More than a decade ago, the American journalist Lawrence Lifschultz gave us much food for thought. More pointedly, he informed us, to our undying shame, of all the things we had not done in this country over the past three decades and more he had been witness to. When he spoke of Colonel Abu Taher and the macabre manner of his murder (it was murder pure and simple) in July 1976, he revived within our souls all the pains we had either carefully pushed under the rug over the years or had not been allowed to feel through the long march of untruth in this country.
There are people in Bangladesh who have some very valid reasons to think that Taher’s decision in November 1975 to back Ziaur Rahman against Khaled Mosharraf was a new phase in the disaster which had already befallen the country in August 1975. He simply backed the wrong horse, a course he ought not to have taken. But that is not what we mean to speak about here. What concerns us is the terrible manner in which the life of a good soldier, a valiant freedom fighter, was put to an end through what was clearly a sham of a trial in July 1976. Of course, we have known that all these years. Unlike Lifschultz, though, we have stayed quiet about it. We in the journalists’ community in Bangladesh have not sought all these forty plus years to raise the question of the wrong that was done to Taher. His murder, in effect, was the killing of idealism.
There was the profoundly reflective in Taher. In March 1971, once the Pakistan army had begun its murder of Bengalis in a soon to die East Pakistan, he walked the streets of distant Quetta brooding over his own political state of being. The intellectual in him was not ready to acknowledge any reality of physical distance. It was inconceivable for the scholar in him to prevent the man of action which lurked within him from making his way to the war front. He did make his way to his battered country, and fought for its freedom, losing a leg in the process. If that is not sacrifice, what is?
And yet there was the bigger sacrifice that Taher was fated to pay. On July 21, 1976, after a trial that was no trial but a farce enacted under the dark spotlight of a ruthless dictatorship, he lost his life on the gallows. The men who had decreed that he mount those final steps in living form — President Sayem, General Zia, the judges and the prosecutor — were to live on, unrepentant and happy. No one in this country wrote about Taher’s predicament. And many among the journalists who today cheerfully identify themselves with either Bengali nationalism or the jatiyotabadi way of looking at life stayed quiet at a time when it was an absolute necessity to speak up.
Lifschultz speaks of the remorselessness which marked Justice Sayem, a good man who had always believed in the rule of law. This same good man did not protest, or not much anyway, when the soldiers he was surrounded by informed him that Taher needed to die. And what was Taher’s guilt? He had, said the dictatorship, engaged in conspiracy to overthrow an established government. That is a good point. When does a junta, having ascended to power by sheer force of arms, become a legally established government? The answer here is that no government set in place by a military coup can be a legal one. You can have all the constitutional amendments in the world towards ensuring that a violation of law becomes a fact of recognized law. They do not change a thing. Morality cannot be overridden by the passage of a bill that will have the citizen swearing fealty to a soldier suddenly desirous of becoming a democratic politician.
It is these questions that worry us. When Lifschultz speaks, and that was thirty years after the hanging of Taher, about all the dirt and mud we have not yet removed from our society, he speaks for us. To this day, no government (except for the one in office between 1996 and 2001 and between 2009 and now) has tried telling us of the conspiracy that went into the murder of the four national leaders in jail in November 1975. The truth, it has been made sure, remains under the lid. Or perhaps it has gone to the grave with the dead men?
But the psychological predicament that people are often left facing once truth is denied or run out of town is that they cannot then relate to the world around them. Their silence in the face of all the questions regarding the murder of their illustrious men is then fundamentally a condoning of the crime that has taken place. As long as you do not finger the men who killed the Mujibnagar leaders in prison, as long as you do not name them and shame them, you will remain part of a nation that is willing, regrettably, to live with shame.
There are the sad, sordid stories of the army officers who died without probably knowing about their crimes. Brigadier Mohsinuddin maintained till the end, in 1981, that he was not aware of why he was being tried for the Zia murder. Those others who were executed with him were quite clearly home to similar sentiments. Justice Sattar, as the nation’s interim president, signed the order of execution.
Does it not worry you that some of the costliest mistakes in Bangladesh’s history have been made by men who have risen to the highest perches of the law? Sayem sent Taher to death, with Zia making sure he did so. And Sattar dispatched those officers to perdition. It was Ershad and his men who stood watch over him as he did so. Neither of these legal luminaries
was able to withstand the power of the military in staying the execution of all these valiant men almost
all of whom, you will note, had waged war for the country’s freedom.
And the rest of us? We stayed conveniently silent, afraid of the repercussions of protest. But truth does have a way of coming back to us and at us. It has now come to us in the form of Lawrence Lifschultz. When he wrote about Bangabandhu’s assassination and Taher’s murder, we were, most of us, impressed with the details of his inquiries. That was all.
Now that we reopen the old books of record, we realize with shock smeared with crimson shame how opportunistic we have been in saving our own skins and thereby legitimizing the power of the grasping men who have sent some of our best men, all of them our own fellow patriotic citizens, down the road to swift and premature death. The four hundred soldiers hanged by the Zia regime in the 1970s, the murder of General Manzoor, the conspiracy behind the killing of General Ziaur Rahman and the horrible end of the Mujibnagar leaders have left gaping holes in our political history.
And do not forget that not a single government has ever tried to launch an inquiry into the murder of General Khaled Mosharraf, Colonel Huda and Major Haider. Many of the men who instigated their killing as well as the men who forced the life out of them are yet around. No one has taken them in for questioning. The holes have remained, and grown bigger and deeper.
Those holes need plugging. How we go about doing that is something suggested by Lifschultz. Let there be a Truth Commission, or a series of them. Since history is a long tale of events that have become irreversible through force of time, all we can do in our enlightened self-interest is to delve into the details of the wrongs that have been done, locate the witnesses to these wrongs, go looking for the men responsible for such gross errors of judgement or travesty of history, as the case may be, and arrive at the truth.
As for reconciliation, that will take time, a lot of patience and thorough psychological preparation on the part of the families that have suffered through decades of bruising pain. It is a fractured society we are part of. And fractures trouble the body and the sensibilities as long as pretence serves as an alternative
The writer is a senior journalist
Syed Badrul Ahsan