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August 15 aftermath: How the coup plotters consolidated themselves so fast

  • Published at 05:00 pm August 29th, 2021
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Rafiqur Rahman

Enemies responded to Baksal Chairman Mujib’s philosophy with bullets

By mid-1975, Baksal Chairman Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was aware of the conspiracies hatched by some pro-Pakistani mid-level officers in the army. But he had also been facing opposition from leftist leaders Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani and Siraj Sikder and the JSD’s ASM Abdur Rob since the liberation of the country.

Yet he was not afraid of death, and continued to implement the decisions he deemed necessary for his “Second Revolution” – introducing a new form of unified governance system to eradicate corruption and abuse of power in public service and by his party men, and improve the economic conditions of his fellow citizens by achieving self-reliance. 

Baksal was scheduled to officially replace the nation’s other political parties and associations on September 1, 1975, and the 61 district governors were supposed to take charge on August 16.

With the support of the pro-Pakistani army officers, the plotters were looking for support for their plans. Therefore, they reached out to the US embassy in Dhaka seeking backing, and instigated the leftist parties and the Awami League leaders who had been opposed to Sheikh Mujib’s political views. Finally, they got the support of Khandaker Mostaq and turned to him to implement their agenda.

After the assassins seized power on August 15, they were desperate to gain recognition for their act and sent out letters to all missions seeking support.

Also Read - What Chairman Mujib said about his Baksal

They formed the interim government – inducting 10 ministers and five state ministers from the Mujib government – in a fashion that people would tend to believe that the Father of the Nation had been assassinated by his own men due to internal feud in the government. 

The coup leaders, including Major Syed Farooq Rahman and his brother-in-law Major Khandaker Abdur Rashid, were not ready to return to the army. Farooq’s office was directly next to the president's at Bangabhaban.

Even though the assassins were in favor of renaming the country as the Islamic Republic of Bangladesh by following the path of Pakistan, they later dropped the idea. 

The assassins announced a curfew amid a state of emergency curbing the basic rights of the people, engaged in diplomatic correspondence, and arrested Sheikh Mujib’s aides and sympathizers, including the four national leaders, MPs, civil servants and Awami League politicians on August 23.

In the next few years, thousands of wartime collaborators facing trial were released from jail, the ban on religion-based parties was lifted and restrictions were imposed on leftist parties. Secularism was removed from the constitution. 

Also Read - Coup plotters were looking for a stalking horse

At the same time, an ordinance was promulgated in September 1975 to prevent the trial of the killers. It was later made part of the fifth amendment to the constitution by the regime of General Ziaur Rahman in 1979.

Recognition came fast

Soon after the brutal assassinations, Pakistan’s Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was the first to recognize the Mostaq government, followed by Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen, the UK, Burma, Japan and Jordan as of August 18.

Five other countries formally expressed support to the killers – Brazil, Iran, Qatar, Malaysia and Nepal by August 20. Indonesia, Canada, the UAE and Switzerland announced a continuation of normal relations on August 20. 

The Soviet charge d'affaires in Bangladesh called on president Mostaq at Bangabhaban on August 24 and conveyed the decision of his government.

The next day, the Dhaka press carried prominently-placed front page items announcing the Soviet recognition of the new government of Bangladesh. The USSR welcomed the decision of the government to promote relations of understanding and cooperation with all countries and honor all international treaties and agreements concluded by Bangladesh.

In response to Mostaq’s efforts to gain India’s recognition, Indira Gandhi on August 28 said India was "unshakably committed to the pursuit of friendship and cooperation with Bangladesh and with all our neighbors," according to press reports.

Also Read - Anisul: Probe commission to identify masterminds of Bangabandhu killing

She also hoped that the new government would continue its commitment to goodwill and cooperation in the subcontinent, and a fulfillment of the ideals on which Bangladesh was built.

On September 1, the Dhaka press reported the message by Chinese Premier Chou En-Lai recognizing the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. “I am convinced that the traditional friendship between our two peoples will grow steadily," he said.

The PRC recognition was a feather in president Mostaq’s cap, permitting him to assert more than ever Bangladesh's intention to follow a "balanced" foreign policy by reducing Indian influence.

The pro-China Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, who had been critical of Sheikh Mujib’s rule, extended his support to Mostaq and later to Ziaur Rahman.

Zia’s role exposed

A few days after the arrest of the four national leaders, the assassins brought to the fore their leader, Ziaur Rahman, then a major general and deputy chief of army staff. 

On August 24, Zia replaced his rival, then chief of army staff KM Shafiullah and chose as his deputy Brigadier HM Ershad, who had been in India on training. The duo were in power till the death of General Zia in 1981.

The ouster of KM Shafiullah completed at least one stage in the army's efforts to sort itself out in the aftermath of the August 15 coup. He was generally regarded as a weak leader, a quality which was seen by some as contributing to a slackening of discipline and, thus, to the action of the assassins. 

Zia also created a new position in the army, chief of defense staff, to accommodate a confidante, then chief of Bangladesh Rifles Major General Khalilur Rahman, who had been with Sheikh Mujib since his repatriation from Pakistan.

The appointment of General MAG Osmani, who headed the Bangladesh Armed Forces in 1971, as defence advisor to Mostaq, was noteworthy. He and Zia were confidantes of Khandaker Mostaq since the War of Liberation commenced in March 1971. 

Earlier, General Osmani resigned from parliament early 1975 in protest against Sheikh Mujib's constitutional changes.

Also Read - Mujib’s economic policies and their relevance today

Missing in the spate of announcements was any reference to Brigadier Khalid Mosharraf, then chief of general staff and an active participant in the struggle within the army to resist the assassins and the plotters.

Zia begins court martial

On September 9, a martial law court in Dhaka found seven persons guilty of possession of illegal arms, according to press reports. Six of the convicts were sentenced to 14 years of rigorous imprisonment and one given seven years. 

Five of the men, including Aminul Huq alias Tipu Biswas, were known as leaders of underground left extremist groups. They had been in detention for at least a year, some for more than two years.

The convictions took place even as a general amnesty was in place till September 13 for those surrendering illegal arms.

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