The Politics of Synthesis
Why Ziaur Rahman and his politics remain relevant?
Over a decade ago, Kamila Shamsie wrote an essay titled Pop Idol about rock and pop music under Gen Zia-ul-Huq’s Islamising regime in the Granta magazine. Starting with Nazia and Zoheb Hassan’s Disco Deewane — Pakistan’s first pop video, before ‘Zia’s soulless rule sucked the life out of Pakistan’s youth culture’ —she went on to tell us what happened to Pakistan’s pop idols: Salman Ahmad ‘writes of receiving messages and signs from God, and of his certainty that he is doing God’s work through his music’; Junaid Jamshed ‘joined the Tablighi Jamaat’; and Ali Azmat is railing against ‘all sorts of Zionists … Hindu Zionists, Muslim Zionists, Christian and Jewish Zionists’.
Shamsie and I were both born in the mid-1970s, after our countries had parted ways. And like her, I grew up in that tiny section of my society that had the means to experience rock and roll — by which of course I mean listening to the music.
And my memories of my country in that era is quite different from hers.
We lived in the mofussil Bangladesh when Zia ruled Pakistan. My father was a district engineer, and my parents’ social circle involved other civil and military bureaucrats, lawyers, and doctors. I recall evenings in the district club, where there were mixed double tennis tournaments, uncles playing card games in smoke-filled rooms usually off limits to kids, and aunties having their own soirees. And in the cantonment, alcohol was available.
When Zia was Islamising Pakistan, similar effects were completely absent in my world.
In my world, music continued to play on the television. Boney M, ABBA, Bee Gees were all regulars — disco continued into the 1980s for us. Never mind the bare shoulders, didn’t anyone in BTV know that Rivers of Babylon is a proto-Zionist anthem?
Not just foreign stuff, BTV also played homegrown videos. A young and slim Runa Laila frolicking around in a sari and ghoti-sleeved blouse should be etched into the memory of anyone of a certain age!
Was it just my privileged, cocooned, life or was Ziaur Rahman’s Bangladesh really that different from Zia-ul-Huq’s Pakistan?
Let’s consider a few more examples (beyond a child’s faulty memory).
Other than music videos, there were stuff in our TV that had been banished from a theocratising Pakistan. Much like the ‘free world’, we too wondered who shot JR. And in Shokal Shondhya, we had our own Dallas. Meanwhile, three decades before Mostafa Farooqui, we had Salahuddin Zaki’s Ghuddi and Alamgir Kabir’s Shimana Periye.
Not just the screen, but the print media also had a decidedly cosmopolitan bend. The issues of Bichitra from the 1970s are still available in Neelkhet or district libraries. Shahadat Chowdhury edited a world class magazine (after accounting for the severe resource constraint) week in week out. Check out the subject matters, or the art in its advertisement. And oh, Bichitra was government owned, and Sha Chow was a cautious supporter of Zia.
Or consider Shafiq Rehman’s Jai Jai Din, not the magazine but the novel, serialised in the centre-left (and opposed to the Zia regime) Shondhani. Rehman was cautiously opposed to the Zia regime, and welcomed Kamal Hossain’s leadership of the Awami League. But it’s the depiction of life in affluent Dhaka that is relevant to us.
In fact, let me also draw your attention to the contemporaneous criticism of cultural changes under Zia. There are half a dozen essays in the era’s Eid special Bichitra, Shondhani, and centre-right Robbar (cautiously supporting the Zia regime) about the challenge faced by Bangla culture, not from Islamisation, but from creeping westernisation — morning visits (probhat feri) relegated in favour of midnight laying of wreaths on 21 February, new year’s eve parties becoming bigger than Pohela Boishakh, old fashioned harmonium-tabla based Bangla music coming under threat from the vulgar pop, you get the idea.
Yes, there was an Islamising wave. The weekend was changed from Sunday to Friday. The Red Cross Society became the Red Crescent Society. The general stated that laying flower at the Shaheed Minar — at dawn or midnight — was un-Islamic, he wanted to have a milad mehfil on 21 February. He also had a knack for dreaming on Thursday nights about attending the jumma prayer in a particular mosque that would have been cleaned up months earlier for the presidential visit.
The general in question was, of course, HM Ershad, not Ziaur Rahman.
Does Zia bear any responsibility for the Ershad regime, or the governments that followed? How much of today’s Bangladesh is due to his politics?
This is a question that merits a nuanced and sincere exploration because, four decades after he was gunned down, Zia’s legacy looms large over the country. It’s just that contrary to what is often repeated in the unfree and servile media, the legacy is, on balance, overwhelmingly positive. And most importantly, the best way to move Bangladesh out of the current morass is through Ziaur Rahman’s politics of synthesis.
It’s important to first acknowledge what happened before we can understand why they happened and what they might mean. Before we move to the future, let’s revisit the bullet‑riddled first decade of Bangladesh, starting in March 1971.
The negotiations between the Pakistani military junta and the Awami League government-in-waiting (aimed at resolving the political crisis that started with ZA Bhutto’s refusal to accept Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s victory in the December 1970 elections) collapsed on 25 March, 1971 as the Pakistani President Yahya Khan flew out of Dhaka. By the late evening, Pakistan Army launched the Operation Searchlight — a military crackdown of the East Bengali nationalist uprising that had been in full swing for several weeks. Tens of thousands were killed, including Bengali members of the police and the East Pakistan Rifles (a paramilitary force tasked with, among other things, border patrol).
Upon hearing about the massacres, Majors Shafiullah, Khaled Mosharraf, and Ziaur Rahman of the Pakistan Army’s East Bengal Regiment independently led their battalions in rebellion. Major Zia, stationed in Chittagong, made an iconic radio broadcast declaring Bangladesh an independent state led by Sheikh Mujib. The broadcast was relayed around the country, and other members of the EPR, police forces, and the regular defence forces (including some stationed in West Pakistan) formed the core of the Bangladeshi resistance. Almost all the officers involved in the series of coups and countercoups in the ensuing decade were decorated veterans of the war against Pakistan in 1971.
Fast forward to August 1975.
In a pre-dawn putsch on 15 August, President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was killed in his residence, along with his family members. The putsch was led by Major Faruq Rehman — second-in-command of the country’s armoured units — and his brother-in-law Major Khondoker Abdur Rashid. Khondaker Moshtaq Ahmed, commerce minister in Mujib’s cabinet, assumed the presidency. Moshtaq was seen as ‘Islamic’ and ‘anti‑Indian’ (whereas the Mujib government was considered as ‘secular’ and ‘pro-Indian’).
The army chief Major General Shafiullah affirmed allegiance to the new regime, even though his deputy, Major General Ziaur Rahman, observed that while the president might be dead, the constitution should be upheld and the vice president should assume power. However, Moshtaq was supported by most members of the Mujib cabinet.
The ‘killer majors’ remained outside the army’s formal chain-of-command with their tanks. On 2-3 November, Brigadier Khaled Mosharraf, chief of general staff, demanded that the majors return to the cantonment. Bangladesh Air Force’s Wing Commander Khademul Bashar supported Mosharraf and threatened to strafe Bangabhaban. A deal was reached whereby the majors were allowed to flee the country. Meanwhile, on 3 November, four senior-most Awami League leaders who opposed the Moshtaq regime and remained loyal to the memory of Mujib — including Tajuddin Ahmed, the country’s first prime minister, who led the war effort in 1971 and took the lead in liaising with Indira Gandhi and her government when Mujib was interned in Pakistan — were brutally assassinated in the Dhaka Central Jail, allegedly with the consent of President and the killer majors. As the news of the jail killings broke, pressure built on Moshtaq to resign.
Moshtaq relented, and was replaced by ASM Sayem, then the Chief Justice of the Bangladesh Supreme Court, as president on 6 November. Khaled Mosharraf was named the new army chief, but was accused of being ‘pro-Indian’, and rumours of an imminent Indian invasion to restore the Mujibist order circulated widely.
Using that rumour, Lt Col Abu Taher — retired from services, and a key leader of the radical Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (National Socialist Party) — led a mutiny of jawans and junior commissioned officers on 7 November, as a culmination of his and his party’s years-long anti-Mujib activities. Mosharraf was killed, along with several dozen officers. With Taher’s backing, the jawans declared Major General Ziaur Rahman — under house arrest since Mosharraf’s coup begun — as their leader.
Zia quickly distanced himself from Taher’s Biplobi Shoinik Shongstha (Revolutionary Soldier Society, his secret cell of revolutionary soldiers) and moved to restore discipline in the army. Taher was arrested. His allies unsuccessfully tried to kidnap the Indian High Commissioner to secure his release. By the end of the month, the radicals were suppressed. Taher was eventually hanged in 1976.
Sayem continued as the president, while Zia emerged as the de facto strongman. But elements sympathetic to Faruq-Rashid, Khaled Mosharraf, and Taher continued to oppose the regime from different sides.
For example, some of the killer majors returned to the country and attempted a coup from a garrison in Bogra on 30 April 1976. They were supported by the air force chief, Air Vice Marshal MG Tawab, who reportedly favoured an Islamic republic. The attempt failed, and both the majors and the air vice marshal were exiled.
While the government was busy resolving a hostage crisis involving a hijacked Japan Airlines plane, an uprising broke out in the air force on 2 October 1977. This followed a similar uprising among the army personnel in Bogra. Severe fighting was reported. The uprising, allegedly led by troops sympathetic to Taher, nearly toppled the Zia regime. Scores of officers and jawans were hanged in the aftermath.
President Ziaur Rahman was assassinated in Chittagong during yet another attempted coup on 30 May 1981. The local commander Major General Abul Manzur took responsibility for the coup, and called the rest of the army to join him. While Zia was dead, Manzur’s coup failed, and he was executed while trying to escape.
The primer above show why Talukder Maniruzzaman wrote in The Bangladesh Revolution and its Aftermath that ‘Zia has gone through an almost Darwinian process of selection through the war with Pakistan’. The ideas of Naunihal Singh, an American political scientist, can further contextualise Zia’s ascent to power in November in 1975.
Singh’s book Seizing Power: the strategic logic of military coups is a major contribution to the literature on military coup. His thesis is summarised in this review of the book:
Coup attempts are best understood as coordination games, or “situations in which each individual has an incentive to do what others are doing, and therefore each individual’s choices are based on his or her beliefs about the likely actions of others.” Instead of thinking about coups as battles (e.g., the side with the greatest military power will win) or coups as elections (e.g., the side with the most public support will win), Singh pushes us to think of coup success as being driven by coup-makers’ ability to get others to believe that their coup attempt will be successful.
How do coup-makers convince others their coup attempt will be successful? They convince military actors that the success of the coup has the support of almost everybody in the military and that any possible resistance is minor.
Let’s think about the events of 1975 through the prism of Singh’s analysis.
In the morning of 15 August, radio blared the news of Mujib’s death while tanks roamed the streets of Dhaka. There was no resistance against the killer majors. Surviving senior officers like Major General Shafiullah have pleaded over the years that there was nothing they could have done to save the president. Perhaps they are right. Perhaps not. But Singh’s logic tells us that once Mujib was dead and one of his senior ministers appeared as the leader of the new order, the killer majors succeeded in getting others to believe that their coup attempt was successful. After that, toppling the Moshtaq regime would require a counter-coup.
Khaled Mosharraf’s counter-coup and Taher’s counter-counter-coup failed because neither managed to get others to believe that their respective coup attempts would be successful. Khaled negotiated for hours with the majors and ultimately let them go while the jail killings happened. His aims were never made public, and he was vulnerable to the accusation of ushering in a Mujibist restoration or being a puppet of Indian hegemony. In Taher’s case, ordinary soldiers chose as their leader Zia, the still serving senior military officer who did not share Taher’s politics, and not Taher, who was retired.
And crucially, by the same logic, Zia succeeded in restoring order and consolidating power because of his ability to get others to believe that he would be successful.
It is ironic that Zia’s political heirs spend so much energy in trying to elevate Zia’s 1971 role while his detractors try to portray him as the arch-villain of 1975. A less blinkered view of history would be that the political importance of the March 1971 radio broadcast from Chittagong was the rank and not the person holding it — that it was a major of Pakistan army telling the world, in English, that a war of resistance against the Pakistanis had begun. It may well have been another major in Kalurghat that day in 1971, and things probably wouldn’t have been all that different.
Not so after 7 November 1975, when Zia, and only Zia, could get others — initially the army, then the bureaucracy, the urban elite, and foreign donors, and eventually the entire nation — to believe that he would be successful in preserving Bangladesh’s existence.
A more mature intellectual, if not partisan political, discourse would recognise Ziaur Rahman as the statesman who almost single-handedly secured Bangladesh’s existence in 1975.
Of course, what passes for a discourse in the oppressed, unfree Bangladesh portrays Ziaur Rahman as a military dictator (and that’s usually the most flattering epithet).
How did a typical military dictator behave in the 1970s? He would hold a referendum where he would win 99% of the vote, then form a king’s party while banning his opponents from politics, and then he would continue ruling the country as president and army chief.
How did a typical civilian dictator behave in the 1970s? He, or she, would rig an election, declare a state or emergency, lock up political opponents, ban opposition parties and media, and declare himself president-for-life.
What was Zia’s record?
Like other military men, the first thing he did upon becoming president in April 1977 was to hold a referendum where he won 99% of the votes. So far, so predictable, and not at all remarkable.
It’s what he did next that sets Ziaur Rahman apart.
Zia might well have used the so-called ‘mandate’ to impose his own brand of ‘democracy’ that ensured personal rule without opposition —examples before him were Ayub Khan’s basic democracy, Mujib’s ‘democracy of the oppressed’, or the ‘Islamic democracy’ of his namesake, the Pakistani Zia.
Instead, Zia allowed political parties to function, formed a party of his own, contested elections, and essentially founded the two-party system that was ended by the current regime through thuggery in the past decade.
He has never denigrated politicians as a class – which is itself typical of the present day military rulers of many third-world countries. On the contrary, he has shown adroit political skills in bringing together diverse political groups and accumulating political power though coalition-building.
Indeed. Zia could easily have chosen the path of Ayub and ban all Awami League linked politicians. Like Mujib, Zia could also have formed a ‘national party’ of his own with a monopoly on power. Like the Pakistani Zia and Musharraf, he could have exiled opposition leaders. Instead, leaders such as Kamal Hossain and Hasina Wajed (Mujib’s daughter, avoided the August 1975 massacre by dint of being abroad) were courted to return to the country and rebuild Awami League.
Was Ziaur Rahman a democrat? No, he was not.
As a unitary state with a unicameral legislature where MPs could not vote against the party decision, where all powers were centralised in the hands of a single individual, Bangladesh was not a democracy, even in 1972.
For Bangladesh to develop a genuine, lasting democratic order, major devolution of the state is needed — this is as true today as it was in the 1970s. It is patently the case that Zia did nothing in this regard. But then again, the very survival of the republic was at stake when he assumed power. And none of his successors have made any genuine progress on institutionalising democracy.
In fact, this military ‘dictator’ went much further than any of our ‘democratic’ prime ministers in terms of instituting democratic culture in our polity.
After the untimely death of Mashiur Rahman, Zia’s choice for the prime minister following the 1979 election, the party’s legislators were asked to secretly vote for their parliamentary leader. Zia’s preferred men were Badruddoza Chowdhury and Saifur Rahman —two relatively young technocrats and political neophytes. They were outmaneuvered by Shah Azizur Rahman, a shrewd politician with a checkered past, including collaboration with Pakistan in 1971.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom, memoirs of both Chowdhury and Saifur Rahman as well as contemporaneous reports in the foreign media tell us that Zia did not make Shah Aziz the prime minister in an overture to Pakistan. Rather, Zia reluctantly accepted the party decision in a bid to build the nascent democracy.
Can one imagine the current prime minister subjecting herself to the party decision in this manner?
In a fascinating 2010 article in the Caravan magazine titled How they got here marking the 125th anniversary of the Indian Congress Party, Ramachandra Guha argued that the Indian democracy was established by Jawaharlal Nehru, and how it survived Indira Gandhi.
It is both a tragedy and irony that in Bangladesh, a military man has been closer to Nehru than any so-called democrat.
Zia assumed the presidency in April 1977, and held elections in 1978 and 1979 to civilianise his government. His synthesis of various strands of Bangladeshi polity (secular nationalists, Islamists, pro and anti-India factions, socialists, the bourgeoisie) has been adhered to by all subsequent governments. And even after four decades, when things work in Bangladesh, they work along the path set by Zia.
And they work because the politics of synthesis crafted by this military strongman turned popular politician had continued from the work of his predecessors, and his successors saw the merit in keeping them. This theme of continuity is nowhere more present than in the realm of foreign relations.
Let’s start with the continuity from Zia’s predecessors. Mujib’s core foreign policy priority in 1972 was securing Bangladesh’s place in the comity of sovereign states. This was trickier than might appear today. Much of the world had their own territorial disputes, or were a theatre of cold war, or had their own issues of nationalist discontent, or combinations thereof. As a result, even one of the worst humanitarian crisis in history failed to generate as much sympathy for Bangladesh as we might believe today. Indeed, at the United Nations, only the Soviet bloc countries supported India (and by extension Bangladesh) in December 1971. And even that wasn’t unconditional — the Polish resolution called for demilitarisation (that is, withdrawal of Indian as well as Pakistani forces, and disarming of Mukti Bahini) merely days before Dhaka was liberated.
Against that backdrop, prolonged presence of Indian forces would have reinforced the notion prevailing in most of the capitals that behind the human tragedy, the events of 1971 represented essentially a superpower-backed grabbing of territory by a hostile neighbour.
Mujib grasped that fundamental misperception clearly. That’s why he chose to return home in a British carrier instead of an Indian one. That’s why he insisted on a speedy withdrawal of Indian forces. The thrust of his foreign policy was to demonstrate to the world that Bangladesh’s independence was not only from Pakistan, but also from India.
It’s that need to demonstrate the independence, as much as the practical needs such as access to the Gulf labour market or the return of stranded Bengali officials from Pakistan, that led to Mujib’s trip to the 1974 OIC Summit in Lahore as the leader of ‘Muslim Bengal’. In the meantime, there were clear apprehensions in the Mujib government about the desertification brought on by the Farakka Dam and border infringements.
Meanwhile, as of August 1975, Bangladesh was yet to have relationships with Saudi Arabia and Red China. But both countries were in the process of recognising Bangladesh. It is easy to conflate correlation with causation — that just because the Saudi-Chinese recognition came after the August massacre, there was a direction of causation. But post hoc doesn’t always mean propter hoc.
If one were to abstract from the domestic political upheavals between August 1975 and April 1977, Zia’s foreign policy would seem as a seamless evolution from Mujib’s. Like Mujib, Zia emphasised the relationship with the world beyond India while maintaining a cordial relationship with the giant neighbour.
Of course, we can’t just abstract away from the turbulent last third of 1975. The thing is, Zia’s approach in those months actually support the notion that he didn’t represent a fundamental break from Mujib.
In November 1975, Bangladesh was nearly a failed state. Not only was its civilian political leadership dead or stood discredited, its army was in total disarray with jawans killing dozens of officers. Kader Siddiqui was setting up an insurgency across the border, and fires started in the Chittagong hills. South Asian capitals were rife with rumours of an imminent Indian invasion. If the country’s independence wasn’t secure in January 1972 when Mujib returned, in November 1975 its very existence was in doubt.
Zia’s first task, just like Mujib’s, was to secure the state’s existence. Instead of ramping up the anti-Indian rhetoric — which would have seemed politically attractive given the fate of Khaled Mosharraf (killed under the false accusation of being an ‘Indian puppet’) — Zia assuaged Indian concerns by firmly committing to Mujib’s policies, including the controversial 25-Year Treaty. The result was that by the end of 1975, the possibility of an Indian invasion diminished significantly, and Siddiqui’s insurgency was nipped in the bud.
Between 1976 and 2013 (when the Indian government openly backed Hasina Wajed’s turn to end electoral politics and turn the country into a de facto dictatorship), the Indo‑Bangla relationship had essentially remained steady, characterised by moments of concerns and anticipation in Dhaka, usually followed by apathy and ignorance in New Delhi. Zia’s approach was tried, with different degrees of success depending on the specific issue and the counterpart, by his successors. For example, Zia moved strongly on the Ganges water issue, but so did Hasina Wajed two decades later (and indeed, Mujib himself explicitly raised the Farakka issue even before independence).
Beyond securing independence, and stabilising the relationship with India, Zia’s foreign policy was complementary to his main domestic agenda — uplifting the people’s standard of living. Of course, foreign aid or financing of development project was a part of that. But Zia realised that this couldn’t be a lasting strategy of development. Hence, he focussed on building lasting relationships with Gulf states and China.
The relationship with China bears specific mention. Prophet’s tradition has it that one should visit even China to seek knowledge. This was literally practised by Zia. His time in office coincided with the rise of Deng Xiaoping and beginning of reforms in the larger People’s Republic. Zia closely observed the experiment underway over there, applying the lessons in domestic policies across many sectors. Technical assistance from China, and the Sino-Bangla relations more broadly, reflects a bi-partisan continuity unmatched by anything else in Bangladesh.
As the leader of a small, insignificant state, Zia believed in the importance of a ‘rules-based’ global order. He believed that without global rules, Bangladesh would forever remain at mercy of stronger countries. Accordingly, during his presidency, Bangladesh participated actively in the global arena. The two-year stint in the Security Council, or the shuttle diplomacy between Baghdad and Tehran, are the relatively well-known example of this. But a number of competent bureaucrats — many of whom did not share his domestic politics, and had eventually came to be associated with Awami League (including SAMS Kibria and AMA Muhith, both of whom would go on to become finance ministers under Hasina Wajed) — pushed Bangladesh’s agenda in fora such as the ILO, UNCTAD, WHO or FAO.
Having seen the power of global media in highlighting the plight of his people in 1971, and then see Bangladesh’s image tarnished as a basket case in the post-war years, Zia embarked on a major public relations drive to enhance what we now call ‘Brand Bangladesh’. He travelled widely, and invited major journalists and cultural celebrities to Bangladesh. The result was that by the early 1980s, major western publications like the Economist or Foreign Affairs were writing articles about a miracle-in-the-making.
Remarkable achievement in poverty alleviation and improvement in living standards despite the precarious early years —that’s how the world sees Bangladesh today. The beginning of pretty much every factor that has made this remarkable achievement possible can be traced to the Zia era.
Take population control for example. In the 1970s, population was growing by 3% a year, and was expected to double to 150 million by the mid-1990s. That was delayed by well over a decade, and population growth rate is now between 1-1.5%. At the time of independence, Bangladeshi women on average had seven children. Now the fertility rate is close to replacement level that stabilises population. And unlike in China or India, the decline in fertility rate hasn’t been accompanied by grotesque discrimination against female infants. In fact, on metrics related to living standards of poor women, Bangladesh tends to outperform other comparable countries —part of the so-called Bangladesh paradox.
The turnaround had started in the late 1970s, and the explanation includes concerted government efforts as well as activities of the NGOs and the emergence of the readymade garment sector. Of course, both the first Aarong shop and Desh Garments (the first RMG factory) started when Zia was the president.
What about self-sufficiency in food? The green revolution came to Bangladesh under Zia.
What about the remittance boom that has kept Bangladesh afloat for the past decade? The Gulf labour market opened under Zia.
We can see a pattern here. But let’s not belabour the point. Instead, let’s ask analytical questions. How much of this was because of conscious decisions by Zia? How much of this would have happened anyway under Mujib had he lived? Was Zia simply lucky?
After all, it’s not like Mujib was unaware of the importance of population control, or food security, or women’s empowerment. And he tried to establish relations with the Arab countries.
Mujib’s efforts failed, while Zia succeeded in initiating or establishing the processes that led to the achievements that are celebrated today. The question then becomes, why Zia and not Mujib?
The standard answer to this question is that Mujib had to deal with a war-ravaged country while Zia came in when the hard task of reconstruction was done. But this standard story is only half true, and therefore all wrong. Yes, Mujib had a war-ravaged country. But the country had hardly been reconstructed under Mujib. If anything, after Mujib’s incompetence, the 1974 famine, and the impacts the 1975 chaos, Bangladesh was in a more perilous condition when Zia assumed power.
Zia succeeded not because his task was easier, but because he was a pragmatic leader who eschewed ideology and grandiosity, and adopted ‘whatever works’. We have noted that Zia received political as well as economic support from the Red China right from the beginning. And China itself was undergoing its transition from the Mao to Deng era at the time Zia emerged in Bangladesh. From all accounts, Zia’s pragmatism seems to be heavily influenced by Deng Xiaoping’s philosophy of ‘crossing the river by feeling the stones’.
Thus, for example, Zia facilitated the NGOs to expand not because there was an ideological dispensation for it, but because he recognised that these agencies were providing services that the state machinery was incapable of delivering.
This is not to say that Zia was an ‘ideology free opportunist’. Far from it. The opportunist thing in the late 1970s would have been to talk about socialism while encouraging crony capitalism — ironically, how things are in today’s Bangladesh. But Zia consciously and deliberately turned away from socialism.
It’s impossible to overstate how radical Zia was in practice, not in rhetoric, in the late 1970s. This was before the Reagan-Thatcher ascendancy, before the reform eras of China and India, before Glasnost and Perestroika. Soviet Union was still exporting revolution, as was Red China. Indeed, Zia himself was put to power by radical soldiers claiming to carry out a ‘people’s revolution’. The opportunist thing to do would have been for Zia to dub himself the Great Socialist.
Instead, what Zia claimed to base his economic policies was ‘social justice’ — samajik nyaybichar in Bangla. Now, social justice has never actually been defined formally. But we can guess what he would have meant by this from what was adopted and initiated under his watch.
Based on what had actually happened, it would appear that for Zia, social justice involved: economic growth that resulted in jobs and incomes for the rural and urban poor and less affluent classes; stable prices and macroeconomic stability; government programmes and safety nets such as food vouchers for the needy; and active government programmes for human development, and particularly development of the marginalised sections of the society.
That is, Ziaur Rahman’s concept of social justice, I would contend, is what Amartya Sen says Bangladesh is better at than India.
Over the past decades, across the Muslim world, parties that briefly enjoyed power on the back of popular mandates, contained ‘social justice’ or related terms such as welfare or development in their names. That is, Ziaur Rahman’s synthesis has been too relevant not just in Bangladesh, but in other similar countries too.
Of course, Zia did not put social iustice in the name of his party, which is called the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. And we don’t have to infer what Zia understood as Bangladeshi nationalism. We have his own words for this. In a published speech to his party legislators in 1979, Zia observed that Bangladeshi nationalism was based on ethnic heritage, a rich language, religious tradition, geographic location, dream of a new economic order, and the spirit of the war of independence.
That is as inclusive an articulation of identity in our blood-stained, mottled part of the world as one would find. Of course, this inclusive articulation was also accompanied by the replacement of secularism with ‘trust in the Almighty Allah’ as a ‘high ideal’ in the constitution. Islam was officially proclaimed the state religion by the Ershad regime in 1988. And both Islam and secularism co-exist in the constitution today, with the explicit support of the ruling Awami League, which can (and has) changed the document at will.
Perhaps it’s not difficult to explain how things have turned out. For much of the past two centuries, Bengali Muslims have wrestled with their identity — Muslims first with ties to the Islamic world beyond Khyber, or Hindu-Muslim bhai bhai (no one ever heard of the undoubtedly more attractive Hindu-Muslim sorority?) … you get the drift. Perhaps that internal struggle of the majority community needs to play out to a resolution for every generation. And until a resolution is negotiated, perhaps no other ideology — be it secularism or environmentalism or any other -ism — can hold the public attention. This is particularly important for secularism — unless the Bengali Muslims are comfortable in their own skin, perhaps it’s too much to hope that they would notice others around them.
And therein lies the genius of Ziaur Rahman’s synthesis. He understood clearly the importance of a politically stable and economically viable Bangladesh for the Bengali Muslims to feel secure in, and the necessary negotiation of the identity issue so that the polity and economy could develop. That’s why he stressed that Bangladeshi nationalism had ‘absorption power’ and ‘elbow room’ —specific phrases used in the original Bangla speech.
“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain”, Harvey Dent’s observation in the political philosophy masterpiece The Dark Knight is perhaps never more resonant than describing Bangladesh of 1975.
Ziaur Rahman definitely did not live long enough. But while not a villain, from a certain point of view, Ziaur Rahman was a failure. He failed to pacify the violent, faction ridden, ill‑disciplined rabble that was the Bangladesh Army. He was killed by yet another coup attempt. He was only 45.
Four decades on, however, the challenges he faced are still before us, and his synthesis still provides the most feasible way of resolving them.
The synthesis offered by Bangladeshi nationalism seemed to have been torn asunder in 2013 by rival mobs shouting Joi Bangla in Shahabag and Allah Akbar in Shapla Chattar. Of course, Hasina Wajed will never acknowledge it. But her delicate cajoling and corralling of the ulema is a desperate attempt at recreating the Zia synthesis, albeit in a vulgarised and bastardised form.
As the world comes to terms with the end of Pax Americana and restoration of China at the centre of our continent, Ziaur Rahman’s foreign policy remains the best option for Bangladesh, and the one being pursued by the current regime, albeit less successfully because unlike Zia, the current prime minister does not believe in meritocracy.
And as the world economy recovers from the pandemic, and in the face of looming climate crisis, Zia’s synthesis of social justice is the default policy objective of any Bangladeshi government.
Unlike Zia, or Mujib for that matter, Hasina Wajed’s tasks ought to have been much simpler insofaras the country’s existence has never been in doubt since the 1970s. Of course, Hasina had made her task that much more complicated because in one crucial aspect she has deviated from the Zia synthesis —whereas the late president worked hard to build institutions becoming of a republic, the current prime minister has been systematically destroying every organ of the state.
One day the current order will end. Whatever the circumstances of that rupture, Maniruzzaman’s four decades old admonition would still hold true: ‘For the long-run development of viable civilian institutions, … political leaders … have to practise self‑restraint, conduct themselves according to the rules framed for political participation and forsake their penchant for “winner take-all” games’.
Ziaur Rahman and his politics of synthesis provide the best example and foundation for any future politician serious about building a better Bangladesh.