Possible reasons behind the killing

Non-commanding position angers General Manzoor

Some claim what acted as a catalyst of the assassination of Zia was the decision of the then Chief of Army Staff Hussain Muhammad Ershad to transfer Major General Manzoor to a non-combatant post in Dhaka as Commandant of the National Defence College. Major General Manzoor was the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of Chittagong 24th Infantry Division, where most of the freedom fighters were placed under him benefiting from the highest posts.

Once the menacing general had been asked to leave, his men simply rejected their (theoretical) allegiance to the Chief of Army Staff and launched a coup. This was all the more ironical because strengthening the 'local chiefs'' power was a result of Zia's will to 'make Dhaka sure for him', by placing most of the senior officers, especially muktijuddha, outside the capital.

Jérémie Codron, Analyst

Major General Manzoor resented a planned transfer to a non-command post in Dhaka. Once the transfer order was sent to him, the coup was launched.


Rivalry between Ziaur Rahman and Abul Manzoor, like most cases of factional conflict in South Asia, had a long past. Even among freedom fighter officers acute rivalries were quite common and publicly known, for example, between Ziaur Rahman and Khaled Musharraf, Zia and Abul Manzoor. Some suspect it was these personal rivalries and jealousies which was a prime motivator for the tragic and alleged killing of one sector commander by another.

Abul Manzoor watched his long-term ambition of being Chief of Army Staff - and potentially, President - fade away first by the mammoth rise of Ziaur Rahman then by the repatriated officer Hussain Muhammad Ershad. This rivalry coupled with the perception of injustice by Abul Manzoor abruptly ended Zia's life.

There has been widespread speculation about the role of Manzoor and his younger officers in the coup attempt. Most of the evidence suggests that Manzoor was concerned that he would no longer be able to resist a transfer to Dhaka, which meant that he, like Mir Shaukat, would be stripped of his command. This would have been terribly humiliating for Manzoor, since he saw himself as deserving of Ershad's position and as a future President. His younger colleagues realised that they might be subjected to forced retirement from the military or some form of discipline if they lost the protection of Manzoor. They all knew that any hopes they might have had for staging a coup would be dissipated once Zia returned to Dhaka.


Cold killing of Colonel Taher increases rebellion

During Ziaur Rahman's ruling the suppression of rivalries and revolts within the army intensified. The BSS and Jashod leaders who had carried Ziaur Rahman to power were systematically arrested whereas the repatriated, less threatening because of their apparent disorganization, became the regime's fresh allies. But his 'treachery' against old comrades like Abu Taher and Abul Manzoor and other notable Muktijuddhas provided ammunition for his critics. For the soldiers who had experienced the Liberation war and 7th November 'revolution', Colonel Taher's arrest, followed by his death sentence, was an act of treason. This triggered a series of unprecedented rebellions.

Even the announcement by 'Biplobi Parishad' after Ziaur Rahman's assassination invoked the ghost of Colonel Taher.

Taher indeed became potentially more threatening, post-mortem, to Zia. The resentment brought forth from the execution resulted in a marked military instability, which inspired chain-reaction mutinies in several regiments. From November 1975 to October 1977, roughly ten serious revolts questioned the military hierarchy. Although none succeeded, all resulted in widespread bloodshed.


Favouritism toward repatriated officers proves distressing for muktijuddhas

In contrast to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's governance, the muktijuddhas experienced a sharp decline in their involvement in the Bangladesh army and the government roles under Ziaur Rahman. At the time of Zia's death in 1981 it is estimated only 15% of freedom fighters constituted the Bangladesh Army, with the rest made up of repatriated officers (25%) and new recruits (60%).

For these politicised fighters, 'heady' with the heroism of the liberation war, Ziaur Rahman's favouritism towards the repatriated proved alarming. No longer able to shape the destiny of their motherland merely ten years after sacrificing so much, many became bewildered and frustrated. With the loss of influence came the loss of incentives, both financial and social, which were attached to positions these muktijuddhas previously enjoyed under Sheikh Mujib few years earlier before he was killed in such cold-blood. Something had to be done. After all, if the country could survive the brutal killing of their once revered 'jathir jonok' and 'bangabandhu' then who was Ziaur Rahman in comparison, they thought.

These frustrated muktijuddhas were quick to take up guerrilla-style operation against their commanding officers or even head-of-state if necessary.

It seems that Zia's death was not an isolated event, but rather part of a larger conspiracy even though there was no involvement of an external power and the conspiracy was homegrown. It is true that Manzoor was disappointed with his job situation, but this merely served as an "accelerator" for the coup attempt, which was perhaps related to intense discontent among a segment of the armed forces. During the last two years of his rule, Zia had relied heavily on the repatriated and the newly recruited officers and soldiers.

... Zia's policy further alienated him from the freedom fighters both inside and outside the army.

Thus, while Manzoor did have a personal grudge against Zia, the freedom fighters and officers recruited during the Mujib regime had sought to seize power long before 30 May 1981, since all the previous coup attempts against Zia had been led by participants in the liberation war.

Of all the freedom fighters, only General Manzoor had been able to retain an operational command in the army, and this was in Chittagong. Therefore, it may be that he was persuaded by the freedom fighters to stage a coup in Chittagong, after which the freedom fighters posted in different cantonments would mobilise support both within the army and from pro-Mujib civilians.


Few men in history have betrayed the aspirations of their people as did the first leaders of Bangladesh - Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Khandaker Moshtaque Ahmed and General Zia. When each in turn was called upon to make good, he took the country further along the road to perdition. Once the darling of the independence movement 'in whose magic nae all things are done', Sheikh Mujib as Prime Minister and President became the most hated man in Bangladesh within three short years of its founding. He and his family were killed for it. And the hatred lingers. Ten years after Mujib's death his daughter, Hasina, told me that she could not get the agreement of relatives and neighbours in their home village of Tungipara to erect a suitable monument over Mujib's grave. "People react differently when you are not in power", Hasina said in what could be an epitaph for both Mujib and General Zia. Moshtaque, who succeeded Mujib, has become a by-word for treachery. General ZIa, the next man, was once idolised by the army. But then he showed his true colours and became the target of 20 mutinies and coup attempts in five years. The 21st killed him. As public awareness of the general's real role increases, Zia's memory too has become an embarrassment to his friends.

Anthony Mascarenhas, author of "Bangladesh: A Legacy of Blood" (1986)

Anti-Indian sentiments over Ganges River

Another reason cited for the assassination of President Ziaur Rahman is the bitter dispute over the rights to the Ganges water with neighbouring India.

Bangladesh's long-troubled relations with India, the country that had helped it win independence, was further heightened when the two nations were unable to agree on long-term solutions concerning the lower Ganges River, which meanders through both countries as it flows out into a vast delta of Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh. Various solutions to the water question and territorial claims to islands formed by silt at the mouth of a boundary river were rejected. Matters were not helped much by Ziaur Rahman and his BNP who were commonly perceived to be 'anti-Indian' and 'nationalistic'.

The sovereignty question is particularly volatile: there are hopes of finding oil under nearby waters.

While Zia had pressed India strenuously on the diplomatic front—even sending gunboats to one of the 'disputed islands last month—he was apparently not aggressive enough for a fiercely anti-Indian element with a strong base in Chittagong.

TIME Magazine

The killers of Ziaur Rahman and his 8 colleagues were apparently linked to these militants.

Was Hussain Muhammad Ershad involved in President Zia's killing?

Lack of security pre-planned by COAS Ershad?

Some conspiracy theorists - which includes Major General Syed Muhammad Ibrahim, a Bir Protik who defended the 13 officers accused of President Zia's murder in July 1981 - speculate General Manzoor was used as a scapegoat and Chief of Army Staff Ershad himself was behind the killing of President Zia. These theorists suggest that a host of repatriate Generals and politicians in Dhaka may have set General Manzoor up to kill Zia, leading him to believe that they would support him once the deed was done. By first encouraging Manzoor and later abandoning him after he had carried out the assassination, according to this theory, they were able to get rid of the last two freedom fighter Generals who stood in the way of the repatriates claiming power exclusively for themselves. This theory accounts for the lack of security around President Zia as something designed by the conspirators. The conspirators point to the fact that a coup could not have been organised from Chittagong, without also securing the capital city of Dhaka - which Ershad controlled.

Zia's decision to stay the night in the extremely vulnerable Circuit House (it is located on a hill and has no place for cover) is similarly explained as being arranged by Zia's security men as part of the plot. The death of Manzoor before he could be put on trial and the disappearance of Manzoor's tape-recorded statement are viewed as the logical culmination of a scheme that was carried out with cold-blooded efficiency.


It is also speculated that Chief of Army Staff Ershad gave his support to Acting President Sattar only because of the clear, national revulsion against the assassination of Zia.

However, where President Zia's security was concerned, General Ershad responded to the criticism by pointing out that the responsibility for the protection lied with the police and not him since Ziaur Rahman was a 'civilian president'.

General Zia was president at that time - civilian president, not army. His safety and security was not my responsibility. [It was] The responsibility of the civil government. They did not protect him. They did not give him security.

Hussain Muhammad Ershad,

However, Major General Muhammad Ainuddin, a Bir Protik and one of the co-defendent of Ziaur Rahman's alleged murderers along with Syed Muhammad Ibrahim, responded to Ershad's deflection by saying that his remark was "not fully true".

When the President, the seat of the Government, goes outside Dhaka then it's the duty of the Chief of Army Staff [occupied by Ershad] to oversee the President's safety and security. Therefore, by saying that it was the responsibility of the police [Ershad] cannot avoid his responsibility. It was his responsibility.

President Ziaur Rahman died in Chittagong Circuit House and Chittagong Circuit House falls within the territorial limit of the cantonment. Therefore when the President visits anything falling within the cantonment boundary then the safety and security falls on the local area commander or the General Officer Commanding (GOC). If the GOC is responsible for this then so is the Chief of Army Staff.

Major General Muhammad Ainuddin says Ershad should take responsibility for lack of security

General Mir Shawkat Ali concurred with the views held by General Ibrahim and General Ainuddin.

Ershad's lawmaker openly declares that Ershad killed Zia and it was 'justified'

On 16 October 2010 a lawmaker of Ershad's Jatiya Party, Nasim Osman, claimed that Hussain Muhammad Ershad was behind the killing of Ziaur Rahman.

Nasim is alleged to have made the comment at a function held on Madanganj Model Govt Primary School premises in his suburban Narayanganj constituency where he was the chief guest. A shocked audience also heard Nasim - whose family is known to be strong supporter of Awami League and one of his brothers was a former party lawmaker - openly accuse Ziaur Rahman of being the 'mastermind' behind the the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on 15 August 1975 and as such his own assassination in the hands of Ershad was 'justified'.

Ziaur Rahman was killed by (the then army chief) General Ershad and not General Manzoor.

Bangabandhu murder trial was actually done on 30 May 1981 with the killing of Zia as he was the man behind the killing of the Father of the Nation.

...Do you know why I'm in Jatiya Party of Ershad? It's because the work I was to do, was done by him (Ershad as he had killed Ziaur Rahman).

Nasim Osman, as quoted in the Samokal newspaper

  • Nasim Osman ()

Nasim's controversial remarks were printed in the Samokal newspaper and received wide coverage. Ershad and his secretaries were unable for comment when news reporters tried to get in touch with them.

Ershad, whose Jatiya Party is now a crucial ally of Awami League, hung up the phone when he was approached for comments by PTI. His press secretary and party secretary general also kept their phones switched off apparently to evade questions from newsmen.


Khaleda Zia never accused Ershad - at least not in public

It has never been proven in any court of law whether Hussain Muhammad Ershad had any part in Ziaur Rahman's assassination. This was also the case even when Zia's widow, Khaleda Zia, was in power in 1991-1996 and again in 2001-2006. Her BNP party have also in the past joined up with Ershad's Jatiya Party to oppose the Awami League.

Ershad even alloted two houses in Dhaka - one in the affluent Gulshan area, another in Dhaka Cantonment - to Khaleda Zia and her two sons. The family was also given 10 lakh taka, 1,500 taka a month in bursary to facilitate studies of the sons until 1986, and one vehicle with fuel and a driver. But the bungalow at 6 Shaheed Mainul Road in Dhaka Cantonment became the centre point of controversy when the Awami League-led government forced them to evict the premise in November 2010.

Ershad allotted the house to [Khaleda] violating law to make his bhabi (sister-in-law) (Khaleda) happy.

The then Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina

However, though she had never made any open or public accusation, Khaleda Zia allegedly in private discussion held Ershad responsible for her husband's killing.

Though mystery will surround the killing of Ziaur Rahman, what is clear is that Ershad benefited from the killing of Ziaur Rahman, in the same way Ziaur Rahman had benefited from assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Ershad came to power less than a year after Ziaur Rahman's killing and became the President of Bangladesh. His meteoric rise from a military man to the highest post in Bangladesh civil government was much like Ziaur Rahman post Sheikh Mujib's killing.