Zia Assassination Reverberates through South Asia

WILLIAM BORDERS, Special to the New York Times (June 8, 1981)
President Ziaur Rahman, of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh with President Mr Sanjiva Reddy, Mrs Reddy (extreme left) and Indian Prime Minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi, on his arrival in New Delhi. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Beyond its far-reaching consequences in Bangladesh, the assassination of President Ziaur Rahman has had considerable repercussions all over South Asia.

In a region where stability is often elusive and democracy is fragile, governments and embassies have spent much of the week since President Zia died in a hail of bullets re-evaluating some of their familiar political equations.

”There’s no telling what it will all mean in the long run, of course,” said a worried Asian diplomat. ”But it’s certainly time to look at everything afresh.”

Even to governments, such as India’s, that had difficulty dealing with President Zia and hope for a better deal from his successor, the prospect of instability here is worrisome. And the murder of an elected leader – the second time it has happened in six years in this country -causes apprehension all over.

The country that has the most to gain or lose by what eventually happens here is India, which surrounds Bangladesh on three sides with a border that is often in dispute. The dominant power in the region, India has been intimately involved in the affairs of Bangladesh since the Indian Army won this nation its independence from the rest of Pakistan in 1971.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was close to Sheik Mujibur Rahman, the father of Bangladesh, and she was enraged and frightened when he was assassinated in 1975 and succeeded a few months later by Ziaur Rahman, then an army general.

Relations with India have not been particularly good since then and, as it happens, the weeks immediately preceding President Zia’s assassination by a group of army rebels marked an especially hostile period, at least in the words flowing back and forth between here and New Delhi.

The immediate point of contention is a tiny island formed recently by silt deposits in the mouth of the Ganges, along the common border. Both countries claim the island, and the claim is more important than the island because it also affects sovereignty over a wide region of ocean and seabed to the south. Indians Occupy the Island

Early last month, a Bangladeshi patrol boat discovered two Indian Navy warships at the island and found that Indian troops had set up a flag and a radio station on the brown, muddy shore. Bangladesh was incensed. Angry diplomatic notes flew back and forth, and Prime Minister Gandhi was burned in effigy at protest demonstrations here.

”We’re tired of the way that the Indians are always trying to push us around,” said a Bangladeshi official, promising that the issue would be raised again as soon as the country finished the period of mourning for President Zia.

In Pakistan itself, the Zia assassination is believed to have caused some apprehension within the Government of President Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, a general who is ruling by martial law.

Although the Pakistani Army is more disciplined and far less politicized than the one here, ”an army strike anywhere makes restive officers in other countries begin to think about the options,” as a diplomat in New Delhi said.

And anything that might destabilize Pakistan could be of great concern to the United States, which has come to regard Pakistan as its most important ally in the region, especially in the 18 months since the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.

The abrupt removal of the Bangladeshi President also dealt a blow to a campaign he had been leading for more regional cooperation in a part of the world where nationalistic suspicion tends to be the rule.

Largely at Mr. Zia’s initiative, the foreign secretaries of Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and four smaller nations in the area met in April in a ”South Asian Forum,” to discuss joint economic and technical programs. His death will at least slow its momentum, in the opinion of Bangladeshis involved in the forum.

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