When Caesar died . . . and with him all the tribunes
It was a bizarre moment for the country, medieval in its dark dimensions. In the pre-dawn hours of 15 August 1975, tanks rolled down Sher-e-Banglanagar, right by the Rakkhi Bahini camp, and made their way towards Dhanmondi. In a matter of minutes, the soldiers, led by a group of majors and colonels, were storming the residence of the President of Bangladesh, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. At around the same time, other soldiers were rampaging through the homes of Abdur Rab Serniabat and Sheikh Fazlul Haq Moni. At his residence on Dhanmondi Road 32, the Father of the Nation desperately worked the telephones as it became clear that the soldiers were on a mission to murder him and his family. General K.M. Shafiullah, the army chief of staff, asked him if he could move out of his home. That was an impossibility. It was only the president's security chief, Brigadier Jamiluddin Ahmed, who rushed to Dhanmondi in a bid to save Bangabandhu. He would be stopped at the approach to Road 32 and murdered. But by that time Bangabandhu and his family had been killed, in a manner that recalled the sinister colours of the Dark Ages.
On the radio
As dawn broke, the assassins had things under control. Some of them made their way to the radio station at Shahbagh, looking frantically for an announcer to broadcast news of their macabre deeds to the country and to the world. No one was around and so it fell on Shariful Haq Dalim, one of the killers, to go on air. The 'autocrat Mujib', he declared, had been overthrown. Bangladesh, his shrill voice told the country, had become an 'Islamic republic.' The chilling announcement would be repeated for sometime, until the voice of Sarkar Kabiruddin, who meanwhile had been nabbed by the soldiers even as he tried to move out of the vicinity of the radio station where he had arrived, unaware of the tragedy that had occurred, flowed over the waves. The new voice repeated the earlier Dalim announcement and also added the information that a new government had been formed under the leadership of Khondokar Moshtaq Ahmed. Suddenly, everything began to be clear. For the first time in the history of free Bangladesh, a coup d'etat had taken place. That Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had been assassinated was no more in doubt. What was not known to the country at that point, though, was that a whole lot of other personalities had been murdered along with him.
Killers . . . as 'children of the sun'
In certain areas of the capital, Dhaka, newspapers printed overnight (before the coup got underway) carried images of a beaming Bangabandhu in conversation the previous evening with a special envoy of South Korean President Park Chung-hee. There was news too of Bangabandhu's scheduled visit to Dhaka University on the morning of 15 August. That was not going to happen anymore, of course. As the hours progressed, the assassins moved with increasing speed and efficiency. And, besides, there were quite a few others. Taheruddin Thakur, A.B.S. Safdar and Mahbub Alam Chashi planted themselves at the radio station, the better to let the nation know they were in charge. The three services chiefs --- K.M. Shafiullah, A.K. Khondokar and M.H. Khan --- along with the police chief and the acting chief of the Rakkhi Bahini --- were taken to the radio station, where they swore allegiance to the new 'president.' It was hours after Bangabandhu had been murdered. And soon Moshtaq was there, to address the country, to eulogise the assassins as children of the sun. The nature of the darkness that had descended on Bangladesh was what Moshtaq, as 'president', made clear in his address: he ended it through a loud exclamation of 'Bangladesh Zindabad.' Gone was Joi Bangla, the rallying Bengali battle cry of 1971 that had become part of life and politics.
Moshtaq went about his job briskly. With the killer majors and colonels forming a shield around him at Bangabhaban, he had members of Bangabandhu's cabinet, or most of them, brought over to the presidential palace. An ailing Phani Bhushan Majumdar, under treatment at PG Hospital, was forced at gunpoint to join the cabinet meeting. It was an experience that other ministers went through as well. Conspicuous by their absence was Vice President Syed Nazrul Islam, Prime Minister M. Mansoor Ali, Minister A.H.M. Quamruzzaman and former prime minister Tajuddin Ahmed. They had all been placed under house arrest. Foreign Minister Kamal Hossain, on his way back home after a visit to Yugoslavia, turned back and would reject all overtures by the regime to join Moshtaq.
Osmany, as Moshtaq's advisor
From this long distance of time and historical space, there are images that stand out among the many narrations of the tragedy of 15 August:
Bangabandhu's inert body, together with those of his family members, lay in rapidly drying blood in Dhanmondi. The next day, all the bodies bar Bangabandhu's were buried in Banani. The soldiers helicoptered Bangabandhu's corpse to his village Tungipara in Gopalganj. He was buried hastily beside the graves of his parents. None of the villagers was permitted to take part in the janaza.
General M.A.G. Osmany, who had in January given up his membership of Parliament in protest against the Fourth Amendment to the constitution, linked up with Moshtaq to become his defence advisor. Men like Taheruddin Thakur were suddenly ubiquitous by their presence nearly everywhere. A few days after the coup, Major General Shafiullah was replaced as army chief of staff by his deputy, Major General Ziaur Rahman. Soon, Air Marshal A.K. Khondokar would make way for M.G. Tawab.
In the wake of the coup, the Pakistani government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto cheerfully welcomed the fall of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the emergence (wrong, as it turned out) of Bangladesh as an 'Islamic republic.' Pakistan decided, on the morning of the coup, to dispatch a consignment of rice and cloth to the 'brotherly people' of Bangladesh. Within days of Bangabandhu's murder, Saudi Arabia and China, states that had withheld diplomatic recognition of Bangladesh, acknowledged Bangladesh as an independent state.
And yet Moshtaq's hold on power was tenuous at best and erratic at worst. The assassin majors and colonels ensconced themselves at Bangabhaban and would not return to the cantonment despite instructions and requests to do. New army chief Zia appeared reluctant to press the matter, which in turn began to fuel grumbling among senior military officers on the issue of a restoration of the chain of command in the military. Osmany was not proving to be effective either.
And amidst all the confusion, the regime decreed an indemnity ordinance that blocked any future judicial action against the assassins. The ordinance would subsequently, in 1979, be incorporated as part of the Fifth Amendment to the constitution by the Zia military regime.
Moshtaq expended his efforts in trying to give his regime a semblance of legitimacy through wooing Members of Parliament, all of whom belonged to the Awami League. He did not succeed, though he was able to send Abdul Malek Ukil and Mohiuddin Ahmed, senior Awami League politicians, abroad to argue his case. That did not work out either. Meanwhile, Syed Nazrul Islam, Tajuddin Ahmed, A.H.M. Quamruzzaman and M. Mansoor Ali had been incarcerated at Dhaka central jail. By October could be heard clear rumblings of discontent in the army. Brigadier Khaled Musharraf, chief of general staff, was keen on persuading Zia to restore the army chain of command. Zia proved to be either unwilling or unable to comply. It was then left to Musharraf to plan the moves that would correct conditions. Along with Colonel Huda, Colonel Shafaat Jamil and Major Haider, he strategised his moves and by early November 1975 was ready to move against Moshtaq and his assassin-accomplices.
Musharraf's rise and murder in prison
On 3 November, Musharraf and his loyalists struck. As an embattled Moshtaq presided over a cabinet meeting at Bangabhaban, Colonel Shafaat Jamil and other soldiers rushed into the room. Jamil told Moshtaq he was a usurper and had no right to call himself president. What followed was swift and much of it remains unclear even today. At one point, Moshtaq agreed to quit the presidency but also insisted that the killer majors and colonels be given safe passage out of the country. Zia was replaced as chief of army staff by Khaled Musharraf, who was elevated to the rank of major general. Musharraf stayed on at Bangabhaban, apparently negotiating with Moshtaq over the shape of things to be. Meanwhile, Bangabandhu's assassins made their way to Dhaka central jail in the depths of the night and demanded to be allowed into the premises. When the jail authorities hesitated, a call from Moshtaq settled the issue: let them in, said the 'president', and let them do what they wish to do.
And their wish was soon to be fulfilled. They ordered the prison authorities to bring Syed Nazrul Islam, Tajuddin Ahmed, A.H.M. Quamruzzaman and M. Mansoor Ali into one cell. Once that was done, the soldiers burst in and sprayed the four leaders with bullets. For good measure, they bayoneted them and made sure the life had gone out of them. Within the next hour or so, all the majors and colonels who had murdered Bangabandhu and his family and now had put the four national leaders to death were on a plane out of the country. They were safely in Bangkok by the time news of the gruesome killings at Dhaka central jail filtered out to the world.
In a broad sense, between 3 and 6 November, Bangladesh was in a state of grave uncertainty. The radio station was off the air. There was little sign of a government at work, despite the fact that Musharraf had taken over and Zia was under confinement at his cantonment home. Amidst the uncertainty, Musharraf's mother and brother Rashed led a procession to Bangabandhu's Dhanmondi residence, demanding that the killers of the Father of the Nation be placed on trial. It was not until the afternoon of 6 November that the mystery began to lift. Moshtaq was replaced as president of Bangladesh by the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Abu Sadat Mohammad Sayem. In the evening, President Sayem addressed the nation over radio and television. He condemned the murderous acts of 15 August and 3 November. An inquiry committee to probe the killings in prison, he informed the country, had been formed. And he declared that general elections would be organized to take Bangladesh back to democracy.
Khaled Musharraf dies
The anti-climax came in the early hours of the next day, 7 November. Through the clandestine efforts of Colonel Abu Taher, soldiers loyal to him and General Zia moved to free the latter from confinement. Outmaneouvred, Musharraf, Huda and Haider tried valiantly to rally their loyalists. They failed. And then they fled. Pursued by soldiers supporting the counter-coup, they were caught and murdered in cold blood.
On the streets of Dhaka, soldiers moved along in trucks and on tanks chanting slogans of 'nara-e-takbeer' and 'sipahi-janata biplob zindabad.'
Hope had flickered for a time all too brief. On 7 November, darkness struck back with fury. It would linger long and hard.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Editor, Current Affairs, The Daily Star