Ziaur Rahman: From sector commander to president | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, May 30, 2009 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, May 30, 2009

Ziaur Rahman: From sector commander to president


GENERAL Ziaur Rahman, by the time he was assassinated in an army putsch in Chittagong deep in the night of May 30, 1981, had been president of Bangladesh for four years. If you add to that period the months in which he was effectively in charge as military leader of the country since November 7, 1975, you could say he was in control of Bangladesh for five and a half years. In all that time, there were no fewer than eighteen (some say the figure is higher) coup attempts against him. He did not survive the nineteenth, which was ostensibly led by Major General M.A. Manzoor.
Zia's place in Bangladesh's history was assured when, on 27 March 1971, even as the Pakistan occupation army went full-scale into its genocide of Bengalis following Operation Searchlight, he announced the independence of Bangladesh on behalf of "our great national leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman" from Biplobi Bangla Betar Kendra in Kalurghat, Chittagong.
In the following days and weeks, Zia linked up with other Bengali officers of the Pakistan army to organise guerrilla resistance against the Pakistanis. His was to be a pivotal presence, along with that of Khaled Musharraf and K.M. Shafiullah and others, in the war the Mukti Bahini would wage against the occupation forces.
Once Bangladesh was liberated, Zia was appointed deputy chief of army staff by the government of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in which position he continued till August 1975. A few days after the bloody coup, which claimed the lives of Bangabandhu and most of his family members on August 15, 1975, Zia succeeded General Shafiullah as army chief of staff. On November 3 of that year, he was removed from his position and placed under house arrest by his successor, General Khaled Musharraf.
Four days later, on November 7, 1975, a counter-coup spearheaded by Colonel Abu Taher toppled Musharraf, who was murdered along with some other senior officers, and freed Zia. With Justice Abu Sadat Mohammad Sayem as president and chief martial law administrator, Zia joined Rear Admiral M.H. Khan and Air Vice Marshal M.G. Tawab on the team that would administer the country. All three were deputy chief martial law administrators. In July 1976, Col. Taher, charged with treason by Zia, was hanged in Dhaka central jail.
In April 1977, President Sayem resigned and handed over charge to Zia, who quickly organised a referendum to legitimise his rule. In June 1978, as president, chief martial law administrator and chief of army staff, Zia organized presidential elections in which his superior during the War of Liberation, General M.A.G. Osmany, opposed him. In the event, Osmany lost and President Zia went on to organise his political front, which came to be known as the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
Earlier, the regime had promulgated an ordinance allowing political parties to engage in open politics, which ended the one party BKSAL system. He also allowed publication of newspapers closed by the state takeover of all newspapers. He is, therefore, credited with the restoration of multi-party politics and removal of state monopoly on media. However, as a result, even those parties which had opposed the independence of Bangladesh came out in the open with their rightwing programs. With the repeal of the 1972 Collaborators Act, Zia made it possible for all pro-Pakistan elements to take part in politics in independent Bangladesh.
General elections were held in February 1979. The results were a resounding victory for his BNP. Over the next two years, General Zia remained focused on consolidating his rule through ensuring his control over the military and politics. During his time, politics in Bangladesh undertook a distinctly rightwing turn. The assassins of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the four national leaders were accommodated in the nation's foreign service.
But no move by Zia was more controversial than the incorporation of the infamous Indemnity Ordinance in the constitution through the Fifth Amendment. By this act, the men responsible for the murders of August and November 1975 were rendered immune to prosecution. It was on the strength of this ordinance that for a long period of twenty-one years Bangabandhu's killers could not be brought to trial.
Ziaur Rahman joined the Pakistan army in the early 1950s. In 1965, he saw action in the Khemkaran sector during the Indo-Pakistan war. By the time of his death, he had promoted himself to lieutenant general in the Bangladesh army. He was only forty-five when he was murdered.
(Ziaur Rahman, president of Bangladesh and the country's first military ruler, was assassinated in Chittagong on May 30, 1981)

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