Hussein Muhammad Ershad, former President and military dictator of Bangladesh died at the Command Military Hospital, Dhaka on July 14 of multiple health complications. His demise brings down curtains on the life of a man whose rise in Bangladesh’s politics was phenomenal. How history judges him remains to be seen
When the liberation struggle for Bangladesh was in full swing, many military officers, young and middleaged, deserted the Pakistani army in 1970-71 and jumped into the liberation movement inspired by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s magical rhetoric and their desire to be free. Likewise, there were many from the Pakistani Foreign Service who defected from various diplomatic missions and helped in creation of Bangladesh.
Ershad, however, remained in West Pakistan commanding an infantry unit of the East Bengal regiment. Once Bangladesh was created and the government in Dhaka had assumed some shape, Ershad came back to Bangladesh in 1973 and did not seem to feel discomfited in any way in the midst of an array of freedom fighters who were now occupying key positions in the Bangladesh Army. In hindsight, it would now appear that being an ambitious man, he had already calculated that being a 1952 Commissioned Officer, seniority and age remained on his side and he could climb the ladder.
His plans were ready. Luck too was on his side. He was made the Chief of the Army in 1978 and in the following year, he was elevated to the rank of a Lieutenant General. He was perhaps waiting for an opportunity to steal the limelight in the corridors of power.
Came 30 May 1981. President Zia ur Rahman was assassinated in the Chittagong Circuit House by a section of disgruntled army officers who attempted to stage a coup. Maj Gen Manzoor, Commander of 24 Infantry Div was suspected to be behind the assassination plot which was carried out with military precision reminiscent of Sheikh Mujib’s killing six years earlier. Ershad, at the helm of the military, ordered troops loyal to him to advance towards Chittagong enroute to Rangunia on the border of Burma.
Manzoor was killed by proErshad troops and with him died the secret of the conspiracy that led to the Zia murder. Whether it was done by a design hatched by Ershad remains a matter of conjecture.
In less than a year of President Zia’s assassination, in April 1982, Ershad assumed charge as the Chief Martial Law Administrator (CMLA) of Bangladesh. The military dictator was now in full form and it seemed that his ambitious mechanism was working according to his machinations and long-term ambitions.
Acting swiftly on his plans, Ershad removed the then President and assumed charge as head of the government. He didn’t lose much time to form a political party called Jatiya Party and consolidated his bastion of Rangpur and other adjacent areas.
gpur and other adjacent areas. Combining military skills, shrewdness and organisational capabilities, Ershad soon became a force to reckon with in marginalising his political opponents and keeping the much-politicised armed forces on his side.
Ershad rehabilitated many killers of Mujibur Rahman. He also inducted many tainted with Mujib’s killing into his party and government and also accused of collaborating with pro-Pakistani elements who killed freedom fighters.
His political career peaked till 1991 but as with practically all military autocrats, discontentment with his misrule including charges of corruption rose to an extent that the Awami League, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and others joined hands in a popular movement and forced him to abdicate office in 1991. Later, he remained in jail for quite some time but was bailed out by Hasina and he aligned with her by joining her alliance in 2006. He maintained tremendous mass following in the northern districts of Bangladesh and was often credited with introducing reforms in the rural sector. Ershad also flirted with Bangla poetry to woo intellectuals. A man of many parts, he tried everything under the sun to stay in power. His exit notwithstanding, his party remained in the political mainstream returning good number of MPs in the elections in 1996, 2006 and 2008. In 2008, his party won as many as 27 seats.
An opportunist to the core, Ershad evinced interest in friendship with India to elicit support to come back to power. He maintained close liaison with back channel mediators to befriend India. Such attempts are seen to be for selfish reasons and only for his political goals. Once when Babri Masjid was attempted to be damaged, Ershad allegedly encouraged religious extremist forces to vandalise Hindu temples by desecrating idols and damaging Hindu property. He is also thought to have been a silent spectator when Indian buildings in Bangladesh, including the Indian Airlines office, were violently targeted.
On the other hand, however, he took pride in having attended the National Defence College (NDC) in New Delhi in 1975 and was a close friend of an IPS officer, the late Jaspal Singh, who had been Vadodra police commissioner. His party delegation visited India in 2017-18 meeting a number of institutions to impress upon them his significance in Bangladesh politics. Whenever needed, he would say that he was born in Coochbehar in India thus trying to signal his emotional proximity to India.
After the death of Indian spiritual personality, Anandmayee Ma in the early 1980s, then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi requested Ershad to get Anandmayee’s Shiva temples restored. They had been pulled down by Pakistani occupation forces in 1971. The Indian PM had also asked to get Anavdmayee’s school and house in her native place reconstructed. Ershad saw to it that the request was complied with. In parallel, he always kept Saudi Arabia and a couple of self-proclaimed religious individuals in good humour lest he was seen as alienated from the Islamic community.
A dictator has now departed from the Bangladesh political scene. Tributes have come from the Bangladesh President and Prime Minister but those in power must have heaved a sigh of relief in the exit of an encumbrance. His legacy may be carried forward by his brother, GM Qader or his widow Roshan Ershad but they surely do not have the charm of Ershad. Hence, the future of his Jatiya Party looks uncertain.
The writer is a security analyst and columnist on security matters who served in Dhaka. Views expressed are personal.