The Biplobi Sainik Sangstha (Revolutionary Sepoys' Organisation) was never heard of in the early 1970s. The clandestine organisation's hard core members were mostly junior and non-commissioned officers of the Bangladesh army. The recruits of the secret group were loyal to dismissed Maj Mohammad Abdul Jalil, Commander of Sector 9 of the Mukti Bahini.
The secret group began its journey on January 1, 1973 at the staff quarters of Havildar Bari of Armoured Corps. The members were drawn from among serving junior and non-commissioned officers. On the founding day of the 'Bangladesh Revolutionary and Suicide Commando Force' they took a solemn oath by touching the Holy Qur'an.
The underground Biplobi Sainik Sangstha members held secret meetings at Ahsanullah Hall of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET). The political wisdom, mission and vision of the revolution came from Sirajul Alam Khan, political theorist and founder of the Jatiya Samjtantrik Dal (JSD), and Dr Akhlaqur Rahman, an economist.
Days after Maj Jalil was imprisoned on March 17, 1974, he sent a secret message to the underground organisation's leader Corporal Altaf Hossain, asking him to contact Col Abu Taher (Bir Uttam) and seek directives from the former commander of Sector 11.
Corporal Hossain was the key person in organising the soldiers at various cantonments and motivating them in joining the revolution.
On June 20, 1974, a secret meeting presided over by Col Taher was organised at Sergeant Abu Yusuf Khan's residence at Elephant Road. The retired sector commander told the dedicated group that his friend Maj Gen Ziaur Rahman, who was Deputy Chief of Army Staff, had expressed his solidarity with the group and would support their revolution.
The statement raised the morale of the junior officers. After that, the activities of the Revolutionary Commando Force were conducted openly.
On the other side, most soldiers of Sector 11 who were loyal to Taher joined Biplobi Sainik Sangstha. Also many soldiers at Comilla cantonment, where he (Taher) had once served as commanding officer, also joined the group. He advocated a 'People's Army' and through 'class struggle' wished to draw the political support of the soldiers to the idea.
Soon the Revolutionary Commando Force and other smaller groups among the soldiers merged with Biplobi Sainik Sangstha, after the crisis created following the assassination of the Father of the Nation, Bangabndhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in a military coup.
Taher knew his limitations and was not a protagonist of the revolution. He decided to use Zia's image among the soldiers to expedite the revolution. In a bid to garner more support from the soldiers he included in the Sainik Sangstha a 12-point demand for the realisation of eighteen months of unpaid wages of repatriated soldiers from Pakistan. This was debated by former Mukti Bahini soldiers and was not discussed by the high command of the JSD.
Taher also formed a strategic alliance with the pro-Peking (now Beijing) left groups and parties which had participated in the Liberation War to give shape to liberated areas in rural regions, so that the radical groups could create pressure on the capital Dhaka.
JSD's radical political philosophy was similar to the Sainik Sangstha revolution --- to overthrow the autocratic regime and establish a pro-people --- farmers, soldiers, workers and students --- national government.
On November 6, the JSD party forum held an emergency standing committee meeting at a residence in Kalabagan. The meeting was attended by Sirajul Alam Khan, Akhlaqur Rahman, Monirul Islam, Hasanul Haque Inu and Khair Ejaz Masud and others, writes Mohiuddin Ahmed in his book, Jashoder Utthan Poton: Osthir Shomoyer Rajniti, published recently by Protoma Prokashon.
The agenda for discussion was to organise an indefinite shutdown (hartal). A showdown of strength was planned at Paltan Maidan for November 9. The JSD leaders expected that thousands of industrial workers from Adamjee, Tejgaon and Tongi would participate and block the capital Dhaka for days, until the government collapsed, following which they would form a national government with the inclusion of all parties, minus the BAKSAL leadership. Unfortunately the plan was abandoned, due to the abrupt revolt by soldiers.
While the meeting was in progress, Taher walked in and sat down to listen to the discussion. Surprisingly, the Sepoy Mutiny was not on the agenda. Possibly the key leaders had no knowledge that a mutiny was brewing.
After a while, a young military officer in civilian dress barged into the meeting room, without causing any alarm among the key leaders sitting there. He spoke in a whisper with Taher and handed over to him two small pieces of paper.
Once the officer had departed, Taher drew the attention of those present at the meeting and read out a message which had come from Gen Zia. It read: "I am interned, I can't take the lead. My men are there. If you take the lead, my men will join you."
Those present at the meeting had never met Zia and did not know him. The first reaction came from Akhlaqur Rahman, who refused to accept Gen Zia as their leader. All the leaders had one question: should Zia should be trusted? Taher promptly responded and confidently said, "If you trust me, then you can also trust Zia. He will be at my feet."
Taher also let it be known that he had instructed the Sainik Sangstha to begin the revolution. His words had all the members in the room baffled. The meeting tried to influence Taher into withdrawing the call for mutiny. His response was that it was impossible to convey any such the decision as the communication was one-way traffic.
The second message was from the command centre of the soldiers planning the mutiny at midnight following November 6. It read: "Khaled Musharraf's men are moving fast. The iron is too hot. It is time to hit."
Taher took the floor and said, in the manner of those who had been behind the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, "Tonight or never." Sirajul Alam Khan did not say yes or no to the plan. The leaders continued to pursue Taher but, frustrated, they ended the meeting abruptly without formulating any plan, as Mohiuddin writes.
F Rahman Hall at Dhaka University was converted into a clandestine command centre for the November 7 Sepoy Mutiny led by Col Abu Taher, commander of Gono Bahini (People's Army).
A nervous mutineer, Subedar Mehboob, fired the shot an hour earlier than determined. The single shot, at midnight, from his rifle triggered the revolution of soldiers. Thousands of soldiers joined the mutiny, broke the military armoury to loot weapons and boarded trucks and jeeps and took control of strategic points.
A contingent rushed to Gen Zia's residence to free him from house arrest at Dhaka cantonment hours as Maj Khaled Musharraf's coup d'etat of November 3 began to collapse. Taher drove in a military jeep with a few JSD leaders to Zia's residence and met Zia. "You have saved the nation," said a grateful Zia to Taher as the soldiers cheered.
Zia asked Taher about the whereabouts of Sirajul Alam Khan. It was presumed that Zia wanted to meet the top leaders of JSD, which never happened.
Since the meeting held on the eve of November 7, Sirajul Alam Khan, Akhlaqur Rahman and many senior leaders had opted to maintain a low profile. Possibly they believed that the mutiny would fail, and it did fail.
Mohiuddin Ahmed, in his book, writes that despite requests by Taher, Zia refused to go to the radio station, but was willing to have his statement recorded and broadcast. At the radio station Shamsuddin Ahmed, a young Turk of the Gana Bahini, read out a statement which announced the Sepoy Mutiny. Unfortunately, the announcer did not mention the name of Taher or other JSD leaders or even his own name.
On November 23, 1975, Zia ordered the arrest of the JSD leaders. A large police contingent surrounded the house of Col Taher's brother Sergeant Abu Yusuf Khan and took him to the police control room.
When Col Taher heard about his brother's arrest, he rang up Gen Zia but was told that he was not available. Instead, Maj Gen HM Ershad, the Deputy Chief Martial Law Administrator, spoke with him. Ershad said it was a police matter and the army knew nothing about it, writes Talukder Maniruzzaman in Bangladesh in 1976: Struggle for Survival as an Independent State, published in Asian Survey in February 1977.
The following day Taher himself was arrested, sixteen days after he had freed Ziaur Rahman. He was taken to Dhaka Central Jail, where he was accused of 'instigating indiscipline' in the army and attempting to expand the original mutiny of November 7, 1975 towards a goal of "socialist revolution" and kill some of the army officers.
Abu Taher's Last Testament, as it appears in Bangladesh: The Unfinished Revolution by Lawrence Lifschultz and published in Economic and Political Weekly, India, in August 1977 reads: "It became very clear to me that a new conspiracy had taken control of those we had brought to power on November 7 in 1975."
Taher continued: "On November 24, 1975, I was surrounded by a large contingent of police. The police officer asked me to accompany him for discussions with Zia. I said I was surprised and I asked him why there was need of a police guard for me to go to Zia. Anyway they put me in a jeep and drove me straight to this jail. This is how I was put inside this jail by those traitors who I saved and brought to power."
"In our history, there is only one example of such treachery. It was the treachery of Mir Jafar who betrayed the people of Bangladesh and the subcontinent and led us into slavery for a period of 200 years. Fortunately for us it is not 1757. It is 1976 and we have revolutionary soldiers and a revolutionary people who will destroy the conspiracy of traitors like Ziaur Rahman," the statement concluded.
The Supreme Court has recently described the execution of Taher through the orders of a military tribunal in 1976 as 'outright murder'. It's pronouncement of the hanging of Taher was that it was 'illegal' and a case of 'cold blooded assassination'.
Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow (USA), is Special Correspondent of The Daily Observer