How we pay for rehabilitating Ershad

Posted in history, politics by jrahman on December 6, 2010

HM Ershad resigned from presidency 20 years ago today, after civil-military bureaucracy expressed their unwillingness support him against continuous hartal.  20 years ago, this day was considered as the ‘second victory’ — victory against the Pakistani occupation forces 19 years earlier being the first.

20 years on, the day merits no mention in the front pages of Bangladesh’s two premiere newspapers: Prothom Alo and Daily Star.  Neither papers saw it fit to mention the day in their editorial pages either.  20 years ago, Ershad was a hated dictator.  20 year on, he is just another MP. 

20 years isn’t really all that long a time.  But in Bangladeshi politics, it seems like an eternity.  That’s why, 20 years after the Liberation War, in 1991, Awami League’s candidate for president, Justice Badrul Haider Chowdhury could seek the blessing of Jamaat’s then de facto leader Golam Azam.  And that’s why 20 further years on, I won’t be surprised if Golam Azam dies in prison awaiting a trial for his actions in 1971.  Similarly, Ershad may be completely rehabilitated now, but who knows what the future hold?

Who knows what the future holds.  While I could prove to be wrong, I fear Ershad’s rehabilitation has come with a hefty price in two domains.  When the bill comes due, it will be too late for our current leaders.  But the debt will still have to be settled.  It will be this young girl, and her generation, who will pay for our elder’s failure and our apathy. 

The role of the two large political parties in rehabilitating Ershad through alliance politics is well known and needs no repeating.   But it’s worth repeating exactly how the rehabilitation was achieved.  In 1996, with the election of the second AL government, Ershad received bail in all the cases pending against him.  The same courts that would not give him a bail in any case six months earlier changed their mind. 

By the end of 1996, Ershad was in the parliament, talking about how he wanted to try the perpetrators of 15 August massacre (he conveniently forgot that the key murderer, Syed Faruq Rahman, was allowed to run against him for presidency in October 1996 — see what I mean by 20 years being eternity in Bangladesh, things change a lot even in 10 years.

But then, a few years later, when Ershad sat with Khaleda Zia — the same Khaleda Zia whose entire political fortune was created because of opposition to Ershad — against AL, courts found that Ershad couldn’t run for parliament again: apparently he was morally unfit!  And then, for the following decade, according to our courts Ershad’s moral fitness depended on whom he was coupling with.*

And this was done by our courts.  Clearly, Khairul Haque is not the first judge whose moral fitness can be questioned.  We irreparably damaged our courts as we rehabilitated Ershad.  If you don’t get a shiver down your spine thinking of the consequence, you are not thinking hard enough.

Our failure to hold Ershad into account has also left us with a large bill on a different account.  A few months ago, after the 5th and 7th Amendment verdicts, our chattering classes were ga ga about how military coups were to become a thing of the past.  I contend that these verdicts have achieved no such thing.  I contend that our failure to hold Ershad liable for his 1982 coup is making future coups that much more likely.

In fact, it’s more than that.  Think about how the Ershad regime fell.  In the end, it was Lt Gen Nuruddin Khan’s decision to not intervene to support Ershad, or replace him, that did the regime in.  Nuruddin Khan brought the army enormous goodwill.  Six years later, when Lt Gen Nasim tried to intervene, he was thwarted by Maj Gen Subid Ali Bhuiyan and Maj Gen Matin.  Again, the army received goodwill.  Another decade later, when Lt Gen Moeen U Ahmed and Maj Gen Masud Uddin Chowdhury launched their coup, they were openly hailed as the saviours by the same political class that hailed the fall of Ershad as second victory.  And when these generals beat the retreat, their goodwill increased even further.

There is a pattern here.  As Ershad became legitimised, successive ambitious generals felt more comfortable about interfering in politics.  As the political failures that made the rehabiliation of Ershad worsened, such interference became more likely.  And every time the army pulled back, they had that much more goodwill for the next intervention.

When the current power dispensation will have pushed the country to another political deadlock, there will be another intervention.  By then, the generals will have felt comfortable enough to completely discard the constitutional fig leaf.  They will not look to Ershad for guidance.  They will replicate Ayub Khan, declaring an entire generation of politicians ‘unfit for office’.  And they will have a bunch pliant judges with them. 

If I didn’t know Bangladesh better, I’d have been amazed at how no one is bothered by this.  The sad thing is, this is what Bangladesh is.  We deserve Ershad, and his legacies, because we are no better.


*The pun may appear sexist, but it’s not — politically, it’s not the gender of the leaders, but the serial promiscuity and betrayal of any beliefs they claim to hold dear that’s the object of derision.

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4 Responses

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  1. tacit said, on December 6, 2010 at 12:55 pm

    Ershad, Smershad. Now tell us how Dr. Yunus is planning to disrupt the war-crimes trial.

  2. Udayan said, on December 7, 2010 at 7:59 pm

    So, to play devil’s advocate, could another way of framing this be, “Was Ershad really as bad as he was made out to be?”. Would BNP supporters claim his regime was worse than the current one?

    • tacit said, on December 10, 2010 at 12:17 pm

      To quote Governor Palin, “You Betcha.”

      • jrahman said, on December 17, 2010 at 10:43 am

        Udayan, Tacit is better qualified to represent the average BNP supporter. But a variation of your framing might be quite accurate: people who came after Ershad were not all that much better than him.

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