Ziaur Rahman’s legacy: puzzle, lesson and tragedy

Posted in history by jrahman on May 30, 2008

Zia has gone through an almost Darwinian process of selection through the war with Pakistan and coups in Bangladesh. He has never denigrated politicians as a class – which is itself typical of the present day military rulers of many third-world countries. On the contrary, he has shown adroit political skills in bringing together diverse political groups and accumulating political power though coalition-building.

That’s from the last paragraph of Prof Talukdar Maniruzzaman’s ‘The Bangladesh Revolution and its aftermath’. This post is about some puzzle, lesson and tragedy about the legacy of the president assassinated 27 years ago today.

After the spontaneous uprising in Dhaka University last August, Bangladesh’s military-backed regime arrested a number of university teachers. Prof Anwar Hossain, the seniormost among the detained teachers, issued a very courageous statement in January (see here). The statement is important for its sheer courage under fire. When the rest of the country seemed to have accepted the facade of constitutional rule, Prof Hossain dared to challenge the military. It was very inspiring stuff. It was the stuff that history is made of.

It also had some stuff of made up history. About halfway down the statement, Professor Hossain claimed that during the coups of the first week of November 1975, Brig Khaled Musharraf and his allies were killed by conspirators in cahoots with Zia.  Compare this with the widely accepted narrative of events of that month: Musharraf overthrows Khondoker Mushtaque and the majors who killed Mujib and family; majors’ allies kill senior Awami League leaders in jail; Musharraf appoints Justice Sayem as president, puts Zia under house arrest, and tries to consolidate power; Col Taher organises a countercoup in which Musharraf and allies are killed and Zia is freed; Zia moves against Taher and his followers. There are significant differences of opinion about the interpretations of those events.  Bangladesh’s politics has been divided about the heroes and villains of those coups. But the broad timeline of who killed whom and when had never been in dispute, until this January.

Prof Hossain, who happens to be a younger brother of Col Taher, clearly contradicts what Taher said in his own statement to the court martial that sentenced him to death in 1976. The original version of that statement is available in Lawrence Lifschultz’s ‘Bangladesh: The Unfinished Revolution’.

So, Prof Hossain is engaging in a bit of rewriting history. Who doesn’t in Bangladesh? The cynic might ask. But isn’t it a tragedy that even in what could be a shining hour, our esteemed elders engage in such blatant partisan truths?

It’s not like there aren’t issues of substance about Zia’s legacy that can be debated.

What about Zia’s stance on secularism? He replaced ‘secularism’ with ‘complete faith in the almighty Allah’ as one of the republic’s fundamental policies because apparently there was ‘much resentment amongst the people’ against secularism (he claimed so in a televised address to the nation upon becoming the president on 22 April 1977). Was his take on the public attitude towards secularism accurate? Was incorporation of secularism into the constitution in the first place done with sufficient consultation? Do they justify the junking of secularism? My answers are: perhaps, no, and no to these questions.  Others would have different views.  And reasonable people can have substantive debates on all these points.

What about Zia’s take on national identity? Was Bangladesh nationalism just the two-nation theory / Muslim nationalism in a different garb? Was it meant to turn Bangladeshis who are not Bengali Sunni Muslims into second-class citizens? Or was it an attempt at creating a rights-based citizenship notion of national identity? Again, reasonable people can debate these.

What about how Zia dealt with Mujib’s assassins? Was he merely continuing an arrangement made by Khaled Musharraf, who allowed the killers safe passage out of the country? Was he so worried about the leftist followers of Taher that he felt compelled to make a tactical truce with the rightist majors? Or was he ideologically allied with the majors? Why was he so lenient on them and so merciless against Taher’s supporters, even though the majors too tried to assassinate him through attempted coups? 

For these debates, we don’t need to make up history. We can note Ziaur Rahman for who he was: an army general whose rise to power was through violent coups and countercoups, an army general who in power doffed his uniform and evolved into a canny politician, and a politician who was widely popular yet feared his dead predecessor. Why do we need to make up history when it comes to Zia?

And it’s not only Zia’s political opponents who make stuff up. Arguably the biggest acts of vandalism when it comes to history are around Zia’s radio speech in the early days of our Liberation War. Noting that Zia made a call to arms, using Mujib’s name, in the early days of the War would have been enough to guarantee him a place in the history books. The fact that a serving major of the Pakistan army publicly called for resistance motivated many others to join the war. Just noting this would have been sufficient, but his followers, particularly in BNP’s last term in office, went much further. Why? And why did they continue with that popycock when Zia’s achievements in power – economic stability, political tranquility, foreign policy successes – could have been projected without making stuff up?

This history rewriting about Zia by everyone concerned is the puzzle when it comes to his legacy.

We need to stop such shenanigans, and take a dispassionate, cold, hard look at President Zia’s legacy. His legacy can give us important lessons about predicaments we face in today’s Bangladesh. Nearly three decades after Zia became a politician and sent the army back to the barrack, we again face the difficult task of demilitarising our polity.

Again, reasonable people could disagree about how Zia turned himself into a politician. According to Prof Rehman Sobhan, Zia’s strategy was to embrace ‘…a large number of discarded politicians… a clutch of politically ambitious professionals’ who ‘…were bound together only by their ambitions and their hostility to the Awami League’. Further, Prof Sobhan says, ‘These political aspirants enjoyed low electability, so their victory in the national elections of 1979 also needed to be engineered’. (Details here).

A very different story is told by Prof Maniruzzaman. He writes that Zia started his political quest like many other third world dictators, through a referendum.  He ‘won’ the referendum with a turnout of 88%, 99% of whom voted ‘yes’.  The Economist dubbed it ‘electoral overkill’.  Prof Maniruzzaman tells us that instead of using the sham referendum as the basis for his rule, Zia worked towards creating a political base.  In pages 207-215 of ‘The Bangladesh Revolution’, we are told how the party built by Zia carried 44% of the votes cast (in a turnout of 51%) in 1979 election – as in the 2001 election, this was enough for a 2/3rd majority in our first-past-the-post system.

Who is right – Sobhan or Maniruzzaman?  For the record, I find Maniruzzaman’s account more plausible.  But reasonable people could differ.  Where reasonable people ought to agree is that Zia did send the army back to barrack after becoming a politician.  And where they ought to agree that at the time of his death, Zia was a very popular president.  And they ought to agree that there wasn’t violent street protests against his rule.  As we once again ponder demilitarisation, we could do worse than looking at what Zia did. 

That’s the lesson we should draw from Zia’s legacy.  But even if we think that Prof Maniruzzaman has it right, even if we accept the benign interpretation of Zia the politician, even then, we cannot escape the fact that his very success has created many problems for us.  Because one Ziaur Rahman succeeded, we have had ambitious generals trying to save us once every decade.  Even if we believe that Zia had been thrust into power through events, and he really believed in civilian democracy, it was his success that has given us the current predicament.

This, dear reader, is the ultimate tragedy of Ziaur Rahman.

(Cross-posted at UV).

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  2. tacit said, on May 30, 2008 at 7:15 pm

    Great post, Jyoti Bhai. Absolutely inspired. I’ll briefly comment on one of the questions you raise. As far as I understand, AL always had a right-wing group, made up of old adherents of Hasan Suhrawardi, such as Khandokar Mushtaque, Adeluddin Ahmed, Obaidur Rahman, and so on. This is the group that left AL in/after 1975, and this is the group that Zia was trying to assemble under his leadership. So this debunks Prof. Sobhan’s theory. However, it should be noted that while many of the followers of these leaders joined Zia, these leaders themselves never did.

  3. Chowdhury Irad Ahmed Siddiky said, on May 31, 2008 at 3:53 am

    It will perhaps not be an exaggeration to say that the term “Bangladeshi nationalism” is synonymous with the name Ziaur Rahman. Yet,like the father of our nation, this great leader is also an enigma of our national struggle for a prosperous, free and just society.

    Story # 1: Zia as the father of our national awakening:

    Ziaur Rahman contributed his life to our national awakening, a national awareness of essentially who we are as a people, in terms of our ethno social origin. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, our much beloved father of the nation, liberated us through a struggle of national independence from the tyranny of Pakistan. This journey was taken a step further by Ziaur Rahman who completed it by raising our national consciousness through crafting our national identity.

    Story # 2: Zia as Bangladesh’s political Robin Hood in a moment of political leadership crisis:

    There is more to the legacy of Zia than the legacy of his awakening a sleeping Bangladeshi people to national awareness and consciousness.
    This has to do with:

    (a) 15th August and the destruction of our constitutional democracy. Revisionist historians like to say that our constitutional democracy was destroyed by BAKSAL long before August 15th 1975, and there was overbearing nationwide anarchy and poor political management in the first five years of our republic by the same people who liberated our nation. They also say that the marginal cross section of our people who were opposed to the war of our independence essentially capitalized on the weaknesses of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s government. They also say that Ziaur Rahman’s coalition building efforts simply took advantage of this leadership vaccum and crisis left by Mujib as Zia rehabilitated those disputed and alienated groups into the political mainstream of our nation that ultimately killed the spirit of our national independence. This is a very explosive and highly charged issue that is always capable of eroding national unity, particularly when the spirit of national independence is used as a shield to defend anything that goes in the name and the spirit of national independence whose resurgence was briefly witnessed between 1996 and 2001. It is an irony that the spirit of our national independence could not be given its due place of respect and kept above all discord on a high pedestal.

    Although Ziaur Rahman was not directly involved in the events that took place on 15th August, 1975, he nevertheless stood silent witness to it and was therefore guilty of facilitating it.
    It is fundamentally on this issue, Bangladeshis are divided over the legacy of Ziaur Rahman.

    (b) Most importantly, the fact that Zia first introduced an unconstitutional path to power and set a detrimental precedence that was later to be followed by General Ershad and General Moyeen, this too tarnished the image of General Ziaur Rahman in our national psyche and in the Bangladeshi hall of fame.


    Whether you believe in the first story or the second story actually depends on your political orientation and affiliation. But the bottom line is that we are all Bangladeshis and there is no dispute about it and we did not know that we were all Bangladeshis (we thought we were only Bengalis) until Ziaur Rahman formally defined for us what it means to be a Bangladeshi and what it is that makes us different from those who are not. Drawing lines and creating an exclusive national identity is a very unpopular activity. Ziaur Rahman’s legacy of constructing Bangladeshi nationalism was not unfortunately spared the blame and unpopularity that came along with the burden of creating a national identity for our people.

  4. fugstar said, on May 31, 2008 at 9:01 am

    Every actor interpolates differently. Their own symbolic capital is tied up in there. Prof Sobhan, bless his cotton socks, 2 economy theory, we will be like switzerland. Just gotta admire his ability to conjure political economics day in day out.

    Shaheed Zia doesnt need that, practical mojo, is how i think of his good side.

    and undemocratic precedents? Im not sure if thats important, unless you take 71 as year zero and assume everybody landed from mars. Every innovation or initiative is a precedence of sorts, precedence is an uncreative legalese beast methinks.

    I like the bit when instead of headlining on the “islamic defilement” of the secular constitution, you pose the question of the initial secular renderings legitimacy. Always irks me when the word secularism is put into the dying mouths of the multitudes. Would be nice if folks would just use the word pluralism, which is what they mean by secularism, and bypass that devisive red herring.

    but they wont. its all symbolic capital games for the ruling families. If the society dehisoricised, maybe they wouldnt have so much power….

  5. DS said, on June 1, 2008 at 1:46 pm

    … and now you know, Hyoti bhai, why it’s hard to be a Zia admirer in modern Bangladesh. You contradict Rehman Sobhan’s account of Zia, and our resident Bangali-chauvinist-when-it-suits-him jumps onto deride Mr. Sobhan’s two-economy theory, something that underpinned a large part of the Six-Points demand for autonomy that led to independence. An independence war that Zia himself fought.

    fugstar, you are truly shameless.

  6. DS said, on June 1, 2008 at 1:46 pm

    Hyoti = Jyoti (of course)

  7. jrahman said, on June 6, 2008 at 1:10 pm

    Tacit, Obaidur Rahman did join BNP – he was one of the founding senior leaders.

    According to Prof Maniruzzaman, Mushtaq’s Democratic League and various factions of the Muslim League were most vocal against Zia’s postponing of parliamentary election scheduled for late 1976. Apparently, these parties expected to win in the absence of Mujibist Awami League. Zia responded by jailing Mushtaq on a charge of stealing crockeries from the Banga Bhaban.

  8. tacit said, on June 9, 2008 at 5:37 am

    True, I knew that. My bad.

  9. History Wars « Mukti said, on March 27, 2012 at 12:08 pm

    […] the people in power taking on Mujib’s killers — something even a self-assured man as Ziaur Rahman didn’t do.  And these days we have a government and its pet intellectuals trying to build a cult of […]

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