by R Chowdhury 17 June 2020
“Others finished, totally eclipsed,” Captain Hafiz whispered, elbowing me as he was pointing at the regal entry of Begum Khaleda Zia by the side of her husband Colonel Ziaur Rahman.
It was a bright mid-morning in January 1972. We gathered to inaugurate a new Officers Club at the Dhaka Cantonment. Captain Hafizuddin Ahmed and I, both wartime comrades, sat next to each other in the front lawn. Bachelors, we screened and compared the beauties and styles of the ladies sitting in the sofas facing us in front. Being the first social gathering after a long and painful gap, the lady wives left little to chance to present themselves the best way they could. It was a fashion parade for most.
None came close to Begum Zia in beauty, elegance and personality. That was the first time I saw her from a close distance.
Ziaur Rahman was an instructor at the Pakistan Military Academy in the late sixties when I was a cadet. Though we rarely had the opportunity to meet the ladies, beauty of Mrs. Zia was known in the academy circle. One or two weekends, I had seen Major Zia accompanied by his wife driving down the road that passed through the cadets living area, to and from Abbotabad city.
“I don’t know”
In the liberation war, I founded and commanded 2 Field Artillery under the Z Force of Colonel Ziaur Rahman. Our frequent operational interactions brought us close. One November afternoon, Zia and I stood on a high ground to oversee the passage of the truck convoy carrying 1 Bengal troops to Zakiganj and Atgram. The unit was to take up new operational positions in northeastern Sylhet. After the convoy cleared through the hilly tracks, we sat down and talked. I felt he wanted a little relaxation. I seized the informal moment to ask the reclusive commander about the whereabouts of his family. Silence descended. His gaze went far to the western horizon that met Bangladesh tree line.
“I don’t know,” was his quiet reply after a deep breath. Zia usually did not show emotion, but I noticed his soaked voice. I later learned that Begum Zia, with her two infant sons, was hiding from place to place after her husband revolted against Pakistan on the night of March 25, 1971 and two days later, making the risky but crucial and landmark declaration of the independence of Bangladesh. Following a lead, Begum Zia was arrested in April and remained in military confinement. Reportedly, Brigadier Janjua (not to be confused with Colonel Rashid Janjua of 8 Bengal), a former commander of Zia, treated the Zia family with respect and accommodated it with his family in the cantonment. She was freed after the surrender of the Pakistani forces in December 1971.
In the nineties, a denigrating story was circulated by the detractors of the Zia family. It went like this. From the war front, Colonel Ziaur Rahman sent Captain Hafiz or someone to Dhaka with a message for his wife to come out of the cantonment and join him. She did not. After the war, a displeased Zia wanted to divorce his wife for her supposed betrayal and reported infidelity. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman intervened and their marriage survived. A highly unlikely narrative. I find huge discrepancies in it.
Nobody heard of this story for more than two decades, certainly not during Mujib’s or Zia’s lifetime. I was close to Hafiz and he never talked about it, even if he might have been part of it. When the Zias were reunited after the war, nobody noticed or felt any dearth of love and respect between them. I have seen their close bond both in good times and bad times. Above event in January 1972 is a clear evidence. I have also seen how devastated Begum Zia was after the loss of her beloved husband in May 1981.
After hearing the announcement of independence by Major Ziaur Rahman, Captain Hafizuddin
Ahmed of 1 Bengal, which was deployed away from its base in Jessore, went to his Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Rezaul Jalil, requesting him to join the liberation war. The CO chickened out but allowed Hafiz to do whatever he thought right. The young Captain revolted with whatever troops he could muster and gave a number of fights to Pakistani forces, including a fierce one at Roumari, Kurigram. In June, his group joined 11 Sector of Ziaur Rahman in northern Mymensingh, later becoming part of the Z Force. In August, the Z Force moved to the war hotspot in Sylhet, relinquishing the command of 11 Sector to newly arrived Major Abu Taher. Major Mohammad Ziauddin, co-escapee with Taher from Sialkot, took command of 1 Bengal. There is no record that Captain Hafiz went to Dhaka on any mission during the war. Nor was Ziaur Rahman the type of person to make such an attempt. In any case, how would it be possible for a woman with two kids to escape from strict military custody?
Sheikh Mujib had no love lost for Ziaur Rahman, who stole the show by declaring the independence of Bangladesh and leading the liberation war to victory, both of which Mujib missed. In an implied grudge, Zia was bypassed and his junior, K M Safiullah, a questionable character, was made the new Army Chief after General Osmany reverted to his political career. Zia was sent to Comilla to command 44 Brigade. But his war contribution, efficiency, and above all his popularity, could not be ignored. The post of Deputy Chief of Army Staff was created and Zia was accommodated there. It was a common knowledge that Safiullah was a figurehead and the real command of the Army lied with the DCAS. Mujib patching up a misunderstanding between the Zias did not fit the bill. It was uncharacteristic of him.
I thought it was an Awami doing, specifically Sheikh Hasina’s, aimed at killing two birds with one stone. First, to project Mujib’s paternal magnanimity, which he lacked (Remember Dalim-Nimmi episode? The young couple was physically assaulted by the goons of Ghazi Gholam Mostafa in 1974. In wretched state, they came to “Mujib Chacha” for justice. The Chacha sided with GGM, even though the Dalims were like his family members). Second, to defame the Zia family. The Zias were the last people Hasina could stand. Zia out-shadowed her father. Hasina rarely leaves a session without hurling an insult or insinuation at the Zias. Even some neutral minds could also be infected with the false story. However, the story soon died its natural death, though still may be keeping a thin trail. The Zia family thought it was below their taste to even take it into cognizance.
Also came Begum Zia’s birthday controversy. All official records indicated the birthday of Khaleda Khanam, her maiden name, as August 15, the day Mujib fell. The Awami circle felt “insulted” when Begum Zia’s birthday was celebrated on the day it mourned for its lost leader. Nobody challenged it for decades. But it became an issue when Sheikh Hasina came to be the Prime Minister. Dr. Mahfuz Ullah, in his book Begum Khaleda Zia: Her Life, Her Story, clearly and convincingly nullified the Awami concoction.
Interaction with Begum Zia
I next met Begum Zia when I visited them to introduce my newly married wife in 1973 at their Dhaka Cantonment residence. Brigadier Ziaur Rahman was the DCAS. I noticed that my wife could hardly take her eyes off from Begum Zia. “I thought I was looking at a Protima (beauty queen),” she told me on our way home. She noted another thing. Zia was wearing an ordinary sandal having repairs done on it.
Later, I met Begum Zia a number of times. A few stuck in my memory. In 1978 or 1979, President Ziaur Rahman was visiting an African country. On the way they stopped over in Jeddah for refueling the Biman, which was free for the Bangladesh VVIP flights. The old Jeddah airport was not equipped with today’s aerobridges to connect gates with plane. Passengers were driven by buses/cars to the distant tarmac. The Saudi security and protocol took the President to the lounge but Begum Zia preferred to stay in the plane for the short stay. Working at the Embassy, and as in-charge of the VVIPs and protocol, I went to her to request if she would like to disembark and relax a bit at the lounge. She again politely declined, perhaps not wanting to cause trouble to others for her comforts. On my query if she needed anything, she asked me if I could get her a little moisturizing or cold cream. I was in trouble. Where could I get the cream in such a short time? Terminal building was far away and I was not sure if it had cosmetics. I came out, ran to my car at a distance and drove fast looking for a cosmetic store. When I found one, I didn’t know what to choose. I thought I picked up Pond’s, the best I could get. I rushed back and managed to hand it over to her before the plane door closed. The ADC wanted to pay but I declined; it was not much anyway.
During the return trip, they again halted for refueling but it was only for a few minutes and the passengers remained onboard. Ambassador Humayun Rasheed Choudhury and I went up the plane to greet the President and Begum Zia.
I had since been wondering why the wife of a President could not have a simple face cream with her? Maybe, she forgot it while packing, or she felt its need only at the hot and dry climate as it was in Jeddah. And, she would not like to ask a hostess who would be too happy to oblige. It was one of her first oversea s trips.
In February 1994, I was travelling by Biman from Dhaka to New York (Biman MD, Muyeed Chowdhury, a friend, upgraded my seat to the Business Class, in addition to sending a message to NY and all halts to render VIP care, which I did not need. As then District Commissioner of Dhaka, Muyeed Chowdhury took the famous picture depicting a resting Zia in a vest after a canal digging). During the long flight, I had time to interact with a friendly air hostess. A girl from north Bengal, she traveled with Begum Zia a number of times and became her admirer. She said that “Madam” used minimum make up. Yet, almost magically, she always presented herself in the most elegant and graceful manner! “Few could match her styles,” she said.
I Goofed Up
Two of my meetings with Begum Zia were important. One was in mid-1981, after the assassination of her husband President Ziaur Rahman. I had observed how sad and heartbroken she was, looking severely devastated. I noticed that one side of her fair cheek was blackened; couldn’t understand why. I assumed it could be due to her prolonged mourning while keeping her head on one side. I could be wrong. Sad, she did not talk much but acknowledged receipt of my personal letter of condolence sent from abroad. But I goofed up on an important question. She wanted to know what I thought about the future of the country. Unprepared, I gave a blank look. Brigadier Mahtab, a family friend, was with us. He was a distant relative of the Zias. He explained what I thought about the future leadership of the country. I hadn’t the faintest idea that Begum Zia was already being prompted by close circle to take a political role. I fumbled and failed to give the answer she looked for. In fact, I gave a totally wrong answer. I said I thought General Manzur could come close to President Zia in quality and leadership. Unfortunately, he was the one who committed such a betrayal. Begum Zia made no comment. Brigadier Mahtab later explained to me that she was trying to find out support for her political leadership. He also doubted that Begum Zia had minded my remarks, given my ignorance of the internal political dynamics of the time. Mahtab also took credit for pushing Khaleda Zia into politics.
The Manzur Story
My assertion came from the fact that Zia and Manzur were very close. Major Mohammad Abul Manzur was known as the “Pundit” by his seniors in Pakistan for his superior knowledge, high intelligence and sound efficiency. When a re-installed Zia was finding difficulty to restore discipline in the army in the post-November 7 Sepoy-Janata Biplob, he recalled Brigadier Manzur from New Delhi, where he was the Defense Adviser at the Bangladesh High Commission. Together, they soon brought the unruly elements under control. In 1979, I had a long talk with General Manzur in Chittagong where he commanded 24 Division. I found him extremely bitter about the rehabilitation of non-freedom fighters and Razakars in high civil and military positions. At the same time, perhaps trying to stay politically correct, he affirmed that it was the President who could fix the dichotomy.
Away from the epicenter, I was influenced by the official version of the gruesome act in Chittagong, even believed the White Paper published by General Hussain Muhammad Ershad. Subsequently, I came to know more than what people were made to believe. I learned some untold facts. It became clear that India masterminded the assassination of Zia with its local agents that included Ershad. Sheikh Hasina, whom President Zia allowed to come to Bangladesh just two weeks earlier, was in the loop. (Ref: Amar Fansi Chai by Matiur Rahman Rentu, onetime Hasina aide). During her six-year self-exile in India, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s External Intelligence, tutored her well to destroy Zia, who was not toeing the Indian line. Hasina had her own grudge against Ziaur Rahman, who outsmarted her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman by declaring the Independence of Bangladesh and leading the liberation war to victory. Mujib failed on both counts.1
I learned some details from a few insiders. General Manzur was not in the plot in the beginning and tried to explain it to Dhaka but without much success. Nonetheless, he tried to own responsibility for what his officers did. He went round the units and attempted to make a case for his officers’ action. But the troops’ faces indicated they were not convinced. Manzur then frantically tried to contact Ershad, DGFI General Mohabbat Jan Chowdhury, and other senior officials in Dhaka but none came in line, perhaps realizing that the Chittagong plot backfired. They had underestimated Ziaur Rahman and his popularity. A shrewd Ershad quickly made an about face and became a hero by quelling the rebellion in Chittagong. Manzur with his family and two officers–Lieutenant Colonels Mahbubur Rahman (his nephew) and Matiur Rahman– were on the run. They were caught in a tea garden at Fatikchari. After arrest Manzur insisted to be sent to civilian custody, not to military hands, saying he had already resigned from the military service. He realized that the foxy Ershad would not spare him to save his own skin. True, the General Officer Commanding of Chittagong (that is, Manzur) was made the scapegoat and was brutally gunned down, along with the two officers, at the gate of the garrison he commanded. His family was not hurt.[i]
What, however, surprised me was why Begum Zia spared Ershad when she had the authority to deal with him? In fact, if his complicity could be proved, Ershad could have been hanged along with other plotters. Maybe, unlike her archrival, she was not vindictive. To me, it was another blunder (similar to Zia allowing Hasina’s return and entry into politics) that Khaleda committed, for which she had to pay a heavy price.2
The Hasina Factor
My last meeting with Begum Zia was in 1992 at her Secretariat Office. It was her first term as Prime Minister. After routine pleasantries, our discussion turned business. She assured me that she would look into the problems we faced in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, such as held up promotions, postings to insignificant places and denial of routine benefits. I felt she was treading a thin line in the face of stiff and nasty opposition from her nemesis Sheikh Hasina, particularly with regard to the military officers absorbed in the Foreign Service. Colonel Mustafizur Rahman, Foreign Minister, later told me that the PM talked to him about my much awaited but deliberately blocked promotion (to Director-General/Ambassador). He further confided to me that he had his own problems with the ministry, which was not suitably disposed towards the military. He even hinted that there was no dearth of pro-Awami elements in that outfit, and Hasina had her moles installed there.
One of Khaleda Zia’s weaknesses, as most observers suspect, was that she was too soft on Hasina and she always tried to avoid confrontation with her adversary. Some people even went to the extent of claiming that she was afraid of the other woman. Hasina exploited it to her best advantage. It was not that the other Begum was any better but because she was nasty, uncouth and unscrupulous. We have seen that day in and day out since her return to Bangladesh in 1981.
Khaleda perhaps had other reasons. Opposition Awami League commanded the loyalty of a sizeable section of the administration, media, intelligentsia and cultural groups. India, a reckoning factor for Bangladesh, was backing Hasina to suit its own agenda. Fighting Hasina meant fighting in all these fronts, not an easy task for a first time Prime Minister, however strong her convictions be. Rumors had it that if one wanted something done from the Khaleda administration, one would go to Hasina. It would be promptly done. I saw the truth in it.
Khaleda, a “Time Bomb”
Conversely, Hasina is equally, if not more, fearful of Khaleda when she is in power. In fact, Hasina was so scared of the hold on the nation of the Opposition Leader (Khaleda) by virtue of the latter’s popularity that she had often confined her in office/residence cordoning it with armed Rapid Action Battalions (RAB) and Gopali forces (the loyal elements from Gopalganj, Hasina’s home district). Trucks filled with sands and bricks surrounded Khaleda’s living compounds and office premises. Those forces regularly used water cannons, tear gases, pepper sprays and other harmful objects, including gun fires to disperse Khaleda’s supporting crowds. There were scores of fatalities in such police actions. To harass her archenemy, Hasina filed over thirty cases, all flimsy or fictitious. A law-abiding person, Begum Zia dutifully attended the hearings in the partisan or party affiliated courts and prosecution. None of the cases could be proved, yet the ailing and elderly Opposition Leader was clamped with to a 17-year solitary prison term. Public disapproval and nationwide demonstrations to the mistrial and conviction were ruthlessly suppressed causing fatalities in hundreds. Khaleda’s bail petitions and appeals against the sentence were routinely denied by a compliant judiciary.
“Khaleda is a Time-Bomb for Hasina,” said a political observer living in the US. “The Opposition Leader (Khaleda) is not coming out of jail anytime soon. If Khaleda is out, Hasina will be in,” he adds. Meanwhile, the Corona allowed Khaleda to breathe free air since March 25, 2020 “conditionally,” as the Hasina administration prefers to term it. The Pandemic also seems to have put a halt on whatever little politics there was.
Hasina’s Electoral Farce
In the first ever democratic election in 1991, Sheikh Hasina thought her Awami League would win handily. She was so confident of victory that she was said to have completed her cabinet nominations. But destiny had a different story to tell. Bangladesh Nationalist Party, founded by President Ziaur Rahman and now chaired by his wife Begum Khaleda Zia, came out as the winner. An enraged Hasina could not absorb the defeat and continued blaming “subtle rigging” without substantiation. She openly challenged that she would not allow Khaleda to run the country peacefully, not even for a day. Indeed, she continued to create blockades and troubles at the slightest pretext. On the demand for a neutral Caretaker Government (CTG) to oversee national elections, her party and affiliates conducted a devastating run of hartals (work stoppage) for 173 days in 1995/96. Khaleda accepted the public demand and enacted the CTG. The next few elections were conducted under it with acceptable fairness and impartiality.
The CTG Discarded
Paradoxically, it was Hasina who did away with the CTG the soonest after reaping its full benefits. She regained power through a military-RAW stratagem in December 2008. But she soon saw her administration slipped to the lowest ebb in public esteem because of her various anti- state and anti-people actions, as well as a sellout to India. Her party Awami League would be washed away in any fair and participatory election. Taking advantage of her parliamentary majority, Hasina found it convenient to quash the CTG so that she could manage future elections. In fact, there has not been any election since. What happened in the name of elections in 2014 and 2018 were farce of the highest order and strongly condemned at home and abroad. Additionally, the opposition BNP became targets of attacks, extra-judicial killings, police cases, harassments, abductions and oppressions. Begum Zia and her family members became the prime targets. “She had undergone insurmountable hardships,” recounts Professor Asif Nazrul of Dhaka University. “I doubt if any other leader in Bangladesh ever suffered as much for the sake of the country and the people as did Begum Zia,” adds the Law Professor.
Abandoning the Ladder
Another grand failure of the Opposition Leader was her failure to prevent the Repeal of the Indemnity Act, which allowed the Hasina administration to try and execute the August 15 coup leaders. Being the beneficiary of August 15 political change for more than two decades, most observers term it an abject failure, if not total betrayal, on the part of the BNP. Former BNP Law Minister Maudud Ahmed remarked that “justice was done” after the court verdict to hang the heroes of August 15. The BNP later clarified that it was his personal comment. When Khaleda became Prime Minister in 2001, she made no attempt to rescue the accused who were languishing in the condemned cells. At the minimum, she could arrange a retrial to right the wrongs done in Hasina’s Kangaroo Court. When the August 15 Surja Santans were paraded to the gallows in January 2010, the BNP remained a silent bystander. A shame!
As early as in 1976, noting the neglect of the August 15 leaders, Dr. Abdur Rashid, an Adviser under President Ziaur Rahman, commented of the administration he served, in his colloquial Bangla: “কার দোয়ারে শিন্নি খাছ মোল্লা চিনলি না (You enjoy the benefits but forgot the provider). Begum Zia’s BNP conveniently and unceremoniously threw away the ladder it climbed to power!
Housewife to People’s Leader
Khaleda entered politics carrying the sympathy of the assassinated and hugely popular President Ziaur Rahman. More than two million people gathered in Dhaka to mourn the death of the President, an unprecedented event in the history of Bangladesh. The bereaved lady converted her sorrow into strength and soon developed an image of her own. Professor Nazrul says at the launching of a book on Begum Zia authored by Dr. Mahfuz Ullah, “We now know her as Begum Khaleda Zia, not as the wife of Ziaur Rahman.”
During the lifetime of Zia, Khaleda was largely a housewife. She was rarely seen in public during the initial days of Zia presidency. She did not accompany her husband in his first few foreign trips.
Born in Dinajpur, a north Bengal district, in August 1945, Khaleda was nicknamed Putul, meaning doll. Indeed, she was a doll to adore. She achieved double credit in 1960. First, she passed her Matric. Second, and the most important thing of her life, marriage to Captain Ziaur Rahman. Their lives remained largely separated for the first few years, as the husband mostly remained away on training assignments at home and abroad. Meanwhile, Khaleda attended Surendranath college in Dinajpur. In 1965, she moved to West Pakistan to live with her husband. The same year, Zia fought the Indo-Pak war with 1 Bengal in Khem Karan Sector and won Hilal-e-Jurat, the second highest award for gallantry. After a two-year tenure as instructor at the Pakistan Military Academy and later completion of the Staff Course in Quetta, Zia was posted to East Pakistan in 1969, first in 2 Bengal in Joydevpur and then to help raise 8 Bengal in Chittagong. In early 1971, 8 Bengal was ordered to move to Multan, West Pakistan, and a composite company had already moved there as Advance Party. The main body was to move shortly, but political situation overtook the routine activities. Zia sent his family to Dhaka for safety.
On March 25, 1971, Ziaur Rahman revolted when the Pakistan military attacked the Bengalis. Most political leaders fled or surrendered. In that leadership vacuum, Major Ziaur Rahman made the landmark declaration of independence on March 27, 1971. Bangladesh won victory after a bloody war for nine months.
A Polished Woman
Begum Khaleda Zia may not have advanced much in education but formal education is not always necessary for making a mark in national or even international arena. Examples are galore. Those who heard Khaleda Zia’s speeches during political rallies agree that she spoke with considerable literary flare and fervor. Her speeches in the Parliament, both as Prime Minister and Opposition Leader, remain masterpieces. I have not heard her speak in English, but a former Attorney General told me that she spoke impeccable English. Begum Zia is a fast learner, as we can see from her meteoric transformation from a passive housewife to a fiery politician and highly successful and popular national leader. She must have mastered her English as the wife of a military officer interacting with others, mostly in English, as it was common in officers circle. Even her critics agree, Khaleda is a highly polished woman.
Among the Powerful Women
Little known is the fact that Khaleda Zia ranked among the 100 Most Powerful Women in the World, of the Forbes magazine rankings. She was number 14 in 2004, number 29 in 2005 and number 33 in 2006. Her slide in subsequent ranking was due the multifarious difficulties created by her nemesis Sheikh Hasina in administering the country. That also hampered her efforts in attending to national issues to the earnest and degree she desired. Even then, Begum Zia’s accomplishments were considerable by any measure.
Before I conclude, let me quote again Dr.Asif Nazrul, the Law Professor. “As a Dhaka University student in 1987,” said Nazrul, “I would look at a poster in which a lady under police custody throwing challenge to the authorities.” It was Begum Khaleda Zia and “I was thrilled that such a great leader was born in Bangladesh…Begum Zia became a synonym of a Bangladesh of honor, dignity, self-respect and sovereignty. She became a symbol of Bangladesh.” 3
Indeed, Khaleda Zia is an example of herself. Despite all the sufferings she had to undergo, she remains ever cheerful.
When Khaleda Zia was evicted from her 38-year living residence in the Dhaka Cantonment in 2010, Obaid Chowdhury (New York, USA) wrote the article “Eviction of Khaleda Zia: Latest in Hasina’s Zia-Phobia,” which was published in a number of media outlets. He said that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina “was seen enjoying Nero’s grin when her archenemy was publicly humiliated.” Such was Hasina’s vendetta against her political archenemy. But Begum Khaleda Zia continues to stand tall–for her country, for her people.
[i] One may check the Daily Star, which published a report on the subject: https://www.thedailystar.net/the-murder-of-major-general-abul-manzur-bir-uttam-12397.
2 For more, read “Confusion Over A Killing” by Lawrence Lifschultz, Far Eastern Economic Review, July 10, 1981