In this exclusive interview with The Daily Star, Maj Gen (retd) KM Shafiullah, Bir Uttam, who was the army chief when Bangabandhu was killed on August 15, 1975, tells Inam Ahmed and Julfikar Ali Manik what was happening in the army before and after the killings.
The artillery and armoured divisions of Bangladesh Army were into regular night training twice a month. Thursdays and Fridays were chosen for the training and incidentally the August 15 night fell between these two days.
"One big problem [at that time] was that the army did not have any organised intelligence wing," Shafiullah says. The usual norm is that the army intelligence wing is developed along with the force. The Directorate of Forces Intelligence that was raised with the army was supposed to report directly to the chiefs of the three forces. But in 1974, the DFI was suddenly placed under the president's secretariat. This put the army chief in an information void as the DFI director general was reporting to the president directly.
It was then that Shafiullah took an initiative to reorganise the army and proposed a complete structure for setting up five divisions and the military intelligence directorate that exists today. However, the proposal got stuck at the defence ministry and it was taking time.
It was around this time that a startling information "accidentally" surfaced, says Shafiullah.
Some time in 1975 before August 15, an NCO was caught in Dhaka Cantonment with leaflets calling for an uprising in the army. The leaflets spewed venom against the newly-formed Rakkhi Bahini, arguing that this paramilitary force was set up to replace the army and that army men would lose their jobs.
"I went to the then deputy defence minister Prof Nurul Islam with the leaflet to inform him about it and then we met the president and requested him to approve the portion of Military Intelligence Directorate with priority so that he could at least organise it and train people to put them on their job," says Shafiullah.
He also told the president to shift the DFI under the army headquarters until the proposal is approved.
After a few moments of silence, Sheikh Mujib asked Shafiullah: "Does [Brig Gen] Rouf not keep you posted on intelligence affairs?"
Rouf was then the director general of DFI.
Shafiullah told Bangabandhu that he was not sure if Rouf had informed Bangabandhu about the leaflet found on the NCO and showed it to him. "Bangabandhu did not answer and I took it as a sign that he already knew about it. I was surprised because here was an intelligence gap--here is something that the president knew but I did not although I was the person who was supposed to be the first to get the information," says Shafiullah.
Shafiullah told Bangabandhu that his new intelligence plan had not been approved yet. He said if it took a long time for the whole organorgram to be approved, the president could at least approve the military intelligence set-up.
The intelligence unit was about to be approved and knocking at the door. But the proposal finally got through only after the killing of Bangabandhu--sometime in September 1975.
Bangabandhu was supposed to be present at the convocation of Dhaka University on August 15, 1975. In the afternoon of August 14, there were some bomb explosions around the university zone where he was supposed to distribute certificates. The then IGP Nurul Islam called Shafiullah and sought army's help as police had no explosives experts. "I sent several detachments to sweep through the zone to detect explosives," says Shafiullah.
On the same day, an Indian helicopter, provided to Bangladesh for overseeing the just growing Shanti Bahini trouble in Chittagong Hill Tracts, crashed in Feni after hitting a vulture. All the Indian crew who were going to India to celebrate their Independence Day died in the crash. "I became busy sending the bodies."
After a long and tedious day, it was late in the night when Shafiullah went to bed around 1:30am. Roughly after the time of Fazr prayers, his batman woke him up and he saw the then director of Military Intelligence Col Salahuddin standing outside the door of his room.
"Have you sent the armoured and artillery forces towards the town?" Col Salahuddin asked Shafiullah.
A chill ran down Shafiullah's spine. "No, I have not. Why?" he said.
"The armoured and artillery divisions are heading towards the radio station, Ganabhaban and Bangabandhu's house on Dhanmondi Road-32," Salahuddin said.
"Does the Dhaka brigade commander know about it?" Shafiullah asked.
Col Shafayat Jamil was holding the post at that time.
"I don't know. I have come to you first," Salahuddin replied.
"Go and tell Shafayat Jamil to send 1, 2 and 4 Bengal battalions to stop the advancing artillery and armoured troops," Shafiullah ordered, saying he was also going to phone Shafayat immediately.
In the army, the chief of staff commands the army but not the troops. The brigade commanders command the troops.
Shafiullah picked up the red telephone to warn Sheikh Mujib about the information he received. The line was engaged. He then tried to get Shafayat Jamil, but that line was engaged too.
He then got hold of Col Jamil Uddin Ahmed, who had recently been posted to DFI from the post of military secretary to the president. Jamil told Shafiullah that Bangabandhu had called him and asked him to go to Bangabandhu's residence as some people were roaming around his house.
Shafiullah asked Jamil, who was killed by the disgruntled army officials in front of the Sobhanbagh mosque on his way to the president's residence, to take Bangabandhu somewhere else.
Shafiullah finally got Shafayat Jamil on the phone at his home. It was around 5:30am. "Do you know why artillery and armoured division troops are going to the city?" he asked Shafayat.
"I told him, 'Salahuddin has informed me about this...Send your troops of 1, 2 and 4 Bengal regiments to stop them immediately. Try to bring them back'," says Shafiullah.
Shafiullah also talked to the chiefs of the air force and navy who also said they did not know anything. A little later he talked to Brig Gen Khaled Mosharraf and Maj Gen Ziaur Rahman and they also expressed their ignorance about the matter.
"Is it?" Zia said when Shafiullah asked him about the troops' advancement towards the city. Shafiullah considered the reply as Zia's ignorance.
He asked both Khaled Mosharraf and Zia to come to his house immediately.
The two appeared within 15-20 minutes. Khaled came in his sleeping gown driving his private car and he was unshaven. Zia was shaven and in uniform even at that early hour. He came in his chauffer-driven official car.
Before Khaled and Zia reached his house, Shafiullah had once again tried to contact the president's house and this time he got Bangabandhu on the phone.
"When the DMI informed me about the troops it was probably between 5:15am and 5:30am and I talked to Shafayat Jamil between 5:30am and 5:35am. I got Bangabandhu on the phone 20-25 minutes after I had called him first. I do not remember the time of my talking with Bangabandhu but it was definitely before 6:00 in the morning," says Shafiullah.
"Your forces have attacked my residence. They might be going to kill Kamal [Bangabandhu's son]. Send your forces quickly," said Bangabandhu angrily as soon as he recognised Shafiullah's voice.
"Sir, I am doing something. Can you get out of the house?" Shafiullah said.
"Then I went on saying 'hello' as there was no reply from Bangabandhu and just a minute later I heard sounds of firing and then in a few seconds the line went dead," Shafiullah says.
Then Khaled Mosharraf and Zia came and Shafiullah along with the two left for his office.
It had been 10-15 minutes since Shafiullah talked with Shafayat Jamil and there were no movement of troops yet.
Shafiullah asked Khaled Mosharraf to go to 46 Brigade to activate them and report him back.
Shafiullah was sitting in his office with Nasim, Zia and Khaled Mosharraf, who had returned to Shafiullah's office to report that a tank was standing near his office.
A little later, two-three vehicles wheeled into the office compound and Major Shariful Haque Dalim, who had been sacked from the service a few days ago, entered the office accompanied by 15-16 soldiers.
"Where is the chief?" Dalim asked, entering Shafiullah's room.
Dalim and his soldiers had their arms trained on Shafiullah.
"I am used to seeing arms and using arms. If you have come with the intent to use arms, use it. If you have come to talk, talk leaving the arms outside," Shafiullah told Dalim.
"The president has asked you to go to the radio station immediately," Dalim said, lowering his weapon.
A few tense moments passed by and then Shafiullah said, "The president? As I know the president is dead."
When Shafiullah had reached his office, his ADC Capt Kabir informed him that the president was dead.
"You should know that Khandaker Mushtaque is the president now," Dalim roared back.
Shafiullah said, "Khandaker Mushtaque may be your president but not mine."
"Don't force me to do something for which I have not come here," Dalim said.
"You can do whatever you wish but I will not go anywhere with you," Shafiullah told Dalim.
Then Shafiullah got up from his chair and pushed through Dalim and his band of sepoys. He went straight to 46 Brigade. But to his surprise, he found that all troops and officers had sided with the coup plotters.
He met there Major Khandaker Abdur Rashid and the then 46 Brigade Major Hafiz Uddin Ahmed, who requested him repeatedly to go to the radio station.
Shafiullah told them that he would not go to the radio station alone.
He thought through the situation. It was clear that a large part of the army in Dhaka had sided with the rebels. It was futile to try anything at that time as none was obeying his command.
"First of all, I have to take my control back," Shafiullah told himself.
At that time the rebels also called Navy chief Rear Admiral MH Khan and Air Force chief Air Vice-Marshal AK Khandker and took the three chiefs to the radio station. He found Khandaker Mushtaque sitting in a room there with the then state minister for information Taheruddin Thakur standing near.
"Shafiullah, congratulations! Your troops have done a wonderful job," a cheerful Mushtaque said as soon as he saw Shafiullah.
"Now do the rest," Mushtaque said.
"What is that?" Shafiullah asked.
"You should know it better," replied Mushtaque.
"In that case, leave it to me," Shafiullah made an immediate reply and turned back to come out of the room.
Taheruddin Thakur told Mushtaque, "Don't let him go. We have some work left to do with him."
When Shafiullah was coming out he found Dalim and Rashid standing with their troops and they took him and the two other chiefs to another room.
Taheruddin Thakur came in the room and gave Shafiullah a written statement in support of Mushtaque and asked him to read it out. Shafiullah did and it was recorded.
After the recording, Mushtaque announced: "I need my chiefs at the oath-taking ceremony at Bangabhaban."
At the Bangabhaban things happened fast.
When the oath-taking was over Shafiullah wanted to go back to the cantonment, but Mushtaque did not allow him saying the new cabinet would be formed soon.
After the formation of cabinet on August 15 when Shafiullah thought it was time to go home, Taheruddin Thakur asked him not to go because there would be a conference at night.
Shafiullah had to stay in Bangabhaban until August 18. During this time, several sessions of the conference took place there and the main topic of discussion was whether to promulgate martial law.
At the conference, Shafiullah said there should not be any discussion about promulgating martial law because it had already been announced on the radio.
Mushtaque asked who announced the martial law.
Shafiullah said, "Dalim did."
"But Dalim is your [force's] man."
"If Dlaim were my man, he would have mentioned my name [while announcing the martial law]. But he mentioned your name," said Shafiullah.
Then Shafiullah suggested looking into the legal aspect of the matter.
Mushtaque said, "All is done. The only formality left is to issue the gazette notification [on promulgating the martial law]."
During August 15-18, Mushtaque once told the conference that he would draft the martial law promulgation and show it to others. The next day, Mushtaque, Shafiullah and air force chief AK Khandker and navy chief MH Khan were sitting together when Mushtaque pulled out a piece of paper from his pocket and handed it to Shafiullah.
"This is the draft promulgation," Mushtaque said, handing it to Shafiullah.
Shafiullah said they would go through it to see if there was any mistake.
"General Shafiullah, I have been working on it for the last three months," said Mushtaque.
Shafiullah said, "In that case, it must be flawless." He then handed the paper to AK Khondker to check.
On August 15, Shafiullah had asked Mushtaque about where to bury Bangabandhu.
"Bury him anywhere but not in Dhaka," was Mushtaque's tart reply.
On August 18, Shafiullah returned to the cantonment and the next day he held a conference of officers there "to bring all the troops under control".
At that time, Zia repeatedly told Shafiullah, "The Indian army might attack us."
"Zia wanted me to mobilise troops towards the border instead of bringing them back to the cantonment," Shafiullah says.
He called the conference explaining this backdrop and asked troops to return to barrack from Bangabhaban.
Abdur Rashid and Farooq Rahman, two of the killers of Bangabandhu, attended the conference after coming back from Bangabhaban.
Shafayat Jamil stood up at the meeting and, pointing at Rashid and Farooq, said, "These are the persons responsible for the whole situation and they should be tried in court martial."
Soon the conference ended and the two killers went back to Bangabhaban where their cohorts were staying.
On August 22, Shafiullah asked Mushtaque to return the officers from Bangabhaban. Mushtaque told him that the officers are still scared and they need some time to recover.
On August 24, Shafiullah heard a bulletin on the radio that Gen MAG Osmani had been appointed the defence adviser to the president. Immediately after the announcement, Mushtaque called Shafiullah and asked, "Did you like it?"
"Yes, it was good," said Shafiullah.
"I need you at 5:30pm," Mushtaque said.
As he reached Bangabhaban in the afternoon, an army officer asked him to meet Osmani first.
Seeing Shafiullah, Osmani started lauding him for his role in the army and the Liberation War. "We now need your service abroad," Osmani said.
Shafiullah understood that it was a farewell speech to him. He was then taken to Mushtaque who also repeated similar praises for him. Mushtaque told him that Shafiullah should go abroad to render his service.
"I am not ready to go abroad," said Shafiullah.
"Don't you know what happened to Sheikh Mujib and his family?" an angry Mushtaque barked.
"I left my family in the care of Allah during the war," Shafiullah said and left for home.
But even before he reached his residence, Shafiullah came to know that Ziaur Rahman replaced him as the army chief. The authorities asked Shafiullah not to leave home without permission.
On August 24 night, a letter reached him saying he was removed from the post of army chief.
Note: After the jail killing on November 3, Shafiullah changed his mind and went to Malaysia as an ambassador.
This interview was previously published on January 31, 2010