Repatriates favoured over Muktijuddhas

Following 1971 Swadhinata Juddho a crisis had emerged within the Bangladesh Army. The war had ideologically transformed many of those who participated in it. These muktijuddhas (freedom fighters) of the Mukti Bahini elements (and other such bahinis e.g. Mujib Bahini, Kaderia Bahini etc), made up of mostly students, young men and brave deserters from Pakistan's conventional army, were suddenly catapulted from an ordinary civilian lifestyle to the gory, cold and fatalistic world of military warfare and called upon to learn guerrilla warfare. They sacrificed their life to give birth to Bangladesh and were determined to shape the new nation to make it into "shunar Bangladesh" (golden Bangladesh). Participation in guerrilla warfare, side-by-side with political activists and politically conscious students, served to radicalise the freedom fighters, to the point where they demanded a restructuring of the armed forces into what they called a 'democratic and productive' army after the liberation war was over. They also demanded their own advancement over those older military officers who had stayed on in Pakistan, and did not hesitate to take up arms in guerrilla-style operations against their commanding officers or even against the head-of-state.

Meanwhile, those officers who did not fight in the war - the 'repatriates' - as they were held as prisoners of war in the cantonments of Pakistan, returned to Bangladesh two years after independence with their spirit remaining largely unchanged and their conceptual view still the same as their days as officers in the Pakistan Army.

Roles reversed compared with Sheikh Mujib

Under Sheikh Mujib's leadership (1972 - 1975) the muktijuddhas were given preference to the repatriates. Many army officers and soldiers deeply resented the loss of status and influence during this period. However, once Ziaur Rahman came to power he relied heavily on those army officers who had been suppressed by Sheikh Mujib - i.e. the repatriates. Indeed, the survival of the new state under Ziaur Rahman depended primarily on the loyalty of the armed forces and he responded by significantly increasing their strength. At the time of Zia's death (i.e. 1981) muktijuddhas represented 15% of the total strength whilst repatriated soldiers represented 25%. The remaining 60% of jawans were the product of Zia's expansionist policy and made up of new recruits. Ziaur Rahman and other senior officers in the Bangladesh army felt strongly that the repatriates and new recruits were much better and more disciplined soldiers than the freedom fighters, primarily because their training had been more thorough and the circumstances of their promotions within the army less politicised.

Most of the freedom fighters were heady with the heroism of the liberation war, trained hastily in guerrilla warfare in India and then quickly promoted by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in order to give them seniority over the Pakistan repatriates. Some of the freedom fighters, especially the unit known as the Jatiyo Rakkhi Bahini (which was formed specifically to protect Mujib and his government), were little more than extensions of political parties.

Marcus Franda, author of "Bangladesh after Zia - A Retrospect and Prospect" (1981)

Ziaur Rahman's obvious preference for the repatriated officers is manifest in the fact that in 1981 only two of 50 major-generals and brigadiers in the Bangladesh Army were men who had fought with the Mukti Bahini in 1971, the other 48 officers were those who had been stranded in West Pakistan during the liberation war. Of the eight sector commanders of the Mukti Bahini who were still alive, only two, in addition to Zia, retained command in the army by 1980. One was General Mir Shawkat Ali, but he was later stripped of his operational command in 1980 and appointed Principal of Staff College in Dhaka, and the other was General Manzoor, who was transferred in 1980 from a central position in Dhaka to a peripheral one in Chittagong.

Zia's preference for repatriated officers alienated him from those military officers and soldiers who had fought for independence.

Syed Serajul Islam, author of "The State in Bangladesh Under Zia (1975 - 81)" (1984)

Zia did make some attempts to integrate the freedom fighters into the Bangladesh military, but for the most part he conceived himself as being 'ruthless' towards anyone in the army who was guilty of indiscipline. He expanded the army from five divisions when he took over in 1975 to eight when he was killed in 1981 (there are two divisions in Dhaka, two in Chittagong and the Chittagong Hill Tracts, and one each in Rangpur, Bogra, Comilla and Jessore), with the idea this would bring in so many new recruits that the freedom fighters would be greatly outnumbered. In 1977, Zia had hundreds of officers and politicians tried and executed for plotting against the government within the army. Almost every one of those executed came from among the freedom fighters.

Another reason for the crisis within the army was the conflict between officers and the ranks caused mainly by leftist elements. As already mentioned, these elements sought to radicalise the army, emphasising the elimination of all differences and discrimination between officers and soldiers. They organised underground rebel army to launch an armed revolt against the officers.

These internal feuds within the dominant forces of the state itself and growing strength of opposition weakened Ziaur Rahman's position in the long term.

He [Zia] is a prisoner of his own mixed-up, cross-bed political system [and] of the various vested interests which have been created during the past few years...So what is in store for us in the coming months? Our concern is real.

New Nation (in early 1981)

Alleged pro-Pakistani and anti-Mujib officers promoted to higher positions

In order to restore the power and position of the civil-military bureaucracy, the new state first abolished Presidential Order No. 9 of 1972, which had provided for the dismissal of officials without showing cause. In addition, those bureaucrats who had lost their jobs under this order after liberation were allowed to appeal their cases. And, in fact, many such civil servants were placed in key positions by Zia, while some pro-Mujib officers were either dismissed or demoted.

For example, Shafiul Azam, former Chief Secretary of East Pakistan, who was dismissed by the state under Sheikh Mujib, was reinstated after the August coup. On the other hand, A. T. M. Syed Hossain, Sheikh Mujib's brother-in-law and Additional Secretary of the Establishment Division, was removed from office. In the Army, Major General M. Khalilur Rahman, Brigadier H. M. Ershad and Brigadier Quazi Golam Dastgir - all repatriated officers - were elevated in the army hierarchy.

  • Shafiul Azam ()
  • A. T. M. Syed Hossain ()
  • M. Khalilur Rahman ()
  • Quazi Golam Dastgir ()

The civil bureaucracy, another major dominant force in Zia's state, was already fragmented between "patriots" and "non-patriots". Zia revived the disheartened bureaucracy, but he tended to rely heavily on those civil servants who had been thrown out of office during the Sheikh Mujib regime. On the other hand, the civil servants who were close associates of Sheikh Mujib were demoted or placed in insignificant positions.

...Thus, Zia antagonised one section of the civil servants, although he was popular, no doubt, among those bureaucrats who regained power and position after 1975. However, during the last year of his rule, even the latter became disenchanted with Zia because they perceived him to be attaching more and more importance to the political elites. This was a point on which the bureaucracy seemed unwilling to compromise, for its training and ethos allowed for little tolerance of interference by politicians in the administration. The growing importance of the BNP caused concern in the bureaucracy about its role in the system.

Syed Serajul Islam

The Zia regime was also subjected to serious criticism inside Parliament. Opposition and independent members pointed out that pro-Pakistani officers were governing Bangladesh in civilian disguise and that the administration was run like an "operational plan at Government Headquarters".

Bangladesh Parliament is not sovereign. It's a school-debating society with an indulgent president sometimes languidly watching from the gallery.

Rashid Khan Menon (1980), the only Marxist-Leninist MP

USA's & UK's growing presence

Shift from India-dependence to closer ties with Muslim countries including Pakistan

Post independence Bangladesh found itself more reliant on India then before. Thus when the military elite took over Bangladesh post 7 November 1975 they took every measure to get the country out of the position of dependence on India, reflecting the change mood of the people of Bangladesh.

The Indian government retaliated with strong measures to make Bangladesh subservient again. Firstly, they diverted the Ganges water at Farraka without prior consultation with the Bangladesh government, contrary to the April 1974 agreement. Secondly, the Indian Government began to shelter the diehard Mujibites (followers of Sheikh Mujib) led by Kader Siddiqui, a tough guerrilla leader of the 1971 liberation war who opened camps for training in guerrilla warfare and subversion. Since January 1976, these Bangladeshi dissenters have launched raids on Bangladesh border posts with the support of the Indian Border Security Force. In the latter part of the year some of the dissenters infiltrated into Bangladesh in order to carry on sabotage activities.

After the downfall of Indira Gandhi there was a deal between Zia and the new Desai administration whereby Bangladesh had to accept those pro-Mujib elements who wanted to return and New Delhi offered those who preferred to stay in India political asylum but restricted their insurgent activities. Bangladesh authorities called upon the returnees to behave, but later some of them were allegedly involved in the abortive October insurrection.

Mohammad Rashiduzzaman, author of "Bangladesh in 1977: Dilemmas of the Military Rulers" (1978)

Relations between Bangladesh and Pakistan also improved considerably during the year. The two countries signed a 3-year trade agreement - the first to be signed between the two countries - in early May 1976. A return to Islamic principles under Ziaur Rahman leadership helped to strengthen tie with wealthy Muslim states, which energised Bangladesh's fluctuating economy by the injections of valuable foreign exchange. Bangladeshi economic and goodwill delegations visited most of the Islamic countries to strengthen Bangladesh relations with the latter.

I can assure you that today we are not alone or friendless. I want to tell everyone that we do not want friendship at the cost of our independence, sovereignty and integrity.

Ziaur Rahman in his address on radio and television on 1 December 1976

The pro-America stance is believed to have been fostered by the main political powers who benefited immediately after Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's assassination on 15 August 1975 - namely Khandaker Moshtaque Ahmed (Commerce Minister in Mujib's administration), Mahbubul Alam Chashi (a former Pakistan foreign service officer) and Taheruddin Takur (Mujib's Information Minister). Since Bangladesh's emergence as an independent state in 1971 major foreign powers such as the United States, India and the Soviet Union have contended for a position of dominance in this remote but strategic corner of South Asia.

Ziaur Rahman made a trip to China early in 1977 where he was warmly received and economic aid was promised. According to some reports, China also provided Bangladesh with some military assistance. Later Zia went to Burma, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Substantial aid came from the Middle East. An official delegation visited Pakistan to explore the possibilities of closer cooperation.

The fall of Mujib brought a shift in Bangladesh's international alignment away from the Soviet and Indian axis which had vigorously supported the national independence struggle during 1971.

The new regime under Moshtaque and subsequently Ziaur Rahman swivelled the country's international orientation towards the American and the British governments in the West and secondarily towards the Islamic bloc, principally Saudi Arabia. It still remains an uncertain and open question of what involvement any of these governments had in Sheikh Mujib's overthrow.

N. M. J. , author of "Murder in Dacca - Ziaur Rahman's Second Round" (1978)

USA and UK funding and spying mission

Immediately after Sheikh Mujib's demise important internal security, telecommunications and military training programmes which had been linked to the American and British governments prior to independence were suddenly resumed. These had remained suspended during Sheikh Mujib's regime. Shekih Mujib had accepted Indian military assistance in setting up his paramilitary Rakkhi Bahini force who were secretly trained at the Indian military staff college at Dehradun. However, after his assassination, all military links were broken with India and the Rakkhi Bahini was dissolved. Top positions in the Bangladesh police, intelligence agencies, and Home Ministry were filled by men with historically strong links to the United States, Britain and Pakistan. In 1971 many had been accused of active collaboration with the Pakistan Army.

British government gave a grant of £720,000 to develop Bangladesh's police telecommunication which had been constructed using American help prior to 1971 as part of their Office of Public Safety (OPS) AID Programme in the country. The OPS programmed was dismantled by the US Congress in 1973-74 after it the CIA Director William Colby acknowledged that the Agency had worked with OPS contacts "for the purpose of obtaining foreign intelligence information". The Senate concluded that the programme had developed such close ties with the local security forces that inevitably the US had become "politically identified with police terrorism" in the recipient countries. Therefore the programme was abolished declaring the object was to cease the US making "repressive regimes even more repressive".

The British picked up from where the American left off. In July 1977 an 8-man British military advisory team commanded by Colonel T. A. Gibson arrived in Dhaka with the object of setting up a Military Staff College at Savar, where ironically Indian military advisors had trained Sheikh Mujib's Rakkhi Bahini in 1972. These 8 senior military officers included 6 soldiers (including one colonel in the elite SAS or Special Air Services Brigage), a sailor and an air force officer.

  • T. A. Gibson ()

The Sepoy Mutiny in Bogra and Dhaka in September and October 1977 are believed to have been in part connected to objections to this British Military Mission. Of the 'Twelve Demands' which constituted the principles of the Soldier's Mutiny of 7 November 1975 the "complete abolition of British colonial practices withing the armed forces" had been one of the fundamentals of the uprising. Now within a year and half of the revolt a British military training mission was setting up permanent shop in Bangladesh. The more serious objections to the Gibson Mission was that its main alleged purpose was not training but military intelligence.

The November 1975 uprising took the Western countries by complete surprise here. They realised how poor their intelligence was having historically based it on [West] Pakistan contacts. Within the government and the armed forces it is generally believed, and privately discussed that the real purpose for the British Military Mission is to prepare dossiers for Western intelligence on the entire officer corps forces and the Bangladesh Army in particular. They want to know when Zia falls, who can be the next pro-Western Ayub Khan. But they also want to be able to spot any Marxists like Abu Taher. They want to know who is politically reliable. You can't do that sitting in London or in an office in the Pentagon. Computers will not tell you. Personal contact might.

A well-informed Bengali

Britain also participated in a controversial development programme in a remote hill region near the Burmese border which further heightened suspicion. Opponents criticised Britain for not helping the poor first but helping to support a regime which practises detention without trial, summary execution and suppression of free speech.

Britain seems to have this obsession with law and order. It seems to think that unless you have a police force that can be mobilised at the flick of a switch, or army that is well up on contemporary counter-insurgency techniques, there is no point n pouring out money for food or shelter or clothing. Well we disagree. Food for the hungry is truly vital. Radios for the police and roads for the army can come later. At least the tax payers in England should have a chance to decide.

A senior officer of an English aid organisation

Against the background of these various developments a highly significant event emerged on Bangladesh's foreign investment. At the time of independence in 1971 there was almost no foreign capital investment in the country. Outside a General Motors assembly unit in Chittagong, a few pharmaceutical multinationals, insurance, banks, and the old colonial tea estates, foreign investment was almost non-existent and totalled less than 30 million dollars.

In 1977 American investors were contemplating what will be their largest foreign investment in the entire South Asia sub-continent. In the asset value it will be greater than all American investments in India and Pakistan combined.

Last spring [1977] it was announced that International Systems and Controls Corporation of Houston, Texas (USA) was negotiating an 800 million dollar investment deal to exploit Bangladesh's extensive natural gas reserves. The American company finalised arrangements to sign an agreement with Bangladesh government for the construction of a massive Liquefied Natural Gas complex to export gas from the Bakhrahad/Bakhrabad fields. Bangladesh has known reserves of 30 trillion cubic feet of high quality gas with over 94% hydrocarbon content.

N. M. J.

A number of Bangladesh Marxists believe the arrival of British Military Advisory Team was seen to secure a confident "stable" environment agreeable to foreign investing interests. The visit of British Prime Minister James Callaghan to Dhaka in the New Year was financially of much greater importance to British interests than the much better publicised visits to India and Pakistan.

The issue now for the West is whether he [Major-General Ziaur Rahman] can become Bangladesh's General Suharto, the Indonesian military figure whose American backed counter-coup ended in the massacre of an estimated half-million members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), and securely opened the country to the Pertamina oil export boom of the next decade. A number of Western observers see an Indonesian style solution as the only answer to Bangladesh's radical traditions. Whether Ziaur Rahman is the man for the job is the question.

N. M. J.