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One of history’s greatest and cruellest vengeances

By Nooruddin Ahmed:

“It seemed that the events of Karbala were being re-enacted on the soil of Bengal. Yet women and children were not murdered in Karbala. Even a cruel person like Yazid spared women and children”. 

Sheikh Hasina, 16 August 1980, York Hall, London

Two weeks before the extermination of their entire family in Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina, accompanied by her sister Sheikh Rehana, her son Sajeeb Wajed Joy and daughter Saima Wajed Putul, arrived in Germany on 30 July 1975 to visit her husband Dr M. A. Wajed Miah, a nuclear scientist who was conducting post-doctoral research there. They left behind a normal and happy family at home. Little could they imagine that in a matter of weeks they would be orphaned in the most horrific manner? They would lose not only their much beloved parents but their extended family, and be rendered stateless.

However, on that frightful night they happened to be in Brussels on a short visit and were due to leave the next morning for France when they first learnt about the shocking events in Bangladesh. They cancelled their planned trip to France and returned to Germany on the afternoon of 15 August 1975.

For nearly four weeks both sisters lived through unimaginable anguish and agony of not knowing what really happened in Dhaka. On 25 August they went to India and sought political asylum. Upon arriving at the New Delhi Airport there was not a single soul to meet and greet them. The Two sisters and their family waited for nearly an hour before Indian officials came to meet them and make the necessary arrangements for their stay in India. Observing the state of the Sheikh family at Delhi Airport a Sikh officer remarked:

“Only two weeks ago these two young ladies with these two little children passed through this airport as VIP. What an irony of fate, today their situation is so painful. This is indeed an unbelievable scenery”.

[P271, M.A. Wajed Miah, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibkey Ghirey Kichhu Ghatana O Bangladesh, University Press, Dhaka, 2000]

Two weeks after their arrival in India they were taken to meet the Indian Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi at her official residence. After the initial greetings Mrs Gandhi asked Dr Wajed Miah, in the presence of Sheikh Hasina, whether he was fully aware of what had happened in Dhaka.  Dr Wajed Miah told Mrs Gandhi about what they had heard through Reuters and the British High Commission in Dhaka. Mrs Gandhi then asked a high-ranking official present at the meeting for the latest briefing on the events of 15 August. The officer informed Mrs Gandhi with a heavy heart that not a single member of Bangabandhu’s family was alive. Upon hearing this dreadful news Sheikh Hasina broke down in tears. Mrs Gandhi then embraced Sheikh Hasina and tried to comfort her with these words:

“What you have lost is irreplaceable. You have a little son and a daughter. From now on treat your son as your father and your daughter as your mother. Beside that you have your younger sister and your husband with you. Now you have to take the responsibility for raising your children and your sister. Therefore, you must not breakdown under any circumstances”.

[P273, M.A. Wajed Miah, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibkey Ghirey Kichhu Ghatana O Bangladesh, University Press, Dhaka, 2000]

Five years after the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, along with sixteen members of his family and his Military Secretary Col Jamil and a number of maids and guests, Sheikh Hasina addressed a historic public meeting on 16 August 1980, at York Hall in the East End of London to appeal to the people of Bangladesh and the world for justice.  On a beautiful, sunny and warm afternoon Sheikh Hasina, accompanied by her sister Sheikh Rehana, arrived at York Hall and was greeted by a huge crowd. Breaking away from typical Bengali time-keeping people from different parts of the country and various walks of life had arrived at York Hall hours before the arrival of Sheikh Hasina and they came to see and hear her. They had nothing to offer but boundless love, tears and warmth of their hearts. And they did indeed offer both the surviving daughters of Bangabandhu their infinite love and warmth with tears. Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehana were visibly moved by the overwhelming responses and support of the people. Nevertheless, Indeed, Sheikh Hasina remained very composed and walked very confidently and steadfastly towards the stage. It was undoubtedly a very dignified entry and marked her arrival into Bangladesh’s national politics. Sheikh Hasina then eloquently delivered a very moving speech.

Observing the entire event and the performance of Sheikh Hasina, the late poet Shaheed Quadri made the following remarks to the author after the meeting:

“This girl will go a long way. She is indeed very courageous like her father. Baper betee-father’s daughter”.

Sheikh Hasina began her speech with an expression of gratitude towards the audience for assembling at York Hall to hear her and the activists for continuing the struggle for justice. She went on to describe the horrendous event and painful experiences:

“You are fully aware of the most disgraceful and inhuman murders that took place on the soil of Bengal on 15 August 1975[i]. At that time, we two sisters were abroad and thereby survived the assassins’ bullets. This escape is not something to be happy about. We would have been much happier if we had died together with all of them”.

[P1, Nooruddin Ahmed (edit), Banglar Jonogoner Kache Bicher Chai (An Appeal to the People of Bangladesh for Justice), London, 1980]

On that day the two surviving daughters of Bangabandhu wanted an explanation from the people of Bangladesh and the world for the brutal killings of the innocent people. Sheikh Hasina commented:

“At the end with utmost brutality they tortured and killed Russell sona-dear Russell. But why? He begged for his life?  Did the heartless killers fear a 10-year-old child? I appeal to you and the rest of the world to tell me why they killed my Russell sona in this manner”?

[P1, Nooruddin Ahmed (edit), Banglar Jonogoner Kache Bicher Chai (An Appeal to the People of Bangladesh for Justice), London, 1980]

In the early hours of 15 August 1975, the killers attacked the home of Bangabandhu in Dhanmondi and shot and killed him from close range. The gang then went on a killing spree murdering his wife Begum Fazilatunnessa Mujib, his sons Sheikh Kamal and Sheikh Jamal, as well as their newly wedded wives Sultana Kamal and Parvin Jamal and her younger brother Sheikh Naser. Finally, the perpetrators brutally murdered Bangabandhu’s 10-year- old son Sheikh Russel. Upon receiving a call from Bangabandhu, Col Jamil Uddin Ahmed, Sheikh Mujib’ s Military Secretary, rushed to help Bangabandhu. However, Col Jamil was killed outside Bangabandhu’s house before being able to offer any assistance.

Killing Bangabandhu along with his entire family and his military assistant was not enough for the killers. At around the same time they slaughtered Sheikh Mujib’s nephew Sheikh Moni and his pregnant wife Begum Arzoo Moni in their home, located a short distance from Sheikh Mujib’ s house. Sheikh Hasina told the audience:

“Their sons are still searching for their lost parents. I question the people of the world as to whether they can put a stop to the tears of weeping children? Can they ensure their parents return”?

[P1-2, Nooruddin Ahmed (edit), Banglar Jonogoner Kache Bicher Chai (An Appeal to the People of Bangladesh for Justice), London, 1980]

It would have been very normal to expect that by this time the murderer’s thirst for blood would have been quenched by taking so many lives. But this was not the case. They now went to the home of Sheikh Mujib’s brother-in-law, Agriculture Minister Abdur Rab Serniabat, and killed him. His 4-year- old grandson Sukanto Abdullah, 10-year-old son Arif Serniabat, 13-year- old daughter Baby Serniabat, his brother’s son 25year-old Shahid Serniabat and Abdul Naim Khan Rintu were also killed along with visiting guests and servants. Sheikh Hasina informed that the audience that:

“Their young daughter has been disabled by the bullets of the killers. The questions in her eye are what did I do wrong? What is my future”?  

[P2, Nooruddin Ahmed (edit), Banglar Jonogoner Kache Bicher Chai (An Appeal to the People of Bangladesh for Justice), London, 1980]

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was the undisputed leader of Bangladesh — he was Bangabandhu, friend of Bengal, the architect of Bangladesh’s independence-and father of the Nation. Yet the killers did not allow him to be buried in the nation’s capital, Dhaka. Instead, they took his body to his native village, Tungi Para, with the aim of burying him without the necessary religious rituals. But local people stood bravely in front of the soldiers, who were pointing guns at them, and categorically refused to bury Sheikh Mujib without the Islamic rituals. Finally, the soldiers surrendered to will of the local people and allowed them a short time to conduct the burial in the appropriate manner. However, the people of Tungi Para had trouble finding soaps, perfume and a burial shroud as all the shops were closed. Nonetheless, they did manage to secure some ordinary soap for washing and a saree to be used as a shroud. In fact, the people of Tungi Para showed remarkable courage in front of their adversaries and bid farewell to their Raja King (local people affectionately called him as Raja of heart) with much love, care and respect.

The killers had conspired to deny Sheikh Mujib a final resting place in the capital of the nation state he had founded. However, the killers were ignorant and unaware that during a conversation with his colleagues at his house in Dhanmondi in 1975, Sheikh Mujib said that:

“If I die, then you do one thing, bury me in a village of Bengal, near a paddy field or bamboo grove. So that I can have the taste of the soil of Bengal, I can listen to the songs of the birds of Bengal and inhale the aroma of the golden paddies of Bengal. And build no monument on my grave. Instead make a Chunga– cone and leave it on my grave. So that the people of Bengal can see for centuries to come that, someone by the name of Sheikh Mujib one day came into the politics of Bengal with a Chunga made of tin in his hand. Throughout his life he screamed Bangalee-Bangalee. One day he left this world holding on that Chunga yelling Bangalee-Bangalee”.

[P7-8, Mizanur Rahman (edit) Bangabandhur Vashan (Speeches of Bangabandhu), Novel Publications, Dhaka, 1988]

The killings which began on 15 August continued until 3 November 1975. On this day the assassins brutally slaughtered four national leaders- Syed Nurul Islam, Tajuddin Ahmed, Captain Monsur Ali and Kamruzzaman inside the Dhaka Central Jail. Sheikh Hasina tells us why the four national leaders were killed:

“They were the closest associates of my father and the tireless vanguards of the independence struggle. They refused to condone the events of 15 August and pursued non-cooperation with the murderous regime of Mushtaque. Spurning the ministerial positions offered they defied the regime, choose to go to the prison, and thereby embraced death. While alive they stood by my father and through death they showed their ultimate solidarity”.

[P3, Nooruddin Ahmed (edit), Banglar Jonogoner Kache Bicher Chai (An Appeal to the People of Bangladesh for Justice), London, 1980]

There is nothing new in the assassination of politicians or heads of government. History is replete with such examples. However, the events of 1975 in Bangladesh are unique and unparalleled.  What soon became very clear is that the murders were calculated and meticulously planned to erase the physical and spiritual contribution of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from the history of Bangladesh.

The first signs of their real motivations were exposed in the early hours of 15 August when the Bangladesh Betar came on the air as Radio Bangladesh to announce the death of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The Joi Bangla signature tune of   Bangladesh Betar was replaced with Bangladesh Zindabad along the line of Pakistan Zindabad- Long live Pakistan.  But Joi Bangla was not just a mere slogan. It was a mantra for national unity and helped in shaping the national identity over a long period of Bangladesh’s struggle for independence. During the Liberation War this was a mantra recited by every freedom fighter even though many never returned home. Major Rafiq-Ul-Islam a decorated freedom fighter and a Sector Commander explained the significance of Joi Bangla slogan:

“Joi Bangla. What a magic this slogan had no one can ever tell? But throughout the period of uprising and through the war this slogan became part of our life and drove the people into action against the enemy. It replaced all forms of greetings throughout the war. In short this slogan became a part of our life and eventually a part of our history”. 

[P45, Rafiq-Ul-Islam, a Tale of Millions: Bangladesh Liberation War 1971, Bangladesh Books International, Dhaka, 1981]

The next thing the killers did was to run the dagger through the heart of the constitution by replacing the “historic struggle for national liberation” with “historic liberation war”. This was deliberately designed to mislead the people and to falsify history in order to eradicate all traces of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – for example,  by telling them that Sheikh Mujib was absent during the liberation war. Such a claim is wrong and a gross misrepresentation. The fact is that his physical absence did not hinder the liberation war. In fact, his presence was felt everywhere, from the battlefields to capital cities across the world, from Delhi to Washington, from New York to London. Sheikh Mujib was very much present in everything to do with Bangladesh’s liberation struggle. No business about Bangladesh was conducted without references to him. For instance, President Richard Nixon was visibly concerned at the secret trial of Sheikh Mujib in a Pakistani military court.  He enquired with Henry Kissinger about the motivation of President Yahya Khan– “Why did he do that? In reply Kissinger said. “He’s a big honourable, stupid man”.

[P244, Gary Bass, the Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide, Afred A. Knopf, New York, 2013]

The Americans were becoming increasingly concerned that Pakistan would not survive and any hope of keeping it together would require to negotiations with Sheikh Mujib in the near future. For that reason, President Nixon wanted Kissinger to ensure the physical safety of Sheikh Mujib. In this respect the American Consulate in Kolkata was asked to convey a message to the Mujib Nagor government that President Yahya Khan was interested in talks. The Bangladesh government told the Americans categorically that only Sheikh Mujib could speak for Bangladesh. Around November a US State Department official suggested:

“This might be a good time for Yahya to cut a deal with Mujib before it was too late”.

[P263, Gary Bass, the Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide, Afred A. Knopf, New York, 2013]

Furthermore, these changes to the constitution were also designed to foster a view that Bangabandhu did not declare the independence of Bangladesh. It shows that people who make such claims lack basic common sense and rudimentary knowledge about Bangladesh’s struggle for justice and freedom. Professor Rehman Sobhan explained:

“It is self-evident to anyone with commonsense that the operative issue is not who declared independence but when Bangladeshis asserted their own independence, which they did during the month of March 1971. In any case a declaration of independence can only derive from a legitimate authority otherwise any citizen could proclaim any part of the globe independent. In the Bangladesh of 1971 it was unreal to imagine that an unknown army officer could proclaim independence for 75 million Bangladeshis without any authority to do so and could be expected to be taken seriously by anyone. Indeed, such anonymous declarations could only generate apprehension in the international arena that Bangladesh was degenerating into anarchy”.

[P19, Rehman Sobhan, Bangabandhu and Emergency of an Independent Bangladesh, Centre for Policy Dialogue, Dhaka, 2000]

Professor Sobhan further stated:

“At that time the only person who was invested with the credibility to declare independence in the legally acceptable sense of the term was Bangabandhu because he enjoyed both electoral legitimacy and had a total political mandate from the people of Bangladesh to speak for them. This was recognised by the global community where Bangabandhu alone commanded the visibility derived from his unchallenged leadership of 75 million Bangalis to proclaim their sovereignty to the world. Any local declaration of independence could, thus, only be accepted as a surrogate act on behalf of Bangabandhu. It is only in the politically divided Bangladesh of today that such a surreal political debate over who declared independence for Bangladesh could continue for so long to perpetuate the myth that a declaration of independence could originate from any person who had a mind to make such a proclamation”.

[P20, Rehman Sobhan, Bangabandhu and Emergency of an Independent Bangladesh, Centre for Policy Dialogue, Dhaka, 2000]

Apart from the alteration of the preamble to the constitution, the four principles upon which the constitution was based were tampered with. Bengali nationalism was replaced with Bangladeshi nationalism and secularism was discarded. Instead “Bismillaahir-Rahmannir-Rahim”- In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful was added as a header to the constitution for the political expediency by Lieutenant General Hussain Mohammed Ershad. Major General Ziaur Rahman incorporated the notorious Indemnity Ordinance which prohibited any trial of the killers of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family into the constitution. A constitution which begins in the name of Allah “Most Gracious, Most Merciful” yet denies justice to the victims and their families cannot be anything other than a mockery of both faith and intellect. Major General Ziaur Rahman then went on to rehabilitate the self-proclaimed assassins of Sheikh Mujib in Bangladeshi missions around the world.

For 21 years the trial of the killers of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was prohibited under the constitution. It was only after the Awami League-led coalition government came to power in 1996, that all the necessary amendments were made to the constitution to start a trial. It then took further a further 12 years for justice to be done.

For the killers of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and their supporters all of the above was not sufficient. Therefore, for his assassins, erasing all the remanences of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from the soil of Bangladesh became an absolute necessity.

What better place to start the eradication programme than Suhrawardy Uddyan? In this vast open ground Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had held many important public meetings and rallies. In February 1969 the total collapse of Agartala conspiracy filed against him for alleged treason by the state was a monumental humiliation for the ruling class and their allies. Adding salt to the wound, the title Bangabandhu was conferred on Sheikh Mujib in this vast public space on 23 February 1969. Furthermore, on 7 March 1971 Sheikh Mujib made his historic speech here in Ramna Race Course Ground as it used to be call prior to it’s renaming after independence. That speech is considered by many to be in effect the declaration of independence. Nine months later nearly one hundred thousand Pakistani soldiers unconditionally surrendered to the allied forces there. On 10 January 1972 Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman returned to Suhrawardy Uddyan and received a hero’s welcome both as the Father of the Nation and most successful Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Liberation Forces of the newly formed Bangladesh Army. Here he laid out his vision for Bangladesh:

“I would like to say categorically and unequivocally that, our country will be a democratic, secular and socialist country. In this country the labourers, peasants, Hindus and Muslim all will be living in peace and harmony”.

[Bangabandhu’s first public speech upon returning to the independent Bangladesh at Surahwardy Uddyan on 10 January 1072]

In March 1972 Bangabandhu stood alongside the Indian Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi at the same location to accept the final salute of the departing Indian army from Bangladesh.

This place symbolises Sheikh Mujib’ s joys and triumphs on the one hand and the humiliation and defeat for his opponents on the other. For his assassins and their allies, the original sight of this place is too painful and too much to bear.  Hence solutions had to be found for the destruction and reconstruction of the ground. So, the “innovative solution” was to build a children’s park on the very spot from where Sheikh Mujib made his historic speech on 7 March 1971. The aim was to eliminate all association with Sheikh Mujib as the reconstruction involved digging and turning earth around and perhaps importing and adding new soil.

The number of sordid, vengeful acts is too long to list in their entirety.  But preventing TV and radio stations showing Sheikh Mujib’s images, playing his speeches or preventing commentators from debating his life and work in order to discredit him and deny his historic contribution in the making of Bangladesh is truly shameful.

However, little did the revisionists know that Sheikh Mujib’s life and works are intertwined with the history of Bangladesh? In fact, he survived a great many trials and tribulations throughout his life, and appeared stronger each time. The following Urdu saying which is attributed to the most revered Pakistani poet Allahma Iqbal aptly portrays the life-story of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman:

“Islam zinda hotha hay har Karbala ki bad”.

 Islam resurrects after every Karbala”. (Karb=Anguish. Bala=tribulations) 

The trials and tribulations resulting from the horrendous tragedy of 15 August 1975 and the subsequent actions of the assassins and their allies during and after the assassination, were undoubtedly motivated by pure vengeance of monumental extremity, but unintentionally gave Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman the immortality and permanency both in the history of Bangladesh and in the hearts of its people. That is how it should be.

Nooruddin Ahmed: Chair, 7th March Foundation (www.7thmarch.com) Managing Director, Agroni Research (www.agroni.co.uk) and former councillor of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets

9 August 2018

[i] The assassins simultaneously attacked houses, of Bangabandhu, Abdur Rab Serniabat and Sheikh Moni. In Bangabandhu’s house in 32 Dhanmondi they killed Bangabandhu, Begum Fazilatunnessa Mujib, Sheikh Kamal, Sheikh Jamal, Sultana Kamal, Parvin Jamal, Sheikh Naser and Sheikh Russel (10) seven people were killed in Bangabandhu’s house. They also killed Bangabandhu’s Military Secretary Col Jamil outside the house. In Abdur Rab Serniabat’s house they killed Abdur Rab Serniabat, Sukanto Abdullah (4) Arif Serniabat (10) Baby Serniabat (13), Shahid Serniabat and Abdul Naim Khan Rintu. In Sheikh Moni’s house they kill Sheikh Moni and Begum Arzoo moni (pregnant).