Nineteenth century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli is meant to have quipped ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics’. It seems to me that in Bangladesh we have three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and Zia-bashing.
Sometimes these lies about Ziaur Rahman get out of hand. For example, when Quamrul Islam, the State Minister for Law, claimed Zia was a Pakistani spy, even some of his fellow partymen thought he went too far. And the mainstream media, otherwise happy to partake in Zia-bashing, chastened him. The minister eventually backtracked.
But such backtracking is rare. The usual state-of-affair is one of unabashed series of distortions, half-truths, and intellectual bullying when it comes to Ziaur Rahman. And no, I am not talking about the Prime Minister or senior Awami League leaders’ bloviation. I am talking about what passes for conventional wisdom among our pundits and intellectuals when it comes to Zia’s views on Mujib, 15 August, Jamaat or India.
On each of these subjects, Zia’s positions are presented in the worst light possible by the supposedly non-partisan punditry. The irony is that his political opponents have adopted, in one form or other, most of his ideas. And the tragic thing is, his own political heirs are completely ignorant of his legacy.
Take Zia’s views about Sheikh Mujibur Rahman for example.
Golam Murshid’s মুক্তিযুদ্ধ ও তারপর is touted as a ‘non-partisan and objective’ account of Bangladesh’s formative years. The section on the declaration of independence contains this passage:
জিয়া বিচিত্রা পত্রিকায় তাঁর স্মৃতিচারণায় লিখেছিলেন, ১৯৬৫ সালের শেষ দিকেই, ‘…উদ্দেশ্যপ্রণোদিতভাবেই ক্যাডেটদের শেখানো হতো—আমাদের জাতির পিতা বঙ্গবন্ধু শেখ মুজিবুর রহমান হচ্ছেন ওদের [পশ্চিম পাকিস্তানীদের] সবচেয়ে বড়ো শত্রু’ (জিয়াউর রহমান, বিচিত্রা, ১৯৭৪)। যখনকার কথা এখানে জিয়া লিখেছেন, আসলে তখনো শেখ মুজিব জাতির পিতা অথবা বঙ্গবন্ধুতে পরিণত হননি। বোঝা যায়, এটা ছিল তাঁর অতিভক্তির কথা।
What did Zia actually say in his piece? Here is the exact excerpt:
Here is an English translation of the entire piece. It was published in 1972, and Zia is clearly addressing Mujib as ‘our Father of the Nation’. And yet, Mr Murshid chooses to interprete Zia as engaging in অতিভক্তি!
Zia can’t catch a break, can he?
Forget about what Zia may have felt about Mujib in 1972. What about his actions in 1975? What did he do to prevent 15 August 1975? One might think it’s silly to even ask this question. After all, the conventional wisdom is that Zia was at best an ambitious opportunist (উচ্চাভিলাষী ও সুযোগ সন্ধানী) who played different sides off to gain power.
But is the conventional wisdom correct? What do we know about Zia’s actions around 1975?
We know that he became aware of plots and conspiracies in the army. We know that he reported to Mujib directly about these rumblings. What else could he have done? As fellow blogger Tacit asks indignantly in a comment here:
It’s not enough that he went and warned Sheikh Mujib. Now it’s if Zia didn’t give the President the date, time, place, and make of tank used to shell Dhanmondi, he was supporting the killers?
Of course, many of Ziaur Rahman’s decisions as president are questionable, foremost among them his appointment of Shah Azizur Rahman — who opposed the independence of Bangladesh in 1971 — as Prime Minister (even though contemporary reporting by regional media suggests he was ‘the best man for the job’).*
But the criticism of making Shah Aziz the Prime Minister all-too-often morphs into the wholesale accusation that Zia abandoned the war crimes trial process (a half-truth at best) and rehabilitated Jamaat-e-Islami into politcs (outright lie).
Yes, the Sayem-led junta — of which Zia was the key member — repelled Collaborators’ Act in December 1975. But the particular trial process thus abandoned had become a farce, whereby people were often jailed for village feuds that had nothing to do with Liberation War, long before Zia emerged into the political scene. To note the cancellation of the process, without noting the flaws in the cancelled process, is not intellectual integrity.
And it’s definitely a lie, usually a malicious lie, to say that Zia legitimised Jamaat, when the fact is Jamaat-e-Islami started operating under its name from 1983, under Ershad.
Even someone like Syed Abul Maqsud — easily the most non-partisan in today’s mainstream media — is not immune from bouts of unfounded Zia-bashing. In an otherwise excellent piece on Tipaimukh (translation here, original isn’t available in Prothom Alo website), Maqsud says:
Because of his support from the Muslim world and United States, he did not nurture Bangladesh’s relationship with India.
Maqsud is old enough to know the state of Indophobia in the late 1970s Bangladesh. He should know how the mere rumour, and a false one at that, of being supported by India doomed Khaled Mosharraf in November 1975. Maqsud should know how Taher’s so-called ‘socialist revolution’ relied on the crassest anti-Indian bigotry. Maqsud should remember the chants of Allah Akbar on 7 November 1975. And Maqsud should know that on his radio speech to the nation after Zia’s assassination, Maj Gen Manzur claimed to have carried out a ‘revolution’ to ‘free Bangladesh from Indian hegemony’.
India was obviously unhappy with the political changes of 1975, and encouraged violent insurgencies against the new power dispensation. It was to Zia’s credit that he persuaded India of the essentially friendly attitude Bangladesh has to its neighbour. Without being sure of Zia’s bona-fides, India would never have accepted SAARC.
In the 1970s, Faruq-Taher-Manzur represented the anti-Indian norm, and Zia represented the balanced approach whence the current policy of connectivity is embedded.
Until our pundits and intellectuals should come clean about their own biases and prejudices about Zia, their pontifications of politicians will sound hollow. Perhaps that’s the biggest shame here.
*Far Eastern Economic Review Reference: Vol. 104, No. 15, 13 Apr 1979, page 30.
(Published in Mukti on 31 May 2010).