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,
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.