Zia That I Knew: A Flashback

  • May 27, 2009 at 12:30 AM

By Abu Obaid Chowdhury from New York, USA

Following my defection from Pakistan Army in 1971 and after being cleared by the Indian and Mujibnagar authorities, I was posted to ‘Z Force’ of Lt Col Ziaur Rahman in the eastern theater of Bangladesh liberation war. The nearly 20-day journey took me from Lahore to Khemkaran to Ferozepur to Delhi to Kolkata to Agartala and finally to Masimpur, the 4 sector headquarters of Lt Col C R Dutta (later Major General).
As I reached my temporary accommodation, I heard a familiar voice next room. He was talking to Col Dutta. I went to check and found a gentleman in uniform, somewhat tired, half lying on the bamboo made platform, used as bed. It was dark and I could not see the face clearly. I wished him and introduced myself. He sat down and said, “So you are the Captain who came to raise my artillery unit. Sit down.”
I still could not make out who the person was, though looked familiar. 2/Lt Sajjad Ali Zahir (later Lt Col), another defectee from West Pakistan and posted to my unit, joined me at Agartala. He followed me to the room. As I introduced Sajjad to the man, almost instantly the name flashed across my mind.
“He is Col Ziaur Rahman”, I said to Sajjad. Earlier, then Major Ziaur Rahman was an instructor in the military academy when I was a cadet and his solid, deep voice was well known to me.On his query, I had to tell Col Zia my defection story—how I crossed the Lahore-Khemkaran border in a military jeep, how I survived after falling with the jeep in the Kasur River, who I reported to at India’s Rajoke cantonment etc. He seemed to know the route and area pretty well. Somewhat surprised, I asked how he knew the names of those villages, tracks, BRB canal, barriers etc. “I was fighting the Indians there in 1965 with 1 E Bengal Regiment”, Zia said.
After dinner, Zia left for his headquarters at Kailashahar. Before leaving he told me to take stock of my unit at Kukital and report to him in a day or two to find out what I needed to make the unit battle worthy within the shortest possible time. Capt Oli Ahmed (later Col and BNP Minister) and my Sialkot time friend Capt M A Halim (later Maj Gen), Brigade Major and Quartermaster respectively at Z Force, were very helpful in providing me with the material support I needed.
Whole Bangladesh is Firing Range
About two weeks later, Col M A G Osmani (later General and Minister), C-in-C of the Mukti Bahini, was visiting the area. Zia brought him to my camp with a view to showing the readiness of my guns for operation. I arranged a mock gun firing drill for the visiting team. Lt (later Capt and late) Sheikh Kamal, ADC to the C-in-C, told me afterwards, “Sir, the C-in-C was very impressed with the exercise. I heard him saying so to Col Zia.” Of course, Osmani himself appreciated the preparedness and congratulated those who participated in the drill. At the luncheon at my camp, I asked him if I could conduct a practice firing before going to the real one, for which I needed a firing range.
“The whole Bangladesh is your firing range, my boy”, said Osmani, “go ahead.” He gave me a blank check.
After a day or two, while returning from forward positions, I noticed a large convoy of vehicles carrying soldiers passing by. Initially I thought they were Indians, but with a closer look I recognized they were our Mukti Bahini soldiers. In those days, we had the same OG (olive green) uniform worn by the Indian army in that area. After a while, I found Col Zia coming in a jeep. He stopped when he saw me. I asked him what was all that.
“That’s my 1st Bengal”, Zia brimmed with pride.“Where are they going?” I asked.He got off his jeep and asked me to follow him. We went up on a high ground from where we could oversee the convoy passing.“They are going to Atgram, to take up positions in preparation for the attack on the Pakistanis”, Zia said as he was preparing to sit down. He briefly explained the plan for a 3-prong attack in north eastern Sylhet with his 1st, 3rd and 8th Bengal regiments.
“Am I not part of your brigade?” I asked, suppressing my disappointment.
“Of course you are”, Zia asserted.
“Then why am I left out of this?” I demanded.
“Are you ready?” he asked me.
“Anytime”, I replied.
I cannot describe in words the expression of happiness and pride that I noticed in Zia’s face at that moment.
“Fine”, he said, “you are going in support of 8th Bengal, possibly tonight. On my way, I will talk to Brigadier (I don’t remember the name who was Zia’s Indian support counterpart) to issue the ammunition and gun towers (trucks) to you on a priority basis. See me at headquarters later tonight. I will give you further details.”
My excitement knew no bounds and was about to run away to arranged the details for the D-day I was waiting for.
Fight the War Our Way
“Wait, sit down”, Col Zia stopped me, “there is time. Give me company while I see my unit clear away.” As the convoy moved on, our discussion shifted to different directions. I told him how Pakistanis in the west had been conducting misleading propaganda about our war, our heroes and our future. In Pakistan, Zia and many others were already dead. I discovered a different Zia from the reclusive and serious one that most people knew. It looked like he wanted to open his mind.
We talked about the war, the strategy, its conduct and the policy makers in Mujibnagar. He expressed his frustration at the style and pace the war was going. He didn’t like too much dependence on India for the conduct of our war.
“It is our war, we should fight it our way, not on someone else’s convenience”, he said. He did not hide his dislike for Col Osmani, the Mukti Bahini chief. “That man with white moustache”, Zia said referring to Osmani, “has no idea about the situation in the war fronts and the enemy. Just passing orders off the map at someone else’s dictation. I don’t like it”.
I was a bit embarrassed that he would open up like that with a subordinate and junior officer. But I also knew Zia, for whatever reasons, developed a liking for me and could confide. Our association continued till I met the president last in September 1980.
The sun was setting when we got up to leave. I told Col Zia that I could be late to reach his headquarters tonight because I had a number of errands to complete before I moved out. “Don’t worry”, Zia assured me, “I don’t go to bed early”. I later learnt that Zia usually worked till early hours of the morning in those days. He slept very little.
I came to Zia’s headquarters around 11 pm and found him working in his tent, dimly lighted by a lantern. Our meeting was brief. He showed me the deployment of 8 Bengal Regiment off the map and I was to place guns suitably to support its attacks and advances. He called his BM Capt Oli and DQ Capt Halim to provide me whatever I needed.
My unit’s first operation in Baralekha, Sylhet was a huge success. Next morning, an overjoyed Col Zia, accompanied by Capt Oli, visited my gun position. Greeting with a warm handshake, he told me, “You made history in our liberation war”. He went round and shook hands and congratulated every man I had. Before Col Zia left, I told him that I would be going to the forward locations of 8 Bengal as FOO (Forward Observation Officer) soon.
“Make sure the gun position is well taken care of. These guns are very precious for us”, Zia advised.
“It is in good hand, sir”, I assured him.
Sometime in 1973, then army deputy chief Maj Gen Ziaur Rahman was on a visit to Chittagong where I was a staff officer to Col (later Lt Gen and BNP Minister) Mir Shawkat Ali, the local commander. At a luncheon for Zia at the commander’s Flag Staff House where Brigadier Khalilur Rahman (later Maj Gen, Defense Adviser to Khandakar Mushtaque and AL MP), just repatriated from Pakistan, was also present. Zia and Khalil were discussing our liberation war. At one stage, Zia called me to tell the brigadier how I raised my artillery unit and how long it took me to train and make it ready for the war.
“The whole thing took me less than 3 weeks”, I said.
A skeptical brigadier asked, “If you are given the men and material, would you be able to accomplish the same now?”
“Definitely, sir; however, it may take a little longer time,” I replied.
“Please bear in mind, sir”, I added, “it was wartime, that too a liberation war. Our only mission was to fight and win. We used every minute of our time, day and night, to get ready. I had some excellent trained artillery men from former Pakistan army. They formed the core, the rest were ordinary soldiers, students and others.
You got to see their spirit to believe it, sir. The beauty was, the unit that went to operation on a Ramadan afternoon without prior practice firing, had its very first shell falling right on the target, a Pakistani concentration in Baralekha, Sylhet, readying for an attack on 8 Bengal positions. That unexpected (Pakistanis never knew before that Mukti Bahini had artillery power) and devastating artillery shelling forced the disarrayed enemy to start a process of retreat leading to a complete defeat in that area.”
I could see a proud Gen Zia enjoying our conversation standing nearby. He perhaps desired to highlight my contributions in our liberation war to the one who missed that chance.
The Revolt in Chittagong
Once at Kailashahar, Capt Oli told me the story how 8 E Bengal revolted at Halishahar in Chittagong on the night of March 25, 1971. The facts were later corroborated by Major Shamsher M Chowdhury, a batch mate (later Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to the US), Brigadier Chowdhury Khaluquzzaman (later Ambassador), and Capt Mahfuzur Rahman (later Lt Col and hanged following the assassination of Zia). They were all serving in 8 Bengal at that time.
Lt Col M R Chowdhury of East Bengal Recruits’ Center (EBRC), Major Ziaur Rahman, Second-in-Command of 8 Bengal, Capt Rafiqul Islam (later Major and AL Minister) of East Pakistan Rifles and a few other officers had a number of secret coordinating meetings in Chittagong to cope with the situation if Pakistanis attacked the Bengalis. They sent messages to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to inform that Pakistanis were preparing to disarm and attack the Bengali elements of the military and sought his advice and direction. They did not receive any. (Please see “A Tale of Millions” by Major Rafiqul Islam.)
On the night of March 25, 1971, operation Search Light, designed to annihilate the Bengalis by Pakistan Army, started in the cantonments, including Chittagong. Shamsher confirmed that elements of 20 Baluch and 31 Punjab regiments were advancing towards Halishahar. 8 Bengal then decided to revolt and resist the Pakistanis.
They arrested the Pakistani officers, including the Commanding Officer Lt Col Rashid Janjua (these officers were later killed) and wanted Ziaur Rahman to take command. At that moment, Zia was being taken, under naval escorts, to the Chittagong port, ostensibly to help unload the Chinese armaments from HMV Swat. According to other versions, Zia was actually on his way to his final journey! Khaliquzzaman rushed to get Zia and luckily found him waiting by the roadside while his escorts were clearing a barricade at Agrabad area. Khaliquzzaman whispered to Zia of the decision of 8 Bengal and then went to the navy Lt to say that Col Ansari, the new Punjabi Commandant at the EBRC, wanted Zia at Chittagong cantonment immediately. The Punjabi Lt did not suspect any foul play.
Zia and Khaliquzzaman rushed to the unit and found a truncated unit ready for action. Half of the men deserted out of fear and confusion. Major Shawkat recently arrived from Quetta after completing staff college course and was temporarily appointed Adjutant of 8 Bengal. As he was new in the unit, other officers could not take him into confidence at first. Some young officers were not sure if Shawkat was a Bengali at all. Shawkat was at his quarter and knew nothing about all that was going in the unit at that moment. Upon arrival, Zia went to Shawkat and asked if he would join the revolt. Shawkat thought for a while and then decided to join the group.
Though 8 Bengal readied itself to meet the attacking Pakistanis, they were outnumbered. Zia decided to fall back to Kalurghat and reorganize. They fought pitch battles and suffered heavy casualties in the process. Capt Harun Ahmed Chowdhury (later Maj Gen and Ambassador), Shamsher and others were mortally wounded and captured by the Pakistanis.
Here on March 27, 1971, Zia made his famous declaration of independence at the Kalurghat Radio Station. According to Oli, he was instrumental in the making of the declaration. He even claimed to have made Zia. Shamsher told me that he drafted the final version of the declaration. So much for the controversy over the declaration of independence made by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on the night of March 25, 1971.
Audacity to Distort Zia’s Role
Lately, a few AL ministers and parliamentarians started disputing Zia’s participation in the war of liberation. Former minister Prof Abu Syed and one Dr. Mina Farah of New York, who chose to incinerate her Muslim son instead of burial, had the audacity to claim in recent talk shows that Zia was not a freedom fighter at all. I can only say that these persons need to get their brain checked.
Special Mission
In September 1980, I was sent to Dhaka on a special mission concerning military cooperation in one of the middle-eastern countries. My meetings with Minister Prof Shamsul Huq and Foreign Secretary SHMS Kibria were not positive. Army chief General H M Ershad and chief of the general staff Maj Gen Abdul Manaf were hesitant. I wanted to talk to the president. While I was waiting in the office of the Military Secretary to the President Col Sadequr Rahman Chowdhury in Bangabhaban, President Zia suddenly burst in and asked me, without any prelude, “What kind of proposal is it? How can we agree to this? We have no capability to undertake such a task. Besides, we can’t afford to enter into a kind of rivalry with a superpower.”
I understood the president came straight from the meeting deliberating on the same issue. While coming to the Bangabhaban, I saw Ershad there.
“Sir, give me a few minutes”, I requested the president, “and I will explain the stake involved, how it can be made possible and what we stand to gain. There is no superpower rivalry, and I believe you were not given the correct picture by our foreign office.” The president tried to defend the foreign office though.
We sat down and I stated what I thought right. I also said something to the president in confidence which only I could dare say. I pointed out that peripheral and invisible resources (I even listed those resources) of our military would be more than enough to make an initial commitment. In return, we can seek financial assistance and resources to raise more units, modernize, equip and train our forces. It would be an ongoing process.
That did the job! I could see a glow in the face of the president.
“Please do not say ‘NO’, sir,” I begged the president, further adding, “for the first time, a rich friend requested Bangladesh for something”.
“Wait a moment”, he told me and turned to the MSP, “Sadeq, get hold of Ershad, he was leaving. I need to talk to him again”. The president went out of the room and I was hoping for the best. After half an hour, the president came back and told me, “Ok, you tell them, we accept the proposal in principle. But, we need to discuss further. We may have to send a team of experts to examine the details”.
“Thank you, sir. But, it needs to be conveyed by our foreign office”, I humbly submitted.“I will talk to the foreign minister,” the president said.
A little relaxed, I now had time to exchange usual pleasantries with the president. At one stage, he picked up a newspaper, I thought it was Holiday, from the desk of the MSP and proudly showed me a news item that said Bangladesh would export certain type of quality rice.
“How can we do that?” It was my time to be surprised now.
“We will do it, you will see”, asserted a confident president.
I later learnt that the Foreign Office maintained its original position. I felt a huge overseas opportunity for our defense forces was sabotaged. (I am unable to detail the opportunity here).
That was the last time I saw Shaheed President Ziaur Rahman.
After his death, I went to Bangladesh on vacation. My wife and I visited a bereaved Begum Zia at her residence. Brigadier Mahtab (late), an old friend, was with me. Begum Zia talked very little, but acknowledged receipt of my condolence letter. In course of our discussion, she asked me, “What do you think should happen now and how the things should be run?” I could not figure out what she meant. Mahtab clarified that who I should think to take the leadership and carry forward ideals of Zia at that juncture.
I was not prepared for such a question and had no idea what Begum Zia was trying to lead me to, least of all her political ambition. I just fumbled that if anybody could come close to the stature of Ziaur Rahman, I thought it would be General M A Manzur. Unfortunately, he was the man behind the assassination of the president. (At that time, we were made to believe it was Manzur who masterminded the bloody coup in Chittagong. Later, however, I had different view about Manzur’s complicity.) I expressed my inability to name a successor to Zia.
Years later, I said to myself in retrospect, “Stupid, the right answer should have been: you Madam.” In a letter to General Ershad commending his efforts in quelling the Chittagong rebellion, I said, ‘given the peoples’ love and respect Shaheed President Zia received (reportedly 2 million people gathered around Dhaka airport when his coffin was brought in from Chittagong and attended his final Janaza), a Zia-like death is worth million times’. I also submitted that he had huge responsibilities for the stability in the military, as well as the nation. Ershad was kind enough to reply saying he was ‘working’ on some ideas and would seek our support. I later learnt what he was ‘working’ on.
We Have Been Orphaned
I went to the Bangabhaban again, this time to see Justice Abdus Sattar, the acting president. As I was waiting at the office of Col S R Chowdhury, the MSP related an experience. While on a visit to Zia’s mazaar at one night, he found an old man crying by the grave. Sadeq went to share the feelings and console the man. He came all the way from Rangpur to pay his respect to the shaheed president. “‘Badsha’ Zia had walked through my front yard”, the old man continued to cry, “how can I forget that? We have been orphaned.”
During a courtesy call on Maj Gen Mohabbat Jan Chowdhury (later Minister of Ershad), Director General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), I asked how come his intelligence failed when such a tragedy took place in Chittagong? Gen Chowdhury said that they knew something was in the offing in Chittagong and warned the president accordingly, but the president did not take it seriously. They also reminded the president on more than one occasion that Gen Manzur was going out of control, often refused to follow orders and instructions from army headquarters and mostly did things his way. According to M J Chowdhury, the president never believed them; he would rather rebuke them (repatriated and non-freedom fighter officers) instead, saying that they were jealous of Manzur who was far more superior in intellect and competence.
A footnote: The President’s rehabilitation of the repatriated officers in high positions in the military enraged the young freedom fighter officers. The coup that killed the president was staged by freedom fighter officers. During a discussion with Gen Manzur in his office in Chittagong in 1979, I discovered how bitter he was against the non-freedom fighters. At the same time, I knew Zia and Manzur enjoyed great cordiality, mutual confidence and close relation. After the November 7, 1975 Sepoy-Janata Uprising, situation in the military was almost out of control and its discipline was at its lowest. Zia brought in Brig Manzur from New Delhi, where he was the military adviser, and appointed him the chief of the general staff. It was Manzur who brought back order in the military.
Incorruptible Zia
President Ziaur Rahman’s austere and honest lifestyle was legendary. Even his worst enemy can not dispute that. Critics, however, blamed him for doing little against corrupt practices of some of his ministers and political leaders.
In late 1972, I called on then Brigadier Zia at his residence to introduce my newly married wife. Other than being overwhelmed with the extraordinary beauty of Begum Zia, my wife noticed that Zia was wearing an ordinary leather sandal having repairs done.
It was a common knowledge what was found in Zia’s broken suitcase at the Chittagong Circuit House following his assassination on May 30, 1981—a few change of clothes that included a torn vest.Here is a story I heard from Hussain Ahmed, a former IGP and Secretary. An SP came to his residence at a late hour of night with a request to cancel his posting to a distant place. A much annoyed IGP dismissed the request. Before leaving, the disappointed SP pointed to his accompanying gentleman who remained absolutely silent the whole time, “Sir, do you know him?” The IGP replied in negative.
“He is Mizanur Rahman, brother of the President”, said the SP. Naturally, the IGP became a little soft and more accommodating now and asked the SP to see him in the office. He, however, did not recall if that request was ever met.
Later, the IGP casually related the story to Air Vice Marshal Islam, then DGFI. A day or two later, IGP’s red phone rang at around 3 am. Somewhat disturbed to be awakened at that odd hour, he picked up the phone and received a thunder.
“I heard that b—— went to you for a favor?” It was the president and it took time for the IGP to understand what he was referring to. The IGP tried to pacify the president saying that his brother just accompanied the SP and did not utter a word at all. “I would like to have a full report tomorrow”, the president insisted and dropped the phone.
Reportedly, president Ziaur Rahman sent out circulars to all departments that personal requests by his family members should be directed to him immediately.
Everybody knew the fact that Zia refused to intervene when his son Tarique was thrown out of Shaheen School. During an official visit to Zambia, High Commissioner A N Hamidullah was briefing the president on the program, repeatedly mentioning of an appointment with president’s brother Rezaur Rahman who was working there as an engineer. The president did not like it. He rebuked the High Commissioner for putting his brother’s appointment in the official program. “I know my brother is here. I will meet him at my own convenience, and it is my personal matter”, the president reminded the High Commissioner.
Another story from Hussain Ahmed. The almost daily Bangabhaban evening meetings used to run for long hours and working dinners were served from the house. The menu was more than simple–rice or roti with one curry and dal. Minister Moudud Ahmed found difficulty to take that any more. At dinner time, he requested the president if he could be excused as he had promised his children to eat together. The president smiled and let him go.
One may recall that Ziaur Rahman introduced Toyota Corolla as the official car at all levels, including for himself. A few Mercedes that Bangabhaban had were used only for foreign dignitaries during official visits.
Alas, the Zia family seemed to have failed to keep the clean image that Zia had in his lifetime!

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