Ziaur Rahman: the kind of statesman we need now

Today is the 30th death anniversary of President Ziaur Rahman. This anniversary comes at a time when Zia, his image, contribution and his philosophy are under fiercest attack ever.

After decades of relentless attack on Zia, the war hero and Zia the statesman, after abysmal failure of Zia’s party to portray him appropriately and effectively, it is no surprise if much of new generation Bangladeshis carry a faulty perception of Ziaur Rahman.

These days we talk a lot about bringing forward-looking youthfulness in our politics. And we also talk a lot about coming out of the slippery slope of hatred and vengeance and create a politics of reconciliation. We keep on hoping, hopelessly, for political leaders with courage and honesty.

Indeed, 35 years ago, it was Ziaur Rahman who brought all these traits together into the politics of Bangladesh and helped people of Bangladesh dream big.

When Zia went on live radio and declared “I hereby proclaim the independence of Bangladesh on behalf of our great national leader Bangabandhu…” he was only 34 years old. Then when he took over the helms of Bangladesh he was 39, and by the time he died leading Bangladesh through its most formative years, Zia was only 45.

Missing in all discussions on Zia is his outright bravery that shaped his and his family’s life as well as shaped the fate of Bangladesh. At the age of 29, he won a military award of gallantry for his bravery during 1965 Indo-Pak war. On 25th March night, leaving his family at the mercy of murderous Pakistani forces, when he revolted and held his pistol at the head of his commanding officer Colonel Janjua – Zia knew very well that he only had one way out of this: fight and win the war.

A political settlement might have pardoned politicians, but for him and his men, a court martial and death penalty was inevitable. In this regard, he or other revolting military officers were not at the same ground with politicians involved with the war.

Five years later, on 3rd November 1975, when Zia was put under house arrest by Col. Shafaet Jamil’s forces, death may have lurked much closer. Four days later, when Col Taher’s Marxist indoctrinated murderous forces were chanting slogan, “Sepoy Sepoy bhai bhai, Officer er rokto chai (Sepoys are brethren – want blood of the officers), killing officers and their families indiscriminately, the whole military chain of command was at tatters, Zia — rather than confining himself to the safety of Army Chief’s office protected by trusted soldiers — went to work. Again risking his life, all day he visited unit to unit to pacify the blood-thirsty rebels and with firm command disarmed the jawans, bringing them back under officers’ control.

Rest of his life and leadership also contain examples of courage. Numerous coup attempts neither could isolate him from the people nor could slow him down.

Living at a time when politics in Bangladesh has become suffused with vengeance and communalism, and while we constantly lament lack of fresh intelligent faces in our politics, Zia’s reconciliatory statesmanship seems like a remote phenomenon. With 15th August massacre and the bloody November at the backdrop, Zia created the biggest ever coalition to rebuild Bangladesh. Not only he included leftist, rightist, centrist political elements in his platform, he also relied heavily on fresh faces — young and bright professionals — in his nation building politics.

Unlike present day, Zia’s political platform was not only for the career politicians, rich businessmen or retired generals or bureaucrats. Leading members of his party and government were the smartest physician, the smartest professor, the smartest accountant, the smartest barrister, the smartest editor and the wisest judge of that time.

He did not only focus on his own government and party; he understood fully the need and role of a strong opposition in a democracy. While he inherited a martial law imposed by the leaders of 15th August coup and constitutional one-party rule imposed by pre 15th August Awami League government of Bangabandhu — Zia made it his first priority to bring back multiparty democracy in Bangladesh. Rather than trying to permanently erase Awami League from Bangladesh, he took all the steps necessary to revamp Awami League from the ruins of BAKSAL.

Recently, Bangladesh went through an experimental under-disguise military rule to impose ‘reform’ within the main political parties of Bangladesh. Our political parties have always been managed in a dictatorial way by the leader. Despite all the false propaganda against him as a brutal dictator, Zia apparently was the first, if not the only leader to allow exercise of democracy within the party. Election of Shah Azizur Rahman as the leader of parliament and prime minister is a perfect example. Ziaur Rahman did not want Shah Aziz for the role owing to the latter’s role in 1971. He wanted ex-NAP leader Moshiur Rahman Jadu Mia to become the leader of parliament and the prime minister.

When Jadu Mia passed away, he preferred a fresh face such as Dr Badruddoza Chowdhury or Saifur Rahman for the job. However, he also wanted the party’s parliamentarians to choose their leader through a secret ballot, which the shrewd Shah Aziz managed to win. Zia could have ignored the wish of his MPs, but chose not to.

While we now see how petty partisanship trump over all other qualifications in government’s day-to-day business, Zia always welcomed people who were not his direct supporters, including his political opponents. Zia’s foreign minister was Professor Shamsul Haq, who served Zia till his death but never joined his party. Mr. M R Siddiqui — a prominent Awami League leader from Chittagong —refused to disown Awami League and remained president of Chittagong unit. Yet Zia, with a bipartisan spirit, appointed Mr. Siddiqui as his most vital ambassador, to the United States.

Zia’s message is as relevant today as it was during his time. Read up any of his speeches, they will appear timely and pertinent. His speech defining Bangladeshi Nationalism remains the most inclusive and the most successful vision of our nationhood that was ever articulated by a Bangladeshi leader. His speeches about family planning, nuclear proliferation or climate change were decades ahead of their time in describing the challenges that would one day face us. In the field of diplomacy, he pioneered the friendly relations with countries of the Middle East that have become our most important labour markets and one of the mainstays of our economy.

Time Magazine, in its June 8, 1981 issue, published a full-page report on the death of President Ziaur Rahman. The report ended with these sentences:

The slain Zia had been one of South Asia’s most promising leaders, a man who lived modestly while others chose corruption, who searched tirelessly for solutions to his country’s awesome poverty. He was also a fatalist. Once, reflecting on his service for Pakistan in the 1965 war with India over Kashmir, he observed: “There is no scientific explanation for a man to die or live. In front of me many people died, but I got a bonus of life.” He used that bonus well, but last week it ran out.