President Ershad : Remembering a departed soul

by Dr. Rajkumar Singh 17 July 2019

Contributions of President Ershad (1930-2019) who died on 14 April are taller than his size and preservable in the history of Bangladesh. He lacked political background but seized power as head of the army during a bloodless coup against President Abdus Sattar in 24 April 1982 by imposing martial law and suspending the Constitution. He declared himself President in 1983,and subsequently won the controversial 1986 Bangladeshi election with claims to have legitimately won the elections. He served in the Presidential office until 1990, when he was forced to resign following a popular pro-democracy mass uprising led by Khaleda  Zia and  Sheikh Hasina. Ershad founded the Jatiya Party in 1986 and became a Member of Parliament for that party in 1991, with successful re-election in all subsequent general elections. Despite the questions related to politics he will always be remembered for bringing new global lights in the country and international achievements. He pursued devolution reforms, privatization of nationalised industries; the expansion of the national highway system; and the founding of SAARC; he committed his nation’s forces as an ally to the United States in the Gulf War. He contributed to developments in infrastructure and socio-economic growth, divesting key nationalised industries. In 1989, Ershad pushed parliament to make Islam the state religion in a sharp departure from Bangladesh’s original secular constitution.

Early phase of life

Ershad was born in Dikhata, a subdivision of Coochbihar district of present-day West Bengal in the-then British India in 1930 to Mokbul Hossain and Mazida Khatun. Mokbul served as a minister of the-then maharaja of Cooch Bihar. His parents migrated from Dinhata to East Pakistan in 1948 after the India-Pakistan partition. Ershad studied in Carmichael college of Rangpur.He later graduated from the University of Dhaka in 1950 and was commissioned into the Pakistan Army in 1952 from Officers Training School in Kohat.He was an adjutant in the East Bengal regimental depot in Chittagong. He completed advanced courses from the  Command and Staff College in Quetta in 1966. After serving with a brigade in Sialkot and, he was given command of the 3rd East Bengal Regiment in 1969 and the 7th East Bengal Regiment in 1971.

Political career of Ershad

After the assassination of Ziaur Rahman on 30 May 1981, Ershad remained loyal to the government.He ordered the army to suppress the coup attempt by Major General Abul Manzoor. Ershad maintained loyalty to the new president Abdus Sattar, who had led the BNP to victory in elections in 1982. Ershad came to power in a bloodless coup on 24 March 1982 as Chief Martial Law Administrator (CMLA). President Justice Sattar was replaced with A. F. M. Ahsanuddin Chowdhury.Suspending the constitution and political parties, Ershad took over as president on 11 December 1983 by replacing Chowdhury .Ershad supported the Land Reforms Ordinance of 1984, which granted important rights to tenants for the first time in the history of Bangladesh. A plan for the divestment of government industries promised to move the country away from socialism.

Ershad played a key role during the founding summit of the countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in 1985, which was held in Dhaka. Member states of South Asian States agreed to cooperate in politics and economics.Ershad brought together the leaders of India and Pakistan, Rajiv Gandhi and Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, respectively. As president, Ershad approved amendments to the constitution of Bangladesh which declared Islam the state religion, abandoning state secularism. The secular constitution was later restored. To improve rural administration, Ershad introduced the Upazila and Zila Parishad system. He held the ‘first democratic elections for these village councils’ in 1985.

Ershad in his political career imitated his predecessor President Zia in many ways. Initially, he too installed a civilian president, Abul Fazal Muhammed Ahsanuddin Chowdhury (March 1982‐December 1983), and became the President only on 11 December 1983. He also floated a state‐sponsored political party, Jatiya Party (JP), composed of various factions from leftist and rightist political parties to support his regime. Like his predecessor, he allowed political parties to be active.

Election controversies

Jatiya Party nominated Ershad in the Presidential Election of 1986, which was organised by his government. The only significant opposition candidates were Hafezzi Huzur and Syed Faruque Rahman, a retired colonel who had been accused in 15 August Assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and 3 November jail killing in 1975.Parliamentary elections on 7 May 1986, held under the martial law. Main contenders for the parliamentary seats were the Jatiya (People’s) Party, formed on 1 January 1986 when the nationwide ban on political activity was lifted, and comprising the five parties which had together formed the pro-government National Front in July 1985 and the opposition leftist Awami League, led by Sheikh  Hasina. The largest political party of the second Parliament, BNP decided to boycott the poll. Election day was held in a climate of unrest and was marked by opposition charges of voting fraud and malpractices. On 10 May, polling was suspended in 109 constituencies. Following re-elections in 37 constituencies on 19 May, final results giving Jatiya Party an absolute parliamentary majority were announced ten days later. Ershad’s JP was declared the winner with 153 seats out of 300. There were 115 opposition and 32 independent members. However, the inaugural House session was boycotted by 119 opposition and independent MPs. The same day, a new cabinet was sworn in. Ershad was elected as President on 15 October 1986. But due to political unrest on 6 December 1987, Ershad dissolved the parliament in the midst of an opposition campaign calling for his and his government’s resignation, and a nationwide state of emergency, which had been declared on 27 November. He stated that he wished to pave the way for fresh elections to receive the people’s mandate on various national issues.

National consolidation

Ershad stabilized the Bangladesh Armed Forces, which had struggled with a series of coups and counter coups since the nation achieved independence in 1971. These arose in part because of the division in the Army between those who had participated in the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, and those who had been interned or voluntarily stayed in West Pakistan during the conflict. As those men were repatriated and the Armed Forces needed their participation, they were welcomed back, but complained of discrimination in favour of the freedom fighters.The repatriated officers comprised 60% of the officers and a sizeable interest group.The freedom fighters, part of the development of Bangladesh from the beginning, tended to identify with the Awami League. The repatriated officers tended to identify with the BNP as the opposition. They carried out their rivalries in part through coups.

The Bangladesh Armed Forces did not attempt any coups from Ershad’s takeover in 1982 until the fall of the BNP government in 1996. Ershad approved the participation in 1988 of the Bangladesh Army in United Nations Peace meeting Operations. for the first time. In addition to contributing to multi-national initiatives, this enabled the Armed Forces to earn foreign currency. Their participation in other UN-sponsored actions has continued to contribute to the Treasury.At least his positive contributions compel us to remember him forever in the history of Bangladesh.

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