Recalling a nightmare is never a pleasant experience, yet every year this time my mind is thrown back to the eerie morning of May 30, 1981 at the Chittagong Circuit House. That morning a sitting President was assassinated, part of a century old building was shattered, and three other innocent persons were slain—all in an armed attack by men in uniform from the local Garrison.
When I arrived at the scene of the murderous attack with other officials at the crack of dawn, it was weirdly quiet for a place that apparently seemed to have been a battleground hours before. Part of the porch of the Circuit House and a portion of the upper balcony lay in pieces, two uniformed bodies - one a police man and the other an army soldier - lay still in the staircase. The third body, the Security Officer of the President, lay on the upper floor. But the most devastating and harrowing image that I would carry for years (and even now) was the bullet ridden body of President Ziaur Rahman lying in the corridor, only a few feet away from the suite he was occupying in the upper floor. It was incredible that the most powerful man of the country at that time, at whose call the whole army would once respond, lay on the floor apparently cut down by one of his own people.
The whole operation to kill Ziaur Rahman probably lasted about an hour. I say this because it was around three in the morning when I heard the first blast from my bungalow (the Circuit House was only a mile away), and I was informed by Police Control only an hour later that the President had been assassinated. The attackers had left an hour before I arrived at the Circuit House. It was a neat and well-organised operation with a single motive. But what transpired later was more incongruous and more inscrutable.
The President had a small delegation travelling with him, all of whom had stayed the night at the Circuit House. This included besides the President's own personal staff, Dr. Badruddozza, the President of BNP, and Dr. Amina Rahman, Advisor, and a state minister. They were in their respective rooms reportedly hiding under the bed when the intruders attacked. One by one they came out of their rooms when we reached the Circuit House, all shaken and distraught. The person who showed the greatest calm and was in fact dressed impeccably in his military uniform was Lt.Col. Mahfuz, the President's Personal Secretary. He was on his radio phone as he came out to see us, and he calmly informed us that the Home Minister and the Chief of Army (Gen. Ershad) were on their way in a helicopter. The equanimity with which he spoke gave no indication to me that he considered the event to be a catastrophe. It appeared from his behaviour that everything was under control and the killing was the handiwork of some stray assassins.
But Ziaur Rahman's death at the hand of people that he commanded was no accident. Neither was it an impulsive act of a group of disgruntled officers. His assassination had been an act in the making for several years. Unfortunately for the country and millions of non-partisan people like us, the event would be played up and used by the real architects adroitly in subsequent days instead of finding the truth and the real conspirators.
The first noticeable thing, apart from the enigmatic behaviour of Lt. Col. Mahfuz, was the absence of any military presence in the perimeter of the Circuit House. He claimed that he had spoken to the Army Chief and the Home Minister. Yet for a full three hours after the incident, no announcement was made by anyone over the radio or other means. We took the initative to inform the Ministry of Home Affairs but only in the early hours. The phone lines outside Chittagong went dead thereafter and stayed dead for the next 48 hours. No helicopter came and no one arrived from Dhaka.
The first announcement of President Zia's death came from an anonymous army officer over Chittagong Radio who claimed that a coup had taken place and the government of Ziaur Rahman has been replaced by a “Revolutionary Council”. There would be no rebuttal of this from the Government until about six hours later when the Vice President gave his speech over the radio and denounced the so-called coup attempt and put the leadership of the rebellion on Maj.General Manzur, GOC of Chittagong.
On the other hand, a dozen soldiers occupied the telephone transmission centre while another group secured the TV and radio stations. Not a single soldier paraded the city nor any attempt was made by the “rebellious army” to stop traffic. Yet, we had a city seized by panic.
The behaviour of Maj. Gen. Manzur, the supposed leader of the rebellion and mastermind of the assassination, was imponderable. When he called me (the then Deputy Commissioner) and the Divisional Commissioner to his cantonment office for a meeting, he presented himself to us as a “spokesman” of the so-called Revolutionary Council. His reply, to my query as to who comprised the Revolutionary Council, was evasive. What was most curious was that he spoke as though he was reading from a script (lambasting the government and calling for non-cooperation with Dhaka until the Government gave in to the Revolutionary Council's demands). For a normally cool and composed person, he spoke like a man possessed. Yet, the same Manzur spoke in a very different, and almost mellow tone when he addressed officials, journalists, and a cross section of people at the Chittagong Court Building a day later. Who was calling the shots for Manzur?
The same day (May 31), Maj. Gen. Manzur would huddle with his officers at the East Bengal Regimental Center and carry an endless series of conversations with his interlocutors in Dhaka. We do not know till this day who the main interlocutors were, although it is believed that it was mainly the late Lt. General Shawkat who was on the other side. But my sources did confirm that the officers present in that meeting included those who would later be tied to Zia's assassination and those who would testify against them. For me the irony was that when we were summoned to meet with Maj. Gen. Manzur, there were more than a hundred officers who had gathered there earlier to meet him. There was no telling who was supporting whom from that bundle.
Sadly the court martial that would be held some three weeks later and the in-camera trial that would lead to hangings of some thirteen officers did not benefit from the evidence of one man who was termed as the leader of the rebellion. He was silenced well before the prosecution and trial of the accused. We will never know the real story and the brain behind the assassination. The truth will forever be shrouded in mystery.
The writer was Deputy Commissioner of Chittagong from 1978-81. He is the author of the book Assassination of Ziaur Rahman and the Aftermath (UPL, 2009).