For quite a few years now August has been commemorated in our country as a month of mourning. Around 47 years ago, on 15 August 1975, the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was killed at his home with his entire family, except two daughters, one of whom is the prime minister today, Sheikh Hasina. Also killed at the time were Jubo League leader Sheikh Moni and minister at the time Abdur Rab Serniabat and others of the family. Involved in the assassination were a number of mid-level army officers, both in service and dismissed, and some jawans (general soldiers). This has been termed as a military coup by many quarters, but to me this was a rebellion. This incident took place through an apparent break in the chain of command.
Many questions sprouted from this incident, many of which remain unanswered. That is why perhaps there is talk of an inquiry committee. In 1996 I published a book, 'Bangladesh Roktakto Odhyay 1975-1981' (A Bloody Chapter of Bangladesh 1975-1981), dealing with the events that unfolded in Dhaka cantonment from the morning of that fateful day as well as 22 other coups or rebellions, large and small, that took place from then till 1981. Prior to that, the late army officer Colonel Hamid (retd) also wrote a book in this regard. He had been the station commander at Dhaka cantonment at the time. I had been a young officer at the time. In my book I wrote about what I observed around me, what I felt, and described the state of the army at the time and also the events, as far as I could recall.
At the orders of 46 Brigade Commander Col. Shafayet Jamil (Bir Bikram), I went to Dhanmondi Road 32 on 15 August morning to seize the film of pictures taken there. The horrendous scene that met my eyes when I reached that house, still haunts me down till this day. Questions flooded my mind at the time and I have placed these in my book too. After a long span of time, that book of mine is being republished, revised and under a new title -- 'Raktajhara Dinguli: 1975-1981, Pratakhyadarshir Obhigatyai Paltapalti Obhuthaner Bibaran' (Days of Bloodshed: 1975-1981, Eye witness account of coups and counter coups), by Prothoma Prokashon.
Many years have passed since those two books were published. While many of my questions remain unanswered, I did manage to get a few answers to my questions. I found this in the books written by the army chief at the time and a few other officers. Prominent among these writers are Maj Gen (retd) Shafiullah, Bir Uttam, who was the army chief at the time, 46 Brigade Commander at the time Col (retd) Shafayet Jamil Bir Bikram, Dhaka's 46 Brigade's Maj (retd) Hafizuddin Bir Bikram, and Lt Col (retd) Anwarul Alam Shaheed.
I basically raised two major questions in my book, one of which has been raised repeatedly over the past few years by the present prime minister and daughter of Bangabandhu, Sheikh Hasina. She has expressed her ire about this too. Her anger is very normal. Her question is, why did the senior leaders of Awami League that day make no protest? They did not even protest later on. Prime minister Sheikh Hasina may never get an answer to this question. Or maybe she will. But to my knowledge Abdul Kader Siddiqui, Bir Uttam, known as 'Bangabir', had crossed the border with the intention of resistance. Bangabandhu's political secretary Tofail Ahmed also protested. I have mentioned them in my book and later, Anwarul Alam Shaheed also mentioned this in his book 'Rakhhi Bahinir Shotyo Mithya' (Truth and Lies of Rakhhi Bahini). In his book he wrote that despite his efforts, he too didn't get support from the leaders. This question remains hanging in the air and it troubles Sheikh Hasina down till today. She does not hide this rancour.
Anyway, my second question was, what about the Rakkhi Bahini? Most of them had directly taken part in the Liberation War, yet how come they too vanished into thin air like the political activists? Neither did they resist, nor did they react! Anwarul Alam Shaheed did try to explain the role of the Rakkhi Bahini, but that explanation was not plausible to me.
He also mentioned that along with Tofail Ahmed, he had tried to contact the other top leaders, but failed. But the Rakkhi Bahini didn't have the courage to keep Tofail Ahmed at the headquarters for long. The Rakkhi Bahini, spread out all over the country, did not build up any resistance at all.
The final question was, since the entire armed forces were not involved in the incident, why was no action taken against the killers? Only recently, the army chief at the time Maj Gen Shafiullah, who was later even a member of parliament from Awami League, tried to give various explanations about his inability, but he did not directly admit his weakness or failure.
It remains unclear as to who first made contact when the attack was launched on Bangabandhu. But it was learnt that when Bangabandhu contacted him, he told Bangabandhu to leave by the back door and he would see what can be done. No one of the brigade could say whether he had asked the 46 Brigade Command to take any action. According to him, the military law gives the army chief the authority to take immediate action if his subordinate commander does not obey him. But that day after returning from the radio office, he spent quite a few hours at the brigade headquarters. I saw the army chief and other senior army officers in a dazed state at the time. No one was able to take any decision. Yet the group of killer majors came to the cantonment and imposed their decision on the seniors. Why did this happen? Just a handful of mid-level officers were involved in this killing and they managed to take control of the country. It is not difficult to understand how this happened. I explained this to an extent in my book. I highlighted this in brief in the BBC dialogue and am presenting that here.
Even with less experience, a war can be fought and won, especially if it's guerilla warfare in a struggle for independence. But restructuring and operating the army or any other armed force in times of peace, is a difficult task
Unlike India and Pakistan, Bangladesh's armed forces are not an inherited institution. The Bangladesh armed forces, the army in particular, basically emerged in the rebellion against existing Pakistani command with the start of the Liberation War. The Liberation War was carried out outside of the conventional command channel, with the noble objective of liberating the country. For many days the war continued with command set up at individual levels and three young persons came to the forefront. There were reasons for this.
While the central command was formed quite a few months after the war began, Zia, Shafiullah and Khaled had created their own spheres of power as force commanders. This impact continued even after independence of the country.
The post-independence army was not afflicted only by the freedom fighter and non-freedom fighter divide, but also the divide among these three. There was no love lost among these three senior commanders. This was glaringly obvious after the killing of Bangabandhu on 15 August, in the events of 3 and 7 November.
The lack of experience and laxness in the command system was obvious in the army chief Shafiullah and others and that is why in the next five years, there were 22 big and small coups, that is, rebellions. Two presidents were killed.
Even with less experience, a war can be fought and won, especially if it's guerilla warfare in a struggle for independence. But restructuring and operating the army or any other armed force in times of peace, is a difficult task. This is particularly so in Bangladesh's context where there are members of differing ideologies. It is difficult to manage the members of the armed forces in an inexperienced command structure rife with divisions, and the lack of competence in taking decisions during crises also emerged, as was seen on 15 August 1975. In fact, KM Shafiullah himself has mentioned these matters in his book, 'Fifteenth August, A National Tragedy'.
Many ask what would have happened if the army chief could have taken action immediately after the assassination of Bangabandhu. If action could have been taken that day, perhaps the political leadership that had vanished into thin air, would have gained courage, and even if there would have been some bloodshed, future bloodshed could have been avoided. But that remains an "if" in the pages of history. However, it must also be said, that "if" can remain a lesson for posterity.
* Dr Sakhawat Hossain is an election analyst, former military officer and a senior research fellow at SIPG (NSU). He may be contacted at [email protected]