Ziaur Rahman was the first president of Bangladesh, and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman an “illegal prime minister” — with an Awami League government in power since January 2009, such claims sound like blasphemy. But this is exactly what the senior vice-chairman of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Tarique Rahman, wants all to believe. He is the eldest son of the late General Ziaur Rahman, the country’s first military dictator, and his widow, Begum Khaleda Zia, now the BNP chairperson. He emerged as the real centre of power during his mother’s last term as prime minister between 2001-2006, although controversies over his reported excesses continue to be a talking point.
For the last six years, however, Tarique has been living in London since he was booked in money-laundering cases by the military-backed caretaker government, which took charge after the BNP’s term ended in 2006. The Awami League government that came to power in January 2009 pursued these cases, although Tarique was absolved of charges in one of them for insufficient evidence. Officially, Tarique is in London for medical treatment, but he has been belatedly very active in raising issues through meetings and party events, betraying no signs of sickness.
In one such event on the eve of Bangladesh’s Independence Day this year, Tarique claimed that his father was the first president of Bangladesh. The basis for that claim was strange — as a young major of the Pakistan army, Ziaur Rahman had taken over for a while the radio station at Chittagong and read out the proclamation of Independence soon after the Pakistani military crackdown on March 26, 1971. But the founder of the Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra, Belal Mohammed, had reiterated on several occasions that Zia had read out the proclamation of Independence on behalf of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the undisputed leader of the Bengali struggle in East Pakistan. Tarique shocked the nation by claiming that the Bangladeshis had fought the Liberation War “only responding to Zia’s call to arms”.
The debate about who first proclaimed Bangladesh’s independence is as old as Zia’s assumption of power as the country’s first military dictator president. Immediately after he set up the BNP in the late 1970s, there were efforts to project him on a par with Mujib because he was the “swadhinatar ghoshak” (one who declared the nation’s independence). Veteran Awami Leaguers who spearheaded the Liberation Wars insist that it was M.A. Hannan, a senior Awami League leader from Chittagong, who had first read out the proclamation of Independence on the morning of March 27, a day after Pakistan’s army unleashed “Operation Searchlight” on the Bengalis, starting one of the worst bouts of genocide in postcolonial Asia.
“We heard Zia reading out the same proclamation that same evening but several hours after Hannan had done it , so he was not the first to read out our proclamation of Independence. And it was all done in the name of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the undisputed leader of our movement,” said Tofail Ahmed, now commerce minister and one of Mujib’s close associates in 1971. Another Awami League veteran, Amir Hossain Amu, says that Tarique has done what his father dared not — he has claimed that Zia was the country’s first president because he proclaimed independence and people fought against Pakistan by responding to his appeal.
If one were to go by the historical records, Syed Nazrul Islam was the first president of Bangladesh as he was sworn in as president of the “Provisional Government of Bangladesh” with Tajuddin Ahmed as prime minister at Mujibnagar. Mujib was in Pakistan’s jail during the entire tenure of the Liberation War. Abu Sayeed Choudhury was sworn in as the first president of Bangladesh on January 12, 1972, after it emerged as a free nation in December 1971. It is well known that Ziaur Rahman was a young major in Pakistan’s army who, like scores of other Bengali officers, joined the fight for independence and was given charge of a sector during the eight months of Liberation War. He also headed the Z force, which he raised. He was one of many sector commanders, who fought under command of M.A. Osmani.
But with BNP leaders — including his mother, Khaleda Zia — supporting Tarique’s contention that Zia was Bangladesh’s first president, the London-based leader went for a second salvo, when at another BNP event, he claimed that Sheikh Mujib was an “illegal prime minister”. He argued that Mujib, on his return from a prison in Pakistan after the liberation of Bangladesh, had taken charge as prime minister before the country adopted its Constitution and the provisional government had ceased to exist.
This time, it was Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, very much her father’s daughter, who reacted furiously. She said that the BNP was an “illegal party” because it was set up in the barracks by Zia, who had forcibly usurped power through a military takeover. Hasina argued that all decisions of Zia were illegal because his assumption of power had no basis in the Constitution and was achieved by the use of force. Other Awami League leaders joined the tirade, one even suggesting that Khaleda Zia should be forced to the leave the country for “distorting history” and pursuing the “politics of destruction” (referring to her party’s violent anti-poll agitation last year).
The prime minister’s office went one step further, recommending to all schools, colleges and other public institutions that they must keep three books in their libraries, which give out the “correct history of the Liberation War”. Now scores of Awami League leaders never miss a chance to attack mother and son — some alluding to their links with Pakistan, others referring to their fundamentalist links set to undermine the very spirit of the Liberation War.
The Bangladesh high court, in a 2009 ruling, had sought to settle the issue of history when it pronounced that Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was the one who proclaimed Bangladesh’s independence. But stung by Tarique’s and Khaleda’s claims, some who were close to the party filed a case of sedition against Khaleda. The court refused to accept it on procedural grounds, further upsetting the Awami League. The former minister, Suranjit Sengupta, has strongly pushed for a case of sedition against Tarique for “false claims aimed at deliberate distortion of national history”.
Senior Awami Leaguers have now gone to the other extreme of questioning Zia’s role in 1971. Some say that he was all set to leave for Pakistan, but was forced to join the fight under pressure from his Bengali troops after the Pakistanis had started killing Bengali soldiers at random. They also believe that Zia was part of the 1975 coup — surely he knew of it and did nothing to stop it, they argue, because he was disgruntled at being passed over for the top job in the army. These are claims that can never be established, but there is no doubt that Zia fought his way out of East Pakistan into Tripura in the early days of the war. His role in commanding a sector cannot be forgotten.
The problem starts with Zia’s subsequent role as military ruler. As the founder of the BNP and the country’s military ruler, Zia stands accused of rehabilitating religious fundamentalists who supported the Pakistani genocide, the men who were involved in the massacre of millions including some of Bangladesh’s finest minds. Zia was also the architect of the first major amendment to its Constitution that began the process of undermining secularism in Bangladesh. In a way, to cement his position as a military ruler, Zia seems to have promoted forces opposed to the spirit of the Liberation War he was part off. So, the BNP, founded by a liberation war hero, is now aligned to Jamaat-e-Islami, which opposed Bangladesh’s independence — but this was a process started by Zia himself.
But the travesty is that in Bangladesh’s intense political polarization, those who resent the Awami League’s continued stay in power and its attempted monopoly over the Liberation War narrative may be found inclined to believe as big a historical lie as Zia being the country’s president — even if it were just an act of challenging the Awami League and provide some legitimacy to the Zia legacy. There are grey areas in history that are open to fresh interpretation in many countries including India, but would we accept Aurangzeb as the founder of the Mughal dynasty in India instead of Babur — or Hastings and not Clive as the man who won the Battle of Plassey?