Around midnight of November 3, 1975 a number of army personnel entered the Dhaka Central Jail where the four national leaders, Syed Nazrul Islam, Tajuddin Ahmad, M Mansur Ali and AHM Quamruzzaman had been taken only a week after the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. They ordered the jailor to bring the leaders from their cells to a room where they waited impatiently, and as soon as the leaders were brought and seated, they opened fire. The jailor could only watch with numbing disbelief and horror, for neither he nor his men had the power to intervene, as the killing squad apparently had the consent of the President who, ironically, was as powerless as the jailor to influence even matters of daily governance. He of course knew, just as most witnesses of the post August 15 events knew, or suspected, that the four leaders would never be allowed to leave the jail alive, but the inevitable end was hastened by the events that unfolded in the turbulent few days preceding November 3. The killers of Bangabandhu, led by Colonel Faruque and Colonel Rashid had lodged themselves in Bangabhaban, the President's official residence, ever since the horrific events of 15 August, and were running the affairs of the state. They had broken the army's chain of command which frustrated many senior officers, among whom was Brigadier Khaled Mosharraf. The Brigadier, a man of principle and courage, according to people who knew him, was also angered by the brutal killing of Bangabandhu. So he decided to act.
The counter coup that he led unsettled the killers who decided, before fleeing the country, to complete their unfinished agenda. There was no doubt in the mind of anyone who was trying to recover from the grief and trauma of August 15 that the killing of the four national leaders—who had played key leadership roles in our war of liberation—was high on that agenda. The jail killings—as these cowardly acts came to be known as—were certainly no blind acts of rage, but a calculated act of revenge, just as the August 15 assassinations had been. If the killers of Bangabandhu were “disgruntled” by some of his actions that didn't sit well with them and his opponents, then there was no reason for them to eliminate the entire family of Bangabandhu except his two daughters who were out of the country. There was also no reason to kill Sheikh Moni and his wife or Abdur Rob Serniabat and some members of his family. The assassinations of August 15, as political analysts and historians have pointed out, were a calculated move on the part of the defeated forces of 1971, and orchestrated by their supporters operating under various disguises to eliminate Bangabandhu and others who they considered responsible for their defeat. Khondakar Mushtaque was very much a part of the plan to replace pro-liberation leadership with a pro-Pakistani one. He even described the killers of Bangabandhu as “SurjaSantan” (Sons of the Sun—whatever that means) and happily proclaimed the “Indemnity Act” of September 26, 1975 (dictated, no doubt, by those who wielded real power) which justified the killings as a “historical necessity” and gave protection to the killers from any legal action.
The gruesome jail killings of November 3 were thus no random acts of revenge. When Mushtaque assumed the title (but no real power) of President, he put into place a cabinet where many of Bangabandhu's close associates found a place. They preferred ignominy over dignity and thus lost an opportunity to claim a place in the history of courage (one can only imagine what could have happened to them if they refused the invitation from Bangabhaban). But it was their personal choice, and we should leave it at that. What frustrated Mushtaque and the “rebel” officers were the refusal of the four national leaders to join the cabinet. That they would be taken to task for that refusal was a foregone conclusion; what was left to public conjecture and experts' calculation was when that would happen, and how. What shocked the country and the civilised world was that the killers chose the central jail for the place of execution. A prison is no free space, but it at least is supposed to protect its inmates from harm coming from the outside. The world was further shocked by the ease with which the armed killers carried out their mission. In a recent interview with Dhaka Tribune (October 31, 2018) Simeen Hussain Rimi, daughter of Tajuddin Ahmad regretted that if only the jail authorities “had shown courage”, the killings could have been averted. Perhaps. But the climate of fear that the new regime created effectively silenced dissenting voices and turned government functionaries, including the prison authorities, into mere followers of orders.
The seeds of both the August 15 and November 3 killings were sown in the eventful final days of 1971 when the freedom fighters faced the Pakistani forces and their local collaborators on a daily basis. When it became clear to the Pakistani sympathisers that they were going to lose the war, they decided to bide their time, prepare the ground, and strike when things were ripe. The killing of prominent scholars, professionals and public intellectuals on December 14, 1971 was a manifestation of the desperation of the pro-Pakistani forces and an indication of what their plan involved. They believed that with the elimination of the country's think tank, its progressive social activists and political leaders, no one would be left to mobilise the people and organise a resistance. In retrospect, I tend to believe that in our euphoria of newfound freedom, we chose not to look for either the plans these forces were putting together, or the actors. We allowed our belief in the transforming power of freedom to cancel out our fear of any harm coming our way from among our own people. Even if we knew that the collaborators of 1971 had not hung up these guns or mended their ways, we allowed ourselves to be lax on our vigilance.
The four national leaders were in the crosshairs of their killers for a long time because of their deep commitment to Bengali nationalism, liberal humanism, secularism and democracy and their lifelong opposition to the authoritarian regimes that exploited East Bengal and denied its people their rights. They had been at the forefront of all progressive movements that prepared the grounds of the war of liberation. In the absence of Bangabandhu, the four leaders shared the responsibility of leading the war, and it was their organisational ability that ensured the world's support. Tajuddin Ahmad's interviews reveal how desperate the situation was in the first weeks after the Pakistani crackdown on March 25 and how the leaders made use of the scanty resources available to them to eventually emerge as an efficient management team. This was all the more remarkable considering that the US, China and most nations of the Middle East were against Bangladesh's liberation. Tajuddin also had his suspicions about Mushtaque who kept a channel of dialogue open with Pakistan without the knowledge of his colleagues.
The killing of the four leaders not only created a vacuum in the sphere of leadership that the country so desperately needed in the absence of Bangabandhu, it also signalled a downward spiralling of moral and ethical standards that they had set in political and social conduct. The principled stand they took on many issues (the latest being their refusal to join the Mushtaque camp) quickly became a thing of the past. The regimes that ruled the country after the assassinations of Bangabandhu and the four leaders encouraged the practice of double standards, lies and deceits; cronyism and sycophancy and promoted personal interest over and above that of the country. Ideals that spurred us to wage the war against the Pakistani forces were not only forgotten, they were condemned to oblivion. The darkest and the most sinister chapter of our post liberation history unfolded when members from the party which was a close ally of the Pakistani army during 1971 were given ministerial positions in a BNP led government and given the right to fly our national flag in their residences and vehicles, a flag that was earned at the cost of so many lives and so much suffering.
Fortunately for us, the chapter came to a close when the pro-liberation forces united and mounted a challenge. The regime change that followed signalled a new engagement with history, one that attempts to rediscover and restore the truths that had been so systematically suppressed. The arrival of the electronic visual media allowed the youth to revisit 1971 and all the other moments of our history and discover for themselves what really happened and who the heroes and the villains were. Without being dictated by anyone they put together their own archives, which no state entity can challenge, let alone erase.
As Carlyle said, no great man lives in vain. Our four national leaders led full and active lives and now they are being evaluated for their heroic role in the country's independence and are being followed. Their deaths have not been in vain; they are there to lead our youths in our march through time.
Syed Manzoorul Islam, a retired professor of Dhaka University, currently teaches at ULAB and is a member of the board of trustees of Transparency International Bangladesh.