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August 15: Coup plotters were looking for a stalking horse

  • Published at 06:00 pm August 14th, 2021
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman
Rafiqur Rahman

Farooq told a senior US embassy official that a quarter in the army was very dissatisfied with the government

It was the evening of May 13, 1974. Major Syed Farooq Rahman of first Bengal Lancers and second-in-command of the armored corps, met with a senior US embassy official at the latter’s home, unannounced.

Farooq said that he had been sent by the highest ranking Bangladesh Army officer to ascertain what the attitude of the US government would be if they took over power through a coup.

He also wanted to know whether the US government would be able to see to it that there was no foreign interference after the coup.

Farooq told the official that a quarter in the army was very dissatisfied with the government.

He stated that they had been fuming at the recent instruction from the prime minister that the army must not arrest the Awami League leadership in the course of the ongoing operations against corrupt elements, smugglers and extremists that began on April 25.

In response, the official said that the US would not intervene in any way in the affairs of Bangladesh.

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Farooq, who rose to lieutenant colonel (and later dismissed), was hanged along with four other killers on January 28, 2010 over his role in the assassination of the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and most of his family members on August 15, 1975 – some 16 months after the meeting with the US embassy official.

The then US ambassador in Bangladesh, Davis Eugene Boster, sent a cable to Washington regarding the meeting two days later.

Boster had known Major Farooq since 1972, he wrote, adding that the officer was not in a command position nor did the armored corps have any armor.

Farooq had made a similar unusual approach on July 12, 1973. On that day, without an appointment and uniformed, director of “armored corps” Farooq turned up at the embassy seeking information on prices and availability of armored personnel carriers, light tanks and amphibious vehicles.

The previous day, it was Major Khandaker Abdur Rashid, with the same approach, who turned up without an appointment and in uniform.

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On July 11, Major Rashid of the artillery branch appeared at the embassy’s economic commercial section and requested information on the availability and prices of artillery pieces ranging from 105 to 155mm light anti-aircraft guns, “locating equipment” such as radar, electronic meteorological sets, “field survey equipment”, mortars, and small reconnaissance aircraft.

He claimed to be a member of the “armaments procurement committee” under the chairmanship of Brigadier Ziaur Rahman, deputy chief of army staff.

He told the embassy official that his mission was to solicit price information and technical data from foreign embassies and submit them to the committee for decision. The official, in response, explained US arms policy toward the subcontinent and gave no encouragement.

According to the British military attaché in Dhaka, the group had approached the French, German and Soviet embassies with similar requests at the time.

In the cable dated May 15, 1974, ambassador Boster wrote that it had not been in his anticipation that any military move was imminent.

Kissinger’s reaction

After the news of Bangabandhu’s assassination reached Washington, President Nixon’s Security Adviser Henry Kissinger sat in a meeting with his team.

He questioned them again and again, as if he could not believe his own ears, to know whether the US administration had warned Sheikh Mujib about the coup plotters in 1974. The answer was no, since, the officials claimed, they had no confirmation of the plot.

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Kissinger also learned that the CIA had warned him once about a coup plot, in March 1975, but “he brushed it off, scoffed at it, said nobody would do a thing like that to him,” said an official.

“He was one of the world’s prize fools,” Kissinger quipped, and then wanted to learn about the assassins.

“They are military officers, middle and senior officers, who are generally considered less pro-Indian than the past leadership; pro-US, anti-Soviet…and Islamic. They have changed the name to the Islamic Republic…,” one officer replied.

“Absolutely inevitable,” Kissinger remarked.

Indira warned Mujib

Despite learning about the coup plots directly from the planners and key executioners three years before the assassinations, the US embassy in Dhaka kept mum. The officials neither encouraged the plotters, nor tried to restrain them when they met.

They turned a blind eye when the plotters in January 1975 told the embassy officials that they would not strike soon, because they wanted to observe developments in Sheikh Mujib’s new form of governance – the one-party Baksal.

The embassy heard about more coup rumors in March and April.

They did not warn Sheikh Mujib even on August 5, only 10 days before the brutal murders at Dhanmondi 32, where the then ambassador Boster had a discussion with the president at the latter’s office for half an hour.

Boster also did not disclose that they knew about the May 21 grenade attack on the convoy of the president when he was returning to Dhaka after a visit to Betbunia satellite earth station in Rangamati.

They chose to remain silent in 1975, as they did in 1971.

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On the other hand, then Indian premier Indira Gandhi had warned Sheikh Mujib several times in 1974 and 1975 about an imminent coup attempt within the army, based on intelligence inputs. He apparently did not pay heed to the warnings.

Sheikh Mujib did not strengthen his security and take a tough stance against the elements of the conspiracy to overthrow his government – from JSD to the military officers. He was nonchalant, and showed his resolve to implement his own philosophy as a socialist of his own way until his death.

Leftists who became Mujib’s enemy

Veteran pro-China leftist Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, who quit Awami Muslim League in 1957 over his differences with Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, and formed National Awami Party (NAP), continued to support the leadership of Sheikh Mujib until 1969.

An apparent division was seen between them in 1970 over participating in the elections, and Bhashani chose to boycott it.

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Sheikh Mujib’s Awami League got a landslide victory in the elections winning 167 of 169 seats in the National Assembly and 288 out of 300 provincial assembly seats of East Pakistan.

After the war broke out, Bhashani went to India and became a member of the consultative committee meant for advising the provincial government, led by acting president Syed Nazrul Islam and Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmad.

The growing pressure of India on this government in exile and the influence of pro-India and pro-Soviet Tajuddin Ahmed was a matter of concern for Bhashani, and other pro-West and moderate leaders within the Awami League including Foreign Minister Khondaker Moshtaque Ahmad and Defense Minister MAG Osmani.

After his return to independent Bangladesh on January 22, Bhashani first took a stance outside the Awami League clique, led by Sheikh Mujib as he returned after languishing in Pakistan prisons, by demanding that the Indian troops must be withdrawn from the soil of Bangladesh immediately.

On February 25, Bhashani started publishing a weekly magazine named “Haq Katha”, which was banned as soon as it gained wide circulation.

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On April 2, he spoke at a mammoth rally in Dhaka’s Paltan Maidan to criticize Mujib’s policies publicly for the first time since independence – only 10 days after President Mujib promulgated the Constituent Assembly of Bangladesh Order 1972 and eight days before the assembly kicked off.

He alleged that the Awami League men and its student followers were abusing power to enrich themselves.

He also criticized Sheikh Mujib for ordering the police to shoot on sight the Maoist Communists terming them Naxalites, indicating at the activities of Shiraj Sikder’s Purba Banglar Sarbahara Party, which had chosen the path of armed resistance to end class struggle and the domination of India and Soviet Russia in Bangladesh.

A few days before the rally, Bhashani claimed in an interview that 20,000 of his men had been killed since independence, but the figure was discounted as grossly exaggerated even by his supporters, Lee Lescaze of Washington Post wrote.

Guerrilla leader Shiraj Sikder followed the path of Mao Zedong and Charu Majumdar, considered Sheikh Mujib as a puppet of India and US imperialists, and he decided to strike against the state machinery alongside the rich people in mid-January 1972. The Mujib government retaliated using the army and the Rakkhi Bahini.

To launch an all-out armed revolution, Shiraj Sikder launched a coalition of 11 groups styled “Purba Banglar Jatiya Mukti Front” on April 20, 1973, and continued his activities from underground until he was captured at the end of 1974.

In mid-May 1973, Bhashani observed a hunger strike for eight days to protest against the food crisis, rise of price of essential commodities, and deteriorating law and order situation, and later announced plans for nationwide Gherao movement on June 3.

In 1974, Bhasani founded Hukumat-e-Rabbania order and declared a Jihad or holy war against the Awami League government and the Indo-Soviet overlordship.

He also formed a six-party united front, which served an ultimatum on the government to annul the Indo-Bangladesh border agreement, and stop all repressive actions against the opposition. 

Also Read - What Chairman Mujib said about his Baksal

On June 30, 1974, Bhashani was arrested in Dhaka and kept under house arrest at Santosh of Tangail for breaching Section 144, imposed to thwart a rally declared by the united front.

The previous day, Bhashani brought out a procession while Sheikh Mujib sent a telegram to Bhashani asking him to postpone the rally out of respect for law.

Leaders of the front were Bhashani, Ataur Rahman Khan of Jatiya League, Oli Ahad of another faction of Jatiya League, Haji Danesh of People’s Liberation Union and Amal Sen of Bangladesh Communist Party (Leninist).

On April 4, 1974, Dhaka University witnessed the most grisly murder in the history of student politics – a gang of Chhatra men, led by Shafiul Alam Prodhan, killed seven students at Mohsin Hall. Sentenced to life-term imprisonment, Prodhan was later released from jail by military ruler General Ziaur Rahman.

In the Tangail region, the other matter of concern for Sheikh Mujib was the Siddiqui brothers – Quader Siddiqui and Abdul Latif Siddiqui – as they refused to surrender arms and had been involved in a number of incidents of murders, capture of property and looting.

JSD was desperate to overthrow Mujib

The division in Chhatra League leadership in May 1972 over the explanation of socialism and the way of establishing it led to the formation of Bangladesh Chhatra League with ASM Abdur Rob, Shajahan Siraj and Sharif Nurul Ambia to establish a country based on scientific socialism.

Also Read - Life of Bangabandhu: A timeline

They urged Sheikh Mujib to declare emergency and establish a revolutionary unity government by abolishing the Constituent Assembly and the cabinet.

Sheikh Mujib’s refusal to accept their proposal led to the formation of an extremist socialist party – Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD) – on October 31, 1972.

Soon they became an important opposition party in politics through inflammatory speeches in public meetings and press statements, castigating Sheikh Mujib and his leadership role, and announcing to overthrow his “fascist” government.

The pro-China JSD later constituted Biplobi Gana Bahini with freedom fighters, students, workers, peasants and former soldiers to launch an armed movement. On the other hand, Biplobi Sainik Sangstha units were floated in the cantonments to collect sympathizers.

At the party’s national conference on May 11, 1973, general secretary Abdur Rob declared that the JSD would work for a mass movement that would overthrow the current government through people’s war. 

Criticizing the government for failures in economy, use of Rakkhi Bahini and Lal Bahini, and its undemocratic practices in politics, speakers at the three-day conference urged mass people to replace the system with scientific socialism.

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The dismissal of Col Abu Taher and Col Ziauddin from the army was a big blow for the JSD leadership. By declaring to observe resistance day on January 20, 1974, a day after the Awami League’s council, the JSD wanted to create uproar across the country, prompting the government to slap a ban on public gathering to avoid clashes.

On April 25, 1974, Sheikh Mujib ordered the armed forces to move at once in aid of the civil authorities to conduct an all out operation throughout the country to recover unauthorized weapons, stop smuggling, apprehend anti-social and subversive elements, and prevent hoarding and profiteering in foodgrains and other essential commodities.

During the period of the operation, all strikes, lockouts, processions and demonstrations were suspended. The army was ordered to carry out the operation in conjunction with the Bangladesh Rifles, the Rakkhi Bahini, and the police. 

On September 14, 1974, the JSD meeting at Paltan Maidan was not a mammoth one, but the party orchestrated its resolve to oppose the government vehemently – a move that might have impressed the military conspirators who were said to be looking to JSD to precipitate a political upheaval to facilitate a coup.

The grenade attack on Bangabandhu’s convoy – the first direct attempt to hurt him physically - was supposedly carried out by the armed cadres of the JSD on May 21, 1975.

The US embassy learned about the attack from the deputy superintendent of police assigned to the president’s security unit and a journalist. Mujib escaped uninjured but two unidentified persons were injured in the attack, which did not come into the media the next day due to strict instructions by the Press Information Department to suppress the story.

The writer is a journalist and researcher

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