By: Zoglul Husain
In the annals of the history of a nation there appear leaders, whose legacy endure through the ages, and Ziaur Rahman of Bangladesh was such a leader. He was the embodiment of the ideals of freedom, democracy, development and Bangladeshi nationalism. We will have a brief look at his historical role and the significance of his leadership in the following sections:
1. A Brief Sketch of Ziaur Rahman’s life
2. Background of Ziaur Rahman’s emergence as a leader: (i) Anti-colonial independence movement in British India, 2 (ii) Creation of Pakistan, 2 (iii) Creation of Bangladesh, and 2 (iv) Bangladesh, the 8th largest nation of the world, which has an ancient prehistory and is an old civilisation
3. Ziaur Rahman: Declarer of Independence, and an organiser of and fighter in the freedom war
4. Ziaur Rahman: Rose to power in the aftermath of the army-people uprising of 7 November 1975
5. Ziaur Rahman: Leadership of Bangladesh: Embodiment of freedom, democracy and development
6. Ziaur Rahman: Embodiment of Bangladeshi Nationalism
7. Assassination of Ziaur Rahman
1. A Brief Sketch of Ziaur Rahman’s life1
Ziaur Rahman (19 January 1936 – 30 May 1981) was a former President, army chief and a heroic fighter in the freedom war. On 26 March 1971 he declared independence of Bangladesh on Kalurghat1 Radio Station, Chittagong, Bangladesh. He received the title of “Bir uttom” (Great valiant hero) for heroism in the freedom war.
Ziaur Rahman was born on 19 January 1936 in Bogra (Bogura), Bangladesh. Because of his father’s work at a government office in Kolkata, he went to Hare School in Kolkata. When British India became independent, and was partitioned into India and Pakistan, his father went to Karachi, Pakistan, to work. Ziaur Rahman was admitted to the Karachi Academy School, from which he did his higher secondary final in 1953, and later he was admitted to the D J College in Karachi. He joined the army in 1953 and was commissioned as Second Lieutenant in 1955. In 1957 he was transferred to the East Bengal Regiment. He worked for the forces’ intelligence from 1959 to 1964. In the India-Pakistan war of 1965 he was awarded the title of Hilal-i-Jurat for his heroic gallantry. In 1966 he became an instructor in the Military Academy. He joined the staff college command course in Quetta, Pakistan. In 1969 he was appointed as the second in command of the Second East Bengal Regiment at Joydevpur, Bangladesh. He then went to West Germany for higher training. In 1970, he returned to Bangladesh and was appointed as Second in Command of the Eighth Bengal Regiment as a Major.
After the Pakistan Army cracked down in Bangladesh on the night of 25 March 1971, Ziaur Rahman, on 26 March 1971, declared independence of Bangladesh, and started organising the freedom war. He played a very significant role in the planning and implementation of the freedom war. He was awarded the title of “Bir uttom” (Great valiant hero) for heroism in the freedom war. After the army-people uprising of 7 November 1975, he was thrusted to the centre of politics. On 19 November 1976, he took the responsibility of Chief Martial Law Administrator, and on 21 April 1977, he became the President of Bangladesh. He became one of the most popular politicians. He played a very significant role in the independence of Bangladesh, establishment of democracy, development of the country and development of the Bangladeshi nationalism, and left a lasting legacy in the history of Bangladesh. He was assassinated on 30 May 1981 in an Indian plot involving a small group of army personnel in Chittagong, Bangladesh. He was one of the most popular leaders in Bangladesh, which can be seen by the spontaneous gathering of about 2 million people at his funeral.2
2. Background of Ziaur Rahman’s emergence as a leader: (i) Anti-colonial independence movement in British India, (ii) Creation of Pakistan, and (iii) Creation of Bangladesh (iv) Bangladesh the 8th largest nation with an ancient prehistory and an old civilisation
Ziaur Rahman’s emergence as a leader is inextricably linked with the emergence of Bangladesh as a new nation. Hence, in order to understand Ziaur Rahman’s historical role, its importance and its significance, we need to focus on the general historical context in which he emerged as a leader in the independence war of Bangladesh in 1971. We need to have in mind three historical necessities: 2 (i) Anti-colonial independence movement in British India, 2 (ii) Creation of Pakistan, and 2 (iii) Creation of Bangladesh. I wrote brief outlines of the three historical necessities in my article, ‘Begum Khaleda Zia: Her Patriotic Politics and Its Historical Context’, 5 June 2020, published in the book: ‘Begum Khaleda Zia: portrait of a people’s leader of Bangladesh’, an anthology of articles written by many writers; the book was edited by Q M Jalal Khan and K M A Malik and published by Academica, November 15, 2020.
2 (i), 2 (ii) and 2 (iii)
Please see the relevant sections 2 (i), 2 (ii) and 2 (iii) above, in the Appendix of this article.
We need, however, to observe that the present configurations of the states in South Asia, or in any parts of the world, may not be the end in themselves, as they are today, as the present states may break up to create more states or unite to form united states. History has shown that empires rose and they fell, countries united and they divided. As a recent case, for example, we saw that the Soviet Union was formed in 1922 and it dissolved in 1991. There are speculations that India may break up into 20-30 pieces, according to the Chinese think tank, International Institute for Strategic Studies.3 There are people, who speculate that the Bengal Subah4 (province) of the Mughal Empire, or the region, could, in the future, reappear as a cluster of independent states, who would be friendly and non-interfering in each other’s affairs, consisting of the states of Bangladesh, West Bengal, the Seven Sister States, Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha (formerly Orissa), Chhattisgarh, etc.
2 (iv) Bangladesh, the 8th largest nation of the world, which has an ancient prehistory and is an old civilisation.
Ziaur Rahman led Bangladesh, the 8th largest nation (1975-1981). The history of Bangladesh, or any other state or region of the world, is a part of the entire history of humans in the world. For humanity, or humans, belong to just one family living on one planet, the Earth.
For the history of Bangladesh, we look at its geological formations and its human settlements. It is a part of the history of the geological formation of the earth and the appearance of modern humans (homo sapiens) in East Africa (there are other views that it was in South Africa) from 200,000 to 300,000 years ago (estimates vary, some say from 130,000 years ago), and their migrations throughout the world from 70,000 to 100,000 years ago. All races originate from them. It is only the utterly stupid fascists like Hitler, who think that they are the master race, superior to all other races. No race is superior to any other race. Similarly, it is the utter trampling of human rights and social justice to sustain the slavery of the Dalit system and the apartheid of the 4-tier Caste System of superiority by birth in Hinduism, which are in practice in the main in India. These systems of injustice should be banned and abolished.
The composition of the inhabitants of Bangladesh is broadly similar to the composition of the inhabitants of South Asia. They are multiracial people i.e., mixed races consisting of Negroid, Australoid, Mongoloid, Caucasian, Alpine, Mediterranean, etc. races, basically consisting of an admixture of people from Africa, Asia, Europe and Australia in variable ratios. On the prehistory of Bangladesh, one view contends that humans entered Bengal from China 60,000 years ago. Another view claims that a distinct regional culture emerged 100,000 years ago.5 Stone Age remnants have been found in Bengal that date back 20,000 years. For the recorded history of Bangladesh, please see, ‘History of Bangladesh’, Wikipedia.5
Looking at Bangladesh geologically, Bangladesh occupies a major part of the Bengal delta, one of the largest in the world. “Geological evolution of Bangladesh is basically related to the uplift of the Himalayan Mountains and outbuilding of deltaic landmass by major river systems originating in the Himalayas.” (Bangladesh Geology, Banglapedia). “The Himalayan mountain range and Tibetan plateau have formed as a result of the collision between the Indian Plate (tectonic plate) and Eurasian Plate which began 50 million years ago and continues today.” (The Geological Society, the Himalayas). “The development of the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta that began some 125 million years ago (Ma) after the fragmentation of the Gondwanaland6 since the early Cretaceous is still continuing. The history of the delta complex can be understood in terms of Gondwanaland break-up, Indian plate movement, collision of the Indian plate with the
Burmese and Eurasian plate, development of the huge mountain range of the Himalayas, development of the Ganges-Brahmaputra river system and sea level changes in several historical periods and tectonic activities over millions of years.” (Bengal Delta, Banglapedia).
[Note: For a complete perspective of the above, we will keep in mind that Universe was formed 13.8 billion years ago, Solar system and Earth were formed 4.5 billion years ago and Life appeared on earth 3.5 billion years ago. About 300 million years ago, Earth didn’t have seven continents, but instead one massive supercontinent called Pangaea, which was surrounded by a single ocean called Panthalassa. The supercontinent began to break apart about 200 million years ago. First it broke into two parts, a large northern continent called Laurasia and a southern continent called Gondwanaland, eventually forming the modern continents and the modern oceans. Gondwanaland was formed about 1 billion years ago, and composed of the major continental blocks of South America, Africa, Arabia, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, India, Antarctica, and Australia as one land piece.]
The above shows the history of Bangladesh as a part of the history of the world and the geological formation of Bangladesh as a part of the formation of land masses and oceans of the earth.
3. Ziaur Rahman: Declarer of Independence, and an organiser of and fighter in the freedom war
In section 2 (iii) above, it was shown that the Pakistan army most brutally cracked down on the unarmed people of Bangladesh on the night of 25 March 1971. In my article, ‘A Brief Outline of Indian Hegemony in Bangladesh’, published in the book, ‘Bangladesh: A Suffering People Under State Terrorism’, an anthology of articles by many writers, edited by Sabria Chowdhury Balland, and published by Peter Lang, 2020, I wrote about Ziaur Rahman’s declaration of independence as follows:
“When the firestorm of barbaric genocide of the unarmed people began at full blaze, when the people were bewildered in the absence of any political leadership in the darkness of the insufferable catastrophe, there came the firm and powerful voice of Ziaur Rahman declaring the independence of Bangladesh. It electrified the people and, like in a flash of lightning, the people saw the way forward, and Ziaur Rahman organised the noble freedom war.”
The declaration of independence on 26 March 1971 and the organisation of the freedom war from that day, were two momentous events in the history of Bangladesh, and through these events Ziaur Rahman, from the position of an unknown Major in the army, emerged as a leader and much-loved freedom fighter. Soon the freedom war was organised with help from India. The freedom fighters fought valiantly and finally achieved glorious victory on 16 December 1971.
4. Ziaur Rahman: Rose to power in the aftermath of the army-people uprising of 7 November 1975
After a heroic and glorious fight, with help from India, for 9 months since 26 March 1971, Bangladesh fought the genocidal attack of the Pakistan army and defeated it , won victory on 16 December 1971, and became independent. The euphoria and the exuberant effervescence of joy of the victorious people of Bangladesh can easily be imagined. However, they hardly knew what a spectre of misfortune was awaiting them!
The hegemonic India had not helped in the Bangladesh independence war for any altruistic reasons. They wanted to annex Bangladesh if they had the opportunity, or to subjugate it, for plundering it most barbarously. As soon as Bangladesh became independent, India lifted all the arms, ammunition, equipment, vehicles, etc. left by the Pakistan army in Bangladesh. They plundered machinery and equipment of mills and factories, and they grabbed anything they could lay their hands on, from even educational institutions and households. They set up a puppet government headed by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who personally was not pro-India, but for power, he went along with Indian hegemonism and led a puppet regime.
While the overwhelming majority of the people and the army of Bangladesh were staunch advocates and passionate supporters of independence, the Mujib regime and the Awami League, led by Mujib, engaged in fascism and plunder. The Mujib regime killed 30,000 patriots, it perpetrated indiscriminate killings, oppression, repression, reckless corruption, plunder, grabbing, theft, and border smuggling including food grains from Bangladesh to India. A dystopian state of affairs prevailed and the misrule created a human-made famine in 1974, in which 500,000 people were killed directly and another 1 million in the after effects. Mujib also destroyed the democratic system and created a one-party BAKSAL rule in 1975, where all other parties were banned, and all newspapers were banned except for four compliant ones.
In this dire and dreadful dystopia, the patriots could no longer remain quiet. Most of the freedom fighters had left their arms and went home shortly after victory on 16 December 1971. There were about 115,000 freedom fighters and 70-80% of them were peasants and workers.7 Those who were in the army were kept neglected and virtually without any function, which was a machination of India, as India did not want the Bangladeshi army to be a meaningful force. For its domination and plunder, it created through Mujib a paramilitary force, the Jatiya Rakkhi Bahini (National Guard Force), under Indian supervision, trained and brought up by Indian Major General Sujan Singh Uban from RAW.8 It was fully equipped with arms and ammunition, a lot more than the Bangladeshi army had. It killed 30,000 patriots and it was Mujib’s, or for that matter India’s, main machinery for oppression and repression in Bangladesh.
Discontent was simmering among the patriotic section of the army and the people who were the overwhelming majority both within the army and the people. There grew among them the spirit of fighting back.
At this juncture of history, two more momentous events occurred in the annals of Bangladesh: the glorious army-people uprisings of 15 August 1975 and 7 November 1975, both driven by the spirit of ending the dark night of misery and bringing in the new dawn of hope, and in both events, fascism and hegemonism were hard hit, at least for the time being.
The army-people uprising of 15 August 1975 ended the Mujib regime. Mujib and most of his family were assassinated. Two of his daughters survived as they were abroad at the time, one of them is Sheikh Hasina, the now Prime Minister of Bangladesh. Hasina was elected as Prime Minister in 1996-2001 and is the un-elected ‘Prime Minister’ since 2009 to date in 2021, holding on to power through ballot box stuffing in the stolen elections of 2008, 2014 and 2018.
To defeat the patriotic army-people uprising of 15 August 1975, India hit back through the coup of 3 November 1975, led by Brigadier Khaled Mosharraf, but this was short lived. Within 4 four days, there was another glorious army-people uprising of 7 November 1975, which the patriots of Bangladesh have since been observing as the National Revolution and Solidarity Day.
The glorious 7 November 1975 uprising and its aftermath brought Ziaur Rahman to power.
Ziaur Rahman played a very heroic role in the freedom war of 1971. In the past, in the India-Pakistan war of 1965, he was awarded the gallantry award Hilal-i-Jurat. For his contribution to the freedom war of Bangladesh in 1971, he was awarded the gallantry award Bir Uttom in 1972. When Bangladesh became independent, Ziaur Rahman was appointed Brigade Commander in Comilla.9 He was made Deputy Chief of Army Staff (DCAS) of Bangladesh in June 1972. In 1973, he became Brigadier and later by end of the year a Major General. On 25 August 1975, he became the chief of the army staff, after Shafiullah, the former chief of the army staff, was forced to resign after the army-people uprising of 15 August 1975. But when the pro-India coup of 3 November 1975 was launched, Ziaur Rahman was forced to resign his post and was put under house arrest. Following this coup, Justice ASM Sayem became President and Chief Martial Law Administrator on 6 November 1975. The army-people uprising of 7 November 1975 freed Ziaur Rahman and put him in the centre of power, basically to lead the country. On 7 November 1975, Ziaur Rahman was proclaimed the Chief Marshal Law Administrator. However, on the same day, in an interim set up of the government, Justice Sayem became the President and the Chief Marshal Law Administrator, with the army chief Ziaur Rahman as a Deputy Chief Marshal Law Administrator, and the Air Force and the Navy Chiefs as the other two Deputy Chief Marshal Law Administrators. Ziaur Rahman became the Chief Marshal Law Administrator on 19 November 1976 and the President of Bangladesh on 21 April 1977, when Justice Sayem relinquished the two positions by resigning voluntarily.
Ziaur Rahman held a referendum on a vote of confidence in his role as President on 30 May 1977, which he won overwhelmingly. Although one can raise an eyebrow at the high margin of win, there cannot be any doubt that by then, Ziaur Rahman became a most popular leader. He was then only 41. Later, Ziaur Rahman founded the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) on 1 September 1978, and he became the President of the party. The general election was held on 18 February 1979, the BNP won, and Ziaur Rahman again became the President of Bangladesh.
5. Ziaur Rahman: Leadership of Bangladesh: Embodiment of freedom, democracy and development
We have shown in the previous section that, between 1972 and 1975, Bangladesh had been plunged into the abyss by the twin burdens of Mujib regime’s brutal fascism and the barbarity of Indian hegemonism, and that the glorious army-people uprisings of 15 August 1975 and 7 November 1975 heralded the end of darkness and the beginning of a new dawn. Ziaur Rahman was the right leader at the right time and in the right place to change the destiny of Bangladesh, the 8th largest nation. He made epoch making changes to the country by dexterously lifting it from the abyss and placing it on a respectable high ground in the comity of nations in the world.
His confident and determined leadership, his love for the country and the people, his energetic and untiring participation in work – it is said that he worked 18 hours a day, his deep sincerity and impeccable honesty, etc., profusely emanated the spirit for coming out of a hopeless situation and marching towards the desired goal. And the people under his leadership did just that. However, the path was not smooth, it was rough and rugged, as the Awami League, the national traitors since 25 March 1971, and their mentors, the Indian hegemonists, perpetrated continuous sabotages and whipped up conflicts. India was hostile to the ZiaurRahman government and tried to destabilise it using various means. Despite these challenges, Ziaur Rahman overcame the difficulties, at least for the time being.
His leadership was the embodiment of freedom, democracy and development.
Ziaur Rahman inherited a dystopian situation and a degenerated and chaotic administration from the Mujib regime. He immediately set himself to sort things out. Within a short time, he established discipline within the army by defeating the conspiracies and pockets of mutinies created by the saboteurs. He also shortly organised the police and the administration. The army size was raised from about 50,000 to 90,000 and the police force from 40,000 to 70,000. He restored Law and order.
He consolidated independence and sovereignty of Bangladesh by thwarting Indian hegemony in a very difficult situation. He did not annul any treaty with India signed by the Mujib regime, but decided not to implement the treaties, if those were against the interest of Bangladesh.
He then took bold measures to restore democracy. He restored multi-party democracy in place of Mujib’s one-party BAKSAL.. Bans on newspapers and organisations were lifted. Media were given freedom. Many parties were registered. He founded the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) on 1 September 1978 on a 19-point programme10 for political economic and social development. This became known as a peaceful revolution for development. He held the general election on 18 February 1979, about 30 political parties participated, and Ziaur Rahman was elected President.
Before Ziaur Rahman came to power on 21 April 1977 as President, Bangladesh was dominated by India, which was then an ally of the Soviet Union. Ziaur Rahman tilted to the then US-China axis by thwarting the then Soviet-India axis. He developed friendly relations with the US and its allies, China, the OIC and the Muslim countries, without losing ties with the Soviet-India axis. He raised the Farakka barrage and water sharing issues at the Non-Aligned conferences, OIC conference and general assembly of the United Nations. He visited many countries, and leaders of other countries visited Bangladesh too. In short, he opened Bangladesh to the world, without being dependent on a particular country, axis or block. The idea of cooperation of South Asian countries was discussed in 1947 and later too. Ziaur Rahman presented his vision and compelling arguments for the cooperation, and took steps for the formation of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Recently, India has sabotaged SAARC with its monstrous hegemonic policies, and it has been isolated in South Asia.
As for development, through his enthusiastic drive, Ziaur Rahman achieved striking development of the country.
He inherited a famine-stricken country from the Mujib regime, but within a short time he achieved self-sufficiency in food, he even was able to export food! Agriculture was developed with his drive. He toured the country to inspire and help the farmers with agricultural loans and other support. To develop the villages, he created “Gram Sarkars” (village councils), the youth cooperative complex, the food for work programme, implemented self-sufficiency programmes and also established a defence party system for security and crime prevention in village areas. An extensive programme of digging irrigation canals throughout the country was taken up and it produced wonderful results. He also constructed power stations, dams, roads and other public works.
Ziaur Rahman took extensive programmes for education and the development of women and children. He inspired, created and increased opportunities for women at all levels, including the police and the Armed Forces.
His achievements in the industrial development were also spectacular. He supported free market economy and developed the private sector with an eye for the development of all sectors of the country. He gradually denationalised about 40% of the nationalised industries, as the nationalised sector was suffering from corruption and bureaucratic red tapes. During the previous regime, the economy was in ruins and it virtually collapsed. He gave incentives to develop industries and inspired export. He created export processing zones, arranged for sending workers abroad and bringing in remittance income, strengthened the garment industry, restored the capital market, brought in foreign direct investments (FDI), created Investment board, etc. “During the period 1975-80, nearly thirty-five hundred industrial units-mainly in the sectors of dairy farming and dairy products, deep-sea fishing, agricultural machinery and equipment, ready-made garments, and drugs and pharmaceuticals-were approved by the Investment Board.”11 Altogether, Ziaur Rahman’s development policies brought out a peaceful revolution.
Ziaur Rahman’s leadership helped Bangladesh stand on its feet. Bangladeshis became confident as a nation.
6. Ziaur Rahman: Embodiment of Bangladeshi Nationalism
I dealt with this subject in reasonable detail in my article, ‘Begum Khaleda Zia: Her Patriotic Politics and Its Historical Context’, published in the book: ‘Begum Khaleda Zia: portrait of a people’s leader of Bangladesh’, an anthology of articles written by many writers, the book was edited by Q M Jalal Khan and K M A Malik, and published by Academica, November 15, 2020. Khaleda Zia’s patriotic politics and Bangladeshi nationalism was the continuation of Ziaur Rahman’s patriotic politics and Bangladeshi nationalism.
I will mention here very briefly that the Bangladeshi nationalism which Ziaur Rahman promoted was the continuation of the anti-colonial nationalism, which emerged in British India. Colonialism, in the main, consists of subjugation of a country and the economic exploitation of the country. The anti-colonial nationalist movement conversely consists of (i) national liberation, on the one hand and (ii) economic emancipation on the other. But for the Muslims in British India, there was another factor that, because of the divide and rule policy of the British, the British created a second tier of their administration from the high caste Hindus. The Muslims, who ruled India for about a thousand years from 712 AD to 1857, were driven from power, property, business, jobs, education, etc., and they were in general reduced to landless peasants or shanty dwellers in towns.
When the anti-colonial nationalist movement developed in British India, Hindu-Muslim unity was attempted, but because of the newly formed Hindu elites, who formed the second tier of the British administration, and who wanted to grab everything after the British left India, the unity attempts failed. The deprived Muslims had no other alternative, but to demand for their homeland in Muslim majority areas. This homeland, they called Pakistan. So, the Muslims had to fight for national liberation on the one hand, on the other, for right to self-determination from the ruling Hindu elites. Thus, creation of Pakistan was a historic necessity because of communal disparity within British India.
When Pakistan was created, the Bangladeshis faced another problem. The Pakistani ruling elites, composed of powerful landlords, rising industrialists, civil and military bureaucrats, who were mainly based in West Pakistan, formed an oligarchy, which created within Pakistan regional disparity as well as disparity within the people. Therefore, the creation of Bangladesh was a historic necessity because of regional disparity within Pakistan.
Ziaur Rahman held up the banner of Bangladeshi nationalism, treating Bengalis and other nationalities living within Bangladesh equally with equal opportunities.
7. Assassination of Ziaur Rahman
It was mentioned previously that India was hostile to the Ziaur Rahman government and that it tried to destabilise his government by various means. Finally, they were successful. Ziaur Rahman was assassinated on 30 May 1981 in Chittagong in an Indian plot within a small group in the army. There are claims that Sheikh Hasina and General Ershad cooperated with the plot. He was only 45 at the time.
It was a most shocking day for the entire people of Bangladesh, except for the national traitors, some of the Awami League, and other lackeys of India. When his body was brought to Dhaka, it is said, almost 2 million people spontaneously gathered at his funeral.
Ziaur Rahman was a great patriot, a great soldier and a great statesman of Bangladesh. As mentioned above, he declared the independence of Bangladesh, organised the freedom war, fought in the war as the leader of the Z-Force, so named by taking the first letter Z from his name, and he made an enormous contribution to the victory of the freedom war and achieving independence. Following independence, the Mujib regime plunged the country into a dystopia through unbridled fascism, Indian hegemonism, reckless plunder and lawlessness. The two glorious army-people uprisings of 15 August 1975 and 7 November 1975 rescued the situation, and power was bestowed upon Ziaur Rahman for him to lead the nation. Within a short time, he produced wonders. From the ruins and near collapse of the state of affairs, he helped the country to stand on its own feet. Bangladesh earned respect throughout the world, except may be from India, which although praised Ziaur Raman highly on the surface, actually, had been conspiring for his downfall the entire time, and finally had him assassinated in an Indian plot within a small group in the Bangladesh army, and thus ending the life of a great patriot and a most successful leader, at the age of 45. Millions of mourners spontaneously gathered at his funeral to bid farewell to a leader, immortal to the patriots of Bangladesh.
It may sound hypothetical, but without the glorious army-people uprisings of 15 August 1975 and 7 November 1975, and the most patriotic, extraordinarily capable and dynamic leadership of Ziaur Rahman, the Muslims of Bangladesh would probably face the grim fate of the Kashmiris, Palestinians, Rohingyas, or the other persecuted Muslims of some other countries.
Today, according to the World Bank, “Bangladesh has an impressive track record for growth and development, aspiring to be a middle-income country by its 50th birthday. Its 50th Birthday would be on 26 March 2021, as the freedom war started on 26 March 1971 and it is observed as the Independence Day of Bangladesh. “In IMF’s latest Economic Outlook (October 2020), Bangladesh has overtaken India in GDP per capita” (The Indian Express, 28 October 2020). The Business Standard, Bangladesh, headed a report on 2 January 2020, “Bangladesh’s economy to overtake Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore in 2024”.13 Therefore, Bangladesh has been making progress, in spite of the hindrances by the corrupt dictatorship by General Ershad (1983-90) and the grip of fascism and hegemonism from 1/11, 2007 to date. Bangladesh is now progressing forward, the foundation of which was laid by Ziaur Rahman. The quintessential legacy of Ziaur Rahman thus comprises achieving independence, restoring democracy and order, and building the foundation of the development of Bangladesh.
Bangladesh can now proudly reminisce its seafaring and trading in the antiquity, its textile export in the world, when in ancient Rome, the textile users, and the ladies in particular, eagerly waited for the shipment of Bengal textiles. It is claimed, “There is evidence that Babylon traded with India in 3000 B.C. Mummies in Egyptian tombs dating from 2000 B.C. have been found wrapped in Indian muslin of the finest quality. There was a very large consumption of Indian manufactured textile in Rome.”14 Muslin originated in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and was traded throughout India, in the Middle East, Africa and Europe. In recent history, during the rule of the Nawabs, Bengal Subah (province) was reputed to be the richest country in the world. The Wikipedia article, ‘Bengal Subah’4, says, “Bengal has been described as the “Paradise of Nations”, and its inhabitants’ living standards and real wages were among the highest in the world. Worth 12% of the world’s GDP, it alone accounted for 40% of Dutch imports outside the European continent. The eastern part of Bengal was globally prominent in industries such as textile manufacturing and shipbuilding, and it was a major exporter of silk and cotton textiles, steel, saltpeter, and agricultural and industrial produce in the world. Its capital Jahangir Nagar, today’s modern Dhaka, had a population exceeding a million people.”. Bengal, or for that matter the pre-British India, was ruined by 190 years of British colonial rule.
Bangladesh, once great, can be great again, and the immortal leader Ziaur Rahman has been providing the inspirations.
The following is a section from my article, ‘Begum Khaleda Zia: Her Patriotic Politics and Its Historical Context’, 5 June 2020, published in the book: ‘Begum Khaleda Zia: portrait of a people’s leader of Bangladesh’, an anthology of articles written by many writers; the book was edited by Q M Jalal Khan and K M A Malik and published by Academica, November 15, 2020.
(i) Anti-colonial independence movement in British India, (ii) Creation of Pakistan, and (iii) Creation of Bangladesh
(i) Khaleda Zia’s political heritage from the anti-colonial independence movement in British India:
It is of utmost importance to understand our political heritage from the anti-colonial independence movement in British India, as the present politics in Bangladesh is a latter-day development of the same strands of politics at a different juncture and stage of history. Ziaur Rahman and later his wife Khaleda Zia followed the positive heritage, staying on the positive side of history, while Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and later his daughter Sheikh Hasina followed the negative heritage, staying on the negative side of history.
So, what is the positive political heritage that we observe in the anti-colonial independence movement? The European colonial system existed for more than five hundred years, from 1402 to 1945, and it ended within a couple of decades after the end of WWII in 1945. Colonialism is full or partial military control over another country, occupying it by settlers, and plundering and exploiting it economically. Thus, colonialism consists of national subjugation on the one hand and economic exploitation on the other. The anti-colonial independence movement conversely consists, in the main, of national liberation movement on the one hand, and the movement for economic emancipation on the other.
The anti-colonial independence movement in British India had those two elements, the national liberation and the economic emancipation, but, in addition, there was another hugely important element, which was the movement for the right to self-determination of the Muslims. The movement for the right to self-determination of the Muslims in British India created Pakistan from British India, while the movement for the right to self-determination of the Bangladeshis within Pakistan created Bangladesh from Pakistan. I usually say, Pakistan was created because of communal disparity in British India, and that Bangladesh was created because of regional disparity in Pakistan. In order to understand the politics of Bangladesh, we need to elaborate on the movement for right to self-determination of the Muslims in British India.
The communal disparity between Hindus and Muslims in British India was the creation of the British as a consequence of their divide and rule policy.
When the British came to India, the Mughal empire was the richest in the world, and Bengal was its richest province. Bengal was thus the richest, or one of the richest, countries in the world. The British plundered it most brutally and reduced Bengal to one of the poorest countries with occurrence of famines, which it never had in the past.
The British applied a divide and rule policy in India, they drove away the Muslims from power, property, jobs, business, education, etc., while they created a high caste Hindu elite class as the second tier of administration under the British rule. With the help of the British rulers this class thrived. Later, as the British were preparing to leave India, Hindu-Muslim unity was tried. The Lucknow pact was arrived at in 1916, Muhammad Ali Jinnah was hailed as an apostle of Hindu-Muslim unity by Sarojini Naidu, but the Congress later repudiated the pact, and partition then became inevitable.
Historian William Hunter expressed the conditions of Muslims in British India, especially in Bengal, quite aptly. “In his search for the causes of the increasing Muslim discontents in Bengal, William Hunter found in 1871 that “a hundred and seventy years ago it was almost impossible for a well-born Musalman in Bengal to become poor; at present it is almost impossible for him to continue rich””(Iftekhar Iqbal, Paper prepared for XIV World Congress of Economic History, Helsinki August 2006, The Sundarbans forest systems in Bangladesh: indigenous response to capitalist enterprises and the patterns of colonial control, c.1830-1905). The situation was similar throughout India. So, for the Muslims in British India, the demand for Pakistan was a case for “Right to Self-Determination” (“In drafting the Declaration of Independence (of America) in June 1776, Jefferson stated his fundamental philosophy of government, upon which the modern concept of self-determination rests”, from the article, Self-Determination – The American revolution, American Foreign Relations). Also, nationalism can be intertwined with religion, race, ethnicity, etc. The two-nation theory was thus based on a valid ground in the above historical context. So, the creation of Pakistan was an historical necessity, as later was the creation of Bangladesh from Pakistan.
The Muslims had to achieve (i) national liberation from British colonialism and (ii) the right to self-determination from the upper caste Hindu ruling elites, who formed the second tier of the British administration in India. The movement for economic emancipation was not that great at the time and so the movements for national liberation and right to self-determination were given the priority over the movement for economic emancipation, which was relegated to a secondary position. This was the main and basic weakness of these movements.
This basic weakness is still there today in the politics of the BNP and its leader, Khaleda Zia. The weakness was that the movement for economic emancipation was relegated to the background, at most to a secondary position. The Muslim League leadership was controlled by the rich people, although there were many leaders, who were committed to alleviation of poverty. Because the party was controlled by the rich people, who wanted to be richer after independence, they formed an oligarchy of the rich, and that was the main problem of Pakistan, and later in Bangladesh. The patriotism and benevolence of Ziaur Rahman and Khaleda Zia, in Bangladesh, could not stop these get rich quick leaders, though Ziaur Rahman could manage them to some extent, and Khaleda Zia in her first term as Prime Minister could also manage them to some extent.
(ii) The Creation of Pakistan:
After the fall of Bengal in the battle of Palashi (Plassey) in 1757, there were rebellions and resistance struggles against the British for about 100 years, of which the following are well known: Fakir-Sannyasi rebellion (1770-1820, Titumir (d. 1831), Hyder Ali (d. 1782), Tipu Sultan (d. 1799), Paika rebellion (1817), etc., and the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (also known as the Sepoy rebellion), which has been called the First Indian War of Independence. The next phase of the resistance was the political movement for Indian independence.
“The Indian Independence Movement was a series of activities with the ultimate aim of ending the British rule in India. The movement spanned a total of 90 years (1857–1947). The first nationalistic revolutionary movement for Indian independence emerged from Bengal.” (Wikipedia article, Indian independence movement).
Another development during the independence movement was the awakening of the Muslims of India. It was mentioned before, how the Muslims in India were driven away from power, property, business, professions, jobs and education, because of the British policy of divide and rule, which also created a second tier of British administration from the high caste Hindus. Now the Muslims started to wake up.
One of the pioneers of the awakening was the Aligarh Movement, led by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, who founded the Muhammadan College in 1875. This movement gradually led to Muslim awakening, which in turn led to the Pakistan Movement.
The Bengal Muslims played a significant role in Pakistan Movement. To save the Muslims, there was Muslim awakening in Bengal too. In 1863, Nawab Abdul Latif of Faridpur founded the ‘Muhammedan Literary Society’ in Kolkata (formerly, Calcutta). In 1877, Syed Ameer Ali founded the ‘Central National Muhammedan Association’. Munshi Meherullah (1861-1907) of Jessore played a very important role in the campaign and organisation. Many writers, campaigners and organisers joined this movement for the awakening of Muslims in Bengal. This awakening of Muslims in Bengal since 1860s is called the second renaissance of Bengal, the first being from the first decade of the nineteenth century, which was pioneered by Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, and in which the Muslims were virtually excluded.
This awakening of Muslims led to the founding of the All-India Muslim League in 1906 in Dhaka (the present capital of Bangladesh), under the patronage of the Nawab of Dhaka, Sir Khwaja Salimullah. In 1940, the Lahore Resolution was moved by the sitting Chief Minister of Bengal A. K. Fazlul Huq, it was adopted on 23 March 1940, and its principles formed the foundation for Pakistan’s first constitution. Just 7 years after this, Pakistan was created in 1947.
(iii) The creation of Bangladesh
Bangladesh became independent from Pakistan because of regional disparity within Pakistan.
We discussed that, in British India, there developed two types nationalism: firstly, the anti-colonial nationalism and, secondly, the Pakistani nationalism as a right to self-determination of the Muslims from the subjugation of upper caste Hindu administration, forming the second tier of the British administration, which ruthlessly dominated and exploited the Muslims. The movement for economic emancipation was embedded in those two nationalisms. Relegation of the movement for economic emancipation to the background or to a secondary position was a basic weakness of the movement, as mentioned before. This is a general weakness in most developing countries, though there are notable exceptions such as China, which however was a semi-colony, not a colony.
When Pakistan started its journey as a new state, initially it had a short spell of democracy. But soon the feudal big landowners, rising industrialists, leaders of military and bureaucracy together formed an oligarchy. They grabbed power, and their policies gave rise to regional disparity within Pakistan as well as economic disparity within the people. East Bengal (or East Pakistan, or after independence, Bangladesh) bore the brunt of the disparity, both regionally and at the people’s level. There were many factors such as geographical distance, socio-economic conditions and cultural issues. Bangladeshis were the majority in Pakistan, but the ruling oligarchy exploited Bangladesh, and deprived the Bangladeshis in business, civil service and military service, etc. Thus, alienation and grievances created a volcano of Bangladeshi nationalism, which finally erupted in the freedom war of 1971 after the Pakistan government’s barbaric and genocidal military crackdown in East Bengal on the night of 25 March 1971.
The language movement of 1952, although victorious within 4 years, showed the arrogance and antipathy of the ruling elites in Pakistan towards Bangladesh and its people. It gave rise to Bangladeshi nationalism. I will not, in this article, go into the controversy between Bengali nationalism, as expressed by the Awami League, and Bangladeshi nationalism, as expressed by the BNP, but I describe it as Bangladeshi nationalism. The effect of the language movement in Bangladesh was telling. The language movement along with the disenchantment of the people with the Muslim League government brought about a landslide victory for the United Front against the Muslim League in the election of 1954 in East Bengal.
The United Front won the election with slogans of ‘Huq-Bhashani Zindabad (long live)’, Huq in the slogan referred to A. K. Fazlul Huq, Prime Minister of Bengal (1937-43), who presented the Pakistan resolution in 1940, and Bhashani referred to Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, the leader of the then Awami league, both being veteran leaders of the Pakistan movement.
But the Pakistan central government intervened and the Fazlul Huq ministry was removed from power within a few months of winning the election in 1954, through the exercise of section 92A of the Government of India Act 1935, and emergency rule was imposed. The allegation against Fazlul Huq was that he wanted secession of Bangladesh. “The New York Times published an article claiming Huq wanted independence for East Bengal” (Wikipedia article, East Bengal). This emergency rule was resented throughout East Bengal.
In 1957, in his famous speech, Maulana Bhashani, the dreamer of independent Bangladesh, delivered his famous “As-salamu alaykum” speech, to warn the Pakistan government that unless the demands of East Bengal are met, East Bengal would be compelled to bid farewell to Pakistan. Maulana Bhashani was still the leader of the Awami League. But after this speech, Shaheed Suhrawardi and his follower Mujibur Rahman opposed Maulana Bhashani’s political stand, and shortly afterwards, Maulana Bhashani and his supporters were compelled to leave the Awami League and found a new Party, the National Awami Party (NAP), which upheld Bangladeshi nationalism with pro-people programmes.
The Pakistan administration was already in shambles. Martial Law was imposed by Ayub Khan in 1958.
After the death of Shaheed Suhrawardi, Mujibur Rahman upheld the demand for provincial autonomy through his declaration of 6-point programmes in 1966. This created a huge wave of support for Mujibur Rahman. The Ayub regime of Pakistan filed a sedition case against Mujibur Rahman and 34 others in early 1968, implicating that the accused were conspiring with India against the integrity of Pakistan. This was the famous Agartala Case.
Starting from a student unrest in November 1968, a huge movement in 1969 developed throughout the country. This historically very significant movement in Bangladesh, known as the 1969 Mass uprising in East Pakistan, was led by Maulana Bhashani, it also spread to West Pakistan and caused the downfall of the Ayub regime. During the course of the movement, the Agartala conspiracy case was withdrawn on 21 February 1969, and Ayub Khan handed over power to Yahya Khan on 25 March 1969. This led to Yahya Khan being in power in Pakistan. He called election in 1970.
In the election of December 1970, Mujibur Rahman and the Awami League achieved a landslide victory, which Bhashani NAP did not contest. The Awami League won an absolute majority of 160 seats and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party won 81 seats in the National Assembly of the 300 seats. In the Provincial Assembly of East Pakistan in the provincial elections held ten days later, the Awami League won 288 of the 300 seats.
This was an unexpected shock to the Yahya regime. They hatched a most heinous conspiracy. In the name of negotiations with Mujib, they bought time and brought arms and troops to East Bengal, and on the night of 25 March 1971, they launched a most barbaric and genocidal military crackdown on the unarmed people. Shortly afterwards, the independence war started with the help of India, and Bangladesh became independent on 16 December 1971 after achieving a glorious victory.
Mujibur Rahman never wanted independence of Bangladesh, he wanted to be the Prime Minister of Pakistan and he used the movement for autonomy as a pressure lever for his bid to be the Prime Minister. This is why he arranged with Yahya Khan his own security and the security of his family, as well as a monthly allowance of 1,500 Rupees (about 5 lakh Taka now) during the war, for his family, and then surrendered, with the understanding that, after the rebellion is quelled, he would be made the Prime Minister. So, Mujib was the first collaborator with the Yahya regime and he was the first national traitor in the freedom war of Bangladesh.
(The writer is a London-based political commentator and a former activist and columnist constantly campaigning for Freedom, Democracy, Justice, Human Rights and Harmonious Development in Bangladesh. He appeared many times on Bengali-medium TV talk shows in London speaking on the political affairs of Bangladesh. A retired computer consultant with a Master’s degree in Mathematics, he left his PhD studies in the UK to travel to Kolkata, India, in 1971 to join the Independence War of Bangladesh.)
Kalurghat (Declaration of Independence)
2. Ziaur Rahman
4. Bengal Subah
5. History of Bangladesh
7. Strategy and tactics of the Liberation War
8. Jatiya Rakkhi Bahini
9. Rahman, Shahid Ziaur
10. 19-point programme of Ziaur Rahman
11. Relative State Autonomy and Development Strategy in Bangladesh, 1975-1981
Syed Serajul Islam
12. World Bank report on Bangladesh
14. The evolution of Cotton Weaving Industry of Bengal till 1833