Curse of the majors
While commenting on an early draft of my post on the chronology of coups and mutinies, a friend suggested I turn it into a long form magazine, or even semi-academic article. Now, I am not in a position to write anything long form — or short, op ed, form either; dear reader, this blog is the only thing I write in these days. If I were writing a long article, I would pose two questions:
1. Did history pre-dispose Bangladesh to military interventions?
2. How do we end the cycle of interventions?
This post tackles the first question. There maybe a separate post on the second one.
As with judicial decisions, so it is with transgressions where precedence matters a lot. If you’ve never smoked illegal substance, or flirted in the absence of your spouse, it will be hard for you to even contemplate a cocaine addled orgy. But one is on a slippery slope when, well, a certain Rubicon is crossed.
That’s how it has been with military interventions, from the time of the Romans (and earlier) all the way to our republic. If a general gets away with toppling a government and annulling the constitution, his successors are encouraged by the precedence. All of Bangladesh’s army chiefs until Lt Gen Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury were commissioned in the Pakistan army, and thus had the precedence of Gen Ayub Khan’s dabbling in politics as far back as the early 1950s. Lt Gen HM Ershad and Lt Gen ASM Nasim chose to act on those precedence, thereby creating precedence of their own for Lt Gen Moeen U Ahmed.
Of course, Bangladesh experience military interventions way before Ershad became the chief. In fact, none of the military coups — successful or otherwise — of the first decade were led by the highest ranking officers — Maj Gen Shafiullah, Maj Gen Khalilur Rahman and Maj Gen Ziaur Rahman. It appears that there was more to the mayhem of the 1970s than the ghost of Ayub Khan.
And there was. Insidious precedences were created in the very foundational moments of the country by bona fide war heroes like Ziaur Rahman and Khaled Mosharraf — the majors in the title. In March 1971, motivated by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s leadership, these officers of Pakistan army — trained to follow orders, ostensibly to defend Pakistan — rejected their allegiance to that country for ‘Bangla Desh’. After the crackdown in Dhaka on 25 March, they led their entire units into rebellion. Others joined them in individual capacity. Some even escaped from Pakistan to join the Mukti Bahini.
How do we know that they were motivated by some political ideology, and not personal reasons such as safety?
We know that not every Bengali in Pakistan army joined them. Jahanzeb Arbab — the brigadier who arrested Sheikh Sahib on 25 March — tells us of a Major Abdul Mannan who helped the assault on Comilla and Chittagong. One of the BNP nominees for the controversial Election Commission in late 2006 surrendered with Lt Gen AAK Niazi on 16 December. Qaiyum Chowdhury — brother of prominent intellectuals Munier (killed by the Al Badr on 14 December) and Kabir (national professor in liberated Bangladesh) — stayed on in Pakistan after 1971. HM Ershad, army dictator turned key ally of the Awami League, served in the military court set up to try those who joined the Mukti Bahini.
Had Major Zia or Major Khaled chosen, they could have easily stuck with the Pakistanis. Instead of leading a rag tag rebel force a vastly better equipped army, they could have simply melted away in the crowd in the last week of March, and reported for duty once the Pakistanis captured Chittagong or Comilla. What they did was not just heroic, but crucially, entirely political.
Zia demonstrated political acumen by his repeated radio declarations, first in his own name, and then on behalf of the ‘Great National Leader, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’. Our pathetic history wars focus on who got to the mike first, and we lose the political relevance of Zia’s radio speeches. His messages were in English, telling the world that a new country was born and Pakistan was now an occupying power. He was telling the world that there was a government, led by Mujib who had won the people’s mandate in December 1970. He was telling the world that Bangladesh would abide by all international rules and obligations that befit a sovereign state. These were the stuff of politics.
Through Rehman Sobhan, Khaled implored the Awami League leaders to form a government as quickly as possible and commission the rebel commanders appropriately. Until this was done, the majors and their men were nothing more than mutineers and defectors. He was intrumental in organising a conference of Mukti Bahini commanders in Teliapara to co-ordinate the resistance strategy. He created the special guerilla force to hit high profile targets in occupied Dhaka. He understood the old dictum — war is politics by other means.
Not just Zia or Khaled, but also Abu Taher, or MA Jalil, or Abul Manzur — they all understood very well that choosing Bangladesh over Pakistan was a political act.
The thing is, once you’ve defied orders and rebelled for one political reason — no matter how justified the reason may be — you have also created the precedence for someone else to defy orders for some other political reason. Once Major Zia took control of a radio station and made one historic announcement, he created a precedence for a Major Dalim to make another, far more insidious, announcement.
At this point, let me begin with reiteratingg something I’ve said many times before, there is nothing inevitable about history. Things happen because of specific actions by specific people at specific point in time reacting to specific incentives and exigencies. So coups were not inevitable in Bangladesh. They could have been avoided in the past, and they can certainly be avoided in the future.
Zia’s actions in 1971 did not make Dalim’s actions in 1975 inevitable. And Ayub’s actions in the 1950s didn’t make Ershad’s in the 1980s inevitable. Just the way Zia and others created a precedence of mutiny, they also created the precedence of following political leadership. They fought the war under the command of Gen MAG Osmani, who was appointed by a government composed of civilian politicians like Tajuddin Ahmed.
Rather, the point is that our history was such that our country was born with a high risk of susceptibility to coups. To overcome that susceptibility, we needed judicious leadership.
Something, regrettably, we didn’t get in our first years.