The assassination of the Father of the Nation on 15 August 1975, along with the murder of nearly his entire family, remains a blot on the nation’s conscience. The carnage at 32 Dhanmondi has gone down as the worst incident, one dipped in the sinister, in independent Bangladesh’s history. The tragedy, indeed the shame for all of us in this country, is that in the moments when Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was in trouble in the pre-dawn hours of 15 August 1975, not a soul was around to save him and his family.
Bangabandhu’s assistant tried working the phones. No one responded. Bangabandhu himself took the receiver and said to whoever was at the other end, ‘This is President Sheikh Mujib speaking.’ The line got disconnected or was deliberately disconnected. That raises the ominous question: Why did the security agencies of the state not know of the conspiracy being hatched against the founder of the Bangladesh republic? Or could it be that officers in those agencies were in league with the plotters, that they knew, and therefore were unwilling to save the President?
In the forty-eight years since the horrendous crimes were committed on 15 August 1975, increasingly new bits of information have been coming to light about the plot against Bangabandhu. In the cantonment, there was a festive mood, with general soldiers and officers clearly elated at the massacre in Dhanmondi and elsewhere. Many of these uniformed men appeared eager to shake hands with the killers, who were in buoyant mood. The senior officers, all those brigadiers and major-generals who till the previous evening had sworn fealty to Bangabandhu, appeared unconcerned about the bloodletting in Dhanmondi.
Except for General K.M. Shafiullah, the chief of army staff who had failed to act against the assassins, all senior officers showed not a sign of grief. As Anwarul Alam Shahid, a senior officer with the Rakkhi Bahini and in later years a diplomat, was to write, he and his colleague were summoned to the cantonment in the evening on 15 August by Brigadier Khaled Musharraf. Once there, he noticed an ebullient Musharraf poring over the map, asking his juniors about strategy should India decide to send in its troops to Bangladesh in the emergent situation.
The Months Following 15 August 1975
On 15 August and in the months which followed, the nation found itself in a suffocating atmosphere with the assassins taking charge of Bangabhaban and propping up the illegal presidency of Khondokar Moshtaq Ahmed. On the day of the assassination, all cabinet ministers, except for Syed Nazrul Islam, AHM Kamruzzaman and M. Mansoor Ali, lost little time in declaring allegiance to Moshtaq. These ministers were all part of Bangabandhu’s government but felt no pangs of conscience by taking a fresh oath of office even as Bangabandhu’s body lay on the stairs of his Dhanmondi residence.
Not one of them called forth the courage to accompany Bangabandhu’s remains to Tungipara and take part in his last rites. All of them served in the illegal regime till circumstances in early November forced all of them out of office. In subsequent years, some of them tried explaining away their role in August 1975. The explanations did not carry conviction.
Bangabandhu’s daughters Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehana, on a tour of Europe at the time, happened to be in Belgium. Bangladesh’s ambassador in Brussels, unwilling to earn the wrath of the assassins in Dhaka, with alacrity had them move to Bonn, where ambassador Humayun Rashid Chowdhury and his wife took them under their protection.
Today, in all this distance of time, it becomes important for the nation to remember and recall the post-August 1975 roles played by individuals who owed their positions to Bangabandhu, who ought to have taken firm steps against the assassins. There were politicians who unashamedly observed 15 August as najat dibosh (deliverance day). Newspaper editors wrote fawning editorials in praise of the killings in Dhanmondi. In Old Dhaka, anti-Mujib elements celebrated Bangabandhu’s murder with a distribution of sweets. Away in Pakistan, an elated Prime Minister Bhutto swiftly accorded recognition to the Moshtaq cabal and despatched rice and cloth for Bangladesh’s people.
It is all a long, searing tale of pain and unmitigated grief we have not been able to live down.
So where did all those loyalists of Bangabandhu go after 15 August 1975?
So where did all those loyalists of Bangabandhu go after 15 August? Or how did they carry on with life after 15 August? Observe.
Syed Nazrul Islam, Tajuddin Ahmad, M. Mansoor Ali and AHM Quamruzzaman did not have much of life remaining for them. Within days of the coup, they were placed under arrest and confined at Dhaka Central Jail, where they were murdered in the early hours of 3 November 1975. It was a calculated move to wipe out any chances of the nation’s liberation leadership retaking power at some point.
Dr. Kamal Hossain, foreign minister in Bangabandhu’s cabinet, was in Yugoslavia at the time of the coup. He did not return home, despite all the blandishments offered by the usurpers, and went off to Oxford. Some years later, he came back to Bangladesh. Nominated for the nation’s presidency by the Awami League at the election of November 1981, he lost to the BNP’s Justice Abdus Sattar. In the 1990s, he left the Awami League and formed the Gano Forum.
Mohammmadullah, who had been Speaker of the Jatiyo Sangsad (Parliament) and then President of Bangladesh before joining Bangabandhu’s cabinet as a minister, was appointed Vice President by Moshtaque following the coup. In March 1982, he was appointed Vice President (he had joined the BNP) a second time, this time by President Abdus Sattar. He was in office for a day before General Ershad overthrew the Sattar government in a coup d’etat.
General MAG Osmany, who had bravely resigned from the Jatiyo Sangsad in January 1975 in protest against the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution – he had seen Ayub Khan, he said then, and did not want to see Mujib Khan – quickly teamed up with Moshtaque as his defence advisor. He did not evince any interest in condemning Bangabandhu’s assassination or visiting his grave in Tungipara. He later formed the Jatiyo Janata Party and in May 1978, as the presidential candidate of a combined opposition led by the Awami League against General Ziaur Rahman, he went and prayed at Bangabandhu’s grave. He lost the election.
General Ziaur Rahman, who had known since November 1974 and March 1975 of the conspiracy against Bangabandhu by the majors and colonels and yet had not informed the government, replaced General Shafiullah as Chief of Army Staff. Subsequently, through a series of coups and counter-coups, he seized power in November 1975 and in April 1977 took over the presidency after removing Justice Sayem, who had been installed as President in early November 1975 by General Khaled Musharraf. He survived eighteen attempted coups and was killed in the nineteenth in Chittagong.
Khaled Musharraf, promoted from brigadier to major general, seized power on 3 November 1975, placed Zia under house arrest, forced Khondokar Moshtaq from power and on 7 November was killed in a counter-coup orchestrated by Col. Abu Taher. Zia was freed from confinement in a so-called sipahi-janata revolution. Taher was executed by the Zia regime after a court martial in July 1976.
General Shafiullah and Air Vice Marshal AK Khondokar, having been removed from their positions, subsequently served a good number of years abroad, under the Zia and Ershad military regimes, as Bangladesh’s high commissioners. Khondokar later served in the cabinets of General HM Ershad and Sheikh Hasina. Shafiullah joined the Awami League and was elected to Parliament in June 1996.
Professor Yusuf Ali, who had read out the Proclamation of Independence at Mujibnagar on 17 April 1971, served as education minister in Bangabandhu’s government. He stayed on in the Moshtaq regime and later joined General Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
KM Obaidur Rahman and Shah Moazzam Hossain, both close to Bangabandhu in the Awami League, eventually linked up with Moshtaq. Obaidur Rahman ended up being in the BNP and served as a minister in the Zia and Sattar governments. Shah Moazzam subsequently joined the Ershad regime, in which he rose to the position of deputy prime minister. Years later, he joined the BNP.
In the days after the coup, Abdul Malek Ukil, Speaker of the Jatiyo Sangsad and putatively a Mujib loyalist, told newsmen in London that Bangabandhu’s fall had been the fall of an autocrat. Later he led a faction of the Awami League but was never able to regain his earlier reputation.
Mohiuddin Ahmad, a veteran politician who after years of being in the National Awami Party had joined the Awami League, travelled to Moscow a few days after the coup with a message from Khondokar Moshtaq to the Soviet leadership seeking support for his regime.
Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, whose denunciations of the Mujib government in the post-Liberation years had become increasingly more trenchant and who launched a campaign for a Muslim Bangla, welcomed the coup of 15 August and wished Moshtaq well. He never condemned the criminal acts of August 1975. Bhashani died in November 1976.
Khondokar Moshtaq Ahmed was ousted from the presidency by General Khaled Musharraf on 6 November 1975. He attempted a comeback the next day, when the Musharraf coup collapsed, but resistance from Zia and Taher put paid to his ambition. He later formed the Democratic League, was tried on charges of corruption and jailed by the Zia regime. He died in March 1996, a few months before the Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina, returned to power twenty-one years after the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Forty-eight years after the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, it is time to plumb the depths of the tragedy which took hold of our collective life in that sad summer, the ramifications of which are yet being felt and indeed will be felt in the times to come. It is time to launch serious investigations into the role played civilians in the conspiracy against Bangabandhu and his government.
There will not be a closure to the tragedy until the truth is unearthed, until those guilty of engaging in the plot are tried posthumously. At the same time, it becomes necessary to inquire into the failure of the military leadership of the time to take action against the assassins, given that nearly five hours elapsed between the murders committed in Dhanmondi and their declaration of allegiance to Moshtaq by these officers.
Cover photo shows the stairs of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s residence at Dhanmondi 32 where he was brutally assassinated.
About the Author
Syed Badrul Ahsan is the Chief Editorial Adviser of The Confluence; a journalist and author. He previously served as the Press Minister at the High Commission of Bangladesh, London and authored a biography on the Founder of Bangladesh, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman entitled From Rebel to Founding Father: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.