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August 15 , 2003

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Bangabandhu before the Liberation

The Road to Independence

Mustafa Zaman

Products and information pervade our times. As we are lost in their all-consuming presence and wide ramifications, there is still, room for remembrance of a leader who, even after 28 years of his death, has simultaneously been at the receiving end of eulogy and criticism.

Though the image of the man still stands tall, as his public persona is still something to be vied with, the facts behind the making of the leader has been made turbid by subsequent military juntas who rode power in independent Bangladesh. Attempts were made to put a veil on the history of independence and its leader. After he was brutally murdered on August 15, 1975 by a section of highly ambitious and conspiratorial faction of the army, his legacy was deliberately distorted along with history of this nation. Even after democracy was restored in the 90s, the facts were never allowed to surface. SWM strives to piece together the shattered saga of an extraordinary man who still remains the most revered leader of this nation.

After 32 years of independence, history remains a puzzle to a nation that relies too much on word of mouth. Official history, too, has been tampered with. In this context the political life of the leader, who first earned the epithet of 'Bangabandhu' in 1969 and 'the Father of the Nation' after the liberation, is often seen as a chapter only to be read by the loyal supporters of his party.

During the 23 years of Pakistan rule, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman spent twelve years in jail and ten years under close surveillance. Rulers of Pakistan saw him as a leader, who with his charisma and conviction could stir the masses, which he did. Under his charismatic leadership the Bangali people of the former East Pakistan became united as never before and collectively plunged themselves into a movement that later transformed itself to our armed struggle for independence.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was born on 17 March 1920 in the village Tungipara under Gopalgonj district, then a Sub-division in the Faridpur district. His father, Sheikh Lutfur Rahman was a serestadar in the civil court of Gopalganj. His mother's name was Shahara Khatun. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's initiation to politics began in the Gopalgonj Missionary School, from where he obtained his matriculation in 1942. It was in this school ground that he met Hussain Shahid Suhrawardy and A.K. Fazlul Haque when they came for a visit. Sheikh Mujib had the opportunity to talk to Suhrawardy for the first time, a man who would later become his mentor.

In 1942, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman got admission in the Islamia College in Calcutta. Soon he was to become enmeshed in politics. He started out as an activist of the Student League of Bengal Provincial Muslim League remaining an elected member of All-India Muslim League Council from 1943 onward. There were two factions in Muslim League of Bengal, one was steered by Surhwardy and Abul Hashim and the other by Akram Khan and Khaja Nazimuddin. Mujibur Rahman had become an activist and a supporter of the former. He and the other activists of this faction were often referred to as the Hashemites.

From Islamia College, now called the Moulana Azad College, Mujib obtained his IA in 1944. It was a tumultuous time. The Second World War was ending and on the Azad Hind Fouze Day a youth died near the Baker Hostel, where Mujibur Rahman used to reside. During this time his involvement with politics had intensified. In 1944, he was elected general secretary of the Islamia College Student Union. In 1946, because of his active participation in politics, he could not sit for BA examinations. In the same year the Muslim League sent him to the Faridpur district to campaign for the party in the general elections. The Surhwardy and Hashem faction of the Muslim League won 116 seats in the 119 seats allocated for Muslims. It was an unprecedented victory. Mujib, proved to be an organiser par excellence in this election.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman with HS Suhrawardy in Rajshai, 1954.

M.R. Akhter Mukul is of the opinion that it was Surhwardy who taught Mujib the tactics of parliamentary politics. And it was from Moulana Bhashani that he picked up his speech making expertise--the emotionally charged, inspiring delivery of his political address. Both had a strong influence in his political career.

After partition of British India in 1947, and having passed his BA from Islamia College, he came to Dhaka and got himself admitted to the University here.

He was a student of law, but he could not complete his study as he was expelled from the university in early 1949 after being charged with 'inciting the fourth-class employees' towards agitation. In 1948 under the leadership of Maulana Bhashani and Suhrawardy East Pakistan Awami Muslim League was formed. He was elected one of the joint secretaries of the newly formed party although he was then interned in Faridpur jail. He was one of the leaders behind the formation of the Muslim Students League in 1948. His contribution in the Language Movement of 1952 was also significant. He was one of the first few leaders of the language movement to serve a jail sentence. In 1953, he was elected general secretary of the East Pakistan Awami Muslim League, a post that he held till 1966, the year he became the president of the party.

As an advocate of the rights of the Bangali people, Mujibur Rahman was unrelenting from the very beginning. He always gave voice to issues that had related to economic, social and cultural rights of the Bangalis and to the rising discrimination between the two wings of Pakistan.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, for the first time, was elected a member of East Bengal Legislative Assembly in 1954. It was the year of the rise of people of East Bengal. The United Front (UF), formed by the unity of three leaders- AK Fazlul Huq, Moulana Bhashani and Shaheed Suhrawardy, and all other smaller opposition parties, dealt a death blow to the ruling Muslim League in the election for provincial legislative. The 21-point programme, written by Abul Mansur Ahmad, which articulated the aspirations of the people of the East Bengal created a landslide for the United Front giving it practically all the seats. The Muslim League never recovered from this electoral debacle.
The skirmishing among factions of the UF and all sorts of conspiracies on the part of the West Pakistan authority prevent the United Front from remaining in power dashed all hopes for democracy in Pakistan. On May 19, 1954 the Pak-American defence treaty was signed, and right after that, the United Front government was arbitrarily dismissed and the centre-imposed governor's rule was put in place. Many leaders were sent to jail including Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

In the following year, after the dismissal of the United Front government and after Sher-e-Bangla Fazlul Haq broke away from the UF and had secured a place in the centre as the foreign minister, the name Awami Muslim League was changed to Awami League. The decision to omit the word 'Muslim' was a sign of departure from the religious oriented politics to a more secular politics.
Mujib entered national parliamentary politics in 1956. He was also a member of the Pakistan Second Constituent Assembly-cum-Legislature from 1955 to 1958. He resigned from the cabinet of Ataur Rahman Khan (1956-58), in which he was the provincial commerce minister, to devote himself to building up the party from the grass root level. His single minded activities to develop the party made a very popular party figure. It also made him a target of the Ayub which jailed him at regular intervals.

It was during his grassroots party activism that Sheikh Mujib developed his own political profile. Although generally under the shadow of his mentor Shaheed Suhrawardy, he started articulating bold, if not radical views on the future of East Pakistan. However he followed his mentor blindly when CENTO and SEATO treaties were signed by Pakistan. For this action a split was created between Suhrawady and Bhashani; in the eyes of left-leaning politicians of East Bengal, Mujib became a part of the pro-American axis. In spite of this, Mujib could be seen as having a left-of-centre political inclination.

As time passed Sheikh Mujib developed extraordinary skill in understanding peoples' psyche and articulating them in the most effective manner. “He understood his own people, he spoke their 'language' and as a leader he was an antidote to the armchair politics practiced by many leaders of that period”, says poet and political analyst Farhad Mazhar.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman takes oath as minister in the Jukta Front cabinet before Chief Minister AK Fazlul Huq on May 15, 1954.

It was Moulana Bhashani who, in his famous Kagmari council session in 1957, hinted at the idea of an independent nation for the Bangalis if Pakistan continued its politics hegemony and oppressing the Bangalis. But the nation had to wait till 1966 to see a strong surge of opinion in favour of self-rule and then later for independence. Sheikh Mujib who had a tremendous sense of timing realised the right moment for articulating the aspiration of the Bangali people for self rule. In 1966, he announced his famous six-point programme at a meeting in Lahore with General Ayub Khan who had taken over power in Pakistan through an army coup in 1958. This, in his own words, was 'our (Bangalis') charter of survival'. The six-point programme catapulted Sheikh Mujib into the forefront of national politics united the people of East Pakistan behind a clear cut and easily understood political programme.

As a politician, Mujib always preferred the democratic path to achieve his political goals. He was not a revolutionary in the conventional sense of the term and was always committed to mass movement as a method of political activism. He never propagated the violent overthrow of established regimes however autocratic. As his activism became more vigorous and his mass appeal became stronger and more widespread, the Pakistani regime became more and more oppressive against him. He was frequently arrested and kept interned for longer and longer periods.

1960s was a seminal decade for the Bangalis as well as for Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Although he had spent most of the Ayub era behind bars, Mujib and his Awami League were instrumental in putting up a resistance against the autocracy from the start when Ayub took power in 1958. After the death of giants like Fazlul Haque and Surhwardy respectively in 1961 and 1963, a new era began that saw the rise of a younger generation of politicians. Journalist Ataus Samad gives salience to this, “After the death of Suhrawardy it was Sheikh Shaheb who was responsible for the revival of the Awami League,” he points out. He explains that Sheikh Mujib and Moulana Bhashani are the leaders who spent more than eleven years in roaming around East Bengal, getting to know people at the grass-roots. This he thinks had an effect in how they evolved as mass leaders and how they behaved in the political arena. Although, Samad remarks, in later life Mujib could not rise above party interest.

The Hindu-Muslim riot of 1964 stoked by the then governor Munaim Khan, and the 17 day-long Pak-India war of 1965, were turning points in the political life of the Bangalis. It was during the war that the people of the East Pakistan suddenly became aware of the vulnerability of their position. The army that was being raised with their tax money appeared solely to be geared to protect the western region. Suddenly to the issues of economic, social and cultural autonomy, the issue of defence also became attached.

After Mujib's six-point programme, the idea of self-rule started to gain a new vigour and unprecedented momentum. As Sheikh Mujib's popularity rose, the Pakistan's army government became increasingly desperate. It tried to stop him through frequent imprisonment and other types of oppression. When nothing worked they launched a new attack that of 'conspiracy against sovereignty of the nation'. A case was instituted that Mujib had conspired with India to dismember Pakistan. As the Agartala Conspiracy case, as it became popularly known, went to trial public support for Mujib's popularity rose sky high. By then Mujib's identity was established as the unrelenting champion of the Bangalis, and as the man who unified his people and made them a courageous lot. All this made him the unquestioned leader of his people. Mujib popularity shot up so high that Ayub Khan was forced to withdraw the Agartala Conspiracy case, in the face of united student's movement under the 11 point charter, and invited him to a 'roundtable conference' in Islamabad. This military dictator's surrender to public will further established Mujib's pre-eminent position as the supreme leader of the Bangalis.

“Ebarer sangram amader shadhinoter sangram”-----The historic address at the Race Course ground, March 7, 1971.

In the round table meeting, Mujib was not willing to make any concessions on his six-point demands. The meeting failed to produce any result. After two weeks, on March 24, 1969, Ayub was forced to step down. Army chief, General Yahya Khan took over power in a bloodless coup.

Then came the general election of 1970. December 9 was the day of elections, and the army stood guard while the electorate gave a huge mandate in favour of Awami League. Without competing in the West Wing of Pakistan, AL secured 167 seats. This was the historical achievement of the pro-self-rule people led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Mujib was successful in making the Bangalis speak with one voice and that was a voice for their economic, social and cultural emancipation.

The historic address of March 7, 1971, in the then racecourse (now the Suhrawardy Udyan), by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was a clarion call for an independent Bangladesh.

Farhad Mazhar believes that Mujib was a believer in the parliamentary system, and in his address to the public, he never clearly proclaimed independence although it was, at that time, taken as a call for independence; he did not ask the people outright to take up the gun, but he did imply it in a very emotional way.

He fought for a democratic form of government, yet he knew that independence was the only way. Although the student leaders of various parties had been calling for independence since March 2, he kept on trying to at find a peaceful solution through a legal procedure. The dialogue he continued with general Yehya and Bhutto is proof of this. The effort failed, as Mujib did not compromise the interest of the Bengali people.

Leaders of West Pakistan came to Dhaka to talk, but when the talk was on the verge of collapse, they left for west Pakistan leaving the Bengali people to face a genocidal crack down by the Pak military on the night of March 25. Sheikh Mujib was arrested on the same night from his Dhanmondi residence and kept incarcerated at the Dhaka cantonment until he was flown to West Pakistan to be tried on charges of sedition. Farhad Mazhar lauds his action at this critical moment. His courage to wait in his own home without knowing his fate was exemplary.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman did not physically participate in the armed struggle for the Liberation of Bangladesh. But in every freedom fighter's lips his name resonated and with every heartbeat they felt his presence. The massive sea of people who welcomed him back on 10th. January 1972 when he was released from Pakistani prison proved how much the people, of now independent Bangladesh really loved and revered him.

after the Liberation

A Turbulent Political Career


Bangabandhu returns home

Bangabandhu returned home on January 10, 1972 after ten months of solitary confinement in a Pakistani prison. Seventy million people of the newly liberated country had been waiting for his return since the end of the war and the subsequent surrender of the Pakistani army on the 16th of December 1971.

But January 10 was more than a leader's triumphant homecoming. “Hundreds of thousands of people gathered on both sides of the streets that led to the airport. He was later taken to the Suhrawardy Uddyan; another hundreds of thousands of people gathered there just to have a glimpse of him,” Nafia Din, a student of Dhaka University during the turbulent days and now a professor of political science at a U.S. university describes the most momentous event in our political history after independence. In fact Suhrawardy Uddyan was the place where Mujib had made his last public speech, declaring civil disobedience against the Pakistani junta till the hand over of power to the legitimate representatives of the people. Ataus Samad, former correspondent of the BBC describes Mujib's homecoming as an event that made our independence complete.

Anthony Mascarenhas, a journalist working for London based newspaper the Sunday Times who really broke the story of genocide against Bangali people internationally, writes in his book, “Bangladesh: A Legacy of Blood” about Bangabandhu's homecoming, “It was as if a human sea had been packed into the three square mile arena. Nothing like this had happened ever in Dhaka. There's been nothing like it since then. The frenzied cheering, the extravagant praise, the public worship and obeisance were beyond the wildest day dream of any man.” But, Mascarenhas goes on “The trouble was that even before the last echoes of the cheering had faded Mujib the demi-god was brought face to face with an overwhelming reality.” Twenty million people displaced within the country plus ten million refugees who were coming home from India needed shelter, food and clothing.

Bangabandhu affixes his signature to the draft of the Constitution of the People's Republic of Bangladesh.

The country was devastated by what Mujib later called “the greatest man made disaster in history.” Topping it all was the destruction of the transport and communications systems, which made the movement of relief-supplies a daily miracle. The railway tracks and signalling equipment and rolling stock were severely damaged. Every major bridge and more than half the river transport were completely destroyed. Chittagong, one of the country's two ports and principal entry point for food imports, was rendered unserviceable by 29 ship-wrecks blocking the Karnafulli River channel. Fewer than 1000 of the country's 8000-truck fleet were serviceable. There was no gasoline. Bangladesh desperately needed 2.5 million tons of food to avoid famine. And when this was forthcoming from the international community it required an additional miracle to get it to the country's 60,000 villages, Mascarenhas writes.

To make it a law and order nightmare for any government there were an estimated 3,50,000 guns with equally vast quantities of ammunition left in the hands of various self-styled 'Bahinies'. The world's newest nation and its fragile economy were tittering on the brink of a total collapse.

The desperation was evident in an interview Bangabandhu gave to the Sunday Times. “What do you do about the currency? Where do you get food? Industries are dead. Commerce is dead. How do you start them again? What do you do about defence? I have no administration. Where do I get one? Tell me, how do you start a country?” he remarked to his interviewer six days after the jubilant reception he received at the Suhrawardy Uddyan.

The first move he made to run the country had cost him dearly. Unlike the overwhelming numbers of army-men and members of the police, with a few honourable exceptions, the bureaucrats remained in the service of the Pakistani occupation forces. When Bangladesh became independent on December 16, 1971, they quickly jumped on the bandwagon, proclaiming their new-found nationalism. So did many other opportunistic elements who were derisively dubbed the '16th Division', Mascarenhas says. Mujib turned to the 16th Division in the bureaucracy to run Bangladesh. “It was one of the fundamental mistakes he made in his three and half years in the helm,” Ataus Samad says. “It has been said that Castro told him not to run an independent country with the help of officials experienced in running a colonial administration. He advised an overhaul in the administration during the Non-Aligned Summit in Algiers, in 1973, where the two met for the first and the last time. But Mujib didn't listen to that suggestion,” Samad continues.

So about 11,00,000 government certified freedom fighters, at the very outset of the independence, felt ignored and excluded from the reconstruction of the new country. Though Mujib offered the FFs to join the armed forces, only 8,000 turned up and they were absorbed in the Jatiya Rakkhi Bahini; officially it was the national militia, in practice, it behaved like a private army of the ruling party.

Prime Minister Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the parliament, 1973.

In contrast to the above administrative failures Bangabandhu's government produced a very important success: a Constitution was framed on November 4, 1972, enshrining most of the noblest of principles found in any other constitution. On December 16 that year it took effect. “It was a Herculean task, and it was done, unbelievably, within a year of our independence. It was like France after the bourgeois revolution; the Constitution guaranteed every basic right of the citizens. It was the finest document of liberal democracy,” Nafia says. Democracy, socialism, nationalism and secularism were made the four basic guiding principles of the newly liberated country. Mascarenhas, too, believes Bangladesh “had a Constitution, which any country could be proud of.”

The first general election, held in 1973, in the independent Bangladesh was smooth sailing for Bangabandhu and the Awami League. In a landslide victory, the party won 307 out of the 315 of the total seats in the Jatiya Sangsad. Maulana Bhashani, the octogenarian leader of the National Awami Party saw the election result, according to a Guardian report, as “the signal for the arrival of undiluted socialism.”

On the diplomatic front Bangabandhu's foreign policy saw some significant success. The newly independent country got diplomatic recognition from all the major powers of the world including the four veto-wielding nations( all except China's) at the United Nation's Security Council. Bangabandhu's presence at the Organisation of Islam Council's (OIC) summit meeting in the Pakistani City of Lahore was a decision only a leader of his statute could make. Farhad Mazhar, believes “Mujib went to the OIC and set up the Islamic Foundation because he could feel the pulse of the people.” And his larger than life presence at the NAM conference in Algiers gave a huge boost to the morale of this tiny nation of 70 million people. The speech he made in Bangla at the United Nations in 1974 and the international publicity that followed made Bangladesh the voice of the Third world.

However some dark cloud of failure began to gather in the independent sky of Bangladesh. The rot was setting in from within. Corruption and monopolisation of state contracts by the ruling party cliques became so rampant that an economy of nepotism, corruption and black market literally took over the economy. Political oppression on Shiraz Sikdar revealed the autocratic nature of the highly personalised government run by Bangbandhu. The breaking out of JSD from within the ranks of Awami League clearly revealed the breach within ruling party ranks.

Bangabandhu inspecting a guard of honour of the Air Force.

By this time Bangladesh was facing a new menace that had almost crippled its already fragile economy. It was smuggling. Tony Hagen, then head of the UN Relief Operation to Dhaka, aptly described the situation to the Sunday Times“Bangladesh is like a bridge suspended in India.” Some unscrupulous businessmen and officials smuggled, almost all they could, to the neighbouring country. According to some reports the smuggling of goods across the border during the first three years cost the country's economy about Tk. 60,000 million. The goods that were smuggled were mostly food-grains, jute and materials imported from abroad. In fact by December 1973, the economy was completely bankrupt, and about 2-billion US dollars of international aid had already been injected to the country's economy. Some of these “unscrupulous businessmen and office bearers” were Awami Leaguers; and though, the whole party was in no way collectively responsible for the smuggling, Nafia Din believes, “ Some of their involvement in smuggling and the '25-years treaty' with India gave the Awami League a pro-India label.”

Then came the flood of 1974. Smuggling coupled with corruption and sheer nepotism in food distributions had turned the natural disaster into a man-made calamity. Bangabandhu publicly admitted the death of 27,000 people of starvation. Mascarenhas believes the death toll “of the (subsequent) famine was well into the six figures.”

At Buckingham Palace with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip.

Bangabandhu wanted to make Bangladesh “the Switzerland of the east.” Nonetheless when the Rakkhi Bahini was raised to 25,000 men with basic military training and modern automatic weapons, the discontent amongst some army men turned into antagonism. “Most people wanted to see a Che Guevara out of Sheikh Mujib, but certainly he wasn't Che,” says Farhad Mazhar. Mazhar thinks that because he wasn't a revolutionary like Che or Castro, Mujib couldn't make any people's army after the independence like Castro did in Cuba after the liberation; which he believes the country at that moment desperately needed.

Bangabandhu, in the name of socialism, without giving the local entrepreneurs a level playing filed, nationalised all the industries in the name of a 'planned and controlled economy'. Ataus Samad believes Mujib's economic policy “had demolished the entrepreneurship skill of the Bangalis.”

Bangabandhu with the Algerian president and Bhutto at the Islamic Summit, Lahore, 1974.

“Corruption, cronyism, sycophancy and political repression had virtually isolated Bangabandhu from the people by then,” observes Nafia. Bangabandhu himself told the press that almost 4000 of his party workers, including 5 MPs had been killed by numerous self-styled political factions. In November that year, Tajuddin Ahmed, who led the nation on behalf of Bangabandhu and tipped as Mujib's natural successor, publicly criticised the government for corruption and mismanagement. In a move that may be termed as suicidal for Sheikh Mujib, he asked Tajuddin to resign who readily complied and retired from politics for the moment. As the situation got worse and Bangabandhu became more isolated, on December 28, 1974 he declared a state of emergency and on January 25, 1975 he was sworn in as the President. On June 7 that year the one party state was formed.

BKSAL (Bangladesh Krishok Sramik Awami League), now the only legitimate political party, was officially described as the “Second Revolution.” But in effect it made Bangladesh a one party state with every political and administrative power personally vested in Sheikh Mujib. The promulgation says: “When the national party is formed a person shall:

a) In case he is a member of Parliament on the date the National party is formed, cease to be such a member, and his seat in Parliament shall become vacant if he does not become a member of the National Party within the time fixed by the President

b) Not be qualified for election as President or as a Member of Parliament if he is not nominated as a candidate for such election by the National Party.

c) Have no right of form, or to be a member or otherwise take part in the activities of any political party other than the National Party.”

Bangabandhu handpicked 61 men, which included many serving bureaucrats, as District Governors, to run the country. These non-elected “Governors” were to control the Bangladesh Rifles, the Rakkhi Bahini, police and army units stationed in their respective areas from September 1. Thus the man who led his country towards independence and freedom, within four years after its independence turned it into a monolithic and one party state. Through promulgating BKSAL all newspapers, except four under government control , were closed.

But the worst was yet to come for this infant nation wobbling on its independent feet. On August 15, 1975, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was killed, along with 13 members of his family, by a bunch of disgruntled army officers, under the political leadership of Khondokar Mushtak Ahmed.It was the most gruesome political assassination that continues to haunt the nation even today.

On that fateful night a group of killers led by ex-Major Noor and Major Mohiuddin, along with a group of mutineers from the Bengal Lancers, went to the private house at Dhanmandi to kill Bangabandhu. Ex-Major Noor fired a burst from his Sten gun on the right side of Bangabandhu; his whole body twisted backwards and then it slipped to the landing space of the stairs. It was 5:40 in the morning. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman died at an age of 56, at his home, from where he had led his people to independence. Begum Mujib was killed a moment later in front of their bedroom. Then the mayhem began. Sheikh Kamal and Sheikh Jamal, Bangabandhu's two sons and their newly wed wives were killed. Sheikh Nasir, Mujib's brother, who had allegedly amassed a heavy fortune during that period, was also killed. The self styled saviours of the people then killed Mujib's 7-year old son, Sheikh Russell.

By this time another killer team, according to Mascarenhas, led by major Dalim went to Abdur Rab Serniabat's house. In a 20-minute long massacre that followed, Serniabat was killed along with his wife, daughters and 3 minor members of the family. Serniabat's son Abul Hasnat, a survivor in the family who had luckily escaped on that frightful night, according to Mascarenhas, “(later) saw his wife, mother and 20-year-old sister badly wounded and bleeding. His two young daughters, uninjured, were sobbing behind a sofa where they had hidden during the massacre. Lying dead on the floor were his 5-year-old son, two sisters aged 10 and 15 and his 11-year old brother, the family ayah (maid), a house-boy and his cousin Shahidul Islam Serniabat.”

Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (BKSAL), a national front comprising major political parties and professional groups of the country was formed in 1975. People are seen attending the first conference.

The attack on Sheikh Moni's house was, to quote Mascarenhas, “Brief and devastating.” Risaldar Muslehuddin led the killers to the house of Sheikh Moni, which was also at Dhanmandi. Moni's seven months pregnant wife jumped in front of her husband, in an attempt to save him from the Risaldar's bullet. Both were killed by a single bullet.

Khandakar Moshtaque Ahmed who declared himself as the president on August 15 following Bangabandhu's brutal assassination, promulgated, on 26th September, an ordinance indemnifying the killers. The Ordinance was promulgated, as the Bangladesh Gazette dated that day says, “ to restrict the taking of any legal or other proceedings in respect of certain acts or things in connection with, or in preparation or execution of any plan for, or steps necessitating, the historical change and the Proclamation of Martial Law on the morning of 15th August, 1975.”

The August 15 killing and the Indemnity Ordinance had encouraged several successful and unsuccessful coup attempts later in the army. The killers were later awarded with high-ranking government jobs by the subsequent military governments that came as a natural by-product of the August 15 mayhem. The Ordinance, which was turned into an act and incorporated in our Constitution by General Ziaur Rahman who succeeded to power in November '75 was scrapped in the late 1996 when Awami League came to power. The trial was held under the ordinary law of the land and after several years of legal proceedings verdict was given on this historic case. It is now under appeal at the highest court.

The Trial


Here comes another August 15 and brings with it the shocking memory of the most gruesome murder in the history of Bangladesh. It was the 15th August of 1975. A group of disgruntled blood-thirsty mid-level army officers stormed into the two-storied building at road number 32 in Dhanmandi. When the killers came out of the house the greatest Bangali political hero who led the Bangalis to their greatest achievement- independence- Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was lying dead in a pool of his own blood in the staircase of his home. Along with him almost all his family members, 10 in all, met the same fate. Only his two daughters--Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehana survived the massacre.

As the nation mourns the killing of its greatest political hero its sense of grief is deepened by the fact that justice has not yet been dispensed to the killers. Not even after 28 years. In fact it took 21 years to bring the murder case to the court. Khandakar Mustaque enacted an indemnity ordinance that would bar any legal action against those who were involved in the chilling murders of Bangabandhu, his family members as well as his relatives and senior Awami League leaders. Subsequently, during Ziaur Rahman's time this was incorporated into the Constitution through the 5th amendment.

Thus the killers were secured from being tried for the next 21 years. In fact, early in the day they were awarded diplomatic assignments. Sixteen years of military rule, parts of it under civilian garb, was followed by 5 years rule of a democratic government led by Begum Khaleda Zia, but the indemnity act remained intact. It was only when Awami League came to power in 1996 that the murder case was finally taken up for trial.

On October 2, 1996, a FIR was lodged with the Dhanmondi Police station and thus the government initiated the trial under the ordinary law of the land through the arrest of the accused murderers. Eminent criminal lawyer Serajul Huq was appointed as the special Public Prosecutor by the government. He was assisted by Anisul Huq, Barrister Mosharraf Hossain Kajal, Sahara Khatun, Nurul Islam Sujan and Syed Rezaur Rahman. The chargesheet was submitted accusing 23 persons, 3 of them already dead, on January 15, 1997. The hearing took around 18 months to be completed and District and Sessions Judge Kazi Golam Rasul gave his verdict on November 8, 1998. Fifteen of the accused were given death sentence while five others were acquitted.

Bangabandhu with his family members: (from left) Sheikh Kamal, his oldest son, younger daughter Sheikh Rehana, youngest son Sheikh Russel on his lap, wife Fazilatunnesa, second son Sheikh Jamal and daughter Sheikh Hasina. All of them were brutally killed on the night of August 15, 1975, except Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehana.

As required by law the case was then referred to a two-judge High Court Bench. After almost two years the High Court delivered its judgement on Dec 14, 2000. It was a split verdict -- while Judge ABM Khairul Huq upheld the trial court verdict, Justice Ruhul Amin confirmed the death sentence against nine, gave life imprisonment to one and acquitted the remaining five of their charges. The case was then referred to a third Bench of the High Court. The hearing started on February 12, 2001 and Justice Md Fazlul Karim pronounced his judgement on April 30, 2001. He confirmed death sentence against 12 of the accused and acquitted three others. Those who are facing death sentence are Lt. Col. (Rtd) Khandaker Abdur Rashid, Lt. Col. (Rtd) Noor Chowdhury, Lt. Col. (Rtd) Shariful Huq Dalim, Lt. Col. (Rtd) Abdul Aziz Pasha, Lt. Col. (Rtd) Rashed Choudhury, Major (Rtd) AKM Mohiuddin Ahmed, Lt. Col. (Rtd) Syed Faruq Rahman, Lt. (Rtd) Sultan Shahriar Rashid Khan and Major (Rtd) Bazlul Huda, Lt. Col. (Rtd) Mohiuddin Ahmed, Capt. (Rtd) Abdul Majed, and Lance Dafadar Moslehuddin. He acquitted Capt. (Rtd) Kismet Hashem, Capt (Rtd) Najmul Hossain Ansar, Major (Rtd) Ahmed Shariful Hossain of their charges. However, only four of them are now in custody who are Lt. Col. (Rtd) Syed Faruq Rahman, Lt (Rtd) Sultan Shahriar Rashid Khan, Major (Rtd) Bazlul Huda and Lt Col (Rtd) Mohiuddin Ahmed while others are believed to be abroad.

The convicted persons then appealed to the Appellate Division (AD) of the Supreme Court against the verdict. The law requires a three-judge Bench to hear an appeal. The crisis began when 3 of the 7 judges of the AD felt 'embarrassed'; while the other 2 judges had already heard the case when they had been in the High Court, which disqualified them to hear it again. Thus a Bench of three judges could not be constituted till now.

Meanwhile, AL lost the general election in October 2001 and BNP came to the power. On October 28, 2002, Serajul Huq, the Special Public Prosecutor appointed by the AL government for this particular case passed away. Anisul Huq, his son and associate throughout this case, then wrote to Chief justice Mahmudul Amin Chowdhury regarding the appointment of ad-hoc judges so that the case can be resolved. Chowdhury passed on the request to the concerned authority, but in vain. Barrister Moudud Ahmed, Minister for Law, declined to comply saying that they had already raised the number of judges in the AD from 5 to 7. In an interview he also argued that the constitution doesn't permit appointment judges on ad hoc basis.

Anisul Huq however differs with him. Article 98 of the constitution does have the provision of appointing an ad-hoc judge, he says emphatically. “The government is simply not sincere about seeing this case being completed smoothly,” he says. Huq's allusions echo the more explicit accusations of the Awami League of the BNP's attempts to delay the completion of this trial.

Apparently the present government's sincerity regarding the completion of the Bangabandhu murder case is not beyond question. Its record concerning appointment of judges and absolute inaction regarding the extradition process of some killers living abroad gives some justification for the AL position.

The Bangabandhu Murder Case needs to be resolved not just for the consolation of the bereaved family or to satisfy a certain political party, but mainly for the sake of establishing the rule of law and justice.






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