Tales of critical times | The Daily Star
12:10 AM, July 15, 2013 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:43 AM, July 15, 2013

Tales of critical times

Syed Badrul Ahsan reflects on a memoir

Tales of critical timesThe period between the mid- and late-1970s was for Bangladesh a time of uncertainty. Everything, in that political sense of the meaning, was a tentative affair. It was a point in history when conscious moves were made to take the country away from the secular principles upon which it had been founded in 1971 and which principles were rudely interrupted in August 1975 through the assassination of the Father of the Nation and the overthrow of his legally constituted government. The bogey of Islam was once more --- and that was for the first time after liberation --- raised by the Moshtaque cabal. The secular Joi Bangla slogan was, within moments of the coup d' etat, replaced by the Pakistan-style zindabad. Three months later, the slogans raised by Bangladesh army soldiers minutes into the murder of Khaled Musharraf and his fellow officers were eerily symbolic of a further regression in national history. Naraye Takbir and Allah-o-Akbar were sounded, signifying the collapse of Bengali nationalism in the country. A couple of months later, the newly installed air chief, M.G. Tawab, addressed a seerat conference in Dhaka, making it clear which way the country was headed under its first military dictator Ziaur Rahman.
These sad memories of a tumultuous, indeed tragic moment in national history are rekindled once more through a reading of the memoirs of one who was there when the country was forced into change it neither needed nor thought desirable. But let there be a caveat here: Air Vice Marshal A.G. Mahmud (Retd) was not among the major players who brought about the catastrophic changes that were to descend on Bangladesh in that dark historical period in the nation's life. He came in, or was brought in, later. My Destiny, in a broad manner of speaking, is fundamentally the story of a Bengali individual who belonged to a generation that lived through three changes in nationality. Mahmud is certainly one of the last among that generation, having been brought up in Calcutta, where his father was a teacher at the Aliya Madrasah. Mahmud's birth, in 1934, was also a time when notable changes were being wrought across the world. Adolf Hitler had ascended to power a year earlier; the United States, rejuvenated under its new president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was busy struggling to emerge from the Great Depression; and the Government of India Act, which would subsequently serve as a springboard to a number of significant political and constitutional developments in the Indian subcontinent, was yet a year away.
A.G. Mahmud's recollections of childhood are revealing of the non-communal spirit that yet marked education for both the Hindu and Muslim communities in the yet to be vivisected country. At the Calcutta Madrasah, among the subjects he studied was Chhotoder Mahabharat. And yet that was hardly any sign of liberalism defining the age, for Mahmud notes that as a Muslim he could never enter any Hindu home whereas Hindus were always welcome at Muslim homes. The writer thus brings into focus a contradiction which almost always underpinned communal life as it was lived in the last two decades prior to Partition. Once Partition took place in 1947, Mahmud's family, like those of so many other Muslims, opted for the new state of Pakistan. In 1952, again a decisive year considering that the Language Movement was an early Bengali move to redraw the shape of politics in Pakistan, Mahmud joined the Pakistan air force and ended up at the air force academy at Risalpur near Peshawar. Interesting snippets of information emerge in the telling of the tale. Nurul Quader Khan, who subsequently joined the Pakistan civil service and, in 1971, played a significant role in the Mujibnagar government, was one of the Bengalis who along with Mahmud sought a career in the air force. In the event, Khan and another Bengali, Abdul Hadi, could not make it and veered off into other careers.
A.G. Mahmud, in the manner of many other Bengalis, faced a difficult time in Pakistan, especially in the aftermath of a Bengali declaration of independence from Pakistan in 1971. Listen to Mahmud narrate the problems: “After 25th March 1971, all Bengali pilots were grounded and flight cadets training suspended. There were some fifty six flight cadets to be sent back to Dhaka. I was required to make necessary arrangements for their return. I had come to know that on their landing in Dhaka, it was likely that the army would pick up these young boys and eliminate them out of fear that they could join the Mukti Bahini . . . Air Commodore Enam was the Air Officer Commanding (AOC) East Pakistan. I thought of giving full responsibility to East Pakistan Headquarters regarding their safety in Dhaka. I, therefore, sent a special message in the form of operational immediate signal.”
Mahmud and his family were repatriated to Bangladesh from Pakistan in December 1973. Within days of his return, Mahmud was placed, on the orders of General Osmany, at Bangladesh Biman as director of operation and engineering. He was not to be there for long, though. When an order of his regarding the suspension of a pilot was overruled by the chairman without any consultations with him, he chose the gentleman's way out: he resigned. It was interesting that before Mahmud resigned, he was asked to see Bangabandhu, with whom he talked of his days in Calcutta. At the meeting, Mahmud was introduced to Tofail Ahmed, Bangabandhu's political secretary.
Mahmud's return to full time service at the air force followed soon after his stint at Biman. Given that priority in seniority was being given to freedom fighters, he found himself junior to Air Commodore M.K. Bashar even though he was next in line to succeed Air Vice Marshal A.K. Khandaker as chief of the Bangladesh air force. The tragic incidents of 15 August changed everything, for everyone. A.K. Khandaker was eased out of the air force and sent off as a diplomat abroad. In his place came M.G. Tawab from Germany, where he had settled after leaving the Pakistan air force. A.G. Mahmud has this to say about the man who was briefly, and controversially, Bangladesh's air force chief: “He had left Pakistan in June 1971 in protest against army atrocities in the then East Pakistan. He and his family lived in Germany. I had heard that Air Vice Marshal Tawab (then a Group Captain) came to join the war of liberation but went back as he could not be properly utilized.”
Tawab did not last long and was soon succeeded by M.K. Bashar who, unfortunately, was to die in an air crash. Bashar was succeeded by Mahmud, who found himself, given the circumstances prevailing in the country at the time, as a deputy martial law administrator and a member of the cabinet. He was one of those who believed that General Zia, not yet president but the power behind the throne anyway, was equipped to carry the country forward as its head of state and government. Things were moving in a planned way. On 21 April 1977, a number of presidential advisers led by Justice Abdus Sattar asked President Abu Sadat Muhammad Sayem, who had been installed in office by General Khaled Musharraf on 6 November 1975, to step aside and make way for Zia. When Sayem asked Mahmud for his opinion, the latter thought Zia was the only person who could lead the country out of the prevailing despair. To Sayem's plaintive question, “You too feel the same way?”, Mahmud had no response. As he tells readers, “I must say I felt sad and I couldn't answer that question.” Moments later, once Sayem had relinquished office in favour of General Zia, the country's first military president shook hands with Mahmud, telling him that he would never forget what he had done for him.
A.G. Mahmud's finest and yet most dangerous hour came in early October 1977 when his services were required to deal with the Red Army hijack of a Japan Air Lines plane at Dhaka's Tejgaon airport. The hijackers would speak only to him and to no one else. Even as the drama over the hijacking went on, a manifest demonstration of discontent in the Bangladesh military was brewing. On 28 September, an army mutiny in Bogra led to the death of Lieutenant Hassan. The ultimate was, however, the revolt on 1 October 1977 by the army signals battalion in Dhaka, a time when Air Vice Marshal Mahmud was engaged in negotiations at the airport control tower with the Japanese hijackers. At dawn on 2 October, Mahmud and Group Captain Ansar Chowdhury were led to the ground floor of the airport by some airmen, from the office of the director general of civil aviation. A sergeant opened fire and Ansar Chowdhury dropped dead. The sergeant fired again, this time aiming at Mahmud. He missed. It would not be until 3 October when discipline would return to the air force, with Mahmud, Air Commodore Wahidullah and Group Captain Saiful Azam disarming the mutineers. The end of the revolt came at a price. The mutineers had killed eleven air force officers, among whom, besides Ansar Chowdhury, were Group Captain Raas Masud, Wing Commander Anwar Ali Shaikh and Squadron Leader Md. Abdul Matin. In his narration of the tragedy, the personal makes its entry, for Raas Masud was married to Mahmud's sister. Says Mahmud: “My family thought I had not done enough to save my brother-in-law. This created tension and unhappiness within my family, which lasts till today.”
A.G. Mahmud's departure from the air force remains a story in personal grievance. He thought the death of the eleven air force officers and the subsequent trials of air force men before martial law tribunals weakened his command over his force. He decided to opt out on his own. It is to his credit that he declined Zia's offer to join his fledgling political party. But when the nation's second military ruler, General Ershad, solicited his services in tackling a probable food crisis, Mahmud stepped in with the experience he had earlier gained in a martial law administration.
Infinite sadness underlies A.G. Mahmud's recollections of his marriage to Syeda Asiya Begum. The marriage survived a mere seven years and ended in divorce in 1964. A few years later, Mahmud was to marry again. The marriage with Hasina, also known as Maya, has endured.

Syed Badrul Ahsan edits Star Books Review and Star Literature.

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