President Ziaur Rahman was assassinated by some army officers on May 30, 1981, in Chittagong. In the aftermath, over a dozen officers were either hanged through a stage-managed trial or just killed. Many freedom-fighter officers were forced into retirement. While the Zia killing trial is yet to begin, the conspiracy behind the assassination remains to be unearthed.
Brigadier General Chowdhury Khalequzzaman had been asked by Major General Shamsuzzaman, GOC of 9th division, to meet him at his office at division headquarters at Sher-e-Banglanagar in the capital. Khaleque, commander of the brigade in Tangail under the 9th division, rushed there.
He found some other brigade commanders present at the GOC's office to attend a meeting presided over by Gen Shamsuzzaman, who had been repatriated from Pakistan after the country's Liberation War.
At the meeting held some days after the assassination of President Ziaur Rahman on May 30, 1981, Lt Col Kabir, commander of a brigade, had come up with an astonishing statement addressing the GOC.
"Sir, we had enough. Now we must sort out these freedom fighters, so called freedom fighters. We were under pressure of the freedom fighters…we had nothing to say…they had controlled all. Now the situation has changed.
"Therefore, we have to take appropriate action now," Kabir asserted.
Brig Gen Khaleq had got the message. Kabir had been speaking of taking revenge on freedom fighter officers.
At the meeting, Khaleq was the lone freedom fighter officer, who as a young officer of the Eighth East Bengal Regiment had revolted under Zia's leadership in March 1971 and had fought along with him.
None of the officers present there had said anything opposing Kabir.
After some days, then army chief Gen HM Ershad called Khaleq over the telephone and said: "Khalequzzaman, I want your support."
"Sir, my support is always there. My brigade will always be there with you for this staff of discipline of the army," Khaleq replied.
"No, I want your absolute loyalty to the state," said Ershad.
"Nothing will happen, sir. You should not worry. If anything happens, it will happen over my dead body, troops will not go over my dead body," Khaleq assured.
Khaleq had initially thought the army chief might have thought that the freedom fighter officers in Tangail brigade might march towards Dhaka to do something which might create trouble for Ershad.
After a few days of his conversation with Ershad, Brig Gen Mahtab, the then military secretary at army headquarters, suddenly called Khaleq over the telephone at the end of June or early in July.
"Your resignation will be accepted if you resign," Brig Mahtab told Khaleq.
This surprised Khaleq, who could never imagine such a situation.
"Why? Why are you talking like this?" Khaleq asked instantly.
"No, we are asking if you are interested in resigning," Mahtab quipped.
Mahtab was a very powerful officer at the army headquarters at that time. He was very close to Gen Ershad. As the military secretary, his job was to make career plans and plans for postings and transfers of army officers.
Khaleq had understood that some conspiracy was being hatched against him. So, he decided to talk to the army chief to this effect. He had tried to talk to Ershad over the phone, but failed.
Then he had rushed to Dhaka to meet Ershad and met him at the latter's residence. He informed Ershad what the military secretary had told him over the phone.
Hearing Khaleq, Ershad said: "I cannot keep you guys in service."
Khaleq tried to convince Ershad, but failed.
He returned to Tangail with a heart laden with sadness. He discussed the matter with one of the staff officers of his brigade, Major Tarek.
"Sir, it's not a good sign. They want you to leave the army willingly," Tarek told Khaleq.
He, however, had not discussed it with any of his relatives, not even with his wife. After some days, he readied his resignation letter on discussion with Tarek.
Before submitting his resignation letter, he mad a phone call to Major General Moinul Hossain Chowdhury, the then adjutant general of Bangladesh Army, and told him his story. He was known to Gen Moin for a long time.
"It is difficult to work with them. They will eliminate us [freedom fighter officers] one by one," said Gen Moin, a veteran freedom fighter.
Moin described the situation he had been facing. He was not invited to the meeting to discuss matters that fall under his jurisdiction. His junior officers were invited to the meeting. No file was sent to him.
Getting no remedy, Khaleq had told his story to Major General Mir Shawkat Ali, who was holding a senior position in the Supreme Command Headquarters Division in the capital.
"What can I do for you Khalequzzaman? I am also in big trouble. I don't think I will be able to do anything for you," said Gen Shawkat, a veteran freedom fighter who had revolted with Gen Zia in Chittagong in March 1971.
Then he moved to another senior officer Aminul Haq, who was commander of 46th brigade and fought the Liberation War along with Khaleq. Aminul was also commanding officer of Khaleq for some days.
Khaleq told him his story. Aminul expressed his inability to do something for him.
He then understood that he would not have any benefit of talking to anybody more.
He sent his resignation letter which was accepted a few days later. Thus his job in the army came to an end when he was only 36.
Khaleque was not the lone freedom fighter officer in the army who was made a victim after the assassination of Zia.
The then air force chief Air Vice Marshal Sadruddin, who was a freedom fighter, had to resign from the service centring on an altercation between the then acting president and him over transfer of a senior air force officer.
Sadruddin had felt insulted and he had instantly announced his resignation and resigned without delay.
It was later revealed that someone had informed the acting president about Sadruddin's proposal before he had gone to Abdus Sattar. In consultation with Ershad, the acting president had accepted Sadruddin's resignation.
Gen Shawkat, who was in the Supreme Command's office, was promoted to the rank of Lt Gen and sent into retirement. He was then sent abroad as ambassador to Egypt.
After Shawkat, Gen Moin had to leave the country with a diplomatic posting.
The story does not end here.
In their effort to eliminate freedom fighter officers from the army, then army chief Ershad, who had also been repatriated from Pakistan after the Liberation war, and his close aides made another move.
They formed a screening board led by Major General Abdus Samad and sent 60 army officers into retirement, raising different allegations against them.
A few more freedom fighter officers later were forced to resign from the army.
Earlier, General Abdul Manzur, GOC of 24th Infantry Division and Area Commander of Chittagong, was murdered in Chittagong cantonment days after the Zia's assassination.
Two army officers were also murdered before Manzur's killing on their way to escape the Chittagong cantonment after Zia's assassination. Thirteen army officers were hanged through a controversial general court martial accusing them of Zia murder.
[The report is prepared on the basis of the books, "Memoir of Military Life" by Brig Gen Chowdhury Khalequzzaman and "Silent Witness of a General" by Maj Gen Moinul Hossain Chowdhury.]