The blunders of Bangladesh history

Syed Badrul Ahsan

The Daily Star: April 25, 2012


Politics is in a horribly bad state in Bangladesh. Nearly forty one years into freedom, you certainly did not expect the state to be in a state of regression. You certainly could not imagine, on the day seventy five million Bengalis triumphed over the marauding Pakistanis in December 1971, that four decades down the line we as a people would yet be struggling to put our house in order.

Where did we go wrong? Well, the simplest of responses is — we have gone wrong, in many ways, right from the beginning. Begin with the beginning.

In January 1972, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman should not have taken over as prime minister of Bangladesh. There were millions who expected him to place himself above quotidian politics and assume a Gandhi-like position as Father of the Nation, leaving statecraft to the war-tested and extremely accomplished Tajuddin Ahmed.

In July 1972, Bangabandhu should have stayed away from linking up with any one of the two factions of the Chhatra League. His move to speak at the conference of the faction led by Nur-e-Alam Siddiqui and thereby adopt a clear position against that led by A.S.M. Abdur Rab was to be the beginning of a schism among secular forces that would be seen as the first of the many cracks in national unity.

In those early years of freedom, Tajuddin Ahmed should have stayed on, should not have been shown the door. His departure from government in October 1974 was the first sign of the tragedy that would engulf the country only months later. In Tajuddin’s absence, the conspirators around Bangabandhu, led by Khondokar Moshtaque Ahmed, simply turned unstoppable in their mission of destabilising Bangladesh.

A major mistake committed by Bangabandhu’s government was in agreeing to let Pakistan’s war criminals, especially the 195 officers marked out for trial in Bangladesh, go free through the tripartite deal reached by Delhi, Islamabad and Dhaka. Bangladesh’s diplomacy could have been more assertive in those negotiations. In the event, it was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who walked away with the goodies. We were left with only the local collaborators of the Pakistan army to place on trial.

Surely the biggest blunder we went through in the mid-1970s was the reduction of a democratic Bangladesh into a one-party state through the formation of Baksal in January 1975. Much as its defenders would like to present it as a Second Revolution or national unity on a single platform, the truth is that it was an absolute negation of democracy by a party which had for decades consistently upheld the cause of democracy in Pakistan and subsequently in free Bangladesh.

Observe, now, the blunders made post-August 1975.

General M.A.G. Osmany, having resigned from the Jatiyo Sangsad in a spirit of defiance in January 1975, ought not to have linked up with Moshtaque as his defence advisor. He was unable to tame the coup leaders-cum-assassins and was to depart unceremoniously when Khaled Musharraf’s counter-coup occurred on November 3, 1975.

In those days of gathering darkness, Khaled Musharraf spent a great many hours negotiating with Moshtaque at Bangabhaban, precious time in which soldiers arrayed against him were able to organise themselves, under Colonel Abu Taher, into a powerful force able to send his dispensation packing at dawn on November 7, 1975. Musharraf paid the price.

In November 1975, Col. Taher’s mistake was in believing that General Ziaur Rahman, whom he would free from arrest four days after Musharraf’s coup, was the man who could bring about a socialistic transformation of the nation’s military. Taher paid the price when Zia hanged him in July 1976. Taher’s blunder was in trusting Zia. And Zia’s was in executing Taher and so opening the floodgates to reactionary politics in Bangladesh.

General Zia’s biggest mistake lay in incorporating the infamous Indemnity Ordinance in the nation’s constitution along with his dictatorial act of dispensing with the secular and socialistic principles enshrined in the constitution. There were other mistakes he made, those which have since been an albatross around our collective neck since those dark times. He had the Collaborators Act repealed, which led to the frenzied rush to freedom by as many as 11,000 Bengali collaborators of the Pakistan occupation army.

In his determination to crush the Awami League or keep it at bay, Zia thought nothing of inviting old anti-liberation Bengalis into his fold, even going to the extent of making one of them, Shah Azizur Rahman, his prime minister. Do not forget that in 1971, this man led the Pakistani delegation to the UN General Assembly to argue that everything was normal in “East Pakistan,” that “so-called Bangladesh” had been crushed. It was with such men around him that Zia, for the five years he held power prior to his assassination in May 1981, airbrushed Bangabandhu, the Mujibnagar government and the Mukti Bahini out of national history. That was a shame for all of us.

Post-Zia, there were other mistakes. Watch . . .

President Abdus Sattar should have been firm in handling army chief Ershad’s demand for a greater role for the military in the political scheme of things. His pusillanimity was to lead to the ouster of his government by General Ershad only three months into his election as president.

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party, having agreed with the Awami League to give Ershad a hard time at the elections of 1986, should not have whimsically decided to withdraw at the last moment in order to gain propaganda mileage over the Awami League. That move only helped give Ershad four more years of power as an illegitimate ruler.

In the run-up to the general elections of February 1991, Sheikh Hasina blundered when she turned the focus of her address to the nation into a sweeping assault on the Zia military regime rather than spelling out the priorities a government led by her might address. That speech cost her a whole lot of votes, indeed the election itself.

In 1994, the ruling BNP caused a fresh new crisis through rigging the by-election in Magura. The consequences are yet being felt. Post-2001, Begum Zia pushed the country into deeper polarisation when she inducted two men accused of collaborating with the Pakistan army in 1971 into her cabinet. That, again, was a moment of collective national shame.

And one other mistake?

Neither the Awami League nor the Bangladesh Nationalist Party appears to have learnt any lesson from the trauma of the emergency between January 2007 and December 2008. And so uncertainty and the dangers associated with it remain.

There have been other mistakes and we will talk about them. But let’s call it a day. For now.