What is Ziaur Rahman’s biggest contribution to Bangladesh?
Ziaur Rahman gave our nation a clear identity. After independence, our national identity was declared as ‘Bangali’ and expectedly this created a lot of confusion. This identity ignored the non-Bangali citizens including the indigenous people of different part of Bangladesh as well as the urdu speaking citizens. Ziaur Rahman first coined the word ‘Bangladeshi’ as our national identity and successive government since then has maintained this identity. He also presented his vision of Bangladeshi nationalism and sutured together the geographic, historic, religious, cultural and political components of our nationhood. He based his politics on nationalism at a time when nationalism has not yet become a pan-global craze. In this context he can be called the father of Bangladeshi nationalism or father of our current national identity.
A great debate is going on in Unheard Voices about Bengali and Bangladeshi nationalism. Two high court judges led by Justice Khairul Haque ruled to strike down Bangladeshi nationalism from our constitution. The appellate division changed that ruling in a manner, which, rather than clarifying the issue, made the issue more contentious.
In continuation of the two posts below, let’s see how the proponent of this Bangladeshi nationalism presented his case.
Here are the excerpts from late President Ziaur Rahman’s address to the BNP MPs of the second parliament. I have reproduced the absract portion on Bangladeshi nationalism from the rather long presentation. I’ll put the English translation first followed by the scan of the original Bangla speech.
When President Ziaur Rahman was killed, he was only 45. But within this short life span he contributed enormously to Bangladesh. His catalytic role in initiating the mass revolt among Bengali members of the armed-forces after the brutal military crackdown of 25th March 1971, and his contribution as a military leader of Bangladesh’s war of independence distinguishes him as one of our top national heroes. Zia’s post independence role in building modern Bangladesh brick-by-brick by revamping all sectors starting from mutiny-ridden ‘broken-chain-of-command’ military, to her global image, to initiation of open-market-economy, are enough to immortalize him.
Yet, Ziaur Rahman’s lasting legacy will be his contribution to give the people of Bangladesh an identity — ‘Bangladeshi’ — that is inclusive of all the races, ethnic groups and religions. This identity emanates from Zia’s political philosophy of Bangladeshi nationalism, which was embraced very enthusiastically by an overwhelming majority of Bangladeshis. The political philosophy of ‘Bangladeshi Nationalism’ was expressed as his forward looking, conciliatory, inclusive and tolerant modus-operandi of nation building.
In an orientation session for the newly-elected BNP members of the 2nd Parliament, Zia explained Bangladeshi nationalism the following way,
Couple of years ago, I noted how the typical discourse on Ziaur Rahman is full of lies. An (Awami League supporting) old friend asked me to write a positive account of Zia’s politics: instead of rebutting X, write about Y, he told me-. This (painfully slowly progressing) series is an attempt at that. Meanwhile, a regular reader asked me to write about Zia’s role during the war — not to refute the preposterous propaganda about him being a Pakistani spy, but about what Zia actually did after the radio declarations of March.
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.
The force was never with late president Ziaur Rahman.
DUCSU was then under BNP’s student wing Chhatra Dal (JCD) control, so was majority of the dorms of DU. JCD was overwhelmingly single largest students’ party at DU campus. At that time, when two new dorms were built at DU, they were named Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Hall and Muktijoddha Ziaur Rahman Hall.
Today, Prothom-Alo gave single column 3 inches bottom of first page treatment to Zia’s death anniversary and the news item started this way, “Ex-President, Sector commander and Z force leader Ziaur Rahman’s…”.
With these exceptional nice treatments, the very powerful journalist-intellectual-academia Force of Bangladesh, in addition to a big chunk of the general population, carry and promote a very predictable deeply rooted image of Zia.
To this half of the country,
1. Zia, an army general and military dictator is the killer of democracy in Bangladesh.
2. Zia allowed re-establish Jamaat in Bangladesh.
3. Zia killed many freedom fighter army officers including Col Taher, Khaled Mosharraf etc.
4. Zia was a ruthless in suppression of press freedom.
The force, passion behind this accusation is so intense that the supporters of Zia were gratified when Zia was generously donated the title of a freedom fighter by the same force which promoted the above mentioned allegations against Zia.
On the face of intense passionate propaganda against Zia, a mere recognition of him as a freedom fighter was enough for Zia sympathizers and silent supporters.
I hear… of your recent saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator. Only those generals who gain success can set up military dictatorships. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.”
– Abraham Lincoln, message to General Joseph Hooker, Army of the Potomac
May 30 is the 28th anniversary of President Ziaur Rahman’s death. It came approximately 10 years and 2 months after he gave a radio announcement, from Chittagong, declaring the Independence of Bangladesh on behalf of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, then in the custody of the Pakistani Army.
During our Independence War, he was Sector Commander over much of today’s Chittagong Division, and commander of Bangladesh Army’s ‘Z” brigade. At the end of the war, with Pakistani forces crumbling before the assault of joint Indo-Bangladeshi forces and surrendering on 16 December 1971, he was awarded the Bir Uttom.
At the onset of independence, Zia became one of the senior-most officers of the Bangladesh Army. His performance during the nine-month war and his radio announcement at the onset of the war marked him as different from his fellow officers. He was made Brigade Commander of Comilla, close to where his force had done most of the fighting during the war.
“The greater number is generally composed of men of sluggish tempers, slow to act . . . they are unwilling to take early and vigorous measures for their defense, and they are almost always caught unprepared. . . .A smaller number, more expedite, awakened, active, vigorous and courageous, make amends for what they want in weight by their superabundance of velocity.’” — Edmund Burke
May 30 will be the 30th anniversary of the death of Ziaur Rahman. In March 1971, he had been one of the many junior Bengali officers in the Pakistani Army, junior to individuals like Brigadier Majumdar and Lt. Col. M. R. Chowdhury. Four years later, in November 1975, he was the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Bangladeshi Army, held in house-arrest as jets flew over Bangabhaban and Khaled Musharraf and Abu Taher played out their deadly game of thrones. In six more years, on the eve of his death, he was the President of Bangladesh.
In contrast to the lilliputs in uniform who followed him and aspired to be him, Zia never tried to overthrow a civilian government. The political party he founded, BNP, is alive and well, itself a minor miracle. Three times, BNP has formed a government by election; three times, it has had to face a coup by some parts of the military and civilian bureaucracy aimed at ejecting it from power. It is again winning elections, even after being subjected to the most intense program of repression that we have seen in post-1990 Bangladesh.
While giving the verdict on the legality of the punishment of Colonel Taher, the high-court bench of Justices Shamsuddin Chowdhury Manik and Zakir Hossain declared that the whole trial process was illegal and it was in fact a cold blooded murder of Taher by Late president Ziaur Rahman.
What high-court did to come to this conclusion? They interviewed one shoddy journalist character Lawrence lifshultz, who is a political follower of Taher’s communist doctrine. Other interviewed are also 1. Political opponents of Ziaur Rahman’s political platform 2. Supporters of ruling party who took it as their prime job to destroy Zia’s image 3. Political followers of Colonel Taher. Even the judges who delivered the justice, are publicly known nemesis of Ziaur Rahman’s ideology and are former leaders of socialist political platform based on Taher’s doctrine. And this is probably the first court proceeding in Bangladesh history where an witness could simply deliver his opinion via e mail to a third person. There was no ‘balai’ of oath taking, cross examination etc.
Before we go further into what these two judges did and what their judgment means, lets see what Taher in fact did back in early 70s.
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 automatic vote for BNP.