The general out of his labyrinth
Couple of weeks ago, I showed how the Ershad regime had the worst economic record of all the Bangladehsi governments of the past three decades. Why did the regime perform so poorly? At a first glance, as finance ministers, Syeduzzaman or Maj Gen MA Munim appear to be no less qualified than Saifur Rahman or SAMS Kibria, while the current top econocrat AMA Muhith served in that role back in 1982-83. All five are/were professionals and technocrats with personal integrity. All pursued similar economic policies — macroeconomic stabilisation packages and structural reform programmes — with similar imprimatur from the IMF and the World Bank. Why then the disparity in the results?
The difference was not in the ministers and their policies. Syeduzzaman and Munim did their best. It’s just that their best wasn’t enough to off set the reckless and cavalier way Lt Gen HM Ershad ran the country. While the finance ministers would negotiate a macro stability package and do the hard work in restoring order to public finances, Ershad would dispense political patronage that would blow a hole in the budget. While the ministers worked out a privatisation plan to revive industrialisation, Ershad would give bank credits to favourite cronies. The result was the dismal performance shown in the earlier post.
And not just in economic affairs. In his nine years in officer, and in two decades since, Ershad has done tremendous damage to Bangladesh, killing — in a spiritual sense — an entire generation, the generation that is actually running Bangladesh today.
Bangladesh (and its previous incarnation, East Pakistan) has had the misfortune of many a general (and colonel and major) out of their labyrinths. But Ershad’s coup was different. Every military intervention before that one was preceded by a political crisis. Sure, sometimes the crisis was fuelled by the actions of the army itself and the interventions had not improved the situation.
Take the case of the Ayub takeover of October 1958. From his memoir, we know that Ayub Khan had been considering a military coup within a few years of parition. But the actual coup had come after half a dozen civilian governments fell, there were repeated political instability, and a Deputy Speaker was killed on the floor of the East Pakistan assembly. Ayub’s fall, and the March 1969 martial law of Yahya Khan, occurred after popular uprisings in both wings of the erstwhile Pakistan. The extraordinary nature of the events of 1975 need no repeating. Even the January 2007 military intervention took place after months-long political instability surrounding the scheduled election.
What was the crisis in March 1982? None. There was a crisis in 1981, when the country’s president was killed by rebel soldiers in Chittagong. But that crisis was resolved quickly. The rebel soldiers surrendered, their leaders were killed, and in a few months, the vice president was duly elected. The election result was accepted by the opposition, and there was no street protests or hartals.
However, for months, Ershad publicly defied the civilian government, calling for an institutionalisation of military involvement in politics. He had been talking to local and foreign journalists. He had sent senior officers — including then Maj Gen Nuruddin Khan (who as army chief in Dec 1990 refused to put down a student-led uprising, leading to Ershad’s fall) — to Indonesia and elsewhere to ‘study their systems’. And finally, he forced Sattar to declare martial law at gun point. This was naked power grab, pure and simple.
And what was the power grab for? If there was no immediate crisis that the coup was reacting to, was there some ideological motives?
The killers of 1975 — from Major Faruq to Colonel Taher — were motivated by their dreams of particular futures for Bangladesh. As disagreeable as those dreams might be to us, and as gruesome as their acts in pursuit of those dreams were, those men were not pursuing base self interests. Even the pragmatic ones of 1975 — failed Khaled and successful Zia alike — were guided by their desire to stabilise the country. Ershad was different. Neither in 1982, nor at any time since, did Ershad show any ideological inclinations. Personal power and self aggrandizement, money and women — these are what motivated this general.
He appealed to the cultural heritage of the Bengalis by ‘writing poems’ — surprisingly, the poetry stopped after he left office. At the same time, he styled himself a ‘servant of Islam’. One of his favourite tricks was to appear at a local mosque on Friday, claiming to have dreamt about it the previous night — never mind that security personnel would have combed the neighbourhood weeks in advance.
Nothing was sacred for the general in his pursuit of power. Well known as a womaniser even in the 1970s, Ershad’s childlessness was a cause of much ridicule in the elite circles. To redress this, Ershad announced a ‘miraculous gift from the Almighty’ in a public meeting. Ataur Rahman Khan, prime minister in the regime, noted wryly in his memoir how Mrs Ershad showed no sign of pregnancy even the week before the birth of their son was announced.
For all their faults and follies, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Ziaur Rahman appealed to the better angels of Bangladeshis. In their own way, those leaders tried to unify a people for a better future. Ershad appealed to the basest instincts of people around him. He faced regular student protests, which he met by buying off the student leaders. From Ziauddin Ahmed to Golam Faruq Ovi, an entire generation of the best and the brightest was corrupted by the general. The result has been complete apathy towards public service by the generation of Bangladeshis who came of age in the 1980s. It is this generation, now in their 50s, that is running Bangladesh today. Is it any surprise that public morality and civic virtue are non-existent in Bangladesh?
The saddest exhibit of Ershad’s poisonous legacy was in display during the lead up to the 2007 military coup, when both major parties fought bitterly to have the general in their side. Sheikh Mujib and Zia must have been turning in their graves to see their heirs grovel before this craven general. But Mujib and Zia were long dead. The living Bangladeshis — rich and poor, mighty and powerless alike — were indifferent. Ershad’s corrosive effects have made them immune to his pungent legacy. Is there a better evidence of that than the country’s top newspaper remembering Timur’s raid of Damascus, but not Ershad’s march to Bangabhaban, which happened 30 years ago yesterday?
Above arguments are, of course, based on my reading of history. The interested reader can look up writings of MK Alamgir, Akbar Ali Khan, Ataur Rahman Khan, Moudud Ahmed, Shafiq Rehman, Anisuzzaman, and Talukder Maniruzzaman — among others. They should also read the contemporaneous issues of Jai Jai Din, Bichinta, Bichitra and foreign journals.