If one asks BNP activists to say a few things about Ziaur Rahman, it will be difficult to find many who know more than two words, “Swadhinotar Ghoshok”. Since Zia’s death, his own political platform has been in power longer than any other political party. Yet there has been a miserable failure in projecting the late president and his contributions to the post-Zia generations.
Since his death, Zia has been among the most divisive figures in Bangladesh. Until very recently, one’s opinion about Zia could be used reliably as the indicator of one’s political orientation. Those with largely positive views about Zia’s contribution voted consistently against Awami League candidates, while it used to be rare to find an Awami League voter who would have a positive perception of Zia. Hence in electoral politics, BNP used to get easy votes riding on the late president’s high personal popularity.
However, the 2008 election was a rude awakening for BNP as it found that the easy free lunch of votes on Zia image has either disappeared or emotion for Zia is no longer strong enough to ensure an automatic vote for BNP.
And it is BNP itself that is to be blamed for this. By continuously harping on the sole issue of independence declaration, BNP totally failed in explaining to the nation what Ziaur Rahman meant to post independent Bangladesh and Bangladesh politics.
Even in the declaration of independence issue, BNP could never explain the real import of Zia’s declaration. In a narrow-minded and shortsighted politics, when BNP tried to equate Zia’s role with that of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, they found themselves bogged down in a debate on minute issues like who went first on the air. While the misguided intention was to eclipse Sheikh Mujib, BNP forced Zia competing with a local Awami League leader MA Hannan as the first one to go on air. In the process, BNP failed to highlight a vital role played by Zia’s declaration.
It is clear from different Pakistani defence literature that when Operation Searchlight was designed with an intention to totally uproot the Bangladeshi nationalist movement in the then East Pakistan, the plan was a ’shock and awe’ attack with specific focus on targeted groups like center-left, pro-Bangladesh politicians, students, minority communities and progressive journalists-intellectuals. Also included in their attack list were police forces and paramilitary forces like the East Pakistan Rifles. As for the Bengalis in the military, the Pakistanis thought they could be controlled by putting them under Non-Bengali officers, in non-essential duties, and posting a significant number of them in then West Pakistan. So when battalion after battalion of conventional regulation forces started revolting and joining the Liberation War through conventional battles against Pakistani forces in border areas, Pakistani policy makers did not have a clear counter strategy and they failed to adapt quickly. And in this regard, the event that holds paramount value is a declaration of independence read by an ‘unknown major’ noted for his bravery, belonging to mighty military of Pakistan. This announcement not only gave the people of the occupied country great hope that our liberation war has started, it spread the fire of resistance to other Bengali majority military and law enforcement installations across the country. What Pakistani authorities wanted to portray as domestic law enforcement problem against separatist miscreants or foreign agents instantly turned into a full scale war in the eyes of foreign media as more and more people heard the rebroadcasts of Major Zia’s announcement.
And yet, BNP could never explain this historic importance to the people. It would have been both the right thing and the smarter political act for BNP to acknowledge Sheikh Mujib’s role as the philosophical-political founder of independent Bangladesh, while emphasising Zia’s declaration as the required military supplement to Bangabandhu’s political call for independence. Instead, since 1983, BNP has tried the impossible act of replacing Mujib with Zia. There is a failure in establishing the fact that after the genocide of 25th March, no other announcement, even that by Bangabandhu himself would carry as much weight as the declaration by any Major of regular Pakistan army.
An even more glaring failure has been BNP’s complete ignoring of any intellectual discussion on Zia’s role in building modern Bangladesh, particularly his role in shaping a democratic political geography in Bangladesh. The healthy political system of two party dominance where one leans center left and the other center right is a contribution of Ziaur Rahman—the politician. Although in current day reality, our constitutional identity of Bangladeshi is a foregone conclusion, as the visionary of this identity, Zia’s place as one of the architects of Bangladesh is far from a foregone conclusion.
During its two terms in office after Zia’s death, BNP never made any significant effort to bring back Zia from archives. BTV or any other TV or a filmmaker never bothered doing an in depth documentary on Ziaur Rahman, although there should have been hundreds of hours of news footage of Zia stored in BTV archives. There has been little research, analysis, and dissertation about Zia’s policies. Zia’s janaza saw the largest crowd in living memory, but even for research and documentation purposes one will be hard pressed to find any TV footage/still photo of that unprecedented outpouring of public grief.
In paying respect to Zia, other than naming some sites, only thing BNP did over the years was to go to Zia’s grave on every possible occasion, do a public display of elbow fight of its leaders to be in the front row and let BNP activists ruin the sanctity of the mausoleum by climbing/sitting on the wall, trampling the flower beds, throwing cigarette packets, nut shells on the ground and fighting with each other. While in Awami League gatherings, Bangabandhu images kept on getting larger and larger, BNP kept on downsizing Zia’s images from small to smaller to make space for bigger pictures of Tarique Rahman. It is not clear why BNP leadership thinks that ‘brand Tarique’ Rahman can help BNP better than ‘brand Zia’!
Not only failing in publicising Zia’s contributions, Mrs Zia made major deviations from some of Zia’s basic policies. One policy that made Zia popular and guaranteed votes for BNP even 25 years after his death was Zia’s stubborn refusal to allow family members in politics, thus shunning nepotism. Mrs Zia threw that policy out the first chance she got.
To be fair, BNP leadership can’t blame anyone but themselves for starting the process of erasing Zia.
Now, coming to power for the second time after Zia’s death, it looks like Awami League is hell bent is erasing Zia from our history. In an unprecedented collaboration between a powerful political government, the high judiciary, the media mainstream, the dominant intellectuals and the civil society, currently there is a strong movement to shun Zia from our horizon.
This trend again shows that we don’t learn from history. This war between all-powerful establishment and a dead president will only empower the dead president more than before.
Although it is true that Zia’s image took a nosedive due to the neglect by last two BNP governments, any attempt by Awami League to remove Zia from peoples’ mind will be counter productive. Additionally, a new non-partisan generation of young political junkies and researchers will someday dig out the truth about Zia.
One of the major complaints of Awami League and AL leaning intellectuals against BNP was distortion of history. But when these same intellectuals are doing the same crime by revising the history in a partisan way to discredit a dead president, their moral bankruptcy is becoming more evident in public perception. They should have known better. As similar efforts from mid seventies through mid nineties could not erase Mujib from history, a High Court verdict or a PM’s executive order or a senior parliamentarian’s verbal diarrhoea will also not be able to erase Zia from history.