A brief history of political irony

National-FlagSyed Badrul Ahsan

The war of words between some leading lights of the Awami League and the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (Inu), both of which are part of the government at this point in time, is a perfect reason why one needs to delve into the history, somewhat, of political irony in Bangladesh. These days, as a minister, JSD leader Hasanul Haq Inu is a vocal defender of the policies of his government and has been scathing in his condemnation of the politics of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. That does not obscure the fact that in the 1970s, he and his party colleagues, in association with some army officers, were seriously engaged in politics aimed at a dislodging of the government of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

That is the irony. Add to that the role played by Col. Abu Taher in engineering the counter-revolution of 7 November 1975, a tragedy that was to push the country into unmitigated disaster for years. Taher simply backed the wrong man, in this case General Ziaur Rahman, when he should have been with General Khaled Musharraf in undertaking a restoration of constitutional and secular government in Bangladesh. In the event — and here is another irony for you — Taher’s life was extinguished by Zia.

Which leads us into an observation of other ironies. One by one, the heroes of the War of Liberation — Khaled Musharraf, Ziaur Rahman, M.A. Manzoor, Najmul Huda, A.T.M. Haider and, yes, Taher — perished in the land for whose freedom they went to war against Pakistan in 1971. And those Bengali military officers repatriated from Pakistan between 1973 and 1974 all survived, and survived well. At one point, they took charge of the military establishment and cheerfully inaugurated a process that was not quite in line with the principles of the War of Liberation. M.G. Tawab, as air force chief, added his bit to the injection of communal politics in the country when he organized a lavish seerat conference in Dhaka in early 1976. The journalist Khondokar Abdul Hamid surreptitiously reinvented the discredited 1940s’ two-nation theory of the Muslim League as ‘Bangladeshi nationalism’, handing a weapon to General Zia to repudiate the spirit of Bengali nationalism in this land. And when General Ershad seized power in 1982, he rushed into giving the final touches to the communalism that the Zia-Tawab combine inaugurated in the aftermath of August-November 1975.

The chronicles of irony in this country speak of a loud Bengali defender of Pakistan in 1971, Khan Abdus Sabur, taking his place in independent Bangladesh’s parliament in 1979. Earlier, a few days before liberation in December 1971, he had let it be known that if Bangladesh emerged as a state, it would be as an illegitimate child of India. Shah Azizur Rahman vociferously defended the Yahya Khan junta at the United Nations General Assembly in 1971; in 1979, General Zia felt little embarrassment in appointing him prime minister of the very country whose freedom he had so publicly opposed. There were other enemies, all quislings of the Pakistan army, who to our shame have served as ministers in independent Bangladesh’s governments. Count among them Moulana Mannan, Matiur Rahman Nizami, Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujaheed.

Place all these instances of irony beside another irony. The men who played pivotal roles in shaping the Mujibnagar government and devising battlefield strategy against Pakistan in 1971 — Syed Nazrul Islam, Tajuddin Ahmad, M. Mansoor Ali, A.H.M. Quamruzzaman — eventually led the country to freedom, only to die as prisoners in the land they had liberated. The ironies never end. On the morning of 15 August 1975, it was not just Bangabandhu who had been murdered but the idea of Bangladesh as well. The assassins and their patrons cheerfully replaced ‘Joy Bangla’ with ‘Bangladesh Zindabad’, which clearly was a throwback to the discarded ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ slogan. Z.A. Bhutto would not agree to a division of assets and liabilities with Bangladesh, but news of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s violent end cheered him mightily, enough to have him send 50,000 tons of rice and many bales of cloth to the ‘brotherly’ people of Bangladesh.

The irony, back in 1973, was in the administration’s manipulation of the election results in favour of Khondokar Moshtaque Ahmed. He lost the election, but then the Election Commission arranged to have him snatch ‘victory’ from the jaws of defeat. At the funeral ceremonies of Bangabandhu’s father, he wept copious tears, loud enough for everyone present to wonder why he was in such a state of shock for a man who was not his parent. Only months later, he presided over the pre-dawn killings of his leader and most members of the leader’s family. Moshtaque was a lucky man. In October 1974, it was a grievous parting of the ways between Bangabandhu and Tajuddin Ahmad that opened the road to disaster for the country. Bangabandhu directed Tajuddin to leave the cabinet. He did not notice the villains — Moshtaque, Taheruddin Thakur, Mahbubul Alam Chashi — lurking around him. The villains killed him. And then they killed Tajuddin. Irony, yes, in full measure.

The ironic comes in with any observation of Bangladesh’s history. This country was supposed to be a state with values different from those which had destroyed Pakistan in our part of the world. Full democracy, a complete absence of military rule and a secular polity were to be the foundations of the state. In the event, democracy was to go missing for a long time and secular Bengali nationalism would be undermined by the military and quasi-military regimes successively commandeering the republic. In the area of coups d’etat, Bangladesh improved hugely, and violently at that, on the Pakistani experience. In the four coups which have so far taken place in Pakistan, not a single officer or ordinary soldier has been killed in the process of the takeover or later. In contrast, the coups, counter-coups and abortive coups in Bangladesh have caused the deaths of thousands of officers and men, not to say leaving unaccounted for hundreds of soldiers and air men seized from their families, never to be seen again.

Supreme irony was there when Justice Abu Sadat Muhammad Sayem, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, took over in late 1976 as President of Bangladesh and Chief Martial Law Administrator and in that capacity signed the order of execution relating to Col. Abu Taher. General Ershad appointed Justice Ahsanuddin Chowdhury as President. Commerce Minister Moshtaque seized power as President once President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had been assassinated. In the early 1990s, it was left to another Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed, to preside over the transition from autocracy to democracy in the country.

And then there is more irony. Professor Yusuf Ali, who read out the Proclamation of Independence at Mujibnagar on 17 April 1971 and later became minister of education in Bangabandhu’s cabinet, subsequently linked up with General Ziaur Rahman and joined the BNP. Likewise, Mohammadullah — Jatiyo Sangsad Speaker, President and minister in Bangabandhu’s time — became Moshtaque’s vice president in August 1975. In March 1982, having joined the BNP, he was appointed vice president by President Abdus Sattar. Within twenty four hours, both men were without jobs as a consequence of General Ershad’s coup. General M.A.G. Osmany, having resigned from parliament in protest at the imposition of Baksal in January 1975, with alacrity joined Moshtaque as defence advisor in August of the year. M. Korban Ali, minister of information in Bangabandhu’s time and later close to Awami League President Sheikh Hasina, would join the military regime of General Ershad as would the former UPP leader and at that point BNP politician Captain Abdul Halim Chowdhury. Kazi Zafar has been with Moulana Bhashani and then with his own party, the United People’s Party, before walking into the BNP tent and later finding his way to Ershad’s Jatiyo Party. Moudud Ahmed, having been in the Awami League, would join Zia’s BNP and then, after the dictator’s death, ditch the party and join Ershad’s Jatiyo Party. He would later, once Ershad had fallen, return to the BNP. Shah Moazzam Hossain, formerly of the Awami League and then of the Moshtaque camp, would as minister and deputy prime minister under Ershad, spew obscenities at public rallies about Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina. He later joined the BNP, through presenting a bouquet to Begum Zia.

Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, whose acolytes have always spoken of his love of democracy, do not mention that in sovereign Bangladesh he initiated the communal slogan of ‘Muslim Bangla’, that he publicly insulted the venerable Phani Bhushan Majumdar, food minister at the time, by telling a crowd at Paltan Maidan that the country was facing a food crisis because the minister in charge was a Hindu. These acolytes stay silent when you ask them why a democrat like Bhashani welcomed the military takeover and violent death of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Another putative democrat, the veteran politician Oli Ahad, cheered the murder of the Father of the Nation through publicly describing 15 August as a day of deliverance, najat dibosh in his words. The communist leader Abdul Haq felt no qualms asking Pakistani leader Z.A. Bhutto, in 1974, for arms and cash to overthrow the legally established Bangladesh government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. In 1976, the Zia regime happily sent off Zahiruddin, an Awami Leaguer elected to the National Assembly in 1970 but who collaborated with the Pakistan army in 1971, as Bangladesh’s first ambassador to Pakistan.

And there you have it, but not all of it. The history of political irony in this country stretches on . . . and longer. Let’s call it a day, though, for now.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a columnist.

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