First it was the exiled Tarique Rahman. Now it is his mother Khaleda Zia. Both have come up with new information about March 1971. If they are to be believed, it was Ziaur Rahman who was the first president of Bangladesh. It was again Zia who declared the country's independence as the Pakistan army cracked down on an unarmed Bengali nation on 25 March 1971.
The facts pertaining to the declaration of Bangladesh speak for themselves.
David Loshak, in his article “Pakistan Crisis” written soon after the genocide of Bengalis went under way, had this to state on developments between 25-26 March:
“The voice of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman came faintly through on a wavelength close to that of the official Pakistan Radio. In what must have been, and sounded like, a pre-recorded message, the Sheikh proclaimed East Pakistan to be the People's Republic of Bangla Desh.”
That message of freedom, passed on to Chittagong Awami League leader MA Hannan (who read it out over radio) and which subsequently became part of official documents relating to the War of Liberation, read thus:
“This may be my last message. From today Bangla Desh is independent. I call upon the people of Bangla Desh, wherever you are and with whatever you have, to resist the army of occupation to the last. Your fight must go on until the last soldier of the Pakistan occupation army is expelled from the soil of Bangla Desh and final victory is achieved.”
Commandos of the Pakistan army arrested Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from his Dhanmondi residence in the early moments of 26 March 1971. As Siddik Salik notes in his “Witness to Surrender”: “Minutes later, Major Jaffar, Brigade Major of 57 Brigade, was on the wireless. I could hear his crisp voice saying 'BIG BIRD IN THE CAGE…OTHERS NOT IN THEIR NESTS…OVER'.”
On 27 March, organisers of the Biplobi Betar Kendra at Kalurghat in Chittagong made contact with Major Ziaur Rahman. At one point, Belal Mohammad, in less than serious mood, asked Zia if he had anything to say to the nation. Zia, as others were later to state, quickly went on air and, proclaiming himself president, “declared” Bangladesh's independence. That did not go down well with leading Bengalis in the port city, at that point yet to come under Pakistan army control. Eminent citizens like AK Khan and AR Mallick made it clear that such an announcement by Zia, an unknown major in the Pakistan army, would have no bearing on the resistance and in fact would be construed as a mutiny in the Pakistan army.
Zia quickly grasped the truth. Within minutes, he wrote out another statement, which he read out on the Biplobi Betar Kendra. The statement was the following:
“I, Major Zia, on behalf of our Great Leader, the Supreme Commander of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, do hereby proclaim the independence of Bangla Desh and (sic) that the government headed by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman has already been formed.
It is further proclaimed that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is the sole leader of the elected representatives of 75 million people of Bangla Desh and the government headed by him is the only legitimate government of the people of the independent sovereign state of Bangla Desh, which is legally and constitutionally formed and is worthy of being recognised by all the governments of the world.
I, therefore, appeal on behalf of our Great Leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to the governments of all the democratic countries of the world, especially the Big Powers and the neighbouring countries, to recognise the legal government of Bangla Desh and take effective steps to stop immediately the awful genocide that has been carried on by the army of occupation from Pakistan.
To dub us, the elected representatives of the majority of the people, as secessionists, is a cruel joke and should befool none.
The guiding principle of the new state will be, first, neutrality; second, peace; third, friendship to all and enmity to none.
May Allah help us.
Weeks later, on 17 April 1971, the Bangladesh provisional government was proclaimed in a region of Meherpur, Chuadanga (subsequently to be renamed as Mujibnagar). In the absence of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was officially proclaimed President of Bangladesh, Syed Nazrul Islam took charge as Acting President. Tajuddin Ahmed took over as Prime Minister, leading a small cabinet comprising M Mansoor Ali, AHM Quamruzzaman and Khondokar Moshtaque Ahmed as ministers.
Following liberation in December 1971, Bangabandhu returned to Bangladesh on 10 January 1972. He gave up the presidency, into which stepped Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury, and took charge as Prime Minister. Against the background of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution in January 1975, when Bangladesh did away with the parliamentary system of government, Bangabandhu took over as President again.
After the assassination of the Father of the Nation in August 1975, events moved with dizzying speed in the country. Justice Abu Sadat Mohammad Sayem, installed as President on 6 November 1975 following the removal of Khondokar Moshtaque in a coup led by General Khaled Musharraf, remained in that office when on 7 November General Zia, earlier detained by Musharraf, rode to power. Initially proclaiming himself chief martial law administrator, within twenty-four hours he became one of the three deputy chief martial law administrators, with President Sayem taking upon himself the additional responsibility of chief martial law administrator.
Sayem was removed from presidential office in April 1977. He was replaced by Zia, who quickly organised a referendum that gave him “overwhelming support” to continue as President. In June 1978, still in military service, General Zia organised a presidential election in which he defeated his former commanding officer in the War of Liberation, General MAG Osmany.
Ziaur Rahman was assassinated in an abortive coup d'etat in Chittagong on 30 May 1981.