It all began with General Ayub Khan. Having seized power in Pakistan in October 1958, he made sure that the country’s first general elections scheduled for early 1959 were not held. With the constitution, adopted in 1956, abrogated, the military regime framed its own constitution in 1962.
Nowhere were the people of Pakistan in the picture, for Ayub Khan introduced the peculiarity known as Basic Democracy. Driven by a desire to don civilian clothes, even as the army remained his base, he had the Pakistan Muslim League break up into two factions, council and convention, before commandeering the latter and pretending to govern through it.
Return to Pakistan-style Politics
That was the beginning of martial democracy, if one may apply the term, in Pakistan. It was to be replicated in Bangladesh, a state that was a clear and decisive revolt against militaristic Pakistan and that began its journey as a model democratic nation-state. By mid-1975, it was for Bengalis a return to Pakistan-style politics, per courtesy of soldiers who seized the state and solidified their grip on it in that year of grief. General Ziaur Rahman decided to take a leaf out of Ayub Khan’s book by giving shape to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
While Ayub sliced off one half of an already existing political party, Zia improved on his method. He cobbled his own party into shape. But like Ayub Khan, who had politicians making a beeline for the Convention Muslim League, Zia had politicians from the left, centre and right in Bangladesh cheerfully join the BNP. It did not matter to these politicians, many of whom had taken part in the War of Liberation, that Zia’s party commenced its journey through striking at the fundamentals of the Bengali state. It did not occur to them that the BNP emerged in the cantonment through an exercise of dictatorial fiat, that it was a rejection of the idea of Bangladesh which had underpinned the state between the mid-1960s and early 1970s.
Zia’s politics drove a dagger into secular democratic politics in Bangladesh through its patronisation of the assassins of August-November 1975 and then through its unabashed indulgence of the very elements who had collaborated with the occupation Pakistan army in 1971. Through his political party Zia consolidated the militarisation of politics in the country, a trend that hearkened back to the Ayub era. Where the Ayub intervention in politics was to leave Pakistan in a straitjacket for decades, with three more military rulers to follow in his footsteps, the Zia period was one which fuelled inordinate ambition in men like General Hussein Muhammad Ershad.
A Wholesale Imposition of Majoritarian Faith
The country’s second military ruler would not wait long to seize power. Ten months into Zia’s assassination, Ershad seized the state in March 1982. That was the beginning of a new phase in political decline in Bangladesh. Ershad permitted the assassins of Bangabandhu to form a political party in clear defiance of morality and political decency. Where the Zia regime knifed the principle of secularism out of the constitution, the Ershad dispensation went for a wholesale imposition of majoritarian faith as the religion of the state on the country. And, of course, in line with the military politics of Ayub and Zia, Ershad drew into his party civilians who had never had any qualms about political norms. They made their way to his door, to be welcomed into his Jatiya Party.
The legacy of Ziaur Rahman and Hussein Muhammad Ershad, symbolised by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Jatiya Party, remains a potent hurdle to a restoration of secular democracy in Bangladesh. Together these two parties have fanned the flames of political trends inimical to the concept of Bangladesh. In their separate but identical ways, the two parties have struck at grassroots politics (something which has sadly continued in traditional parties) by making it possible for retired soldiers, superannuated civil servants and businessmen to crowd out professional politicians from the scene and dominate it. Carpetbaggers have down the decades genuflected before Ayub, Zia and Ershad, have strengthened these dictators’ hold on power and have humiliated themselves in a variety of ways.
The Legacy of Dictatorial Rule
The legacy of dictatorial rule in Bangladesh has been a long tale of grief for the country. In their separate but similar ways, Zia and Ershad left democratic politics badly wounded, a condition from which the country is yet to recover. Zia’s followers have never considered the need to reshape their politics and go back to the principles which served as the fundamentals of the War of Liberation. Neither have they expressed any remorse for the series of assassinations, beginning with August 1975 and continuing till 1981, which left the country bloodied. And Ershad’s fans have had no regret for the regressive politics pursued by their leader.
Notice, though, that much like Ayub Khan’s civilian foot soldiers who swiftly deserted the Convention Muslim League after the general’s fall from power, many among the politicians who were on the Zia-Ershad bandwagon simply lost their way after May 1981 and December 1990. But that is hardly any consolation for the nation. The legacy of the Zia-Ershad period continues to stymie the struggle for a full restoration of democracy in Bangladesh. The struggle against the denial of history goes on. At the general elections later this year, the vote will be much more than a matter of choosing one party over another. It will be one of defending the ramparts of historical truth against those who would storm them again.
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.