Ershad preferred over Abul Manzoor

One of the few former muktijuddha who initially enjoyed a great spell under Ziaur Rahman was Major General Muhammad Abul Manzoor. During the Swadhinata Juddho of 1971, Major Manzoor was serving as a brigade major in Sialkot in Punjab province of Pakistan. But he secretly escaped from his station, making a dramatic entry into India in the Rajasthan desert and joined the war in July 1971, becoming one of the few Bangladeshi officers to escape from Pakistan. Fighting as a freedom fighter, Major Manzoor quickly became a prominent officer within the ranks and won many battles in his sector. Few weeks after arriving in Bangladesh, on 14 August 1971 Major Manzoor replaced Major Abu Osman Chowdhury as the Commander of Sector 8 (Kushtia-Jessore) and soon found himself as one of the handful of Sector Commanders (along with Ziaur Rahman) fighting the Pakistanis in Bangladesh. He was responsible for leading the liberation forces in the districts of Khulna, Jessore, Kushtia, Barisal, Patuakhali and Faridpur.

General Manzoor was a bold and imaginative commander with an excellent track record during the 1971 Bangladeshi Liberation War, the kind of general who soldiers respected. In an Army given to frequent mutinies and intense politicking, only a war hero like Manzoor could inspire his men.

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After independence, Major Manzoor had a falling out with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and this resulted in him being sent by Sheikh Mujib to New Delhi as military attache in the Bangladesh High Commission in 1973.

Following Zia's rise to power in 1975, he rescued Major Manzoor from his 'ignominous exile' and brought him back to Dhaka as Chief of the General Staff of Bangladesh Army. Known for his tenacity, keen eye for strategy, and formation of loyalty from colleagues, Major Manzoor became a confidant of the president who relied on him as one of his leading Generals while promoting him rapidly up the ladder.

Major Manzoor returned the favour by initially cooperating fully with Zia and saving his life and regime by helping to put down the attempted coup on 2 October 1977. This had led him to believe that Zia would look upon him favourably for the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) role, especially since both men were ex-freedom fighters who fought together to make the country independent from the oppressive Pakistani regime. However, to his frustration, Zia elevated Hussain Muhammad Ershad, the Deputy Chief of Army Staff, from Major-General to Lieutenant General and appointed him as COAS on 1 December 1978. Major Manzoor was perceived as being too ambitious and holding pro-Chinese views. Like Colonel Taher, Major Manzoor conceived of himself as a socialist who wanted less corruption, less reliance on international ties than Zia and was willing to countenance or promote.

And though Ershad was senior to him both in age and rank, Manzoor was not keen on him and remained quietly furious for missing out on his long-term target of COAS position. This bitter pill would remain with him for the next few years.

Manzoor's role in quashing that coup attempt intensified his quest to become Chief of Staff, the top spot in the army, which Zia gave to Lieutenant- General H. M. Ershad after Zia became a civilian Commander-in-Chief and President in April 1977. To be sure, Ershad was older and had more seniority than Manzoor (Ershad was born on 1 February 1930 and was commissioned in 1952; Manzoor was the youngest General in the Bangladesh army and was commissioned only in 1960), but Manzoor saw Ershad as an unimaginative desk-bound General who had blotted his copybook by remaining loyal to the Pakistan Army in 1971.

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Manzoor's contempt for Ershad and his criticisms of Zia were widely known.

...Manzoor, like Taher, has often been associated in press reports with pro-Chinese position, but it might be fairer to say that both Manzoor and Taher were more anti-Indian, anti-Russian and anti-American than they were pro-Chinese. Taher was far more intimately involved in politics than Manzoor, since he was a member and leader of an underground unit of the Jatio Samajtantrik Dal (JSD), a Marxist group that at one time advocated and armed revolution to be led by the jawans. Manzoor was reported to have met JSD leaders on occassion - against the wishes of other military officers, including Zia - and he was also reportedly a friend of Mohammad Toaha, the Bangladesh politician who is probably closest to the Chinese. But there is no evidence that Manzoor ever acted on behalf of either a political party or a foreign power.

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While Zia had preferred Ershad to Manzoor because Ershad was loyal, believed in the constitutional process and had the confidence of the repatriate Generals, it was also widely assumed that Manzoor was a bit too independent, arrogant, ambitious and revolutionary to warrant Zia's complete trust. Moreover, once Zia had opted for Ershad over Manzoor, relations between the two steadily deteriorated.

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President Zia's decision to name Lt. General Ershad over Major Manzoor as Chief of Staff reflected his overall strategy for building a disciplined army, which placed a heavy reliance on repatriated officers and jawans from Pakistan plus new recruits who had not fought in the Liberation War. At the time of Zia's death only 2 of the top 50 Major-Generals and Brigadiers in the Bangladesh Army were men who had fought for Bangladesh in 1971, of these two, only Major Manzoor had troops under his command. The other muktijuddha (freedom fighter) was Major-General Mir Shawkat Ali, who fought alongside Zia during the 1971 Sepoy Mutiny in Chittagong at the start of the Swadhinata Juddho.

After Ziaur Rahman came into power, he stripped Mir Shawkat Ali off his command and appointed him Principal Staff Officer to the President.

Transfer of senior officers, including Major Manzoor to Chittagong

In 1978, in order to disseminate the power wielded by rival senior officers, Ziaur Rahman posthaste sent competing senior officers to different corners of Bangladesh. Major Abul Manzoor was transferred south-east to Chittagong - presumably to get him out of the centre of power in Dhaka - and appointed General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the 24th Infantry Division. Major Mir Shawkat Ali was transferred west to Jessore and Brigadier Muhammad Nuruddin Khan to Comilla in the eastern border. A relatively junior officer was sent to the northern sector. Whilst Major Hussain Muhammad Ershad, President Zia's most trusted senior officer, was retained at the centre of Dhaka.

The blueprint for military reorganisation was designed in part to contain the rising expectations of soldiers. The military scheme was not only to dissipate the rival leadership within the army but also to reconstruct the armed forces. The whole country was delineated militarily into five regions and the armyy, cooperating and yet maintaining separateness, could play the dual role of carrying out detailed strategies in order to preserve internal security and of providing prolonged resistance to a possible Indian domination. Each division would coordinated its operation with the paramilitary groups within its area of command, and would also mobilise mass support behind the government and help raise and rain guerrilla units in the event of an occupation by New Delhi.

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History of attacks on Ziaur Rahman

Army officers have been involved in several attempts to remove President Zia from office during his six-year rule. The number of attacks vary from 19 to 22 from the period November 1975 to May 1981. At least 10 of them can be qualified as coup attempts. Much of the attack stems from the resentment brought forth from the execution of Colonel Abu Taher, which inspired chain-reaction mutinies in several regiments. Although none succeeded, except the final one by Major Manzoor, all resulted in widespread bloodshed.

We see each coup as the strongest signs of the structural instability of the military – a hypothesis valid as well for all the mutinies, internal fights and desertions which will follow from 1975 to 1981. All revolved around two major issues: the influence of revolutionary ideas on the troops and the opposition between muktijuddha and the repatriated. It is precisely because of these two dimensions, and the factionalism they provoked, that none of the putsches aimed at establishing a military dictatorship, that is to say aimed at guaranteeing the interests of a corporation which did not exist in the first place.

The different revolts that occurred in Bangladesh until 1981 are better understood as survival reflexes, designed to defend one's own group against others. It was generally felt that if one of these groups dominates the state, then others would be threatened in their fundamental existence. This existential threat perception resulted from the officers’ diverging political trajectories, which implied very different roles for the army itself, and from Mujib’s effort to manipulate and divide the military establishment which prevented it from defining a clear mission for the institution.

In brief, factionalism forbade the development of a corporatist interest, hence the possibility of a stable military dictatorship in Bangladesh. Herein lies the specificity of the Bangladeshi army.

Jérémie Codron, Analyst

Main problem lie within the army itself

The main source of instability was no longer about civil-military relations, as had existed during Sheikh Mujib's time, but about internal army relations. This is clearly evident by the fact that, within a few months of his takeover, Ziaur Rahman founded a special police force of 12,500 men, which strongly resembled Sheikh Mujib's Jatiyo Rakkhi Bahini. He formed this militarized police force as he could no longer rely on the army to hunt down the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dol's (Jashod, National Socialist Party) clandestine groups .

Ziaur Rahman’s uncomfortable position among his peers was further demonstrated by his decision to keep his Chief of Army Staff position until the June 1978 presidential election. And even after being elected president, he chose not to settle in Bangabhaban, the presidential palace, but rather to stay at his Chief of Army Staff residence inside the army’s headquarters.

Zia may be considered as a moderate dictator in the civilian aspects of his rule - he is often said to have restored the multi-party system that Mujib suspended - but he left a lasting impression in the military by reintroducing a practice which had been done away with since the 1857 Sepoy mutiny: the systematic execution of rebel officers. For instance, after the October 1977 aborted coup, he declared that out of the 460 officers and privates who had been brought to court, only 63 were acquitted. The air force officers, who had the largest number of muktijuddha, were the first targets of Zia’s disciplinary violence and never truly recovered. After the trials, only 11 officers were left in this corps. Subsequent to these purges, but also in alignment with the national strategic vision, the army still towers over the other two corps to this day.

The New York Times (20 October 1977)

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