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