As part of the legacy of pre-1971 Pakistan politics, two generals of Bangladesh, both of whom were once part of the Pakistan Army, General Zia and General Ershad, turned Bangladesh’s politics upside down, and both will be remembered in history for bringing back the ghost of Pakistani military rule and destroying all the fabrics of democracy of this nation, for which three millions of its brave sons sacrificed their live in 1971. Zia seized power in 1975 after the assassination of the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, with a brief interregnum of Khondakar Mushtaque’s rule.
Zia led first as a military ruler from 1975 to 1978 and then managed to ‘elect’ himself as the President. His rule ended on 30 May 1981 when he was brutally murdered in Chittagong in an abortive military coup. Then again there was a brief interregnum when Zia’s Vice-President, Justice Sattar, assumed the presidency before he was booted out by his Army Chief General Ershad on March 24, 1982. Ershad followed in the footsteps of his previous boss, Zia, and proclaimed himself the Chief Martial Law Administrator and later the ‘elected’ President of the country.As Zia had floated a political party – the BNP – with rag-tag politicians and civil-military bureaucrats while he was still the military ruler and Army Chief, so did Ershad. He began the Bangladesh Jatiyo Party (JP) and many of the bootlickers of Zia voluntarily joined JP. Soon Ershad became the Chairman of the party, just as Zia had. Ershad died a natural death on July 14. On his death, Ershad left a legacy uncommon in the political history of any country in modern times.
Ershad ruled Bangladesh from 1982 to December 1990 before he was overthrown in a mass movement that lasted for six years. This was first triggered by students, but with the active support of civil society members, cultural and professional bodies, and later all the mainstream political parties, including Awami League, BNP, CPB and Jamaat got together against the dictator. Ershad tried to quell the movement by coercive measures, using all sorts of force and intimidation. As advisors and henchman, Ershad had in his team politicians like Barrister Moudud, Shah Moazzem, Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, Abdul Matin, Anwar Zahid and a few others. At one point of time, when things seemed to getting out of control, he put behind bars respectable jurists, professionals and political leaders. He detained Sheikh Hasina and Begum Zia and put them under house arrest. His loyal law-enforcement agencies fired upon student demonstrations and killed many students, including Selim, Delwar, Dipali Shah, Mozammal Hoque, Dr. Milon, Noor Hossain and many others. His most heinous crime was when the police fired at Sheikh Hasina and her entourage en route to a public rally in Chittagong’s Laldighi Maidan on January 24, 1988, killing 24 innocent unarmed party supporters and workers, and injuring many others. Sheikh Hasina was miraculously saved as her party workers formed a human shield around her. Ironically the then-Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Mirza Raqibul Huda, a former officer in the Pakistan Army who fought for Pakistan in 1971 against Bangladesh, was later promoted and rewarded by Begum Zia after she formed a government following the 1991 general election. It was her husband General Zia who inducted Huda into the police force, along with fourteen other Pakistani Army soldiers, during his regime.
On the night of 26 March 1971 when the annihilation of the Bangalees by the Pakistan Army began, Ershad was in Bangladesh and, instead of joining the Liberation War; he went back to his battalion in Pakistan. Ershad enjoyed the trust of Pakistan’s military junta and was made the Chief of a tribunal set up to try those Bangalee officers in the Pakistan Army who attempted to flee Pakistan and join the Liberation War.
Following the legacy of General Zia, Ershad tried to turn the wheel of history of Bangladesh back and transform it into a mini-Pakistan. One of the first things Zia did after he seized power was to do away with the secular spirit of the Constitution. Ershad went a step further and incorporated a clause that Islam should be the state religion, not realising states do not have religion, individual and communities do. He used religion to serve his political purpose and would often walk into a remote mosque to say his Friday prayers and announce that last night he dreamt he was saying prayers in this mosque, notwithstanding the fact that for about two weeks security forces and agencies were running around to ensure the safe ‘sudden’ arrival of the President. Without any reason he announced Friday as a weekend day. Not many Muslim majority countries have Fridays as weekends. He did not stop there and, to prove that he was a faithful Muslim, he declared free supply of electricity and water in all mosques, a cheap stunt to gain the sympathy of the common people. Like his predecessor, Ershad was using Islam for his personal and political gains. He was shrewd and cunning.In reality, the private life of Ershad was riddled with scandals involving women. He was married to Roushan Ershad in the early part of his military career. While in power, he created his own world of fantasy, involving lust for women and luxury. He ‘married’ in private a lady named Mariam Momtaz, who happened to be the wife of one of the leading contractors of the country. In return, the contractor was given many lucrative contracts. Later, when the scandal broke, Ershad settled the Mariam affair through his private pimps by giving her a substantial amount of money and shooing her out the country. After a brief break from such public scandals, he married Bidisha, a woman forty years younger than him. Such scandals infuriated his first wife Begum Roushan Ershad, who walked away from him.
Ershad not only spearheaded all types of monetary corruption but also did the same for the political system. He could even intimidate seasoned politicians, like Ataur Rahman Khan and Mizanur Rahman, into JP politics, offering them prized posts in his cabinet, including making them Prime Ministers. Suddenly Ershad emerged as ‘poet’ whose poems found place in the first pages of some national dailies of repute. Regularly he would hold poetry sessions in the Darbar Hall of the Bangabhavan, with notable artists, some taken there against their will.
As the mass upsurge gained momentum and the going got tough for Ershad, he declared a state of emergency on November 27, 1990. Defiant protestors did not leave the streets and before Ershad fell, about fifty people perished throughout the country due to police fire. The day Ershad fell from grace, he tried to gain support from the Army, which refused, as they knew no power can be greater than the people’s. He stepped down on 6 December, 1990.
After the fall of Ershad in 1990, he was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment on charges of corruption and misuse of power. Once a dictator falls, he seldom makes a comeback into politics. The case of Ershad is strangely different. He won in all five seats he contested while serving his prison terms in the election of 1991. His party candidates also did well in many constituencies. After his release he returned to normal life, staying in politics and behaving like a pendulum, swinging between the two major parties of the country, Awami League and BNP.
Begum Zia was generous enough to welcome him to support her party, notwithstanding the fact that she accused Ershad for the killing of her husband. Immediately after his assassination, the supposed coup leader, General Manzoor, a valiant freedom fighter and the GOC of 24th Division, stationed in Chittagong, was murdered by some unknown soldiers inside the Chittagong cantonment. Later Ershad hanged thirteen army officers, all of whom were freedom fighters, for staging a mutiny. Before the execution they were tried in camera in a Kangaroo court inside Chittagong Jail. Zia’s killing was never investigated and no trial took place, even though his widow completed two full terms as Prime Minister, keeping people guessing who those behind the assassination were.
In course of time Ershad’s JP became the second largest party in Parliament due to the naïve, self-seeking and shortsighted political decisions of the other big party, BNP. Yet, Ershad could never be a real politician. He was a professional soldier, became a disgraced military ruler, sold himself to the highest bidder of the other political parties, loved to be in the limelight for all the wrong reasons, sometimes acted as political caricature and finally died a natural death.
But he was able to make a history for himself by jettisoning into national politics even though he was booted out of power by a mass upsurge. The Shah of Iran, Ayub Khan and Ziaul Hoque of Pakistan, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, Ben Ali of Tunisia, Milosevic of Serbia and many others either died in exile or at home in disgrace. None of them were lucky as Ershad was.
Inspite of his misdeeds, Ershad must be credited for introducing the Upzilla system (elected local government) and sometimes playing positive roles in saving the parliamentary system of politics in the country. During his tenure some development in the infrastructure of the country took place. How history will treat Ershad is left to the future. As of now it is time to say good-bye to a fallen dictator and maybe to his party.
The writer is a commentator and an analyst. Currently he teaches at ULAB