15 August: The actual truth must be known
August is our month of mourning. We lost the founder of sovereign Bangladesh and most of his family members through a coup on 15 August. This was at once unforeseen, unwarranted and tragic. We were Pakistani before; now Bangladeshi. Grievance and rebellion against army rule is ingrained in our anti-Pakistan political psychology. Military rule is imposed in Pakistan at regular intervals. In Bangladesh too we saw this thrice – in 1975, 1982 and 2007. 1975 was completely different among those three instances. Whereas the coups in 1982 and 2007 were ‘bloodless’, the coup in 1975 was a ‘bloody' one. Why was this so?
15 August changed politics in Bangladesh completely. There were two elements to this change. One was change of government through a coup. In this process of change, the head of the government and many important political leaders are killed. There was Patrice Lumumba of Congo and Salvador Allende of Chile. This is common and happens in different countries. But the second element is exceptional, and such an incident takes place in very few countries. In our country, not the head of the government and his political aides were killed, members of his family, including women and children, were also killed.
A mass murder took place here. We don’t see such incidents very often. This happened during the time of Russian revolution and seizing the power by the army in Iraq. The revolutionaries or coup leaders did not leave any family members alive. The magnitude of violence was so high in Bangladesh that indemnity ordinance was issued to protect the killers. However, we do not learn from this too. Before and after this, indemnity was given to Rakkhi Bahini and the members of forces who conducted ‘Operation Clean Heart’. I heard about such indemnity for RAB (Rapid Action Battalion) as well but I’m not sure of it.
Much research is being done on 15 August and there will be more studies. But we still do not know many things, though 47 years have gone by. It is said that “this was not the task of just a few disgruntled military officers” but there was a profound conspiracy behind this killings. But the conspiracy could not be revealed until now. We have been hearing about forming a commission about it. I also proposed to form such a commission in an op-ed in 2014. I said for some reason the government does not want to open the Pandora’s Box. The top level of the government has been talking about conspirators and naming names. What is the benefit of forming a commission if this is already known? It is better to publish a white paper on this.
There are two books on 15 August - Bangladesh, the Unfinished Revolution by Lawrence Lifschultz and Bangladesh: A Legacy of Blood by Anthony Mascarenhas. No more investigation is required if someone considers the two books to be the Gospel truth. We have seen a few majors and captains giving directions from Bangabhaban following the 15 August incidents. Rashid and Faruque were their leaders while Awami League leader Khandker Mushtaq Ahmed was the head of the government. General (retd.) MAG Osmani became his defence adviser while chief of defence staff Maj Gen Khalilur Rahman was his assistant. It was known that a new army chief would be made, sacking Maj Gen Shafiullah. It took nine days to do that. Khaled Mosharraf was the first choice of Mushtaque, Osmani, Rashid and Faruque as army chief. Osmani disliked Ziaur Rahman very much. But Ziaur Rahman was made the army chief as most of the coup leaders liked him. My question is, army chief Shafiullah was not a child. He knew he would be removed. Despite this, why did he not resign after 15 August? He could have remained clear to his conscience. Was a job so necessary for him?
On the morning of 15 August, chiefs of three services BDR chief, police chief, deputy chief of Rakkhi Bahini (the chief was not in the country then) went to the radio centre and read out statements announcing their allegiance to Mushtaq. Later we saw many of them were rewarded. Awami League nominated Osmani as president. Shafiullah and Khalilur Rahman got nomination from Awami League in parliament elections. AK Khandaker was elected an MP and made a cabinet member. How was this possible? Was there any dearth of people to be made MP and minister? Thirty tanks started from Kurmitola and entered the city. It is not possible for anyone in the cantonment to sleep in the sound 30 tanks moving together. But no one knew a thing! There was no ammunition for the tanks. Later, Khaled Mosharraf made arrangements to supply ammunition for the tanks without taking any permission from the army chief.
Let’s turn our eyes towards the coup itself. I myself have seen many BKSAL-Awami League leaders taking position at Bangabhaban. The cabinet members got their old portfolios. It seems a section of Awami League took charge of the government removing other sections. One thing is clear here: any conspiracy starts at home. Opportunists enter from outside. No nefarious incident can happen unless there is a conspiracy already. Awami League has to find out how the conditions created within the party and the government.
The prime minister often laments, despite having so many leaders in the party her father’s body was left at Dhanmondi 32 for so many hours. There were salaried people to ensure safety of the president and his family. Did the senior intelligence and police officials at the time submit any written report stating that the house was not safe for the president? I’m very interested to see a copy of that report. If there is any such report those should be available in the archives. If these are not available, I would say there were no such reports. Chief of Indian intelligence agency, RAW, RN Kao himself came to Dhaka and warned the president about the probable coup. What did our officers do? They showed extreme negligence in their duty. Now they are pointing fingers towards the sky and saying this and that person was the conspirator.
There is no guarantee that we will know everything if a commission is formed. There are many commissions already in the country. We all know what they do how far reliable they are. Would the new commission be able to work freely? Our experience says commissions work or prepare a report which would make the government happy. I think it would be tough for any such commission to work independently during any political government. An individual or any private organisation can investigate the matter only if the government agencies ensure that they would extend support. Because checking the intelligence reports will be necessary. But there is serious doubt whether those documents would be revealed. Our government agencies keep much information secret, ‘classified’. Following the Pilkhana carnage, an investigation commission was formed at the leadership of former additional secretary Anis Uz Zaman. Mentioning the limitations of the investigation committee, it was said in the report, “for the sake of investigation this committee deemed it necessary to quiz chiefs of several agencies and a few important persons and collecting intelligence reports from several intelligence agencies. But those could not be done due to lack of cooperation." Any commission, formed to uncover the truth of 15 August could face the same problems.
If any such commission is truly formed, its primary task will be to ask the heads of several agencies and the Awami League leaders, who are still alive, that where were they in the following few hours and days of 15 August incident; what did they do then? We know the arrest of Awami League leaders started on 23 August. What was their role in the seven days in between? Charity begins at home. Let’s the investigation begin from home. Finding the truth out is essential for the sake of justice to history.
Mohiuddin Ahmed is a writer and researcher.