The Times Biography: Zia Ur-Rahman

The Times: Biography (June 1, 19781)

President Zia ur-Rahman of Bangladesh, who was killed at the age of 45 in Chittagong on May 30 during an insurrection against the government, had been the effective instrument of power in the country since soon after the overthrow and assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman by a group of army officers in 1975. 

Though this power was only officially enshrined in his assumption of the presidency in 1977 his appointment as chief of army staff after the coup of August 1975 confirmed him as a leading figure in the country’s affairs. And after the short-lived counter-coup of Brigadier Musharaf, he emerged to dominate the committee of martial law administrators who controlled Bangladesh. This domination led him to the post of Administrator in 1976 and to the presidency in the following year, a position confirmed subsequently by a referendum and elections. 

In his presidency General Zia pursued a policy of non-alignment in foreign affairs; relations with Pakistan had gradually improved, postal and telecommunications links had been restored and there were the beginnings of trade between the two countries. At home, Zia was luckier than his predecessor in the weather ‘which had done so much to wreak havoc on Sheikh Mujib’s economic planning, and enjoyed a respite from flooding which did much to improve the country’s economic position. 

Zia ur-Rahman was born in 1935 in Bogra in the northern part of what was to become Bangladesh. He joined the army in 1953 and was commissioned at the Pakistani military academy at Kakul in 1955. During the Indo-Pakistan conflict of 1965, he commanded a company of the 1st East Bengal Regiment and was subsequently an instructor at the Pakistan Military academy.

He was a major when the broke out in 1971, and played an important part in the prosecution of the civil war and the eventual emergence of the state of Bangladesh. He raised and trained the first unit of the Bangladesh army and in March 1971 seized Chittagong, going on to declare the independence of Bangladesh on March 27. 

Under the regime of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, his army career continued to prosper and he rose to become a brigade commander. 

In August 1975 Sheikh Mujib and his family were assassinated by a group of low-ranking army officers and the former Minister of Commerce, Khandakar Mushtaq Ahmed assumed the presidency, banned all political parties and declared martial law. Zia, now a major-general, was appointed chief of the army staff. 

In the first faltering steps of the revolution, he played from the start an important role. A counter-coup at the beginning of November 1975 brought Brigadier Khaled Musharaf to power and Zia was arrested. But only four days later troops loyal to Zia ended Musharaf’s brief regime. Zia was reappointed chief of army staff and power in the country was assumed by the three service chiefs of staff jointly as deputy martial law administrators under a non-political president, Abusadet Mohammad Sayem, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. A neutral non-party government was formed in which Zia took precedence over his colleagues. 

Zia had promised an early return to the representative government but in November 1976 he postponed elections indefinitely, at the same time taking over the powers of Chief Martial law Administrator from President Sayem. A large number of arrests were made. In the following April Zia assumed the presidency, a step which was confirmed by a referendum which indicated overwhelming popular support for his policies. 

In October of that year, there was an attempted coup against Zia and he responded by banning all political parties. In June 1978 the first presidential elections were held under universal suffrage and Zia again secured a resounding victory. But the military character of his government continued to be emphasized and the country remained under martial law. 

In February 1979 parliamentary elections were held and, in an attempt to secure the participation of all the opposition parties Zia repealed what was seen by them as the undemocratic provisions of the 1974 constitutional amendment, freeing political prisoners and withdrawing press censorship. 

In the face of allegations of ballot rigging, strongly denied, Zia led his Bangladesh National Party to a two-thirds majority in the parliament and appointed a Prime Minister in April. 

Martial law was lifted and Zia formally retired from the army and stressed the civilian nature of his political leadership. 

This leadership came increasingly to seem like a benevolent dictatorship in spite of the prime minister and parliament, and the aims and character of Zia were implicit in all the new government’s actions. He instituted a 19-point economic and political programme, and launched a massive family planning campaign. 

Spared by the natural disasters of the earlier 1970s, Bangladesh’s agricultural economy began to recover. In spite of competition from synthetic substitutes the export of raw jute, one of the mainstays of the economy, improved and a campaign to improve the quality of the homegrown tea brought that commodity into the forefront of the country’s exports.

In foreign policy, Zia strove for non-alignment and in 1979 Bangladesh won a seat on the UN Security Council. Relations with India were frequently strained over the question of cross-border terrorism but the breach with Pakistan was largely repaired. 

Opposition to the regime did continually emerge however and there were several attempted coups. A principal criticism of Zia was that he had concentrated power in his hands at the expense of parliament; his BNP was frequently accused of corruption. 

This discontent found voice in increasing popular support for the Awami League, the party of the former Shaikh Mujib, and had been crystallized recently by the return to Bangladesh of Mujib’s daughter, Mrs Hasina Wazed, from self-imposed exile in India.


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