Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman speaks at the inauguration of Comilla Military Academy in 1973. Maj Gen Ziaur Rahman, then deputy chief of army staff, is standing, right, behind Bangabandhu. Photo: File
It was around noon on August 24, 1975. The situation was volatile. Lt Col MA Hamid was in a meeting at his Dhaka Cantonment office. The phone rang. He picked it up. General Ziaur Rahman was on the other side of the phone.
"Hamid, come here just now," Gen Zia asked him in an excited voice.
"Will it be okay if I come after some time?" asked Hamid, a close friend and course mate of Zia.
"Shut up, come right now," asserted Zia, deputy chief of army staff.
Hamid, station commander of Dhaka Cantonment, finished his meeting without delay and rushed to Zia's office.
"Salute [me] properly you Guffy, you are entering the chief of [army] staff's office," Zia told Hamid in a cheerful mood.
Hamid was stunned. Zia smiled and waved a piece of paper in front of Hamid. "Sit down, read it."
Hamid went through the paper quickly. It was an official letter issued by the defence ministry. Zia had been appointed army chief. Hamid got up from his chair, embraced Zia and congratulated him.
"Hamid, tell me what to do now."
"Did Shafiullah [chief of army staff] get any letter? Does he know it?" asked Hamid.
Zia replied: "No, nobody knows as yet."
"Then a copy must go to him. He may take a few days to hand over [command] to you. Now keep quiet," Hamid suggested.
"Shut up, I will take over tomorrow."
Hamid tried to make Zia understand that he had not staged any coup to grab the office of army chief. The government made the appointment and issued the official letter.
"You can't understand all these. He [Shafiullah] is a very clever person. You order all officers and soldiers of all units under Dhaka station to gather at a large field," Zia asked the station commander.
Hamid understood that Zia did not want to wait any more. After some argument, Hamid said: "All the units of Dhaka station are not under my command. It will be better if you summon the log area commander and give him the order.”
Zia agreed with the proposal. Without wasting time, Zia phoned Brigadier Mashrul Haq, who was the acting log area commander, asking him to rush to his office immediately.
Hamid left Zia's office for his own one. On the way, he saw Mashrul in his car moving towards Zia's office at the headquarters.
A tense situation prevailed in Dhaka Cantonment the next morning. Officers and soldiers gathered at the signal mess ground. Nobody had any idea of what was going to happen.
At 7:30 in the morning, deputy chief of army staff Gen Zia appeared on the dais. Everyone paid attention to him.
Gen Zia roared: "From today, I am chief of army staff. All of you maintain discipline. Otherwise stern punitive action will be taken."
Making the announcement, Zia left the dais quickly, boarded his car and left the venue. Everyone was surprised and stared at one another. Hamid smiled.
Army chief General KM Shafiullah was in the dark about all these things. He was struggling helplessly to control the fast deteriorating situation in the army that had developed after the August 15 coup. He was yet to get any letter on his removal as chief of army staff.
Shafiullah called Hamid. "Hamid, what's going on? Who is giving all these orders? Who ordered the convening of the morning meeting of officers and soldiers?"
Hamid, who was also a course mate of Shafiullah, tried to convince him to keep patience. Shafiullah felt disturbed and insulted. But he accepted the situation due to the changing circumstances. For his loyalty to Bangabandhu, he was forced to leave the post of army chief with humiliation. From the next day, he stopped going to his office.
Khondokar Moshtaque Ahmed's government, installed by the disgruntled officers who assassinated Bangabandhu and most of his family members, thus in a major move replaced Shafiullah with Zia. The important change was made effective all of a sudden.
Everyone in the army understood that this happened under the pressure of two disgruntled majors -- Faruk and Rashid -- who masterminded the August 15 changeover.
Some changes took place very fast following the August 15 coup. Within a few days both Major Faruk and Major Rashid became Lt Colonels and continued to be in the Bangabhaban. They were mingling with politicians there. They were participating in discussions on policy.
In brief, they were running the government led by President Moshtaque, who was only a puppet. Even some senior army officers made efforts to maintain good relations with Faruk and Rashid.
This caused irritation and unease in the army, particularly among many officers at the army headquarters and 46 Infantry Brigade in Dhaka Cantonment. Faruk and Rashid were officers of units under the command of 46 Brigade and Col Shafayat Jamil was its commander. This also annoyed Shafayat Jamil.
In such a situation, Brigadier General Khaled Mosharraf, then chief of general staff, and Shafayat Jamil started putting pressure on Gen Zia to rein in the two rebellious army officers at the Bangabhaban and to restore the chain of command in the army. But he refrained from taking any action.
Instead, Zia was trying to consolidate his own position in the army. He did not have good relations with Gen Khaled Mosharraf. He considered Khaled as a threat to his new office, and so was suffering from a sense of insecurity. At one point, Zia shared this feeling with Major General Moinul Hossain Chowdhury, who was acting as the adjutant general of army then.
There were reasons for Zia's insecurity. General Osmani, who had been made defence adviser to Moshtaque, was no admirer of Zia. Khaled Mosharraf was Osmani's choice as chief of army staff.
But Moshtaque made Zia army chief under pressure from Faruk, Rashid and their collaborators. Osmani had no influence in the appointment of the new army chief.
Being the chief of army staff, Zia moved fast to consolidate his position in the force. But he was not much satisfied with the power of the army chief. He focused on the power of the chief martial law administrator (CMLA).
At the end of November, Gen Zia thought it was not wise to allow President Justice Sayem to continue as the CMLA. He planned to grab the post of the CMLA.
Flanked by some top army officers including Gen Ershad, Gen Manzur, Gen Mir Shawkat, and the chiefs of navy and air force staff, Zia one afternoon met the president at the Bangabhaban to push his agenda. But Justice Sayem refused Zia's request for making him the CMLA.
As Zia kept the pressure on Justice Sayem, the president at one stage asked air force chief AG Mahmud: “Tell me if it's right that I should surrender the authority of the CMLA to this man [Zia].”
The air chief felt embarrassed. Though he had respect for Justice Sayem, he was unable to oppose Zia. “Sir, I'm very sorry. I'm not in a position to influence the course of events in any way. I must only support what he [Zia] says.”
Justice Abdus Sattar, special assistant to the president, also persuaded Sayem to relinquish the power of the CMLA to Zia.
Finally around 1:00am, President Sayem gave in and signed a proclamation making Zia the new CMLA.
After grabbing the power of the CMLA, Zia had taken over full control of the Sayem government. Later, he also captured the office of president on April 21, 1977 by forcing Justice Sayem to step down.
ZIA HAD LINKS WITH KILLERS?
There were some incidents which showed close links between Gen Zia and some of the disgruntled army officers who staged the August 15 heinous coup.
For instance, on August 15, armed with a sten gun Major Dalim stormed into the office of Gen Shafiullah to take him to the radio station to announce his support for the changeover.
Dalim brought Shafiullah out of his office at gunpoint. Zia, who was in Shafiullah's room, was walking behind Dalim. Shafiullah got into his own car.
Looking at Dalim, a smiling Zia said: "Come on Dalim, in my car."
"No, sir, I don't go in a general's car," replied Dalim, and got into his own jeep.
Zia's car initially followed Dalim's one. But at one stage, Zia's car changed direction and went somewhere else.
Another indication of Zia's links with Bangabandhu's killers came when suddenly Major Dalim and Major Noor, another killer of Bangabandhu, started appearing at the tennis court in the cantonment where senior army officers, including Gen Shafiullah, used to play tennis.
One day Shafiullah asked Hamid about it. "Why did junior officers come here to play? Ask them not to come here."
Hamid summoned Major Noor and enquired: "Who gave you permission to come here to play tennis?"
In response, Noor said Gen Zia had given them permission. Hamid informed Shafiullah about it. Shafiullah was annoyed.
There is another instance of the links. One evening in 1975, Gen Moinul, who was leaving Zia's home after chatting with him found Major Faruk standing in front of Zia's residence. Enquired by Moinul about the reason, Faruk replied he had come there to meet Zia.
Next day while talking to Zia Gen Moin raised the issue. Zia said Faruk had come and met him.
Towards the end of September 1975, the situation turned more volatile. A young infantry officer was caught trying to subvert some of the Lancers engaged in guarding the Bangabhban. Major Rashid interrogated the officer and found that he was a follower of Khaled Mosharraf and Shafayet Jamil.
Rashid informed Gen Zia about the matter and requested him to take appropriate action.
"Rashid, don't you worry. If anything happens, it will be over my dead body," Zia assured Rashid.
[The report is prepared based on the books, "Silent Witness of a General", by Maj Gen (retd) Moinul Hossain Chowdhury, "Testimony of a Soldier" by Brig Gen (retd) Shamsuddin Ahmed, "Three Army Coups and Some Untold Tales" by Lt Col (retd) MA Hamid and Bangladesh: A Legacy of Blood by Anthony Mascarenhas.]