The “Untouchable” General From Bangladesh And My BTV Days

Anatomy of a Martial Law in Bangladesh

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By Jamal Hasan

Hasina Wazed won a rather precarious majority in the last election. Nevertheless, quite a few eyebrows were raised when she sought out Gen. Ershad’s support to boost her majority in the parliament. And Ershad, who had languished in jail under the Khaleda Zia administration, was only too eager to oblige. Politics can indeed make strange bedfellows. The alliance between Hasina and Ershad made it that much easier to form a government that enjoyed a comfortable majority in the parliament.

Two facts stood out in the aftermath of the opportunistic alliance. Firstly, Hasina Wazed had befriended the General who was number one in Khaleda Zia’s list of enemies — an outcome of the principle that deems the enemy’s enemy to be one’s natural friend. Secondly, Hasina Wazed made it clear by her action that she deems gratitude to be a dispensable virtue in the realm of politics. After all, Awami League could never have forced the ouster of the Ershad regime without the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s active support.

Since then, events have turned a full circle. Today, General Ershad is cozying up to Khaleda Zia who, in her turn, is reciprocating with positive overtures. Anything seems to be possible in Bangladeshi politics these days. The General is now in the enviable position of determining which of the two ladies enjoys the upper hand in Bangladeshi politics. In that sense, he truly is a “queen maker.”

General Hussain Mohammed Ershad had the foresight to cultivate friends in positions of power and influence. Thus, in USA, he befriended politicians all across the ideological spectrum. The General continues to be in the good books of politicians like Senator Dave Durenberger at one end of the ideological spectrum to Congressman Stephen Solarz (once Chairman of House Foreign Affairs Committee) who is definitely at the opposite end of the spectrum. With friends in high places, it is no surprise that the Khaleda Zia administration had found it so difficult to convict the General of any crime.

General Ershad had come to power in a bloodless coup in the last week of March of 1982. The democratically elected government of Abdus Sattar had been deposed quite unceremoniously. The deposed President (Abdus Sattar) was treated quite shabbily by the General who had the dubious distinction to be a poet and a gentleman.’ The ousted President, who was not in the best of health at the time of his ouster, was forced to live in seclusion until he died.

General Ershad has ruled the longest in the history of Bangladesh (March 1982-December 1990). He was ultimately driven out of power by a mass upheaval. The General’s regime undoubtedly stands out as the most corrupt in Bangladeshi history. I shall provide some glimpses into life under General Ershad from my experiences as a lowly news producer for BTV.

The short-lived government under Justice Sattar remains to this day the best instance of good and responsible governance in Bangladesh. At the time, I had been working with Bangladesh Television as a news producer. I recall sandbags installed around the compound of the Bangladesh Television Station after Bangabandhu’s assassination. The sandbags remained in place during the entire period of “Martial Democracy” under General Zia. When Sattar was elected to head a democratic government, the soldiers were withdrawn but the sandbags remained in place to testify silently the culture of the time. I always wondered if the bags would ever be of use someday. The question in my mind was answered loudly and clearly when General Ershad stepped out of the confine of Kurmitola on 24 March 1982 to proclaim himself the chief executive of Bangladesh a la Ziaur Rahman. I surmised it was déj vu all over again!

General Ershad could have come to power much earlier right after the murder of General Zia. But he was shrewd enough to bide his time. He had correctly assessed that an immediate usurpation of power after the ghastly murder of a popular General would have turned him into a villain in no time. General Ershad was indeed wise to be patient.

General Ershad developed an antipathy toward employees of BTV in general and of those who worked in the news department, in particular. BTV had failed to cover the General to his satisfaction. The fiasco during the Sattar era at the Shahid Minar on 21 February had been the last straw. BTV’s cameras had failed to zoom in on the General even once. Needless to say, the General was livid with rage. But fortunately no heads had rolled at BTV for the lapse.

The last week of March of 1982 was a period of high tension. The cantonment was exerting tremendous pressure on the government. By 23rd March, employees of all vital agencies of the government had come to sense ominous signals. The TV building was full of strangers — plain-clothes men with unusually short hair. The most dangerous moment in the unfolding drama was undoubtedly when civilian administrators in the defence ministry became aware of the impending coup. By late evening all staffer of BTV had also become aware of what was about to happen. A senior bureaucrat at the defence ministry could no longer stand the suspense and phoned General Ershad to ascertain whether there was any truth to the rumors. You may rest assured the General was not the least bit amused by the query. The bureaucrat must have thanked his stars when he realized that his life would be spared. But I am most certain that he learned the lesson of his lifetime.

The TV news team were “alerted” to be on stand by. Ershad brought in his team at midnight and got his speech recorded. The morning saw him posing as the “savior of the nation.”

The initial days of Ershad regime lived by rule of the “boots.” The official bus of the night crew of the TV news team had to stop at every roadblock you may think of. The newsmen would be harassed again and again often under petty pretexts. One senior newsman commented, “Even the Pak soldiers under General Yahya Khan were more civil to the television crew in occupied Dacca of 1971.” General Ershad had succeeded in turning the television building into a mini cantonment.

The staff members at the television station had to show their identity cards at army checkpoints before they were allowed into the TV building. One morning as I was entering the TV building, I saw a jawan sitting at a table near the gate. My identity card was in my left pocket. Without much thought, I put my left hand into my pocket to get the card out. At once, I realized that I had committed a blunder. I tried my best to make up for the blunder by presenting my card to the jawan at the table. But he was not to be mollified so easily. The jawan told me rudely, “Don’t you know that by using your left hand you have insulted the Martial Law authority and that you may be sentenced to fourteen years of jail?” I was seething with rage on the inside. Fortunately, I had the good sense of not to display it outwardly. I looked the jawan in his eyes and said, “I did not intend to insult the authority but if you take it that way, I apologize.” That gesture worked and the jawan told me with an ostentatious touch of magnanimity, “Okay, this time I will let you go, but don’t ever do it again.”

Ershad deputed a young army major to manage the TV station. He never minced his words to convey to us that he was the boss. In his very first meeting with senior members of the staff, he made it clear by saying, “You may call me either Major so and so or sir, but never ever call me mister so and so.” That meeting set the tone for the future as the civilian officers realized that they were in for a long haul.

Before every news telecast, the producers had to go to men in uniform for clearance. The soldiers in charge were mostly young army officers. It was a Captain or even a Lieutenant who had the ultimate authority to decide what would and what would not go on air. This was indeed quite humiliating for all veteran television journalists. I, too, did my turns to get approval for my news stories from these newly ordained “News Chiefs” imported from the cantonment. It was never a pleasant experience but I somehow managed to keep out of mischief.

In any Third World country under military rule, the civilians are always treated as a “Second Class Citizens.” Even the lowliest soldier would take pride in recalling the misdeeds of the civilian rulers of the past and pour scorn at every opportunity on “those bloody civilians.” As a news producer for BTV, I had more than my fair share of encounters with the enforcers of military rules. Naturally, I never suffered the illusion that civilian employees can ever expect fairness or even civil behavior from their military bosses as a matter of right.

As a TV newsman, I had the opportunity to “rub shoulders” with the high and mighty. For example, it was quite a heady experience for me to fly with the Naval Chief or the Air Force Chief in the same helicopter. The flight might sometimes lead us to the outskirts of Dhaka or sometimes as far away as Comilla or Barisal. Through first hand experience, I realized that the Deputy Chief Martial Law Administrators (DCMLA’s) wielded tremendous power. It was truly a revelation every time I covered their meetings with local level administrators. The bosses in the military regime were literally oozing with revolutionary zeal!

It goes without saying TV staff members were not particularly fond of the army officers who had usurped the boss’s chair in the TV studio. There was little that the TV newsmen could do to vent their unhappiness and frustration. One time a television production assistant was detained and manhandled by some soldiers because he had refused them to entry into the studio when a recording was in progress. That was like the last straw. It took “mediation” from higher-ranking military officers to calm the situation.

On another occasion, a civilian security officer of the television was prosecuted under Martial Law. We heard that he was sentenced to fourteen years of imprisonment for the “offense” of arguing with a non –commissioned officer. That, apparently, was tantamount to dishonoring the Martial Law authority. I also learnt that I wasn’t the only employee to have incurred the wrath of jawans for the crime of showing “identity card on left hand.” In fact, a news producer was detained for a few hours for that crime and humiliated in public.

The raison d’ tre for the Ershad coup, like that of most military coups, was eradication of corruption. Some former ministers from the BNP era were indeed arrested. Saifur Rahman and Tanvir Ahmed Siddiqui were among them. I had a chance to visit a military court. The courts were presided by a group of five military officers who acted as Judges. It was not quite what you would expect in a court of law in America. There was no need for consensus about the judgment and so the majority opinion prevailed. In one of the high profile cases, the dissenting voice came from a young air force officer who opted for capital punishment for the accused, a minister from BNP era.

The officer in charge of the television complex had his own unique style of diffusing tension. One time a neighborhood family came to the major with a complaint against some of his jawans. The man and his wife complained that some of the soldiers were constantly taunting and harassing their daughters. The major said point blank that he could not take any action against the jawans. However, he suggested a solution. He advised the couple to bar their daughters from visiting any place where they would be in full view of the soldiers.

One incidence in the TV building sent shivers down the spine of all staff members of BTV. A group of officers descended on the TV production booth. They arrested the producer of a popular children’s program. He was handcuffed and led out in full view of his colleagues. Apparently, someone had lodged a complaint with the martial law authority that the producer was guilty of misappropriating production funds. The producer was dragged to the Suhrawardy Udyan processing center in handcuffs where he was detained for an indefinite period.

General Ershad had one important difference with General Zia in the matter of exercising power. General Ershad did not insist on enjoying a monopoly over power. He was willing to share power with other important members of the junta. In addition, his coup was not planned in the secrecy that is the hallmark of most military coups. In an interview with the New York Times in 1982, the general said very frankly that he had alerted most of the major embassies in Dhaka well ahead of the coup about his intentions and plans.

I got my chance to “rub shoulders” with the General in the course of my duties as a news producer. It was probably a week after the coup. I was assigned to cover General Ershad’s golfing moments within the cantonment area. I arrived on time with my camera crew. I was warned about the fiasco at Shahid Minar on 21 February when cameras had failed to zoom in on the General. This time I made sure that my cameras don’t fail to do the needful.

The general did not look worried at all. The golf course was full of foreign diplomats. Probably it was deemed an ideal spot to glean information from and compare notes with the wheelers and dealers of the world. My cameraman was dutifully following the general. I was writing my story while sitting on a sofa in a chateau by the golf course. There was an abundance of beverages. Foreign guests had come to the chateau to have a sip. The General would join them every now and then. And every time he arrived at the chateau I would rise to pay obeisance. However, one time, he stood right next to where I was sitting on the sofa to chat with a foreign acquaintance. In that setting, I felt very awkward about standing up again. I kept looking down and praying, “Dharani Tumi Didha Hao!” Fortunately, the General did not pay much attention to the “uncivil” civil servant and no one took me to task for showing disrespect toward the Supremo Generalissimo – La Petite Dictator of Bangladesh.

As I watched the most powerful man in Bangladesh at close range on that day, I said to myself, “This guy’s fate will not be like Zia’s.” Later on I repeated my thoughts to my colleagues. History proved me correct. The General ultimately became the untouchable.

Today, I work at a U.S. federal facility dealing with law enforcement. Every day I come to the main gate with a badge hanging down my neck. And once in a while I recall an incident that took place some 18 years ago when I got into trouble with the “law” for getting the identity card out of my pocket with my left hand. And I smile to myself even as I thank my stars that my native land is now free from the peril of being ruled by army dictatorship. Nevertheless, the recent political debacle in Pakistan makes me queasy. I hope Bangladesh’s military will not get ideas from Pakistani military’s recent misadventure into politics. Let us give democracy a chance to flourish in Bangladesh. After all, military rule always engenders oligarchy, which Bangladesh could least afford at this crossroad of a new millennium.
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Originally published in News From Bangladesh October 26, 1999 in the Commentary section.

 

 

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