Clash of the generals | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 20, 2009 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, June 20, 2009

Clash of the generals

Syed Badrul Ahsan revisits a murder and its fallout


GENERAL Ziaur Rahman's capacity for cruelty has never been in doubt. The number of Bengalis --- and they include men in the army and air force --- who perished in the five years of his rule as Bangladesh's first military ruler has remained at an all-time high. With as many as eighteen eventually abortive coups launched against his regime, Zia clearly felt that all those involved in those conspiracies needed to be swiftly dispatched. And they were. But, then, this insensitivity in the man was to first manifest itself in the mid-1970s, when the murder of Khaled Musharraf, obviously a more brilliant officer than he, through the misleadingly named sepoy-janata revolution, did not move him at all. Musharraf became a non-person. And so did the political architects of freedom. In Zia's five years in power, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the leaders of the Mujibnagar government remained airbrushed out of national history. In July 1976, Zia felt little or no compunction in sending his 1975 benefactor, Colonel Abu Taher, to the gallows.
And yet history has dealt with Zia in the way it always deals with those who transgress it. That is the basic meaning you can draw from this rather revealing account of the assassination of the military leader in Chittagong in May 1981. Ziauddin M. Choudhury is certainly well qualified to reflect on the subject, given that at the time he was deputy commissioner of Chittagong and had, only hours before the tragic incident, received the president at the airport. Zia's trip to the port city had been necessitated more by a need to put his Bangladesh Nationalist Party, riven as it was by dissension in the ranks, back in order than anything else. Late in the night, he was shot down by a band of soldiers who, as many have gone on believing, were led by Major General M.A. Manzoor, general officer commanding of the Chittagong region. As Choudhury narrates it, the right side of the president's face had been blown off. The only proof of the body sprawled out on the floor being that of Zia was part of his moustache hanging from the left side of the face.
Zia's body was, amazingly, left lying where it had fallen for hours together. Choudhury cannot resist spotting the irony in a soldier of the Presidential Guards Regiment keeping watch over the body of the man whose safety could not be assured when he died. Beyond and above this work being a retelling of the story of the Zia assassination, though, is the writer's focus on the politics that the military ruler cobbled into shape in order to consolidate his hold on the country. There is the matter of the referendum Zia organized in 1977, soon after taking over the presidency from Justice Sayem, as a way of seeking legitimacy. The result was an embarrassment, reminiscent of similar experiments in third world nations giving their dictators close to a hundred per cent endorsement of their policies. General Zia was clearly proceeding along the path set earlier by Pakistan's Ayub Khan. The Bangladesh military leader hoped, as he stoked his political ambitions, that a good number of Awami Leaguers would join him in his endeavours because of his role in the War of Liberation. In the event, only a handful (Professor Yusuf Ali being one of them) obliged him. The others spurned his overtures because they held him responsible for Bangabandhu's assassination.
Choudhury comes up with anecdotes about Zia that only reinforce the public feeling of the military ruler being a harsh, unemotional individual. On a trip to the south-east of the country, Zia expressed a desire to meet the Pir of Kutubdia. He expected the pir to come calling on him on his arrival on the island. It did not work that way, for the pir made it clear he expected the president to call on him. After all, spiritual authority held greater sway than temporal power. Zia obliged. After addressing a public rally, he walked down to the pir's home, shook hands with him, spent some minutes there and then left. But where Zia saw little that was wrong in the Pir of Kutubdia's stance toward him, he was mightily upset when the Pir of Chunati let be known that the president, who had stepped into his home, would have to wait until his meditations (zikr) were over. You do not keep a president waiting, even if you are a man of God. It was for Choudhury to realise what machinations the pir was up to. He was keen to demonstrate to his devotees that even the head of state had to wait for him. Choudhury then sternly told the pir's family that unless the pir turned up to receive the president (he had invited Zia to lunch!), the latter would leave in five minutes. The firmness worked. As the writer notes, “The Pir appeared in less than five minutes, and sat beside the President.”
A major portion of Choudhury's narrative relates to the tragic end of General Manzoor. Known for his intellectual prowess in military circles, Manzoor nevertheless appeared a shambolic figure soon after Zia's murder. He had the writer and Saifuddin, the divisional commissioner, to his office and reeled off the reasons why a 'revolutionary council' had taken over. Not once did Manzoor describe himself as the leader of the coup. He repeatedly stressed his role as the spokesman for those who had carried out the act, without at all revealing who he spoke for. As Choudhury and Saifuddin made to leave at the end of the meeting, Manzoor asked them to touch the Quran (a copy of which was in the room) before going out! His remarks before assembled government officials at the DC's office the next day were rambling and clearly had no focus. He had ordered all road, air and rail links between Chittagong and the rest of the country cut off as a way of forcing the government in Dhaka, now led by Vice President Sattar and backed by army chief General Ershad, to capitulate before him. It did not occur to him that minus the port city, the country could survive. By 1 June 1981, however, Manzoor cracked. He fled with his wife and two young children. Eventually traced and arrested by police, he was taken to Hathazari police station, where he begged to be allowed to stay there. Choudhury's recapitulation of events at this point hints at the huge conspiracy that surely was then going on in Dhaka to eliminate Manzoor. A captain arrived at Hathazari police station, demanding that Manzoor be handed over to him. Frantic calls to Dhaka followed. Acting President Sattar, contacted by the Chittagong civil authorities on the issue, kept stalling, kept telling the officials that he would discuss the matter with General Ershad. Eventually, Sattar and Ershad ordered the police to hand Manzoor over to the captain.
What followed was barbaric. Once out of the police station compound, the captain floored Manzoor with a karate move and then had the general bound hands and feet before being flung like a common criminal on to the back of a pick-up. A wailing Mrs. Manzoor and her two children were placed on the front seat of the vehicle. The rest of the story makes the heart crack a little more. Imprisoned in Chittagong cantonment, General Manzoor was visited by a brigadier sent from Dhaka. The brigadier pulled out a pistol, shot Manzoor in the head and coolly walked away. It was later given out that Manzoor had been killed by irate soldiers!
The aftermath of the Zia assassination, as the writer notes, was to be unimaginably gruesome. Thirteen officers were to be hanged on dubious charges. Manzoor's murder was never to be explained.
This book is a powerful argument for a full, comprehensive inquiry into the circumstances in which Major General M.A. Manzoor died. It also could spur demands for an investigation into the killing of Major General Khaled Musharraf and his fellow officers on 7 November 1975.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is Editor, Current Affairs, The Daily Star. E-mail: bahsantareq@yahoo.co.uk .

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