August 15: Know the Facts, Not Fiction

sheikh mujib

by Obaid Chowdhury, USA

After 21 year in political wilderness, the Bangladesh Awami League returned to power in 1996, thanks to a conniving hand of former dictator General H M Ershad. The first thing Sheikh Hasina Wazed, the new Prime Minister, did was to arrest the coup leaders of August 15, 1975 and put them on trial.

Interestingly, the trial issue was never an AL election manifesto— not even in 1996. The party knew it well that the trial of the August 15 coup leaders was neither a public demand nor was it in national interest.

Nonetheless, that Sheikh Hasina’s priority. According to at least two prominent personalities, Serajur Rahman of BBC, and a Colonel of the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, Sheikh Hasina had no interest in politics but would like to be in the seat of power at least for a day to fulfill her two agendas: 1) To try the ‘killers’ of her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and, 2) to rehabilitate his image. She did exactly those two things in her first term as Prime Minister.

To justify the so-called Mujib Murder Trial, all kinds of falsehood and disinformation were fed to the public, to the media and to the foreigners about the August 15, 1975 coup. According to most independent observers, the drama orchestrated in the name of the trial was a sham. The Awami-inspired judges dished out the death penalty to a few army officers picked up as scapegoats. Within minutes of the final OK by the Supreme Court and the president’s seal of approval, the national heroes had to walk to the gallows in an unprecedented haste on the fateful night of January 28/29, 2010.

During the trial, few went to the circumstances that led to the pre-dawn military action against the repressive and dictatorial regime of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

Bangabandhu turns Banga-Shatru?

On January 10, 1972, the people of the newly liberated Bangladesh showered all the love and affection to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman upon his arrival in Dhaka from Pakistani custody. Few leaders in history enjoyed such adulation, such popularity. Regrettably, things overturned in just three and a half years time. Well known Indian journalist and writer Kuswant Singh wrote in the Illustrated Weekly of India about Sheikh Mujib, “Within a couple of years, he had lost much of his charisma and lived in a cocoon of self-spun esteem. He came to regard honest critics as traitors and sycophants as loyal friends. It was a classic case of folio de grandeur. He was blissfully unaware that the very people who called him Bangabandhu to his face were behind his back called him Banga-Shatru.”

On March 3, 1973, Mujahidul Islam Selim, Vice President of Dhaka University Central Students Union (DUCSU), at a Paltan rally in Dhaka withdrew the Bangabandhu title given to Sheikh Mujibur Rahmna and cancelled his life-long membership of the DUCSU, tearing off the page from the register in public. It was the same student leader, who granted the DUCSU membership to Sheikh Mujib a year ago. Selim had further asked all offices to remove the pictures of Mujib. The incident was in the wake of the killing some activists of Students Union at Mujib’s order while they were demonstrating anti-American slogans for its Vietnam War. Ironically, Mujahidul Islam Selim is today’s Awami partner in the Mohajote.

A Reflection on August 15

At the dawn of August 15, 1975, the people of Dhaka woke up to the blasts of a few artillery guns followed by small arms fires coming from the posh Dhanmondi area where Sheikh Mujib lived. In an intuition, many of them immediately switched their radios on. They had been hearing rumors of a possible coup. Surely, they heard an announcement that the government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had been overthrown in a military coup.

The first announcement came from one Major Rashed, followed by an agitated speech by Captain Mustafa, condemning the fallen regime. It was before 6 AM and the main transmitter had not been activated yet. Therefore, most people missed much of those announcements.
After half an hour, another person identifying himself as Major Dalim, made the detailed announcement, including the news of the unfortunate death of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the short military action and that his close associate Khandakar Mushtaque Ahmed took over as the new president. His recorded announcement continued for sometime.

The day was Friday and the curfew was relaxed for two hours at noontime to facilitate Jummah prayer. Wow! The Dhaka city turned to another Victory Day celebrations. People paraded the streets singing slogans, expressing their happiness and solidarity with the political change. Veteran politician and former East Pakistan Chief Minister Ataur Rahman Khan termed August 15 as “The Day of Deliverance.”

Under the Awami administration, the day is observed as a Mourning Day for the loss of its leader. In the month of August, the party and its supporting agencies keep showering praise on Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. To them, he was Bangabandhu, he was Jatir Pita and he was Shorbokaler Sorbosreshto Bangali. Outside their circle, not many people agree with those titles.

The younger generations may please go through the media reports and pages of newspapers of the time—it is not difficult in today’s technology— and find the facts for themselves to learn the truth. One should not be swayed by myths, and untrue and unsubstantiated information.

I once came across an article by M M Azizul Haq published in the Daily Inqilab on November 1, 1991. It was titled “Indemnity Rohit: Kar Sarthey? (Repeal of Indemnity: In Who’s Interest?). It was written in the backdrop of then opposition party Awami League’s pressure for the repeal of the Indemnity Act. There could be more such write-ups elsewhere.

The new president promulgated an indemnity ordinance to immunize those who were involved in the military action on August 15, 1975. The ordinance became part of the constitution as Indemnity Act in 1979 under Fifth Amendment.

Mr. Azizul Haq detailed the reasons why August 15 took place and what might have been the scenario in Bangladesh had there not been this coup. The picture he painted was scary.

According to most analysts, August 15 was inevitable. It was the call of the time, call of the majority of Bangladeshis who were groaning under the dark and heavy hands of Mujb’s autocratic and repressive machinery. They thought military alone could salvage the nation.

While observing the Mourning Day, the AL and its supporters start with the AL leader’s heavily edited version of March 7, 1971 speech and end with it. They rarely talk about the achievements of his administration. Younger generations— those in forties and below— need to visualize the Bangladesh of 1972-1975, the “Golden Period” of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Those who lived the time, need to make a walk back for reorientation. Few may disagree that whatever little benefit of independence, freedom, democracy and development people of Bangladesh enjoy today is largely attributed to the August 15 political change.

The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian of London, the Far Eastern Economic Review and many others international media houses highlighted Mujib’s corruptible administration under which a few hundred thousand people perished in the man-made famine of 1974-75. Beggars and animals struggling for eatables in the city wastes were common scenes. Poor women could not come out of their houses, as they did not have clothes to cover themselves, or whatever they had turned almost to fishing nets. Dead bodies had to be buried with banana leaves.
But there was no dearth of relief goods, which remained hoarded in the warehouses of the ruling coterie, to be dispensed for political expediency or sold in the black market. The corruption was so extensive that former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger termed Bangladesh a Bottomless Basket.

While people were dying in the streets and in the countryside, the marriages of Sheikh Kamal and Sheikh Jamal were celebrated in royal style at the Gonobhaban, Mujib’s official residence. So did Mujib’s birthday in 1975.

Mujib’s personal force of Rakkhi Bahini, created at the instance of India, ostensibly to counter the army, killed over 30 thousand political opponents. The late Enayetullah Khan of Holiday put the figure to 38,000. A S M Abdur Rob of Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal once claimed that over 40,000 of his cadre were killed/disappeared during that period. Mujib himself admitted in the parliament the killing of Siraj Sikdar, a top leftist leader. Can one imagine how many additional lives would have lost had there not been the August 15?

In end 1974, Emergency was clamped in the country. All but four government-owned newspapers were allowed publication. Political activities were banned. Anyone not towing the official line was either put behind the bar or not seen again. The political openness and the media freedom we see in Bangladesh today is a gift of August 15.

In January 1975, Sheikh Mujib took over presidency, showing the exit door to poor Muhammad Ullah. Reportedly, there was a plan, through the Chatra League route, to make Mujib the lifelong president. August 15 stopped that dream of a lifelong autocracy in Bangladesh.

The last nail on the coffin of an ailing nation came in the form of Mujib’s supposed “greatest achievement”, the formation of the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (BAKSAL), the Soviet style one-party government. All other political parties were banned. The military and the bureaucracy were politicized by forcing them to join the BAKSAL. The country was divided into 61 political districts, mostly upgrading the former sub-divisions. Each district was to be administered jointly by a BAKSAL governor and a BAKSAL Secretary, chosen personally by the leader. The system was to take effect on September 1, 1975.

Noted historian and author K Ali said on Sheikh Mujib, “He was out and out a despotic ruler and snatched away fundamental rights of the people by introducing absolute dictatorship under one-party system––there was hardly any doubt that the measure (one-party rule) was taken only to establish his permanent rule in the country without any opposition.” August 15 stopped that dangerous path.

According to the politico-partisan trial, August 15 was said to be an isolated act committed by a “handful of disgruntled army officers”. Far from the truth. From available information, the coup was executed by two units—2 Field Artillery and 1 Lancer—and led mostly by their officers. One infantry unit from Joydevpur failed to join the group at the last moment. How wide ranging was the support for the coup may be verified from the following examples:

Military Support

When under attack, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman called then army chief General Safiullah for help. The General could not. Safiullah acknowledged to the Daily Star that he was helpless, as he found that the whole army was supportive of the coup.

The moment Brigadier Khaled Mosharraf, then army Chief of the General Staff, learnt that the main guns of the tanks that were out for the coup were without ammunition, he immediately ordered shells for the guns.

Immediately after the coup, chiefs of army, navy, air force, Bangladesh Rifles, police, Rakkhi Bahini and Ansar rushed to the Dhaka Radio to announce their complete support for the coup and loyalty to the new president. “A handful of Majors” could not force them to do it.
If the whole military did not support the coup, it could have crushed those ‘handful’ officers and men in no time.

Public support.

Hardly any Innalillah.was heaard upon the news of Sheikh Mujib’s death. In fact, people said to have heaved a sigh of relief with an Alhamdulillah. They thanked Allah, they had been saved! It was declared a Day of Deliverance by Ataur Rahman Khan, a later day Prime Minister.

There was not an iota of resistance or protest from any quarter anywhere following the coup or “killing” of Sheikh Mujbur Rahman. One may check the newspapers in the archives for facts. Again, the 110 million people of Bangladesh were not at gunpoint from a “handful of majors”.

People swarmed the Dhaka streets in thousands in jubilation and celebration of the success of the coup. Similar celebrations were reported from rest of the country. The scenario may only be compared to the victory day of December 16, 1971.

People offered special prayers and distributed sweets on the day. Such celebrations were also reported form Bangladeshi communities abroad.

Political Support:

The post coup administration was formed entirely by the Awami League members of the parliament. The only exception was former president Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury who became the foreign minister. No coup leader was seen within miles of the new administration, an unprecedented example in the history of successful coups/revolutions. To those patriots and dedicated souls, August 15 was to save the nation, not to run it.

Veteran Awami Leaguer Abdul Malek Ukil said on the fall of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman that the country was relieved of a Zalim Feroun. Malek Ukil was the Speaker of the House and later became the President of the Awami League.

Following the August 15 coup, newspapers and TV channels were filled with greetings from various political, educational and cultural groups from all over the country. Again, one may visit the media archives– national and international—to find facts.

Diplomatic Acknowledgement:

The new government formed after the August 15 coup was immediately welcomed and recognized by international community, including India, the US, the USSR and the UK. China and Saudi Arabia accorded recognition to Bangladesh for the first time.

It is, however, regrettable that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and some of his close relatives died during the coup. I am not aware if his death was intended and if it could be averted. I may just quote a top bureaucrat of that time: “Under the circumstances, one could not think of a change of government keeping Mujib alive.” Colonel Abdur Rashid, one of the coup leaders, said more or less the same to Anthony Mascarenhas in London in 1976.

My intention is not to glorify a death event. But August 15 cannot be called a mere death event. It was a successful military coup for the greater national interest. The event should be seen from a larger perspective. It reintroduced multiparty democracy, it brought political freedom, it relieved the gagged press, and it opened public accountability, among others.

To understand August 15, one needs to walk back in time to the early period of Bangladesh and judge the day in that perspective. Sheikh Mujib is dead. So are hundreds of thousand others that were perished under his heavy hands. The greatest achievement of August 15, I think, was that it succeeded in stopping those unaccountable murders since.

Obaid Chowdhury
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