by Anisur Rahman in Dhaka,
The trial of the direct assassins of August 15, 1975 carnage has been completed several years ago and six of the 12 convicted ex-military officers were executed by now while the rests are on the run to evade hangman’s noose.
But speculations are still rife about those played the fiddle of the plot from behind the scene and new unfolding evidence point figures at Bangladesh’s first military ruler, General Ziaur Rahman, as the central figure.
Several of his fellow military personnel, some of them close to Zia, the then deputy army chief, said he remained unmoved as they broke the news of Bangabandhu’s murder to him.
The 1975 putsch leaders, on the other hand, repeatedly said Zia was informed about their plan to carry out the coup.
Famed American journalist Lawrence Lifschultz, the former South Asia correspondent of the Far Eastern Economic Review who worked for prestigious news outlets like the The Guardian of the UK and the BBC, told this author that “Zia was the key shadow man” behind the August 15 putsch.
According to the US journalist had Zia opposed the coup d’etat “it could never have happened.” “The evidence increasingly points to the fact that Zia was one of the principal architects of the coup and played a much more significant role than Khondaker Mustaque Ahmed,” Lifshultz said.
In his latest piece on Zia’s meeting with CIA’s Philip Cherry visibly shed a ray afresh on the episode which he said opened “a new chapter of an old story which has importance not only for Bengalis, but also for Americans like myself”.
“Murders took place in Dhaka on August 15, 1975 . . . (but) There was a sequence of events that led up to those murders,” Lifshultz wrote in the piece titled “A Dhaka meeting precedes the coup d’etat”.
Lifshultz, known for his extensive studies on Bangladesh and its political scenario, particularly those of 1970s, referred to his latest finding about Zia’s role in the episode.
Lifshultz told this author few years back that he was confirmed that Zia had a long meeting with the then CIA station chief in Dhaka ahead of the carnage while the circumstantial evidence suggested the US intelligence agency had a hand in the episode.
The US journalist said he knew a Bangladeshi businessman for decades together who had arranged that meeting at his house on a request by Cherry when their spouses too were present.
According to Lifshultz the businessman had many friends among the diplomatic community in Dhaka and he knew Cherry as a US diplomat, not as a CIA operative, who was operating a backchannel without the knowledge of the regular embassy officials and the ambassador.
He had no idea why Cherry wanted to meet Zia either while the dinner took place a week before the coup and “It became clear as soon as both men [Zia and Cherry] arrived that they had things to talk about on their own.”
“General Zia and Philip Cherry went into the garden and spent nearly an hour talking with each other before dinner was served,” Lifshultz wrote referring to the businessman, who said after dinner the two again went into the garden to continue their discussion.
“All seemed innocent enough at the time. However, after the coup, as one family member put it, the host and his family felt they had been ‘used’,” wrote Lifshultz.
One of Bangladesh’s leading economists and Planning Commission’s then deputy chief, Dr Nurul Islam, in his memoirs recalled that in a meeting with him months ahead of the carnage Zia had indicated about an impending change in the political scenario.
Dr Islam in his book “Making of a Nation Bangladesh – An Economist’s Tale” wrote that he was planning to go abroad quitting his government job, when Zia met him urging him to stay back.
“He (Zia) was confident that in the not too distant future, the situation will improve and the prevailing drift and uncertainty would disappear,” Islam wrote.
Dr Islam added: “I was surprised by the tenor of his talk and the confidence with which he spoke . . . particularly by his confidence that in not ‘too distant future . . .”
Few years after Bangabandhu’s assassination, in an interview with journalist Anthony Mascarenhas, both Farooq and Rashid said that Zia had known about the coup beforehand.
Farook admitted to have meeting Zia on March 20, 1975 as part of carrying out their plan.
Talking to a journalist of national news agency BSS years after the Bangabandhu Murder Trial verdict was delivered by the lower court, a key convict fugitive sacked colonel Abdur Rashid’s daughter Mehnaz Rashid indicated Zia in fact used her father.
“My father now is regarded as the killer, but who used him? . . . that man eventually appeared as the hero,” she said in a clear reference to Zia, who was the deputy chief of army at that time.
The then army chief major general KM Shafiullah recently made public with a detailed account of the situation during and after the carnage in his book “15th August: A National Tragedy,” where he out rightly accused his deputy of protecting the killers from military actions.
“From the day one whatever action he took and whatever assistance that he tried to give me was all to help the rebel troops [killers],” wrote the octogenarian general recollecting the sequences of the August 15 episode.
Shafiullah said, on August 15 morning he asked Zia and the then army’s chief of general staff brigadier general Khaled Mosharraf to come to his house and both appeared there within 15 to 20 minutes.
But Zia was “dressed in uniform, properly shaved, in his official car and driven by his official chauffeur” whereas Khaled was “dressed in Pyjama (Night dress), without a shave and driving himself in his personal car”.
“Although both of them were in front of me within about 15 to 20 minutes time, yet these differences did not strike me then. When I had time to think, then only I realized who was doing what!” he wrote.
Shafiulah recalled that when he ordered Khaled to go to 46 Brigade area to help its commander Colonel Shafaat Jamil to move troops against the killers “General Zia vehemently opposed it” and said “He (Khaled) is going to spoil it.”
“When I try to recollect those moments now, the question arises what Brig. Khaled was going to spoil for which General Zia was so worried. Was those action in 46 Brigade area likely to go against the plan that he made?,” he wrote.
The then army chief recalled after Khaled returned from 46 Brigade finished his reporting: “General Zia suggested that the CGS should not go out now and should sit down to prepare an Operations Order [Ops Order] for the army to move towards the border to face an Indian offensive”.
“Though this could be a possibility, there was no such indication till then [and] the most important task for me then was to handle the death of Bangabandhu … I, therefore, told General Zia that let me handle this delicate situation first,” he said.
Shafiullah said he now believed Zia probably did not want “any interference in whatever was happening and whatever he was doing” while he referred to convict Rashid.
He said Rashid later revealed to him that Zia had assured him “if they succeeded in their scheme in that case he would give them a helping hand.”
“The rebel troops were thus going ahead as per their plan and with the blessings of General Zia . . . to achieve this goal, Brig Khaled’s action could put their plan in jeopardy (and) so General Zia’s apprehension of so called Indian aggression was nothing but a deceitful way to divert my attention.”
Shafiullah said Zia actually had been harbouring ill motives against Bangabandhu and his government right from the time when “I was made the Chief.”
“Khandaker Moshtaque knew about this and he became his ardent sympathizer. . . After the assassination of Bangabandhu, Khandaker Moshtaque with the active support of the rebel officers appointed General Zia as the Chief of Army Staff, who was their choice.”
The first chief of Bangladesh army added “General Zia finally achieved what he wanted and started his activities to achieve his final objective!”.
Law minister Anisul Huq during a discussion with this author substantiated that Shafiuallh saying had Zia not a party of the conspiracy, why did Mushtaq appoint him as the army chief while the killers too preferred none but Zia to be in that position.
“During his entire period of presidency, Ziaur Rahman had awarded and protected the Bangabandhu’s killers instead of trying them, why?” Huq said.
Despite being a leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) founded by Ziaur Rahman, retired army major Hafizuddin Ahmed, who served as late military ruler’s private secretary while he was the deputy army chief, indicated in his memoirs that Zia’s weakness towards the killers, which debarred him from taking actions to bring back chain of command in the army.
“Besides, the rebels (killers) made him the army chief, so he had his weakness for them,” wrote Hafiz in his “Sainik Jibon: Gowrober Ekattor, Raktakto Pochattor.”
Anisul Huq, who worked as a key prosecutor in Bangabandhu Murder Trial under chief prosecutor Serajul Huq, said Zia instigated the killers and eventually became the main beneficiary of the carnage.
He said the key-convict of the trial sacked colonel Syed Farook Rahman and his main partner fugitive convict sacked colonel Abdur Rashid’s wife Zobaida Rashid had testified that the killers approached Zia with the plot and secured his consent for staging the bloody coup.
“Zia could not be indicted in Bangabandhu murder trial as he was dead by the time the trial process began,” Huq said.
But, he added, all indications suggest that the assassins on the field proceeded with Zia’s consent in killing Bangabandhu along with most of his family members.