Bangladesh: August 15, 1975—a Coup or Killing? – the nation must know the truth

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by R Chowdhury      1 August 2022

Let us follow the truth whither so ever it leads–-Socrates

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Father of BAKSAL Dictatorship

What was August 15? —- A Revolutionary act? A military coup? Or, an overthrow of a despotic regime? Most people will point at either or all. But the Awami administration of Sheikh Hasina Wazed has given it a distorted color and dubbed it as “killing.” Was it? Really? Why would a bunch of men go for a “killing” when no personal or political rivalry between them was suggested?

To these questions, older generations are largely silent, while the politicians play the partisan game. Some act as intellectual opportunists, selling their voice or pen for favors or to please the regime. Those sympathetic to the August 15 Revolution are in a self-silence mode, fearing retribution or wrath from the Awami gangs. Younger generations are totally confused; they are at times forced to rattle the false scripts dished out to them. We have seen an example on March 17, 2020, when the prime minister tutored millions of school kids with a make-belief history of the country. (Please see Bangladesh: Indoctrination with False History. An Open Letter to Bangladesh Children | South Asia Journal

The Nation Must Know the Truth

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman–and a few others– died in a military action on August 15, 1975. Immediately afterwards, people from all walks of life recited Al-Hamdulillah and braved the curfew restrictions to celebrate the occasion. They termed it a Day of Deliverance. Awami Speaker Malek Ukil said that a Zalim Feraun had fallen and the country had been freed from an oppressive dictator. The Daily Ittefaq, an Awami oriented media, headlined the next day: A Public Sigh of Relief: Historic New Beginning.

Decades after the fall of the dictator, the Awami League-led government designated August 15 as a Mourning Day. It observes the day as such and forces others to do so. The mourning is also aimed at giving validity to its politico-partisan trial to execute, in other words commit judicial murders, of those responsible for August 15. The sham trial had unceremoniously discarded the constitutional indemnity against such action.

“Coup” Turns “Killing”

In 1996, Sheikh Hasina Wazed, daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, managed to become the Prime Minister, thanks to a subtle electioneering mechanization by a sympathetic interim administration, and a helping hand from former dictator General Hussain Muhammad Ershad. Even though she publicly apologized for the wrongdoings of her father, Sheikh Hasina did not say a word about August 15 or the intended “trial.” Privately, however, she said on more than one occasion, that her only objective as Prime Minister was to avenge the death of her father (References: Noted BBC journalist and columnist Serajur Rahman, and former Colonel Harun of the DGFI, to name only two). True to her vow, she did only that in her first 5-year term.

A vigorous misinformation campaign was conducted about August 15. Citizens were told that what happened on August 15, 1975, was not a military coup aimed

at salvaging the nation. It was the murder of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman by a “few misguided army officers.” The truth was not allowed to surface. A sponsored media joined the league in the campaign following an official script. Strangely, the same media had welcomed the coup of August 15, 1975, and published daily chronicles about Mujib’s misdeeds and how people hailed his ouster. (One may check the media of the time, both local and international). 

Sheikh Hasina converted the August 15 military action to a “Murder” story, and orchestrated a trial of those who were connected with it. In that partisan/political showcase, there was virtually no defense allowed for the accused. In 1998, an obliging Session Judge sent 15 Army officers to the firing squad. A couple of High Court judges had expressed their “embarrassment,” but government intimidations that included a huge Lathi-Charge (stick procession), silenced the judges. The ruling thugs burnt the houses of some of the dissenting judges. That was how the murder charge was forcibly thrust upon the saviors of the nation, who had to walk to the gallows to the silent grief of the nation.

Indemnity Overturned

In the trial process, the Hasina administration threw away the Indemnity Act of 1975, which prevented any legal or punitive action against the persons responsible for the August 15, 1975 action. The Act was repealed with a simple majority vote, defying the mandatory two-third majority required for constitutional changes. Many local and international jurists termed the process unconstitutional and illegal. There were a few other Indemnity Acts in the constitution, one propounded by Sheikh Mujib himself, but they were not touched.

Few doubted the outcome of the next round, as loyal and partisan oriented judges were duly appointed by the Hasina administration for the purpose.

The newer generations need to know the facts, and the older generations need to refresh their memory. Let us walk down the memory lane a little.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was perhaps the most loved person on January 10, 1972, when he landed on the soil of independent Bangladesh, returning from Pakistan. People gave Mujib three years to set things right. Let us recall a few of the achievements, in other words, anti-people undertakings in the next three-and-a-half years of Mujib rule:

Sovereignty Mortgaged

India invested heavily in the creation of Bangladesh, the process starting from 1947. People now know that the Agartala Conspiracy Case was not false. Many AL leaders, including Tofail Ahmed and Colonel Shawkat Ali publicly admitted its validity. Apart from dismembering its archenemy Pakistan, India’s efforts have been to make Bangladesh a vassal state. Its protégés, Mujib and Hasina, could not say ‘no’ to the wishes of their sponsors. The result was a 25-year Peace Treaty between Mujib and Indira Gandhi, Indian Prime Minister. In effect, it was a confirmation and extension of the 7-Point Agreement Between Tajuddin Ahmad, Bangladesh’s wartime Prime Minister, concluded with Indira Gandhi in 1971 that totally mortgaged Dhaka to New Delhi. East Pakistanis fought the liberation war to rid the Pakistani overlordship, but they soon found themselves in the grip of India, a jump from a frying pan to the burning fire.

Rakkhi Bahini

One of the clauses of the agreement provided for the creation of Rakkhi Bahini, a para-military force to be organized, equipped and trained by India. They wore Indian olive-green uniforms, thus hiding the identity of its members, whether Bangladeshis or Indians. The force remained under the personal command of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. That draconian force was extensively utilized to crush any opposition. According to various estimates, nearly 40,000 political opponents were eliminated by the administration of Mujib, who himself bragged in the Parliament for killing Siraj Sikdar, a popular left leader.

On the AL-observed Mourning Day, the people are forced to cry for the fallen leader. Shouldn’t they cry for Siraj Sikdar and 40,000 patriots–men, women and children– killed by Mujib’s Rakkhi Bahini and other state-sponsored forces in 1972-75?

Man-made Famine

In the man-made famine of 1974-75, nearly half a million people perished due to neglect, corruption and inefficiency. There was no dearth of relief materials, but they did not reach the needy; they were dispensed for partisan and political purposes, or sold in the black markets. Bangladesh earned the derogatory title of “International Basket Case.” People witnessed the awful and striking contrast of dead bodies and an emaciated sea of humans in the streets on one hand, while celebrations of royal-scale marriages and birthdays by the Mujib family on the other. Media of the time had the facts and provided a glimpse of Mujib’s Bangladesh. Check the New York Times of December13, 24, 1974, and January 26, 1975; the Guardian of March 30 and October 2, 1974; the Washington Post of November 8, 1974; Far Eastern Economic Review of October 25, 1974; the Daily Telegraph of London of January 6, 1975; London’s Daily Mirror of December 17, 1974 just to name a few. Most local media was under official control, but international media houses did not have to make stories on Bangladesh.

  Contrast: Mujib’s Bangladesh–the street scene and a royal wedding

Emergency

Not being able to stem the tide of the growing political opposition, Mujib declared the Emergency in 1974. Fundamental rights were suspended, political activities were banned, and all but four government-controlled newspapers were closed. Anyone not toeing the official line went behind the bars or did not see the next daylight.

As if Sheikh Mujib were not powerful enough, he made himself President in January 1975, amassing all state powers in his hands through the Fourth Constitutional Amendment, enacted in 11 minutes, without allowing any debate.

BAKSAL

Immediately afterwards, he enlarged the AL to Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (BAKSAL) and banned all other political parties. In this socialist style one-party dictatorial system, the military and the bureaucracy were formally politicized by asking them to join the BAKSAL. The country was divided into 61 districts, each with a BAKSAL-appointed governor and a political secretary, to take post on September 1, 1975.

Noted historian and author K Ali said about Sheikh Mujib, “He was out and out a despotic ruler, and snatched away fundamental rights of the people by introducing absolute dictatorship under a one-party system– there was hardly any doubt that the measure (one-party rule) was taken only to establish his permanent rule in the country without any opposition.”

Well-known Indian journalist and writer Khuswant Singh wrote about Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the Illustrated Weekly of India, “In 1970, he was the most-loved man by his people, and millions of others in India and elsewhere. Within a couple of years, he had lost much of his charisma and lived in a cocoon of self-spun esteem. He came to regard honest critics as traitors, and sycophants as loyal friends. It was a classic case of folio de grandeur. He was blissfully unaware that the very people who called him ‘Bangabandhu’ or ‘Bangapita’ to his face called him ‘Banga-Shatru’ behind his back.”

People Sought Relief

It was a suffocating situation, and people wanted immediate relief. They looked to the patriotic elements of the military, which could not ignore their call. The military’s response came in the form of the August 15, 1975 Revolution.

In an article, “Repeal of Indemnity (Act 1975)—in Whose Interest?”, published in the Daily Inquilab on November 1, 1991, M M Azizul Haq briefly detailed the background of the August 15, 1975 coup, as well as the likely scenario had there not been the military coup. Groaning under a repressive regime, citizens desperately wanted a change. A military action was the only way to bail the nation out of the destructive slide.

It was regrettable, however, that a few persons on both sides, including Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, died in the predawn military action on August 15, 1975. This writer is not aware of the circumstances under which those casualties took place. However, one may visualize that casualty in an action of such historic proportions could not be unexpected. According to a judicial opinion, the death of 22 persons on August 15, 1975, outweighed the benefits the coup brought to the nation, where political killings and extrajudicial deaths were common. Those 22 deaths perhaps prevented the deaths of thousands of others that would have happened had there not been the August 15.

Questions to the Nation

When the Awami leaders and their followers shed crocodile tears for the man-God they are now trying to make of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, I may humbly ask:

  • Why did they fail to protest the “killing” of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on August 15, 1975, or during the next 21 years?
  • Why did the Army, Navy, Air Force, BDR, Police and Rakkhi Bahini fail to prevent the coup or counter-attack and crush the coup leaders, if the coup was perpetrated by a “few disgruntled army officers,” as the Mujib Trial Court opined?
  • Why did the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force, BDR, Police and Rakkhi Bahini rush to the new president on the morning of August 15, 1971, to express their support for the coup, and to publicly announce their allegiance to his administration? Didn’t they deserve to be tried, if August 15 was a killing?
  • Why did the one-time Mujib associates rush to join the Mushtaq Cabinet, stepping over Mujib’s dead body? Mushtaq’s was an entirely Awami Cabinet.
  • Why did Awami Speakers, Malik Ukil and Humayun Rasheed Choudhury, speak so ill of Mujib, like “Zalim Feraun” and “Sins of Mujib?”
  • Why did none of the coup leaders take leadership positions in the new administration, nor seek elevations in rank, even though they had the chance to do so? (People know, they did it for the love of the country they fought in 1971)
  • And finally, why did the whole nation celebrate the fall of Mujib? Check out the media of the time, particularly Ittefaq which said A Public Relief; A Historic Beginning”, Humayun Ahmed’s Deyal (“Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was killed. Roads were filled with processions. The reality was that those were the jubilations of the people”) and Sharmin Ahmad’s Tajuddin Neta O Pita. (“In 1975, Mujib uncle’s popularity went down to zero. Dismayed at his leadership, they wanted the end to his dictatorship. The same people who were once ready to sacrifice anything for him, made no protest at his death. They hailed his killing, gave slogans at his downfall.”)

Then army chief Major General Safiullah admitted in various interviews with the media for his failure to take countermeasures against the coup because he found that the entire army was supportive of the coup. Indeed, the coup enjoyed the support of the whole nation. How come the coup suddenly became a “killing” by a few?

Conscience is an important element in dispensing opinion and justice. The nation needs to evaluate the above facts and judge who saved the nation from a heavy-handed repressive regime and who betrayed the national aspirations. The people need to recall who bailed the nation out of a virtual collapse and retrieved democracy from the evils of a one-party dictatorship. They need to ponder if August 15, 1975, was a successful coup, a political change or it was a killing.

In fact, there is a growing clamor to re-investigate August 15, 1975. For the sake of justice, national interest and fair play Bangladesh needs to do it. History must be set right.

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The writer is a freedom fighter and an activist of democracy, human rights and freedom. He has published a few books and jointly published about half a dozen.