Bangladesh's history in its first decade of freedom was fundamentally a story of bloodletting. You do not have to go into research to arrive at such a morbid conclusion. But you cannot escape feeling a certain sense of irony as you revisit the whole episode of the country's actually claiming, and taking, its place in the global community. If the war of liberation in 1971 saw three million Bengalis dying at the hands of the Pakistan armed forces, the post-liberation era turned into a long tale of blood and gore as most of the new nation's founding fathers and war heroes bit the dust through bloody coups d'etat and internecine armed conflict. The series of tragic happenings that engulfed Bangladesh between August and November 1975, followed by the execution of Abu Taher, a soldier for freedom, in July 1976, will remain a blot on the conscience of a nation which yet struggles to find a way out of the woods for itself.
In May 1981 came the assassination of General Ziaur Rahman, Bangladesh's first military dictator, at the hands of soldiers who in the event could not quite succeed in pulling off what they had thought would be a revolution. Within days of Zia's murder, it would be the turn of General M.A. Manzoor, ostensibly the leader of the uprising, to be killed in cold blood by Zia loyalists. All of this is what the country has known over the years. In times that are as far removed from the 1970s and 1980s as they can be, that are clearly a whole lot more transparent than what one could have imagined two or three decades ago, it is now possible for Bengalis to grasp a little more conclusively the factors --- intrigues, conspiracy, et al --- that went into the making of an era that remains sinister in its elemental darkness. And into this story now steps Zayadul Ahsan with his hair-raising account of a failed coup that, once the plot failed to take off, was to leave scores upon scores of soldiers dead after October 1977. His book, Rohoshshomoy Obbhuthyan O Ganophanshi, is a searing account of the innocent men of the Bangladesh air force who were forced to march to the gallows on flimsy, unproven charges of complicity in the revolt that left some senior and reputed officers of the BAF murdered at the old Tejgaon airport on 2 October 1977. And those were exciting times, not so much for the fact that the struggle for ascendancy among the various politicised factions of the military went on in a seemingly endless pattern as for the truth of what was happening around the hijacked Japan Airlines aircraft at Dhaka airport.
The conspirators struck at the precise moment when senior air force men, including their chief Abdul Gaffar Mahmood, remained busy in negotiations with the Red Brigade who had seized the plane and forced it to land in Bangladesh's capital. Competent officers, among whom was Ross Masood, were lined up by rebellious air force men before the hangar and simply mown down. The question remains, though: did these men, egged on by individuals whose identities remain yet unknown, decide to strike on 2 October because the opportunity to stage their coup on 28 September, air force day, was lost when President Ziaur Rahman informed Air Vice Marshal Mahmood he was unable to be part of the celebrations? Ahsan comes up with a hint: Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, meeting Zia in Cairo days before 28 September, warned him of a plot to assassinate the Bangladesh military leader over the next few days. Zia took the hint seriously; and then came the suddenness of the JAL hijacking. As the talks with the Red Brigade neared an end, elements in the army and air force inside Dhaka cantonment went on the offensive against the Zia regime. A day earlier, in Bogra, disturbances in the cantonment left one person dead, three wounded and two missing. In Dhaka, at Tejgaon airport, eleven air force officers were murdered alongside ten soldiers from the army. Forty soldiers were left injured.
The facts Zayadul Ahsan presents are set off in an eerie pattern from the moment Zia loyalists, Mir Shawkat Ali for instance, move resolutely against the mutineers. Over the next twenty days or so, it would be an operation of relentless cruelty as the Zia regime, guided by vindictiveness and palpably oblivious to all norms of civilised behaviour, rounded up hundreds of innocent air force men and inaugurated what would eventually turn into a story of unimaginable horror. Kangaroo courts, officially described as military tribunals, swiftly handed down verdicts of guilty on those taken into custody; and night after night, inside the grim premises of the central jail in the capital, the bodies of hanged men dropped into pits for hours on end. It was Azimpur graveyard which, throughout October 1977, saw brisk nocturnal activity as the dead men were hastily buried, unbeknownst to their families. The case of the widow Aleya remains poignant, and heart-wrenching. In the days and weeks following her airman husband's disappearance, she moved heaven and earth for news of him once he had gone missing after 2 October. No one deigned to keep her informed until much later, to let her know in a terse notification that he had been jailed for his part in the 'conspiracy'. That was not true. The man had been executed already, but that would be known twenty years later! There are other accounts, from men who were among the lucky few to escape the noose but nevertheless found themselves condemned to varied terms of imprisonment. The strand of thought throughout the stories runs along similar patterns. The innocent paid for crimes they did not commit; and ruthlessness was what the Zia military dictatorship employed in its efforts to survive and to ensure that no dissent remained to threaten its grip on power. Ironically, the fearsome Zia was to die in a botched coup slightly over three years later.
Zayadul Ahsan's work is much more than a record keeping of one of the more shameful episodes in the nation's history. It is, in very large measure, a call for those who perpetrated the atrocities on the hundreds of innocent men in the armed forces in light of the 2 October 1977 tragedy to be brought to account. Most of the men who presided over the sham trials of these men, sending them to quick death and putting a few others through inexplicable prison terms, are still alive. Some retired as senior officers in the military, especially in the air force. Others, non-commissioned officers who cheerfully served on the tribunals, went on to serve in the forces till their retirement. In the overweening interest of democratic accountability, all these elements responsible for the horrific executions in the dark need to be traced in order to be brought to justice. Ahsan's think nothing of shooting people down in order to entrench themselves in political illegitimacy.
General Ziaur Rahman would survive twenty one attempted coups. The twenty second brought his life to an end, on 30 May 1981.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Associate Editor, The Daily Observer