By Rupak Bhattacharjee*
The brutal killing of four nationalist leaders in captivity constitutes one of the darkest chapters of Bangladesh’s turbulent political history. On December 1, this year, the Supreme Court released full judgment of the 1975 jail killing case unraveling the sinister designs of the ultra-rightist and reactionary groups to destabilise the newly-independent Bengali nation.
The bloody political changeover of August 15, 1975 created a highly volatile situation in Bangladesh. In a dastardly act on November 3, 1975, the wartime government’s Vice President Syed Nazrul Islam, Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmed, Home Minister AHM Qamaruzzaman and cabinet minister Captain (retd.) Mansur Ali were shot dead inside high-security Dhaka Central Jail. The civil-military junta formed under the leadership of Khondker Mushtaque Ahmed after the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, chief architect of Bangladesh’s independence, ordered the arrest of four Awami League (AL) leaders as they had refused to owe allegiance to the illegitimate government.
All of them were close political associates of Sheikh Mujib; they had been killed in the wake of a counter-coup staged by a section of senior Bangladesh Army officers to oust the August 15 plotters. It was a desperate attempt of the pro-Pakistani and anti-democratic forces to make Bangladesh leaderless. Many in the country believe that such a step was taken by the August coup leaders to forestall the AL’s possible comeback to power. The jail killing was part of a wider conspiracy to roll back the Bangladesh polity to the Pakistani framework—preeminence of civil-military bureaucratic complex in the management of state affairs.
The heinous act of killing former leading freedom fighters while they were in the custody of the state is rare in the contemporary history of the world. Bangladesh has been observing “Jail Killing Day” every year on November 3. On this day, the AL and its affiliated organisations arrange several programmes across the country wearing black badges as mark of respect to the slain national leaders.
The common people of Bangladesh received the news of secret jail killings with great shock. The deceased leaders steered the country’s liberation struggle in the absence of Sheikh Mujib. The jail massacre set off a powerful reaction against the leaders of the August coup. Public demonstrations condemning the killings took place in different parts of the country. A three-member high-level judicial committee was appointed to investigate the jail incident.
However, the trial of the jail killing began only after the restoration of civilian rule and the AL’s assumption of power in 1996. The Metropolitan Session Judges’ court on October 20, 2004, sentenced to death three fugitive August coup leaders and awarded life term to 12 others for the November 3, 1975 jail massacre. Subsequently, on August 28, 2008, Bangladesh’s High Court acquitted six former army officers of the charge of killing four independence leaders.
The High Court verdict evoked strong reactions from several quarters, including the pro-liberation groups. The prosecution lawyers and family members of the four leaders held that the trial proceedings had been manipulated at the behest of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-Jamaat-e-Islami coalition government of Khaleda Zia (2001-06). On September 9, 2009, the AL government appealed to the Supreme Court for a retrial of the jail killing case.
In a landmark judgment on April 30, 2013, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court dismissed the verdict given by the High Court in 2008 and upheld the 2004 ruling of the lower court. The Supreme Court verdict observed that there was a criminal conspiracy to kill the four leaders in the jail and all the 21 accused persons were involved in it.
The August 15 coup brought about far reaching consequences in Bangladesh. The Mushtaque junta introduced several measures reversing or modifying Mujib’s secular and nationalist policies. During 1975-90, the successive military regimes of Ziaur Rahman and H M Ershad systematically destroyed all institutions of democracy. Rule of law was severely undermined and independence of the judiciary was curtailed.
The Constitution was amended several times to further the interests of the post-1975 ruling elites. A number of Bangladeshi political analysts have pointed out that in the 1972 Constitution, there is no scope for the imposition of martial law under any circumstances even for the sake of restoring law and order.
Since 1975, use of force became the modus operandi for replacing an incumbent regime with a new one. To justify the illegal seizure of power by the military in August 1975, an Indemnity Ordinance was promulgated on September 26, 1975. This ordinance absolved the assassins of Sheikh Mujib from legal actions and punishment for replacing a civilian government by violent means.
The Indemnity Ordinance was later incorporated into the Constitution through the Fifth Amendment Act in 1979. The AL vehemently opposed the ordinance and demanded the trial of killers of the “Father of the Nation” Sheikh Mujib. The party tabled a bill before the Fifth Jatiyo Sangsad (1991-96) to repeal the infamous ordinance. But the then BNP government did not take any action on it.
After spending long 21 years in political wilderness, the AL returned to power in June 1996 and initiated the process of cleansing the polity from the past misdeeds of the military rulers. In October 1996, Sheikh Hasina-led AL government filed cases against 19 persons in connection with the assassination of Sheikh Mujib, his family members, relatives and political associates. In a historic verdict on November 8, 1998, Kazi Ghulam Rasul, a District and Sessions court judge of Dhaka awarded death penalty to 15 former Bangladesh Army officers—self-confessed killers of Sheikh Mujib.
The AL, which suffered most under prolonged military rule, has made reestablishment of rule of law a priority of democratic governance. The Hasina government’s recent efforts like war crimes trial and registering of cases against the BNP and Jamaat leaders for inciting violence and trying to subvert democratic rule in the country are to be seen from this perspective.
The post-1991 civilian governments inherited quite a few intractable political problems. One of the most challenging tasks before them has been the rebuilding of Bangladesh’s political institutions. The institutionalisation of the democratic process received a fresh jolt following the military’s intervention into politics during 2007-08. However, unlike in the past, the military could not cling onto power for too long. The higher echelons of the Bangladesh armed forces are aware of the people’s apathy towards military rule. Being a mass-based party, it is expected that the AL under the mature leadership of Bangabandhu’s daughter Hasina, would take every care to ensure peace, stability and democracy in this South Asian nation.
*Dr. Rupak Bhattacharjee is an independent analyst on political matters based in New Delhi. He can be reached at: [email protected]