Pakistan, not one soul tried to save Bangabandhu. Till the late hours of the previous day, 14 August, every Awami Leaguer — local leaders, lawmakers, ministers — and every individual in important positions in the state hierarchy had professed undying loyalty to Bangabandhu. In the macabre minutes when he and his family came under violent attack on 15 August, none of those men were around to prevent the catastrophe, to come to the aid of the Father of the Nation.
Go back to that story of tragedy, to recollect and remember the deeds and otherwise of those men. And of other men.
When Bangabandhu got through to Major General KM Shafiullah, Chief of Army Staff, and asked him to send a force to tackle the conspirators who had already invaded his home, the latter had a naïve question for the President: ‘Can you come out of your house, Sir?’
Col. Shafaat Jamil, under whose jurisdiction the 46 Brigade of the army operated and who was absolutely in the dark about the killers having gone out of the cantonment without his knowledge or permission, informed Major General Ziaur Rahman of Bangabandhu’s murder. Zia’s deadpan response was: ‘So what? The Vice President is there.’
More than four hours went by after Bangabandhu and his family, along with the families of his minister Abdur Rab Serniabat and his nephew Sheikh Fazlul Haq Moni, were murdered and yet the chiefs of the army, navy, air force, BDR, Rakkhi Bahini and police took no action against the killers. Tragedy assumed even more sinister dimensions when General Shafiullah, General Zia, General Khalilur Rahman, Rear Admiral MH Khan, Air Vice Marshal AK Khondokar and Brigadier Khaled Musharraf turned up at the Shahbagh station of Bangladesh Betar and then at Bangabhaban to swear loyalty to the usurper-president Khondokar Moshtaque Ahmed and to be present at his swearing-in.
Moshtaque, until the coup minister for commerce in Bangabandhu’s cabinet, was sworn in by Justice ASM Sayem, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
On 16 August, Moshtaque presided over the first meeting of his cabinet. Every member of Bangabandhu’s government, except for Syed Nazrul Islam, Tajuddin Ahmad (who had left the government in October 1974), M. Mansoor Ali, AHM Quamruzzaman and Dr. Kamal Hossain (who was abroad) attended the meeting. Not one of them called forth the courage to ask Moshtaque why Bangabandhu had been killed. Not one evinced any interest in visiting Bangabandhu’s residence to observe the consequences of the carnage first hand. Not one minister expressed any wish to be present at the burial of the Father of the Nation, which was to take place in Tungipara in unceremonious manner late in the afternoon of the same day.
And all this while, the corpses of the Father of the Nation and his family, more than twenty four hours after the killings, lay where they had fallen at 32 Dhanmondi.
Where did all these loyalists of Bangabandhu go after 15 August? Or how did they carry on with life after 15 August? Observe.
Syed Nazrul Islam, Tajuddin Ahmad, M. Mansoor Ali and AHM Quamruzzaman did not have much of life remaining for them. Within days of the coup, they were placed under arrest and confined at Dhaka Central Jail, where they were murdered in the early hours of 3 November 1975.
Dr. Kamal Hossain, foreign minister in Bangabandhu’s cabinet, was in Yugoslavia at the time of the coup. He did not return home, despite all the blandishments offered by the usurpers, and went off to Oxford. Some years later, he came back to Bangladesh. Nominated for the nation’s presidency by the Awami League at the election of November 1981, he lost to the BNP’s Justice Abdus Sattar. In the 1990s, he left the Awami League and formed the Gano Forum.
Mohammmadullah, who had been Speaker of the Jatiyo Sangsad and then President of Bangladesh before joining Bangabandhu’s cabinet as a minister, was appointed Vice President by Moshtaque following the coup. In March 1982, he was appointed Vice President a second time, this time by President Abdus Sattar. He was in office for a day before General Ershad overthrew the Sattar government in a coup d’etat.
General MAG Osmany, who had bravely resigned from the Jatiyo Sangsad in January 1975 in protest against the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution — he had seen Ayub Khan, he said then, and did not want to see Mujib Khan — quickly teamed up with Moshtaque as his defence advisor. He later formed the Jatiyo Janata Party and was in June 1978 the presidential candidate of a combined opposition led by the Awami League against General Ziaur Rahman. He lost the election.
General Ziaur Rahman, who had known since March 1975 of the conspiracy against Bangabandhu by the majors and colonels and yet had not informed the government, replaced General Shafiullah as Chief of Army Staff. Subsequently, through a series of coups and counter-coups, he seized power in November 1975 and replaced Justice Sayem, installed as President in early November 1975 by General Khaled Musharraf, in April 1977. He survived eighteen attempted coups and was killed in the nineteenth in Chittagong.
Khaled Musharraf, promoted from brigadier to major general, seized power on 3 November 1975, placed Zia under house arrest, forced Khondokar Moshtaque from power and on 7 November was killed in a counter-coup orchestrated by Col. Abu Taher. Zia was freed from confinement in a so-called sipahi-janata revolution. Taher was executed by the Zia regime after a court martial in July 1976.
General Shafiullah and Air Vice Marshal AK Khondokar, having been removed from their positions, subsequently served a good number of years abroad, under the Zia and Ershad military regimes, as Bangladesh’s high commissioners abroad. Khondokar later served in the cabinets of General HM Ershad and Sheikh Hasina. Shafiullah joined the Awami League and was elected to Parliament in June 1996.
Taheruddin Thakur, whose ubiquitous presence around Bangabandhu as minister of state for information did not go unnoticed, turned out to have been an arch-conspirator in Bangabandhu’s assassination. He served time in prison years later on charges of conspiracy in the murder of the four national leaders in Dhaka central jail. He died in disgrace.
Professor Yusuf Ali, who had read out the Proclamation of Independence at Mujibnagar on 17 April 1971, served as education minister in Bangabandhu’s government. He stayed on in the Moshtaque regime and later joined General Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
KM Obaidur Rahman and Shah Moazzam Hossain, both close to Bangabandhu in the Awami League, eventually linked up with Moshtaque. Obaidur Rahman ended up being in the BNP and served as a minister in the Zia and Sattar governments. Shah Moazzam subsequently joined the Ershad regime, in which he rose to the position of deputy prime minister. Years later, he joined the BNP.
In the days after the coup, Abdul Malek Ukil, Speaker of the Jatiyo Sangsad and putatively a Mujib loyalist, told newsmen in London that Bangabandhu’s fall had been the fall of an autocrat. Later he led a faction of the Awami League but was never able to regain his earlier reputation.
Mohiuddin Ahmad, a veteran politician who after years of being in the National Awami Party had joined the Awami League, travelled to Moscow a few days after the coup with a message from Khondokar Moshtaque to the Soviet leadership seeking support for his regime.
Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, whose denunciations of the Mujib government in the post-Liberation years had become increasingly more pronounced, welcomed the coup of 15 August and wished Moshtaque well. Bhashani died in November 1976.
Ataur Rahman Khan, once a leading Awami League politician and chief minister of East Pakistan in the latter part of the 1950s, declared 15 August as ‘najat dibosh’ — day of deliverance. The refrain was later picked up by another veteran politician, Oli Ahad. Ataur Rahman Khan would join General Ershad’s regime as Prime Minister in the 1980s.
Khondokar Moshtaque Ahmed was ousted from the presidency by General Khaled Musharraf on 6 November 1975. He attempted a comeback the next day, when the Musharraf coup collapsed, but resistance from Zia and Taher put paid to his ambition. He later formed the Democratic League, was tried on charges of corruption and jailed by the Zia regime. He died in March 1996, a few months before the Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina, returned to power twenty one years after the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Forty two years after the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, it is time to plumb the depths of the tragedy which took hold of our collective life in that sad summer, the ramifications of which are yet being felt and indeed will be felt in the times to come.