From August 15 to fifth amendment: A painful saga in Bangladesh’s history
Few tragedies in the history of political assassinations were as brutal as the tragedy of August 15th, 1975, which also had a profound impact in reversing the course of the nation. The Founding Father of Bangladesh was gunned down along with most of his family members present at his residence. When the murderers accomplished their mission just before the call for Fajr prayers, there lay a man who through his courage, charisma, and unprecedented sacrifice inspired a long oppressed nation -- leading to the creation of Bangladesh. World knew him as the synonym to a nation, his people adored him and history loved him. When the killers left the house at Dhanmondi 32, the address of which is inexplicably intertwined with the birth of a nation, it was completely silent -- no one left to wail.
What happened afterwards was mesmerizing. The killing clique issued an "Indemnity Ordinance" (known as ordinance no. 50 of 1975) on September 26 of the same year under the garb of martial law that they imposed. The ordinance dictated that those self-proclaimed assassins could not be prosecuted for their crime under any law of the land. Interestingly enough, martial law itself does not have any validity. Winston Churchill once said, "There is no law called martial law. If there is any, it is the law of jungle and can't be imposed upon a free people." Within few months after the assassination of Bangabandhu, through palace intrigue, coup and bloody counter-coup, the ultimate beneficiaries ascended to power.
Less than four years later, the beneficiaries of Bangabandhu's murder arranged a sham election under quasi martial law. That parliament did something that had no precedence in parliamentary history. The new parliament on April 9, 1979 made the infamous "Indemnity Ordinance" a statute by making it a part of an amendment now notoriously known and deemed illegal by the Supreme Court (2010) as "Fifth Amendment". The scope of the indemnity was also vastly widened. Khondaker Mustaq, who directed the assassination of four national leaders in Dhaka central jail in the early hours of November 3, didn't have the chance to provide impunity of that brutal killing into the ordinance number 50.
General Ziaur Rahman did it all. He provided impunity to all the killings starting from August 15, 1975 till April 8, 1979 which included all the murders he committed to quash several coup attempts that took place during his little over five-year tenure.
Since the time of Magna Carta, the whole idea of a constitution is to ensure equal justice and justice for all. The inclusion of "Indemnity Ordinance" into an amendment, in effect nullified the constitutional process. But it did not end there.
The assassination of Bangabandhu and the subsequent assassination of four national leaders paved the way to reverse the course of our blood soaked victory attained in 1971. Post August 15, military regimes scrapped "Bangladesh Collaborators Act" by issuing a marital law "Ordinance no. 63 of 1975" on December 31 of the same year, paving the way to release more than 11,000 war criminals who were under trial. On May 3, 1976, second proclamation rescinded article 38 of the constitution that prohibited religious parties, thus ending "secularism" -- in effect allowing banned four ideologically pro-Pakistani parties to enter the political space in sovereign Bangladesh. The same second proclamation also scrapped article 122 of the constitution which prohibited voter rights of the convicted war criminals.
Amendment of articles 8, 9, 10 and 12 of 1972 constitution in effect abolished two of the pillars of the constitution, namely "secularism" and "socialism". Thus ideals of the victors and the ideologies of the defeated were given the same space in politics in the name of "national unity" and moreover, the latter group was systematically rehabilitated in society and was patronized into the economy by the then regime. Soon after this episode, the members of these parties ignominiously known as "razakars" decorated the corridors of power. Bangladesh became the only country in the world which had two opposing ideologies from two states, one victorious the other vanquished, existing side by side in one land. Our hard fought victory on December 16, 1971 was thrown into a quagmire of confusion to subsequent generations. Ever since, Bangladesh has been divided into pro and anti-liberation forces. No nation had that unfortunate fate of reversal of glory within a short span of a spectacular victory.
It took 21 long agonizing years of struggle for Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Bangabandhu, to end the era of military and quasi-military regimes by winning a historic election in 1996 and thus set the process in motion to repel that black and unholy indemnity ordinance. During that span of two decades, few generations grew up confused about their glorious past that in effect made them devoid of rationale to engage in any sort of intellectual discourse with truth, logic and facts. The legacy of the assassination of Bangabandhu was not just to grab power but also to reverse the course of our victory and divide our nation. It also marked an era when a great religion was politicized to achieve and sustain narrow political goals and to destroy socio-religious harmony. Our nation continues to pay a heavy price from that painful saga.
The writer is General Secretary, California chapter of the American Association of Bangladeshi Engineers and Architects and also General Secretary, California chapter of US Bangabandhu Parishad.