Ashraf’s Column

Friday, March 12, 2010

Col Taher, Sheikh Mujib, Gen Zia and politics -a letter

Dear Mr. Abid Rahman,

Thanks for your letter. I have gone through your write up attached with it. I do appreciate your frustration for the absence of democracy and misrule by our politicians and generals in Bangladesh. I am sure there are many Bangladeshis like me who share your feelings. But now it seems, at least for the time being, we have no choice but to bear with the two Rahman families, that is, the family members of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and Gen Ziaur Rahman.Long time ago when (1962-1966) I was a student of Dhaka University the president of the then Pakistan Field Marshall Ayub Khan published a book called “Friends not Masters”. After so many years I do not remember his exact words. At one place in his book he said that the people of “East Pakistan” were not politically matured enough to practice democracy. Even after 44 years I honestly feel his words still hold good. If it is so, one may question how, then, the Muslims of Bangladesh did not make mistakes in casting their votes in 1946 in favor of establishing Pakistan, in 1954 in favor of the United Front and finally in 1971 in favor of Awami League. The truth lies in the fact that in those days, before 1971, the ordinary voters and their village elders and leaders were very simple people, as they are even now. But their leaders at the national level like the Sher-e-Bangla, Suhrowardy, Bhashani, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and others alike were, beyond any doubt, patriotic, honest, efficient and pro people. Our people blindly put their trust in them and cast the vote in their favor to bring in the desired change in their life. They were never betrayed by these great leaders, though at times visible contradictions and disagreements among themselves were not uncommon.One may ask why democracy is not taking roots in Bangladesh even long after 39 years of its independence. I am not a student of political science. I would like to explain it in my own way in a layman’s language. In spite of its certain shortcomings democracy is considered to be the best way of governance. But there are some preconditions for the success of democracy. In Bangladesh we do not still fulfill those preconditions. Being poor and uneducated vast majority of our people fail to understand the importance of practice of democracy at all levels of political leadership. We have not yet been able to come out of our past feudal mindset totally. That is why our people still blindly follow the members of some ‘royal’ families. They overlook or ignore the incompetence, inefficiency, corrupt practices and even moral turpitude of the members of these ‘royal’ families. They think it is alright with the political high ups, even though sometimes some of them are convicted by the court for corruption. Our people are still so naïve that in an election they still vote for the members of these ‘royal’ families, and their cronies, sycophants and henchmen against an honest and competent candidate from an ordinary family. This has driven out almost all the good people from our politics. A good man or woman is rarely appreciated in an election. When honest and patriotic people come to power, naturally, they do not yield to internal anti state elements like the corrupt businessmen and bureaucrats, and the external enemies of the nation who want to subjugate us politically and economically. We have both these types of national enemies who feel comfortable while dealing with the members of the ‘royal’ families. As a result they always support and finance the ‘royal’ families mostly from behind the screen. Had there been real democracy and people’s power you could not have raised the complaints against the politicians, as you have done in your write up. In 1971 we got a great political leader in the person of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. His patriotism, physical and moral courage, honesty and love for the ordinary people were unquestionable. Had there been no Sheikh Mujib there would not have been the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971. Without Shekh Mujib’s leadership, probably, it would have taken few more decades to achieve an independent and sovereign Bangladesh. But unfortunately misfortune and trouble started after Sheikh Mujib returned from Pakistani jail to his dreamland of independent and free Bangladesh in January 1972 and took over the administration of the country in his own hands. His failures in political leadership and running the administration of a newly independent and war ravaged country like that of Bangladesh soon disappointed the people. People’s frustration spiraled up. The rest is a very sad and well known part of our national history. Here it may not be out of place to quote a similar situation from the history of China. Chairman Mao Tse Dong, another great leader of the people who fought a liberation war and established the PRC in October, 1949. He personally took over the administration of China and continued to remain its political leader too. He proved to be a bad administrator and messed up the administration in the name historic “Cultural Revolution”. But the Chairman and his people were lucky to have a very wise, pragmatic and efficient prime minister like Zhou En Lai. Zhou En Lai immediately took steps to pull China out of the mess created by Chairman Mao himself and soon put the country on the right track. Chairman Mao, realizing his mistakes, accorded his silent approval to Premier Zhou. Unfortunately for Sheikh Mujib himself and for the people of Bangladesh there was none like Zhou En Lai to bring Sheikh Mujib out of the administrative mess he created. Those of his lieutenants who could play that role were separated from him by the interested quarters soon after he returned to Bangladesh in January, 1972. Who all did it and why did they do so, that being altogether a different story, we leave the subject here. (Interested readers are referred to two books on this subject. One is the “Legacy of Blood” by Anthony Mascarenhas, the other is a Bengali book called “Mooldhara 71” by Moudud Hassan.)You have correctly stated in your attached write up the circumstances under which Sheikh Mujib was brutally killed in 1975 and the way people in general accepted it without any visible signs of sorrow or regret. It took long 21 years for Awami League to rise in 1996 from its ashes. So severe was the damage done to this once popular party during its misrule from 1972 to 1975.Coming to Gen Ziaur Rahman, it can be said that when he was made to assume power he was politically an orphan. He was a professional soldier without any political ambition. If he had any political ambition he could have left the army and joined politics when he was superseded and his junior Gen Shafiullah was made the army chief. Instead, he like a disciplined soldier accepted the order of his political boss and continued to serve as the deputy chief of army staff directly under Gen Shafiullah. It was only after the tragedy of August 15, 1975 he was appointed as the army chief by the political government of a faction of the Awami League headed by Khondoker Mustaq Ahmed. On November 07, 1975 ordinary soldiers, who mutinied against the newly appointed army chief Brig Gen Khaled Mosharraf, rather forced Gen Zia to become the army chief. There being no government in existence in those tumultuous days Gen Zia had no choice but to proclaim himself as the CMLA too. Later he had to become the president under circumstances beyond his control. At that time I was posted as a staff officer in the AHQ. I am an eye witness to many of the incidents that took place in those days in the army. Those who blame Gen Zia for usurping power are not correct. Let me also add here that at that critical time there was no other senior armed forces officer who was acceptable as a commander and leader to the unruly armed soldiers. Gen Zia was acceptable because of his clean and courageous image as a sector commander in the Liberation War, and for his personal honesty, integrity, efficiency and, above all, his charismatic leadership qualities. There was no one else who could beat him in this regard. I was personally present in the meeting in 2nd Field Regiment Artillery in Dhaka Cantonment wherein the armed soldiers (officers present were unarmed and without badges of rank) were insisting upon Gen Zia (the only officer with badges of rank on) to take the command of the army. Gen Zia was not willing to do so. Finally the senior officers present also requested Gen Zia to take over. Gen Zia in his usual way bullied the soldiers for being unruly. He also admonished the officers for failing to exercise command over their respective troops. Finally he came out with some preconditions both for the soldiers and the officers. His preconditions were accepted by all. Gen Zia became the army chief. The army started getting back into discipline. Finally chain of command was restored. If Gen Zia had refused to be the army chief on that day only God knew what would have been the fate of the army and the country. Why and who assassinated Gen Zia in 1981 is a different story which may be told separately.Now, let’s come to Col Taher about whom you mentioned in your write up. Undoubtedly, he was a great soldier, patriot and a revolutionary. Politically he was a disciple of Mao Tse Dong and believed in armed struggle for the emancipation of the people. Theoretically he was probably right. But practically he was not. Chairman Mao’s strategy was, as we all know, to work among the rural people and raise a people’s army with peasants and workers, and then isolate the urban areas by adopting guerilla warfare to defeat the conventional armies of the ruling class. But Col Taher started the other way round. He wanted to start revolution from the top and then pass it down to mass level by force. He wanted to capture the state power by force by capturing the capital city of Dhaka by soldiers of the army only. He could not put his trust on the officers and decided to get them physically eliminated by the soldiers. He organized secret revolutionary cells in the army units with soldiers and some NCOs. They held secret meetings and were waiting for an opportune moment to go for the operation. In some countries such a procedure did work. But in a country like Bangladesh where the soldiers and the officers come from almost the same social class the procedure was not workable. The class contradictions among the soldiers and officers were not too big. It was not a sufficient condition to precipitate a revolution. On the other hand, our soldiers are not trained to go for any military operation without having officers over them as commanders. It is a centuries old practice and belief among the soldiers that soldiers all by themselves are not good enough to fight. Col Taher also did not consider another very pertinent cultural objective condition before he went with his plan. In a country where 100 percent of its people believe in some religion or the other, specially where 90 per cent of the population is Muslim, it was hardly possible to make a Maoist revolution acceptable to the people. Soon after the members of his revolutionary soldiers’ cells went into operation they came to their sense and realized that they, under no circumstances, could kill their own officers. It soon dawned upon them that without officers command they were nothing more than an armed mob. Senior JCOs and NCOs prevailed upon them and brought them back to the barrack. But unfortunately by this time some officers were killed by the unruly soldiers on personal grounds.After Gen Zia assumed the command of the army, naturally, the cases of those soldiers who took leading parts in the mutiny, and who killed the officers could not be ignored by him in the interest of restoring discipline and order in the army. No one else in his place could do so. Without dispensing justice to the mutineers and the killers the army could not be reorganized as a disciplined force. Inquiries were held. Col Taher was found as one of the conspirators and instigators. As a retired officer he was still under some provisions of the army act that dealt with serious crimes like mutiny. He was tried in a military court and was given death sentence that was executed by hanging. Some other soldiers were also given death sentence and rigorous imprisonment for life and other terms by military courts. It is because of this stern lawful action taken by Gen Zia that there has not been any mutiny by the soldiers thereafter. It required guts to take such a strong action. Gen Zia had that guts. Some politicians these days criticize Gen Zia for taking these stringent actions without realizing what service he did to the nation by quelling that, and other mutinies that followed in quick succession, with an iron hand. After that there has been no mutiny in the army, though at times the soldiers faced enough provocations. Consequently our rulers, however good or bad they may be, have been ruling the country without thinking of any threat from the cantonments. Many of our civilian brothers often forget that army is not a political organization. There is no room for “Zindabad-Murdabad”or “Manina-Manina” in the army. In the army one is under solemn oath to carry out all lawful commands of his superior even to the peril of one’s life. One cannot reason why. One is to do or die. It was, and still is, an article of professional faith in all the armies of the world. It is not the function of an army to make or unmake a government. It is the function of the army to carry out the orders of the government. In spite that sometimes unfortunately the army takes over the state power in a country. Sometimes back in 2008 I tried to explain the reason for and the ultimate consequence of military rule in one of my writings. I sent it for publication to an English daily newspaper published from Dhaka. The editor of the paper did not publish it. May be, he did not want to annoy the army top brass! I quote the same hereunder for you. It explains why and how we had martial law and quasi martial law (like Gen Moyeen U Ahmed’s rule) rules in our country.
In your write up you have mentioned about harboring and political rehabilitation of razakars by Gen Zia. It is very unfortunate that being a valiant and decorated freedom fighter himself Gen Zia had to rehabilitate infamous razakars like Shah Azizur Rahman, Abdul Alim and others. When Gen Zia was catapulted to state power he was politically an orphan, as I already mentioned earlier. He had no political party or supporters to back him up. He could neither rely on the army’s support indefinitely to hold the highest political appointment in the country. To earn internal and international political respectability and recognition he had to become an elected president. For that he needed a political party at his back. Awami League, though smashed into small splinter groups without any leadership, could not accept Gen Zia as an ally. Other parties were so insignificantly small and unimportant that they did not matter at all. Gen Zia not only needed a party but also some senior leaders with ample parliamentary experience to run the party and to translate his political visions, which he developed by that time, into reality to reconstruct the war ravaged country. At that stage he could not give up. There was no one available who could successfully take over the political leadership from him. So he had to carry on. For the prevailing international and regional geopolitical realities too, the country could not be left to the hands of the laymen. Under these circumstances, Gen Zia had to welcome razakars who were senior and experienced politicians to help him run the affairs of the state. But he never handed over the command and control to them. It is easy to blame Gen Zia politically, now, for doing so. But the question as to what else, under the circumstances, he could do in the national interest remains unanswered. In your write up you have catalogued our present political maladies. If such maladies continue, in the next general election to be held in 2013/14 a member from Gen Ziaur Rahman’s family (BNP) will probably be elected as the “King” or the “Queen”. After another five years a member from Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s family (AL) will in the similar way be elected as the “King” or the “Queen”. In the name of democracy we shall continue to have “Kings” and “Queens” for years to come. They will rule over us unchallenged as worst dictators, as they are doing now without being accountable to anyone. Anti Corruption Commission will never be able to touch them. The arm of law will never be long enough to reach them. They will nominate people with questionable ability, honesty and integrity and vulgar tongue to the parliament. They will relish listening to eulogies sung in their honor and vulgar exchanges made to glorify them in the parliament, as it is being done now. They do not believe in having supporters for their political ideologies, they believe in having slaves only. They will continue to divide all national organizations, government employees and professionals on political basis. The guiding principle will be, as it is now, either you belong to my party with the loyalty of a slave, or you are my enemy. There will be no room for anyone with nonpartisan views. You could have come out with some suggestions to get out of it. I have my own ideas. I feel, our cup of sorrows should be full by this time. We had enough of it. A time may come within next 10 to 15 years when there may be a popular uprising against the corrupt and inefficient political leadership. The leadership for such a revolutionary uprising might come from any unexpected quarters. Or, as I guess, educated and enlightened young men and women like you who are now working abroad will start coming back home, as the expatriate Chinese and the Indians are doing now, within next 5 to 10 years. These young people with their knowledge and experience gathered in various advanced countries will make contributions to raise the political awareness of our people through a slow but steady evolutionary process. This process, over a time, might bring in the desired changes in our national political environment.Or, in a worst scenario, we may be branded as a failed state like Somalia by the interested global and regional powers. In that case some regional power might take the opportunity to send its troops to physically occupy Bangladesh on behalf of the UN to discipline us. God forbid, if that happens we may have to fight another war of liberation. You may do some brainstorming on how the people of Bangladesh could get out of the present situation and share your ideas with your readers. That would, I am sure, make your write up more interesting.I have already taken enough of your time. I must stop here now. With best wishes and regards.Syed Ashrafuzzaman

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