Ziaur Rahman’s legacy: puzzle, lesson and tragedy

Zia has gone through an almost Darwinian process of selection through the war with Pakistan and coups in Bangladesh. He has never denigrated politicians as a class – which is itself typical of the present day military rulers of many third-world countries. On the contrary, he has shown adroit political skills in bringing together diverse political groups and accumulating political power though coalition-building.

That’s from the last paragraph of Prof Talukdar Maniruzzaman’s ‘The Bangladesh Revolution and its aftermath’. This post is about some puzzle, lesson and tragedy about the legacy of the president assassinated 27 years ago today.*

After the spontaneous uprising in Dhaka University last August, Bangladesh’s military-backed regime arrested a number of university teachers. Prof Anwar Hossain, the seniormost among the detained teachers, issued a very courageous statement in January (see here). The statement is important for its sheer courage under fire. When the rest of the country seemed to have accepted the facade of constitutional rule, Prof Hossain dared to challenge the military. It was very inspiring stuff. It was the stuff that history is made of.

It also had some stuff of made up history. About halfway down the statement, Professor Hossain claimed that during the coups of the first week of November 1975, Brig Khaled Musharraf and his allies were killed by conspirators in cahoots with Zia.  Compare this with the widely accepted narrative of events of that month: Musharraf overthrows Khondoker Mushtaque and the majors who killed Mujib and family; majors’ allies kill senior Awami League leaders in jail; Musharraf appoints Justice Sayem as president, puts Zia under house arrest, and tries to consolidate power; Col Taher organises a countercoup in which Musharraf and allies are killed and Zia is freed; Zia moves against Taher and his followers. There are significant differences of opinion about the interpretations of those events.  Bangladesh’s politics has been divided about the heroes and villains of those coups. But the broad timeline of who killed whom and when had never been in dispute, until this January.

Prof Hossain, who happens to be a younger brother of Col Taher, clearly contradicts what Taher said in his own statement to the court martial that sentenced him to death in 1976. The original version of that statement is available in Lawrence Lifschultz’s ‘Bangladesh: The Unfinished Revolution’.

So, Prof Hossain is engaging in a bit of rewriting history. Who doesn’t in Bangladesh? The cynic might ask. But isn’t it a tragedy that even in what could be a shining hour, our esteemed elders engage in such blatant partisan truths?

It’s not like there aren’t issues of substance about Zia’s legacy that can be debated.

What about Zia’s stance on secularism? He replaced ‘secularism’ with ‘complete faith in the almighty Allah’ as one of the republic’s fundamental policies because apparently there was ‘much resentment amongst the people’ against secularism (he claimed so in a televised address to the nation upon becoming the president on 22 April 1977). Was his take on the public attitude towards secularism accurate? Was incorporation of secularism into the constitution in the first place done with sufficient consultation? Do they justify the junking of secularism? My answers are: perhaps, no, and no to these questions.  Others would have different views.  And reasonable people can have substantive debates on all these points.

What about Zia’s take on national identity? Was Bangladesh nationalism just the two-nation theory / Muslim nationalism in a different garb? Was it meant to turn Bangladeshis who are not Bengali Sunni Muslims into second-class citizens? Or was it an attempt at creating a rights-based citizenship notion of national identity? Again, reasonable people can debate these.

What about how Zia dealt with Mujib’s assassins? Was he merely continuing an arrangement made by Khaled Musharraf, who allowed the killers safe passage out of the country? Was he so worried about the leftist followers of Taher that he felt compelled to make a tactical truce with the rightist majors? Or was he ideologically allied with the majors? Why was he so lenient on them and so merciless against Taher’s supporters, even though the majors too tried to assassinate him through attempted coups?

For these debates, we don’t need to make up history. We can note Ziaur Rahman for who he was: an army general whose rise to power was through violent coups and countercoups, an army general who in power doffed his uniform and evolved into a canny politician, and a politician who was widely popular yet feared his dead predecessor. Why do we need to make up history when it comes to Zia?

And it’s not only Zia’s political opponents who make stuff up. Arguably the biggest acts of vandalism when it comes to history are around Zia’s radio speech in the early days of our Liberation War. Noting that Zia made a call to arms, using Mujib’s name, in the early days of the War would have been enough to guarantee him a place in the history books. The fact that a serving major of the Pakistan army publicly called for resistance motivated many others to join the war. Just noting this would have been sufficient, but his followers, particularly in BNP’s last term in office, went much further. Why? And why did they continue with that popycock when Zia’s achievements in power – economic stability, political tranquility, foreign policy successes – could have been projected without making stuff up?

This history rewriting about Zia by everyone concerned is the puzzle when it comes to his legacy.

We need to stop such shenanigans, and take a dispassionate, cold, hard look at President Zia’s legacy. His legacy can give us important lessons about predicaments we face in today’s Bangladesh. Nearly three decades after Zia became a politician and sent the army back to the barrack, we again face the difficult task of demilitarising our polity.

Again, reasonable people could disagree about how Zia turned himself into a politician. According to Prof Rehman Sobhan, Zia’s strategy was to embrace ‘…a large number of discarded politicians… a clutch of politically ambitious professionals’ who ‘…were bound together only by their ambitions and their hostility to the Awami League’. Further, Prof Sobhan says, ‘These political aspirants enjoyed low electability, so their victory in the national elections of 1979 also needed to be engineered’. (Details here).

A very different story is told by Prof Maniruzzaman. He writes that Zia started his political quest like many other third world dictators, through a referendum.  He ‘won’ the referendum with a turnout of 88%, 99% of whom voted ‘yes’.  The Economist dubbed it ‘electoral overkill’.  Prof Maniruzzaman tells us that instead of using the sham referendum as the basis for his rule, Zia worked towards creating a political base.  In pages 207-215 of ’The Bangladesh Revolution’, we are told how the party built by Zia carried 44% of the votes cast (in a turnout of 51%) in 1979 election – as in the 2001 election, this was enough for a 2/3rd majority in our first-past-the-post system.

Who is right – Sobhan or Maniruzzaman?  For the record, I find Maniruzzaman’s account more plausible.  But reasonable people could differ.  Where reasonable people ought to agree is that Zia did send the army back to barrack after becoming a politician.  And where they ought to agree that at the time of his death, Zia was a very popular president.  And they ought to agree that there wasn’t violent street protests against his rule.  As we once again ponder demilitarisation, we could do worse than looking at what Zia did.

That’s the lesson we should draw from Zia’s legacy.  But even if we think that Prof Maniruzzaman has it right, even if we accept the benign interpretation of Zia the politician, even then, we cannot escape the fact that his very success has created many problems for us.  Because one Ziaur Rahman succeeded, we have had ambitious generals trying to save us once every decade.  Even if we believe that Zia had been thrust into power through events, and he really believed in civilian democracy, it was his success that has given us the current predicament.

This, dear reader, is the ultimate tragedy of Ziaur Rahman.

(First published in Mukti on 30 May 2008.)