After 21 years in the political wilderness, the Bangladesh Awami League (AL) returned to power in 1996. The victory did not come easy, even though the party enjoyed considerable support from key players. Justice Habibur Rahman, the Chief Advisor of the Caretaker Administration that was responsible for overseeing the election in 1996, was known to be an Awami sympathizer. Chief Election Commissioner Abu Hena was a diehard Awami supporter. A section of the administration, led by Secretary Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir, and the media in general openly canvassed for the AL Finally, Sheikh Hasina Wazed, the AL president, donning hijab and tasbih, publicly apologized for her party’s past wrongdoings and begged for a fresh chance to govern. Though the public softened somewhat, yet the fallen party could not win enough seats to form the government. It had to solicit support from former dictator Hossain Muhammad Ershad and Islamist Gholam Azam.
The first thing Sheikh Hasina Wazed, the new Prime Minister, did was to arrest the coup leaders of August 15, 1975, and put them on trial. Her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman died that day in a military coup. The coup had ended Mujib’s one-party BAKSAL dictatorship.
Interestingly, the trial issue was never an AL election manifesto– not even in 1996. The party knew well that the trial of the August 15 coup leaders was neither a public demand nor in the national interest.
Nonetheless, the trial turned out to be Sheikh Hasina’s topmost priority. According to at least two prominent personalities–Serajur Rahman of BBC, and a senior official of the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence– Sheikh Hasina had no interest in politics. But she wanted to be in the seat of power, even for a day, to fulfill two objectives: 1) To try the ‘killers’ of her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and, 2) to rehabilitate Mujib’s image. Hasina did exactly those two things in her first term in office. She pursued those goals with increased vigor in her subsequent premierships.
To justify the so-called “Mujib Murder Trial,” all kinds of falsehood and misinformation were fed to the public, to the media and to the foreigners about the August 15, 1975 coup. According to independent observers, the drama orchestrated in the name of the trial was a sham. Prosecution witnesses were tutored, coerced even tortured to implicate the accused falsely. On the other hand, defense counselors were harassed, and their witnesses were prevented from deposing in the court. In the end, the Awami-inspired judges dished out the death penalty to a few army officers picked up as scapegoats. Within minutes of the final okay by the Supreme Court and the President’s seal of approval, those national heroes were made to walk to the gallows in unprecedented haste on the fateful night of January 27/28, 2010.
During the trial, few in the prosecution looked into the circumstances that led to the pre-dawn military action against the oppressive regime of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Love Turns to Hatred
Few leaders in history received so much love, such adulation, and such welcome as did Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on January 10, 1972, upon landing in Independent Bangladesh from his Pakistani shelter. He was still their hero. He was their “Bangabandhu.”
Few in the crowd then knew how Mujib tried till the last moment to save the unity of Pakistan, how eagerly he desired to occupy the seat of authority in Islamabad, how he dismissed Tajuddin Ahmad’s suggestion of declaring independence on the night of March 25, 1971 ((Please see Tajuddin Ahmad Neta O Pita by Sharmin Ahmad, 2014, pp 59,60,148). And worse of all, how he quietly surrendered to the Pakistani junta thinking of self and his family. The seventy million Bengalis who reposed their trust in him did not figure in his thoughts. They were left at the gunpoint of the marauding forces. Behind the surrender, another factor perhaps worked in his mind: avoiding an impending liberation war. Bangladeshis would soon discover the real Mujib and turn their love into hatred.
Bangabandhu turns Banga-Shatru?
Well-known Indian journalist and writer Khuswant Singh wrote in the Illustrated Weekly of India about Sheikh Mujib, “In 1970 he (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman) 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 were behind his back called him ‘Banga-Shatru'”.
In his book A book, a coup, some thoughts, former Ambassador and Secretary to the Government Syed Muhammad Hussain wrote about Mujib, “The smoke from his most expensive brand Erin pipe tobacco created a veil across his eyes and his senses, and he could not see for himself, nor were his ‘honorable’ bandoleers honest enough to keep him informed about the people and about their ever-growing problems and the rising tide of disenchantment through deprivation, neglect, and unkept promises.”
On January 2, 1973, Mujahidul Islam Selim, Vice President of Dhaka University Central Students Union (DUCSU), at a Paltan rally in Dhaka, withdrew the “Bangabandhu” title given to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and canceled his life-long membership of the DUCSU, publicly tearing off the page from the register. It was the same student leader who granted him the DUCSU membership the previous year. Selim had further asked all offices to remove the pictures of Mujib. Among other slogans at the rally, “Banglar Mir Jafar, Sheikh Mujib (Sheikh Mujib, the Traitor of Bangladesh) was the loudest. Motia Chowdhury, a fiery Chatra Union leader, desired to make a dug-dugi, hand-held drum, with the back skin of Mujib. Around that time, Awami League’s Chatra League activists stripped the sari off Motia Chowdhury in public. The incidents were in the wake of the killing of some activists of the Student Union at Mujib’s order while they were demonstrating anti-American slogans for the Vietnam War. (See the Dainik Songbad January 3, 1973). Muldhara Bangladesh (www.muldharabd.com) compiled a comprehensive list of political and social repression committed in 1972-1975 that goes a long way to demonstrate the fact that knowledgeable people are not talking about myths.
Reflection on August 15
At the dawn of August 15, 1975, the people of Dhaka woke up to the blasts of a few loud shots, followed by small arms fire coming from the posh Dhanmondi area where Sheikh Mujibur Rahman lived. Intuitively, they immediately switched their radios on. Rumors of a possible coup were in the air for some time. That’s right. They heard an announcement that the government of Sheikh Mujib had been overthrown in a military coup.
The first announcement came from one Major Rashed. It was followed by an agitated speech by Captain Mustafa, condemning the fallen regime. The time was a few minutes before 6 AM and the main transmitter had not been activated yet. As such, the power of transmission was limited, and most people missed those announcements.
After half an hour, another person identifying himself as Major Dalim made the detailed announcement including the news of the unfortunate death of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the short military action, and that his close associate Khandakar Mushtaque Ahmed had taken over as the new President. His recorded announcement continued for some time.
It was Friday, and the curfew was relaxed for two hours at noontime to facilitate the Jumma prayer. Wow! The Dhaka city turned to another Victory Day celebration. People paraded the streets singing slogans, expressing their happiness and solidarity with the political change. Veteran politician and former East Pakistan Chief Minister Ataur Rahman Khan termed August 15 as “The Day of Deliverance.”
Under the Awami administration, the day is observed as a Mourning Day for the loss of its leader. In August, the party and its surrogates keep showering praise on Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. To them, he was Bangabandhu (Friend of Bengal); he was Jatir Pita (Father of the Nation), and he was the supposed Shorbokaler Sorbosreshto Bangali (the greatest Bengali of all times). Outside their circle, not many people agree with those titles. Strangely, none of these Awami sycophants were seen or heard on August 15, 1975, or its aftermath, or for decades since. The younger generations may go through the media reports and pages of newspapers of the time and find the facts for themselves to learn the truth. One should not be swayed by myths, untrue facts, and unsubstantiated misinformation disseminated by the Awami regime.
Why August 15?
M M Azizul Haq wrote “Indemnity Rohit: Kar Sarthey? (Repeal of Indemnity: In Whose Interest?) “in the Daily Inqilab on November 1, 1991. It was written in the backdrop of then opposition AL’s pressure for the repeal of the Indemnity Act. There could be more such write-ups elsewhere. The new President (Khandakar Mushtaque Ahmed) promulgated an Indemnity Ordinance to immunize those who were involved in the military action on August 15, 1975. The ordinance became part of the constitution as the Indemnity Act in 1979 under the Fifth Amendment.
Mr. Azizul Haq detailed the reasons why August 15 took place, and what might have been the scenario in Bangladesh had there not been this coup. The picture he painted was scary. According to most analysts, August 15 was inevitable. It was the call of the time, call of the majority Bangladeshis who were groaning under the dark and heavy hands of Mujib’s repressive machinery. If anyone was responsible for August 15, it was Sheikh Mujib himself. He invited it.
Rashed Khan Menon of the Workers Party issued a statement on August 29, 1975, saying, “For the past three and a half years, the people suffered under the detested and anti-people regime of Sheikh Mujib and prayed every moment for its fall. August 15 had accomplished it.”
While observing the Mourning Day, the AL and its supporters start and end with their leader’s heavily edited version of the March 7, 1971 speech, a 10-second oratory: Ebarer songram swadhinotar songram… In an article, “Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, A Man of Ten Seconds?” R Chowdhury explains how it was a ten-second bluff. (Please see http://southasiajournal.net/%EF%BB%BFsheikh-mujibur-rahman-a-man-of-ten-seconds/).
Younger generations need to dig the media archives and familiarize themselves with the Bangladesh of 1972-1975, the supposed “Golden Period” of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Those who lived the time need to take a walk back for reorientation.
Few will disagree that whatever little benefit of independence, freedom, democracy and harmonious development people of Bangladesh enjoy today—to be precise, before the present Hasina regime–was primarily attributed to the August 15 political change.
The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian of London, the Far Eastern Economic Review and many other international media houses highlighted Mujib’s highly corrupt administration, under which 1.5 million people perished in the human-made famine of 1974 and its aftermath. Men and animals struggling for eatables in the city wastes were familiar sights. Poor women could not come out in the open as they did not have much to cover themselves. Dead bodies had to be buried with banana leaves. These are no fiction. These are no fairy tale stories. These are facts of life. One may check the pages of newspapers of the time.
But there was no shortage of relief goods, which remained hoarded in the warehouses of the ruling coterie, to be dispensed on political expediency or sold in the black market. Corruption and inefficiency of Mujib’s Bangladesh earned it the demeaning title of “International Bottomless Basket Case.”
To contrast the hungry and emaciated multitude dying in the streets and countryside, Mujib celebrated marriages of his sons– Sheikh Kamal and Sheikh Jamal–in royal style at his official residence Gonobhaban in July 1975. So was Mujib’s birthday in March of the same year. Official notices were sent out in advance to all offices, organizations, and establishments to “celebrate the occasion” and present themselves before the “god” to pay their homage. I recall watching the ceremony on television screen how the processions paraded in front of the 32 Dhanmondi house, on the balcony of which the god took the salute. On that day of torrential downpour, ladies in rain-soaked saris and salwar-kameez presented an unpleasant sight. For, few could dare to face the consequences of non-compliance.
Mujib’s personal force of Rakkhi Bahini killed more than 30,000 political opponents. Enayetullah Khan of the prestigious Holiday put the figure at 38,000. A S M Abdur Rob of Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal claimed that over 40,000 of his cadre were killed/disappeared during that period. Mujib himself bragged on the parliament floor the killing of Siraj Sikdar, a top leftist leader.
Can one imagine how many additional lives would have lost had there not been August 15?
At the end of 1974, Emergency was clamped in the country. Fundamental Rights were suspended. All but four government-controlled newspapers were canceled publication. Political activities were banned. Anyone not toeing the official line was either in jail or not seen again.
The political openness and the media freedom we see in Bangladesh today are gifts of August 15.
As if he did not have enough, Mujib made an eleven-minute constitutional coup on January 25, 1975, to make himself the Omni-powerful President, showing the exit door to the sitting President Muhammad Ullah. In addition, he re-designated himself the “Father of the Nation.” The New York Times of January 26, 1975, termed it a “death knell on the nascent democracy in Bangladesh.” Reportedly, there was a plan, through the Awami Chatra League route, to make Mujib a Lifelong President.
August 15 stopped that dream of an extended repressive autocracy in Bangladesh.
The last nail on a virtual coffin of the nation came in the form of Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (BAKSAL), Mujib’s supposed Magnum Opus. BAKSAL was a socialist-inspired one-party government. All other political parties were banned. The military and the bureaucracy were politicized by forcing them to join it. The country was divided into 61 political districts, each to be administered jointly by a BAKSAL governor and a BAKSAL Secretary, chosen personally by the leader. The system was to take effect on September 1, 1975.
Noted historian and author K Ali wrote in the New Nation regarding 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.”
August 15 stopped that dreadful path of governance.
A handful of Officers?
During the partisan trial, August 15 was said to be an isolated act committed by a “handful of disgruntled army officers.” Far from the truth. Available information suggests that the coup, though executed by only two units–2 Field Artillery and 1 Lancer–enjoyed complete support of the whole military and the entire nation. Following examples testify how wide-ranging was the support for the coup.
When under attack, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman called then Army Chief General K M Safiullah for help. The General failed. Safiullah later acknowledged in the Daily Star and the Weekly Chitrali that he was helpless because he found the whole army supportive of the coup.
The moment Brigadier Khaled Mosharraf, the Army Chief of the General Staff, learned that the main guns of the tanks that were out for the coup had no ammunition, he immediately ordered shells for the guns.
Immediately after the coup, the chiefs of Army, Navy, Air Force, Bangladesh Rifles, Police, Ansar, even Rakkhi Bahini rushed to the Dhaka Radio Station to announce their unqualified support for the coup and loyalty to the new President. It would be ludicrous to think that “a handful of officers” forced them to do it.
If the military did not support the coup, what prevented it from immediately crushing those “handful” of men? One may ponder.
Hardly any Innalillah…was heard upon the news of Sheikh Mujib’s death. In fact, people heaved a sigh of relief with an Alhamdulillah. They thanked Allah; they had been saved! It was declared a Day of Deliverance by Ataur Rahman Khan, a latter-day Prime Minister.
There was not an iota of resistance or protest from any quarter following the coup or death of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. One may check the newspapers in the archives for facts. The 75 million people of Bangladesh could not be at gunpoint from a “handful of officers.”
People swarmed the Dhaka streets in the thousands in jubilation and celebration of the success of the coup. Similar celebrations were reported from other parts of the country. The scenario could be compared to the victory day celebrations of December 16, 1971. Sharmin Ahmad confirms it in her book Tajuddin Neta O Pita (June 2014) p. 212:
পঁচাত্তরে মুজিব কাকুর জনপ্রিয়তা ছিল শূন্যের কোঠায়। তার নেতৃত্ব সম্পর্কে হতাশাগ্রস্থ জনগণ তার স্বৈরশাসনের অবসান কামনা করেছিল। যারা অতীতে একই নেতার জন্য প্রাণ আহুতি দিতে পর্যন্ত প্রস্তুত ছিল, তারা হত্যাকাণ্ডের প্রদিবাদ করেনি।…মানুষ এই হত্যাকাণ্ডে উল্লাস প্রকাশ করেছে। হত্যাকান্ডকে সমর্থন করে স্লোগান দিয়েছে। (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).
জনসাধারনের স্বস্তির নিঃশ্বাস (sigh of relief for the people), writes the Ittefaq, a prestigious and largest circulated Bangla daily, on August 16, 1975. It likened the celebration to an Eid, the most significant Islamic festival. People offered special prayers and distributed sweets on the day. Such celebrations were also reported form Bangladeshi communities abroad.
The post-coup administration was formed entirely by the Awami League members of the parliament, most of whom were in the Mujib cabinet too. No coup leader was seen within miles of the new administration, an unprecedented example in the history of successful coups/revolutions. To those patriots and dedicated souls, termed as “Surja Santans” (Divine children), August 15 was to save the nation, not to run it.
Veteran Awami Leaguer Abdul Malek Ukil said about the fall of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman that the country was relieved of a Zalim Feraoun. Malek Ukil was the Speaker of the House and later became the President of the Awami League.
Another former Awami League Speaker, Humayun Rasheed Choudhury, said in the mid-1980s that Mujib’s sins could not be cleansed even if he was hanged a hundred times (The Weekly Suganda).
Following the August 15 coup, newspapers and TV channels were filled with greetings from various political, educational and cultural groups from all over the country. Again, one may visit the media archives–national and international–to find the facts.
“ঐতিহাসিক নবযাত্রা” (Historic March Forward)—that’s how the editorial of the daily Ittefaq, dated August 16, 1975, did go. It wrote Bangladesh defense forces accomplished a historic task to bail the nation out of the deprivation and disappointment of the past three and half years.
The new government formed after the August 15 coup was immediately welcomed and recognized by the international community, including India, the US, the USSR, and the UK. China and Saudi Arabia accorded recognition to Bangladesh for the first time.
Mujib–the Man and the Myth
Bangladesh Liberation War (of 1971) ended, Pakistanis surrendered, and Indians returned with a huge booty. Bangladesh got little but a boundary and a flag. There was no shortage of international support and goodwill for the new nation. Overseas assistance was aplenty. But the administration of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman bungled, misused and mismanaged everything. Defeated nations of Japan, Germany, Italy and many other countries were in virtual ashes after WW II. Today, these countries dominate the wealthy and mighty. Bangladesh was victorious, and yet its post-war life was pathetic. South Korea and ASEAN (Association of southeast Asian Nations — Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Brunei, Singapore, and lately, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam) were no better than Bangladesh at independence, but today they are on the threshold of joining the developed world. Why did Bangladesh fail? Its faulty leadership.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was not in the liberation war. Upon his return from Pakistan in January 1972, people gave him the benefit of the doubt and showered all their love on him, considering his past contributions. They did not ask anything for themselves and gave him three years to fix the mess. Alas! It was the same story as in March 1971, when their leader fled the battlefield, leaving them before the enemy’s cannons. This time too, Mujib betrayed their trust. He plunged the nation into the gutters of misery, despair, and destruction. National aspirations for dignity, democracy, freedom, and development were ruthlessly trampled. The undeserved adulation was at play in its best!
Azizul Karim writes in the Bangladesh Strategic & Development Forum of June 4, 2005: “The period of AWAMI-BAKSAL rule was full of barbaric atrocities. The history of AWAMI-BAKSAL rule was basically murder, rape, looting, oppression, plunder, famine, capitulation to foreign exploiters, white terror and, above all, betrayal of the spirit of the liberation war. People would never be able to forget those horrifying memories. In the name of socialism, they plundered the national wealth, kept the border open for smuggling, and for their mismanagement of the economy, the country got recognized internationally as the “International Bottomless Basket Case.” There was no famine in Bangladesh during or just after the war, but hundreds and thousands of people had to die in the human-made famine of ’74 during the rule of AWAMI-BAKSAL.
It was Awami League of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman that mortgaged the national independence and state sovereignty by signing the 25-year long-term unequal treaty with India. By creating Rakkhi Bahini, Lal Bahini, Sheccha Shebok Bahini, and other private Bahinis AWAMI-BAKSALISTS unleashed an unbearable reign of terror, killing 40,000 nationalists and patriotic people without any trial.”
People Sought Relief
It was a suffocating situation in the country, and the people sought relief. They looked toward the patriotic elements of the military, which had steered the war to victory in 1971. Military’s response came in the early hours of August 15, 1975. People celebrated another Victory.
It was regrettable, however, that a few persons on both sides, including Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, died in the pre-dawn military action. I am not aware of the circumstances under which those deaths took place. According to a cook at Mujib’s residence, the opening shots were made by Sheikh Kamal, a former army captain, and his newly married wife Sultana, who was an accomplished athlete. Kamal came down the steps from the second floor firing with his sten gun. From the balcony, Sultana targeted the troops, felling a few. That infuriated the soldiers and one of them shouted, “শালার গুষটি শুদ্ধা শেষকইরাদে (Finish the whole family).” The cook escaped by scaling the back wall and ran a few blocks to take shelter in a house. One young man of that house, who later became a marine captain, heard the first-hand story from the cook.
One may visualize that casualties in such action of historic proportion could not be unexpected or avoided. According to a US Judge, the benefit the August 15, 1975 coup brought to the nation outweighed the death of 22 persons on the day in a country where political killings and extrajudicial deaths were common.
The 22 deaths perhaps stopped the elimination of thousands of patriots and innocents in the days to come had there not been August 15, 1975.
No doubt, Sheikh Mujib had made significant contributions toward generating the spirit of independence among the people of then-East Pakistan, though he never publicly said the word “independence.” His ability to translate his vision into reality seemed to have been lost in independent Bangladesh. Surrounded by sycophants, Mujib and his cronies started thinking of the new country as their personal property, and the doom had to befall on the nation.
Reportedly, Sheikh Mujib became so apprehensive about the public disapproval of his standing and administration that he feared a political upheaval, even a military coup. To counter such a possible situation, he had a secret understanding with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to call for Indian military intervention. Only three persons could make such request: The Sheikh himself, his nephew Sheikh Fazlul Haq Moni, and his brother-in-law Abdur Rab Serniabat. That speaks why those three were made targets on August 15, 1975.
Bangladesh has yet to find its identity. Its history has been written and rewritten at the whims of the government in power since its birth. Begum Khaleda Zia, widow of President Ziaur Rahman, and Sheikh Hasina, daughter of President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, alternated at the helm of affairs for 18 years, one ruling while the other opposing. From January 2009, Sheikh Hasina made another constitutional coup, as did her father in January 1975, by eliminating the Caretaker system that oversaw the elections between the governments. The two elections held—2014 and 2018—under her administration was nothing but shams. Her loyal administration used various methods of coercion so that the opposition became ineffective in elections. Consequently, Hasina rules, albeit illegally, for the past decade.
August 15 cannot be called a “death event,” however pathetic that be. It was a successful military coup for the greater national interest, nay national survival. Viewing from a broader perspective, August 15 reintroduced multiparty democracy; it brought political freedom; it relieved the gagged press; and it reopened public accountability, among others.
To understand August 15, one needs to walk back in time to the early period of Bangladesh and judge the day in that perspective. Sheikh Mujib is dead. So are hundreds of thousands of others who perished under his heavy hands. The greatest achievement of August 15, I think, was that it succeeded in stopping those unaccountable killings.
Apples that includes the rotten ones do not fall far from the tree. Sheikh Hasina Wazed, daughter of the dictator, has been running a worse dictatorship than her father, with help from her sponsor India. The vast majority today silently remember the Surja Sontans, who saved the nation on August 15, 1975.