The Guardian (London)

– 15 August 1979 - 


Four years ago the founding nationalist leader of Bangladesh was killed in a military putsch. Lawrence Lifschultz contrasts the manner in which this event was reported at the time with the facts that he has subsequently unearthed.

STORIES GET TOLD and stories get reported. Frequently a foreign correspondent trying to penetrate the surface appearance of an intricate set of events filled with their own macabre web of killings and betrayals, fails at first to get the report right. A coup d’etat or midnight butcheries, occurring in distant spots at moments of unexpected crisis, are often reported with little real accuracy at the time. Few writers go back to those reports, once put on page one, to discover later that the real story was a very different one.

Just such a case occurred four years ago on the night of August 14, 1975, when the founding nationalist leader of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was killed in a military putsch. For The Guardian, Martin Woollacott and I filed one of the most detailed accounts of what happened. It ran as the lead story on August 23, 1975. Looking back it appears that we inevitably missed a lot. But, as with all such events when they happen, no one except the actual participants, knew what had really gone on. The coup happened on one of those hot sweltering monsoon nights that blow up each summer from the Bay of Bengal. It was a quiet evening and the political talk in the tea shops of Dacca that day was about Mujib’s speech planned for the next morning at the university. Life had been going from bad to worse in Bangladesh and people wondered if one of the left wing underground parties might try to make trouble during the university ceremony. But, otherwise, the night did not seem much different from many others that summer.

Yet life in Dacca did take a sudden turn that August evening. Just after midnight, the Bengal Lancers and the Bangladesh Armored Corps slowly trundled out of the capital’s main cantonment toward the runways of the abandoned half-built second airport on the capital’s edge. As they lined up in formation on the main runway, the commanding officer of the column, Major Farooq, stood on a tank and told his men that very night they would overthrow Mujib’s regime. It was a fire-eating speech and by the time Farooq had finished they were ready to go. They moved out and split into three columns. Within three hours, Mujib and more than forty members of his family were dead.

 The version of events, which emerged at the time, was that six junior officers with three hundred men under their command had acted on their own in overthrowing Mujib. The motives for the coup were attributed to a combination of personal grudges held by certain of the officers against Mujib and his associates, together with a general mood of frustration at the widespread corruption which had come to characterize Mujib’s regime. In reporting the coup no foreign or Bengali journalist probed beyond the superficial aspects of what had happened. What contacts the officers had made before August, which politicians had been contacted, were ignored. The version of events that the officers had acted alone, without prior political planning, was a myth that came to stand as fact.

The morning Mujib and his family were killed, the figure installed by the young majors as President was Khondakar Mustaque, generally considered to be the representative of the rightist faction within Mujib’s Awami League. After the putsch, Mustaque remained impeccably reticent about any part he personally might have played in Mujib’s downfall. He neither confirmed nor denied his prior involvement. He simply avoided any public discussion of the question, and desperately attempted to stabilize his regime.

 A year following the coup, after he had himself been toppled from power and before his own arrest on corruption charges, Mustaque denied to me any prior knowledge of the coup plan or prior meetings with the army majors, who carried out the action. The majors, however have told a very different story. They have confirmed prior meetings and prior links with Mustaque and his associates. Knowledgeable Bengali and foreign diplomatic sources now claim that Mustaque and his political friends had been involved for more than a year in plans designed to bring about the overthrow of Mujib. According to information obtained from senior US officials at the American Embassy in Dacca and from well-informed Bengali sources, it appears that the United States had prior knowledge of the coup which killed Mujib, and that American Embassy personnel had held discussions with individuals involved in the plot more than six months prior to his death.

According to one highly placed US Embassy diplomat, officials at the American Embassy were approached by people intending to overthrow the government of Sheikh Mujibur Rhaman. The Embassy source has stated that a series of meetings took place with Embassy personnel between November 1974 and January 1975. These discussions were held with the purpose of determining the attitude of the U.S. Government towards a political change in Bangladesh if a coup d’etat were actually to happen. The contacts occurred during the period in which the Church and Pike Congressional Committee hearings in Washington on CIA assassinations of foreign leaders were gearing up. The committee hearings were having their own impact within the American diplomatic and intelligence bureaucracies, creating great nervousness and anxiety. The American press was openly speculating that senior American intelligence officials might face imprisonment for illegal clandestine action in Chile and elsewhere.

In the atmosphere emanating from the Senate hearings a decision was taken within the US Embassy in Dacca in January 1975. According to a senior official, “We came to an understanding in the Embassy that we would stay out of it and disengage from those people.” Although a decision was made at a high level in the Embassy that there would be no further contact with the anti-Mujib group what happened subsequently is a matter of controversy among US officials interviewed. Those who knew of the earlier meetings deny any personal knowledge of what happened after early 1975. Others allege that while contact was broken off at the level of diplomatic and foreign service officials, who wished to remain “clean”, liason was taken over and carried on through the channel of the American Embassy’s CIA Station Chief, Philip Cherry, and other station agents.

When interviewed, Cherry categorically denied this allegation. “The Bangladeshis were doing it to themselves,” said Cherry. “It’s a great canard to think any coup takes place because of a [outside] government involvement. Almost always coups take place because of the people themselves.” When asked about the Mustaque network’s previous history of confidential contacts with the United States, Cherry stated: “There are politicians who frequently approach embassies and perhaps have contacts there. They think they may have contacts. But that’s a far cry from any of those embassies involved in assisting them in involvement in a coup.” 

Indeed, Khondakar Mustaque had an important basis on which to “think he had contacts”. For years among those familiar with the events of Pakistan’s civil war, there have circulated vague stories and rumors of secret contacts and negotiations,  carried out by the Americans in 1971. However, there has never been any precise information confirming the existence and nature of those contacts. Yet, according to an unpublished study commissioned by the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a leading American foreign policy research institution, the existence of these links has been definitively established. In 1973 the Carnegie Endowment commissioned a study of the conduct of US policy during the 1971 Bangladesh crisis to examine the process whereby the US “tilt” toward Pakistan virtually countenanced a situation of genocide. Due to internal dissension at Carnegie the nine-month study was never completed, although over 150 senior officials—from the State Department to the Central Intelligence Agency—had been interviewed in detail.

 What happened in Bangladesh in August 1975 was by no means as simple as it was once made to appear. The version accepted by both the foreign and Bengali press was a simple story. Mujib’s regime was in trouble. The country had just suffered a famine that had killed an estimated 50,000 peasants, for which government incompetence and corruption was blamed. Democratic rights were increasingly being crushed by the authorities which were closing newspapers and locking Mujib’s opponents away. Civil unrest and rural insurgency were growing problems. In this atmosphere, so the story went, six young majors with 300 men under their command took it upon themselves to organize a putsch, acting with a mixture of motives stretching from personal embitterment to their own Messianic delusions of Islamic Bonapartism.

The story emphasized that they had acted alone and unilaterally, and that after the killing of Mujib they suddenly decided to pick up Khondakar Mustaque as a replacement. In taking on the presidency, Mustaque was portrayed with all the innocence of a victim of circumstance. But, whether Mustaque had himself taken part in a complicated plan nearly a year old, involving a variety of links, remained unexamined.

 The military men who actually killed Mujib appear to have been brought firmly into the Mustaque circle’s scheme of things only in late March or early April. The majors had ideas of their own before that but lacked a political glove to fit their gun hand into. Mustaque and his political circle were in the process of discreetly checking military contacts which they could adopt and integrate into their own strategy. While one the majors was a relative of Mustaque’s, the Mustaque group initially preferred a senior officers’ coup d’etatAccording to Bangladesh military sources with intimate knowledge of the events, approaches were made to the Deputy Chief of Army Staff, Major-General Ziaur Rahman (Zia), currently Bangladesh’s head of state. Mustaque’s representative in the approach to Zia is alleged by Bangladesh military sources to have been Mabub Alam Chashi, once Mustaque’s trusted deputy in Calcutta in 1971, and the principal go-between in the contacts with the United States at the time.

 General Zia, these sources report, expressed interest in the proposed coup plan, but expressed reluctance to take the lead in the required military action. Zia on March 20, 1975 was subsequently approached again by Majors Rashid and Farooq. The junior officers had already worked out a plan, Rashid told Zia and they wanted his support and his leadership. Zia again temporized. According to Rashid, Zia told him that as a senior officer he could not be directly involved, but if the junior officers were prepared they should go ahead. Having failed to secure reliable leadership for the coup from the senior officer cadre, the Mustaque group went forward with the junior officers’ plot. While they might have preferred a senior officers coup, they secured the next best option. With General Zia’s neutrality or even tacit support assured the junior officers could move ahead without fear that Zia would throw his forces against them after the coup. From April onwards the scheme moved to maturity. Three months after the August putsch, following new upheavals, Zia was to take over as the country’s military strongman and ultimately arrest Mustaque who remains in prison to this day.

 Since the coup occurred, there has been little analysis of the contradictory phenomena that existed. Ignored was the stark juxtaposition that in the two years prior to the coup, it was the country’s organized left wing parties, such as the J.S.D. (Socialist National Party), the National Awami Party (Bhashani), and the underground organizations like the Sharbohara Party, which had developed and mobilized public sentiment against Mujib’s regime; yet, when the critical moment of collapse came for Mujib, it was not from a leftist mass uprising”The Revolution”as had been feared, but from a narrowly-based conspiracy of the right. The challenge being developed and prepared by radical nationalist forces was pre-empted by the August events. The coup itself was an inside job by right wing elements within Mujb’s own part, his own cabinet, his own secretariat, and his own national intelligence service, who viewed Mujib’s leadership as no longer capable of holding out against a left wing challenge to their interests.

 Whether or not the United States had prior knowledge of these plansgiven the assertions of State Department sources and the counter-assertions of CIA officialscannot be conclusively settled without the power of Congressional subpoena. But, it is clear beyond a doubt that the United States had important prior relationships with the political and intelligence leadership of the coup.

 Mujibur Rahman’s demise in Bangladesh marked, as did Bhutto’s four years later in Pakistan, the end of an entire era of hopes and illusions surrounding the prospects for social democracy in conditions of severe backwardness and underdevelopment in both societiesBangladesh and Pakistanthe regression to forms of military and bureaucratic dictatorship has reasserted itself like an old and depressing cancer. During the decade of the 1960s much of the democratic and socialist opposition, including democrats like Mujbur Rahman found themselves in prison. Only the arrival of mass politics and mass politicisation swept the military dictatorships back to the barracks. Now the cycle has spun around again in both societies and, although elections under military hegemony is the order of the generals, the can be no illusions of a popular “new democracy’ emerging under such conditions.

 Whether at least in Bangladesh the long arm of American power and the “security” vision of Kissinger assisted in this reversion to past authoritarian forms is yet to be dug out down to the last detail. In the meantime, the long night of “martial democracy” will continue in Bangladesh until the history of what happened finally breaks out of obscurity and into the open.

 Lawrence Lifschultz was formerly South Asia Correspondent of the Far Eastern Economic Review. He is the author of Bangladesh: The Unfinished Revolution, published today by Zed Press, London.