Archive for the ‘General H. M. Ershad’ Category

The ISI’s perilous chess game with the Bengalis: Is it almost over?

May 29, 2009

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By Jamal Hasan

The fallout of political events after the Pakistani Deputy High Commissioner Irfan Raja fiasco is too numerous to mention in this article.  Nevertheless, Bangladesh Premier Sheikh Hasina showed enough courage putting her political life into jeopardy by kicking out the shameless member of a military regime’s diplomatic corps from Bangladesh soil.  She should be given due credit for that.  But the story does not end here.

Last weekend I attended a social gathering in a Maryland town.  Most of the guests I talked to were appreciative of Hasina’s bold political gesture. Interestingly, all the folks were found to be staunchly anti-Awami League and anti-Hasina.  I was amazed to see they came out of their long tenure of indifference toward our spirit of liberation.  I take it as a good development in the right direction.  I felt when the chips were down, the apathetic Bengalis always gathered under the fold of Bengali nationalistic camaraderie.  It was no different this time.

Bangabandhu had a history of sacrifice and uncompromising role in most of his time of political activism during Pakistan Raj.  When he was rotting in jails during much of the period of Ayub era, he did not have a crystal ball that could predict that someday he would be the chief architect of a struggling nation.  He never allowed him to sell himself to the interests of Punjabi oligarchy.  Nevertheless, there is a great probability that an objective account of history will not portray him bigger than what he was. Some of the historical mistakes he committed will be a topic of continuous debate among secular nationalist historians in the days ahead.  One thing was quite apparent that Bangabandhu was the unchallenged leader of the seventy five-million souls during the days of our blood and tears.  But an important segment of history did not get the due exposure that it deserved. That is the Bengali leader’s unfortunate failure in the diabolical chess game that he was playing with the Yahya junta and their cohort the Lord of Larkana, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in the month of March of 1971.

A few months ago, a notable Bengali media person in the Washington region gave me startling information.  He told me that he had a chance to see the veteran journalist K. G. Mustafa on the evening of March 25, 1971, at the premises of Dhaka Press Club.  K.G. Mustafa had strong rapport with Bangabandhu and as an insider he gave his scoop to his acquaintances at the Press Club.  And that was, according to Mr. Mustafa, “Bangabandhu is optimistic about the talks with Yahya and Bhutto and some positive resolution is going to come out tonight.” During this conversation another person was present and he was Mazhar Ali Khan, a liberal and left-leaning Punjabi journalist of Lahore Times.  He gave a completely opposite picture. According to the Lahore Times journalist, the talks failed and Yahya Junta was planning a brutal crackdown on the Bengalis.  When I heard the interesting newsworthy history from the Washington media person, I first could not believe my ears.  As I read the recently published Brigadier Majumdar’s oral history on the web, I had no other way but to digest the bitter truth. I felt probably the Press Club incidence had some credibility.  I am now quoting from Brigadier Majumdar’s memoir published in “Tormenting 1971″‘s web edition [http://e-bangla.net/torment/]. “….I waited tensely in the evening for the phone call.  At 8 pm, Osmani rang me and said, “Mujib is now reached a settlement with Yahiya.  He has asked you to be patient.”   It seemed Bangabandhu was naive enough by giving the brutal Pakistani military brass the benefit of doubt.  In other words, it was quite possible that Bangabandhu had failed the first chess game against the most notorious clique of the Indian subcontinent, the military junta under the command of General Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan.

Bangabandhu, being the founding father of the nascent nation of Bangladesh had  too big an aura.  Average citizens of the war ravaged nation expected more from him than he could deliver.  Nobody took notice of the limitation of the leader, though.  His primary weakness was trusting people close to him.   Also, he became engulfed with the sweet talks of the sycophants and political operatives who were very aware of the leader’s idiosyncrasies. For example, the collaborator issue put him in such a moral dilemma that he would have been “damned if he became hard on them or not damned if he did not.”   Mind you, I am borrowing this from the famous quotation of US Attorney General Janet Reno after the 2000 Presidential election controversy.

The 16th of December of 1971 gave Pakistan a limited setback.  They did not lose heart so easily.  Pakistani oligarchy knew that they had their first line of defense hiding among the right wingers of Awami League under anything like Khundkar Moshtaque, Shah Moazzem and Taher Thakur. They also had some liking for the old time Awami Leaguers who were nationalists but not as radical as they would desire to see East Pakistan secedes from the union.  And there was no dearth of such Awami Leaguers.  The founding father was hardly uncomfortable when he intermingled with such characters. Sometimes his partisan and big brotherly attitude led him to protect the chickens that were waiting in the wings to kill him.  Second lines of Pakistani fans were found in the different cantonments of Bangladesh where a good number of repatriated army brasses had a negligible passion for Bengali nationalism.  General H.M. Ershad is the symbol of such a constituency. Col. (Ret’d) Shafat Jamil’s thought provoking book depicts this dictator as another Fifth Columnist working for the brutal regime of Yahya Khan during Bangladesh liberation war.

The birth of Bangladesh occurred at a time of heightened Cold War rivalry. As many policy makers of USA saw it in a plain black and white parameter, the struggle of a nation against an oppressive regime was not a factor in formulating US foreign policy direction.  Also, before President Carter’s crusade against human rights abuses the Executive Branches of USA hardly showed any sympathy toward suffering souls where genocide was perpetrated hardly five years ago.   In the eyes of Nixon Administration, the emergence of Bangladesh appeared to be a victory of Soviet Lobby in the South Asian region.  And as the founding father of Bangladesh embraced the pro-Moscow communists to form BKSAL, the alarm bell was raising high in parts of the Pennsylvania Avenue and the Pentagon.

To combat communism, some of the US agencies had allowed having strange bed partners.  That included unsavory characters like Islamic fundamentalists of Pakistan as well.  During much of the 1970’s Saudi-Pakistan-US nexus had a good honeymooning.  When Al-Badr operatives slaughtered the Bengali intellectuals in the heat of the night they knew very well who their guardians were.  Be mindful that Osama bin Laden was being groomed during this time with the blessing of this alignment.

According to the assessment of the Inter-services Intelligence of Pakistan (the notorious military intelligence agency of that country) and the nexus that I mentioned, the formation of BKSAL may bring the Soviets to the doorstep of the Bay of Bengal.  The ISI was more concerned to bring Bangladesh to Pakistan’s fold and the nexus wanted to de-Sovietize Bangladesh polity.  Some of the right wing dictators in the world amassed more wealth and made more terrible human rights abuses than the Awami Leaguers of 1972-1975.  Papa Doc Duvalier of Haiti, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, Reza Shah Pahlavi of Iran, Somoza of Nicaragua, Batista of Cuba are a few in the list.  In the eyes of US policy makers, Mujib’s sin was not being soft on the corrupt Awami Leaguers, nor his Rakkhi Bahini’s excesses against the armed cadres of Sarbahara Party or Jatiya Samjtantrik Dal.  The danger perceived by many analysts in the land of freedom was Mujib’s coziness with the Kremlin leaders that could allow the Red Bear to a new frontier. So the 15th August seemed to be a historical necessity for quite a few methodical planners.

The 15th of August 1975 was a big victory for the Punjabi clique. They won yet another chess game against the Bengalis.  In Bangladesh, some new faces were emerging who would not mind to be the pawns of Islamabad. Ziaur Rahman was notable in this case.  Although his wife was captive at the hands of the brutal Pakistani machinery during much of 1971, he cared less for his personal predicament.  He very shrewdly worked to enhance the ISI’s agenda in Bangladesh.  As a renowned freedom fighter, he used his Muktijoddha garb and his Podobi, whenever necessary, only to fool the gullible Bengali masses.  But slowly, did he stab the back of the spirit of liberation.   Zia could fool millions of Bengalis but he could hardly masquerade his true identity in front of sensible Bengali nationalists.

You don’t have to be a nuclear scientist to figure out that Pakistani ruling elite got back their lost colony after mid 1975.  They understood as long as subservient Bengali army rulers would serve their purpose the idea of a reunification would not arise.  They were fully aware the wound from a bloody war was still fresh in the memory of millions of Bengalis.  Zia scrapped the 1972 Constitution that included secularism as one of the founding principles of the emerging nation. Zia followed his Fouzi leadership style from the textbooks of his role model Ayub Khan.  During national days of mourning or remembrance, he did not allow the state owned media to utter the taboo word, “Pakistani army.”  He embraced the most heinous Jamaati killers and gave them a new lease of life; he allowed them to organize politically.  He brought a notorious collaborator like Shah Azizur Rahman to a high echelon of state power.  He broke many freedom loving peoples’ heart but gave the Pakistani masters a sigh of relief.  The successors of Yahya regime in Islamabad understood the lost colony had been won again.

During the late 1970’s, as the Soviets invaded Afghanistan the Saudi-Pakistan-US nexus got a big boost up. This was the time when General Ziaul Huq of Pakistan and General Ziaur Rahman of Bangladesh became blood brothers.  The Bengali Zia might have been ashamed to remember his freedom fighting days.  He provided the necessary platform to ISI for conducting its business in Bangladesh.  The Pakistanis got total upper hand in the chess game.  General Ziaur Rahman became the ultimate Trojan Horse of the Punjabi ruling elite.  The ISI had two-tier objectives in Bangladesh. Primarily, in order to give India a good lesson, the shipments of arms under the guidance of the military ruler in Bangladesh were destined to insurgency movements in the northeastern corridor of India.  It goes without saying that Indian rebels got a guaranteed sanctuary on the soil of Bangladesh.   Secondly, the infusion of political Islamic ideology would help diminish the hatred against the Pakistani rapists and killers of 1971.  They were successful in both the fronts.  On the other hand, India did not stay quiet either.  As a tit for tatting, India reciprocated by further fomenting the Chittagong Hill Tracts insurgency.  That did not bring a positive feedback from the Bangladesh citizenry.  Rather, India’s approach backfired and Pakistani clandestine activity got the desired outcome.  The shrewd and power hungry Zia made Bangladesh a hotbed of tussles between India and Pakistan, which went on unabated without public knowledge.  General Ershad simply took the mantle from his predecessor and ran with it for almost a decade.

As Pakistani dark shadow engulfed the whole nation after 1975, Zia’s calculated oratory could appease two patrons.  Off and on, he articulated his stand against “foreign isms.”  Some of the US State Department officials might have perceived Zia as a crusader devoted to thwart socialism or communism. The Pakistani policy makers could have considered it a crusade against secularism.  The ISI operatives did have a serious distaste for secularism, not to say their hatred for left leaning politics.  Ziaur Rahman had a vendetta against Awami League, and the Bangabandhu in particular.  Was it merely because of Awami League’s corrupt politicians’ wrongdoing or its non-democratic formation of BKSAL?  His track record shows otherwise.  Some critics may argue that Zia had shown his grudge against that party for breaking up Pakistan. He methodically transplanted pro-BNP and pro-Jamaati Judges thus making the country’s judiciary subservient to his political philosophy with a slant toward Pakistani interest. No wonder, even today Bangladeshi Judges are too  “embarrassed” to try Mujib killers and they show split decision on Bangabandhu Murder Case.

After the demise of the Soviet empire a positive outcome came into the periphery.  The Saudi-Pakistan-US nexus lost its important component the USA.  Once upon a time, the US policy makers found reliable friends in Islamic fundamentalists but they also realized the need for them was no more.  A direct attack on citadels of secular democracy opened their eyes. Bombing of the World Trade Center or the Embassies in Africa gave them the chill of their life.  In a hurry they realized that pan-Islamists or Islamic fundamentalists were the ultimate enemies of secular West.  This realization, albeit late, came as a blessing in disguise for the secular Bengali nationalists.  The tide has turned and today the common enemy of the Bengalis and USA is the Islamist movement emanating from the hornet’s nest in Pakistan.

During 1975 to 1991, Bangladesh has been governed by the shadow of ISI backed Bengali army dictators. They did not attempt to make the sovereign nation a confederation of Pakistan overnight.  But they proceeded to go in a manner that can be equated with a situation of slow poisoning.  During Zia’s time any questionable artistic endeavor critical to the regime or Pakistani values was surreptitiously suppressed. I can give the example of film director M.A. Samad’s “Surjo Grohon.”   Without any explanation, this film was banned in the country. Also, Zia’s ruthlessness occurred behind the iron curtains of Dhaka cantonment.  After quelling a coup in 1977, he randomly arrested hundreds of noncommissioned officers of Bangladesh Air force.  Many of them were sent to different jails where they were hanged after the verdicts from Zia installed Kangaroo Courts.  Many officers perished from the face of the earth. Their main offense-they were suspected to be a threat to the regime.  Under Zia’s rule, a pattern of purge in the country’s defense services was getting crystal clear to political analysts. In a good number of cases only freedom fighters in various branches of the armed services were singled out to be punished.  During the time of Zia’s gross account of human rights violation, the Amnesty International or any other human rights organizations were noticeably silent.  Was it because of the Cold War legacy, who knows?

Let us now delve into the tidbits of the dynamics of Bangladesh politics after seventeen years rule of the ISI- virus infected Bengali generals. After the ouster of dictator Ershad from the power, the ISI had to be apprehensive. This was more so as Bengali nationalist party Awami League allied with Bangladesh Nationalist Party to kick out the army despot from power. Although Khaleda Zia was no friend of pro-liberation forces of the country, she did not systematically purge Muktijoddhas (freedom fighters) from the defense forces.  I recall notable writer and commentator Hasan Ferdous once pointed out about one interesting aspect of Khaleda Zia administration. According to Ferdous, Khaleda gave four or five key and strategic positions to army officers who happened to be freedom fighters. Tarek Masud, an aspiring Bengali film buff told me in 1995 about the fait accompli of his remarkable documentary, “The Songs of Freedom.”  He revealed to me that at the outset  the Khaleda Zia administration made conspicuous attempt to obstruct the release of this historical documentary.  This powerful camera work depicted the plight of the Bengali refugees and a group of singers’ motivational songs in various refugee camps through out the liberation war period. After a good fight the film maker was successful in releasing the film, which drew big crowd in theaters all across the nation. I have serious doubt if this was ever possible during one time freedom fighter General Ziaur Rahman’ rule.   During Khaleda Zia’s regime, the grass root movement of the Ekatturer Ghatok Dalal Nirmul Committee [Committee to annihilate killers and collaborators of 1971] had the opportunity to mobilize into a formidable movement that left an indelible mark on the national political landscape.  In this case, I would like to hypothesize a comparative scenario.  If Shaheed Janani Jahanara Imam had endeavored to start the anti-killer and collaborator movement in Ziaur Rahman era, she could hardly finish her goal.  Freedom fighter Ziaur Rahman, who sold his soul to the war criminals of 1971 was barely in a position to let the movement flourish.  He would have crushed  the grassroots mass movement by hook or by crook.  I am afraid he would have succeeded in his dubious design not because he was a heartless despot, but he was out there to please his Pakistani bosses.

As before, US policy makers and think tankers are divided on the issue of supporting the current Pakistani military regime.  But the promising sign is, unlike in 1971, the majority of them are not sympathetic to the army brass.   It is mention worthy that ISI’s dark claws have spread to USA and the US capital in particular.  The operatives of the shadowy group are playing game, steadfastly.  They now realize that the offspring of Sheikh Mujib is a bad news for them.  Sheikh Hasina’s temporary tactical alliance with the Jamaatis during the past general election of Bangladesh proved she is a lot more shrewder political element than her deceased father.  In politics, skillfully dealing with the dirty dealers could be a plus point.  Hasina must have been aware of the emerging global movement among expatriate Bengalis who are relentlessly working to put the killers and collaborators of 1971 to justice.  She definitely felt its significance whenever she went out of the country.  These expatriate Bengalis are constantly networking and winning new friends among policy makers and conscientious opinion leaders of many countries that includes Pakistan as well. But she dares not expect unconditional support from the pro-liberation lobbies.
Respect for a civil society and rule of law will be conducive to tightening the bond  between different pro-liberation forces.  There is light behind the tunnel.   In the long run, the Bengali nationalists will be the victors by checkmating the most unsavory coterie of the South Asian region- the military regime of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.  Their influence in Bangladesh is on the wane.  Irfan Raza fiasco is a living testament of that.  Shall I be more discreet?
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This essay was published in the Editorial & Commentary section of NEWS FROM BANGLADESH on December 19, 2000.

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The “Untouchable” General From Bangladesh And My BTV Days

May 22, 2009

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.