An enigma of a soldier . . . | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, January 22, 2011 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, January 22, 2011

Two Reviews from Syed Badrul Ahsan

An enigma of a soldier . . .


Ataul Ghani Osmany remains a point of reference for Bengalis who take justified pride in his role during the War of Liberation. There is then a class of people who have never failed to underscore Osmany's credentials as a democrat through reminding everyone of the manner of his resignation from parliament in January 1975 once the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution came to pass. Osmany was unwilling to accept a switch over to the one-party state that Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman brought into being with the setting up of the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League in that year. Osmany will remain noted for his valedictory remark in the Jatiyo Sangsad --- that he was not willing to see a Mujib Khan in Bangladesh. The allusion was of course to the dictatorship of Ayub Khan in Pakistan between 1958 and 1969.
O General My General is, in more ways than one, a eulogy to Osmany nearly three decades after his death. The man remains larger than life, despite his slight appearance and a propensity to stay in the background. Having suffered through his years in the Pakistan army, a phase that saw him repeatedly being passed over for promotion, Osmany nevertheless did not yield. It was the spirit which mattered in him. It can fairly be suggested that there was much that was indomitable about him, that he was not willing to kowtow before men like Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan in order to come by promotions in the army. And having left the army through retirement, of course, Osmany simply made his way into politics at a time when Bengali nationalism first began to manifest itself in the mid 1960s. His political instincts were sharp to the point of telling him that it was Bengali rights which needed to be addressed. There was, for him as there was for others like him, only one way in which those rights could be ensured. And that was through a restoration of democracy in Pakistan. He saw in the Six Point plan of the Awami League a surefire way that would guide all of Pakistan toward a democratic era.
Osmany's finest hour came as the political negotiations between the Bengali leadership and the Yahya Khan military junta collapsed in late March 1971. He found himself in the position of the most senior Bengali military officer, albeit one who was retired, on whom fell the responsibility of shaping guerrilla strategy against Pakistan's occupation army in April 1971. It is facts such as these that Dewan Mohammad Tasawwar Raja highlights in this work. Obviously, the varied accounts of Osmany's life and achievements are encapsulated in what is truly a paean to the late general. The author goes on a long trajectory to sketch and then flesh out the details of Osmany's background, both in terms of his upbringing and his education. For Raja, Osmany remains a true Bengali commander as well as a pragmatic commander. That last bit may not sit well with others who have observed Osmany. During the war, the commander-in-chief of the Bangladesh forces often drew attention to himself for his acerbic tongue and for his repeated threats, every time his views were opposed by others, to quit command of the Mukti Bahini. There is little question that eccentricities sometimes held sway over him. Despite his threats, though, he did not quit, but there are reasons to think that being the straightforward soldier he always had been, Osmany may have felt piqued by the reluctance of others to take his point of view without question.
The author certainly keeps such perceptions of Osmany out of his lexicon. His appreciation of the Mukti Bahini commander-in-chief brings to focus the overall impression that he made on people around him, especially on journalists, scholars and soldiers. In this work, Raja reproduces what they have to say about Osmany. You can safely include among them AMA Muhith, Lt.Gen. JFR Jacob, JN Dixit, Mohammad Ayoob and K. Subrahmanyam. The annexure to the book says much that has so far remained a matter of speculation about Osmany, particularly where his absence at the surrender of the Pakistan army is concerned. Indeed, the fact that it was General NIazi and General Aurora who affixed their signatures on the surrender documents has often set off a good deal of debate about the importance given to the role of the Mukti Bahini in forcing Pakistan to a defeat in December 1971. The argument that AK Khondokar was present at the Race Course in Dhaka on 16 December as Bangladesh's military representative has somehow not convinced many that he was standing in for Osmany, for two reasons: he appears in old photographs of the scene as merely one of the many onlookers at the surrender ceremony and he did not share the table with Aurora and Niazi. To such a perception of Osmany's role on the day Pakistan came to an end in Bangladesh, Raja offers a series of responses from a varied class of individuals, the sum of which is that the helicopter Osmany was in was hit by hostile fire on 16 December as it flew up to the south bank of the river Surma. Earlier, on 14 December, Osmany had flown to Agartala. On 15 and 16 December, helicopter-borne, he visited Chandina, Daudkandi and other liberated areas. He expected, once these inspection trips were over, to fly to Dhaka. The attack on his helicopter put paid to his plan. He was not to reach Dhaka until the next day.
O General My General is a fascinating addition to the archive of Bengali history. It is a totality of a portrait of the War of Liberation which emerges from this study of the man who fashioned the military struggle against Pakistan. Perhaps a set of commentaries on Osmany's role in the post-1971 period, especially his place in Khondokar Moshtaque's usurper regime and his electoral battle as the presidential nominee of the opposition against General Ziaur Rahman in June 1978, should have been put into the narrative. But, of course, this happens to be a laudatory account of the general's life and career. Which explains it all.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is Editor, Current Affairs, The Daily Star.

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