Were most of the influential military officials back then aware of the likelihood of an army coup in 1975, and yet they remained unperturbed?
The attacks on the house of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family members on August 15, 1975, were carried out by a handful of serving and former military officers, and their loyal troops from only two military units. The then top brass of the Bangladesh Army always claimed that the attacks were conducted without their knowledge.
If the then army high command became extremely unhappy and angry after knowing about the brutal killings of the president, his family members, his former military secretary, and a police officer on duty, why did the country witness a complete failure to act against the perpetrators of those murders? A political leader may have detractors and may be subjected to fierce criticisms. But, no one can ever justify the atrocious crime of murdering a political leader and his family members, including women and children, in cold blood.
In August 1975, the people committing the heinous crime of killing Bangabandhu and his family members did not face any immediate reprisal from the then army high command and the Jatiya Rakkhi Bahini (JRB), and no attempt was made at that time to bring those merciless killers to justice.
After the murder of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the new president, Khondakar Mostaq Ahmad, said addressing the nation that the armed forces had to act in order to change the government and they performed their duty with utmost sincerity. The then military high command did not repudiate this claim made by Mostaq.
On the contrary, the then high commands of the army, the navy, the air force, Bangladesh Rifles, Jatiya Rakkhi Bahini, and the police affirmed their allegiance to the new government headed by Mostaq. Awami League leaders and activists across the country became dumbfounded and failed to organise any massive protest, apart from Kader Siddique. University students known for their sharp political awareness did not take to the streets either to condemn the ruthless killings of the president and his family members.
Only the deployment of tanks and some artillery guns was enough to deter the army and the Rakkhi Bahini that day from putting up resistance against the military units involved in terrible killings. At that time, the Bangladesh Army and Jatiya Rakkhi Bahini were composed of many battle-seasoned officers and soldiers who fought the Pakistani Army bravely in 1971.
Just a few years ago, they took part in a war where tanks were used and heavy artillery fire was a regular phenomenon. So, if the order was given on August 15 to face the tanks, it was unlikely that these experienced soldiers would have felt very frightened.
In November 1975, following the order of the then Brigadier Khaled Mosharraf and the then Colonel Shafaat Jamil, a few infantry regiments of the Bangladesh Army became prepared to confront the tank and artillery units that took part in August 15 killings. Having heard that the infantry soldiers of Bengal Regiments would soon come to strike them, the soldiers of tank unit who took part in Bangabandhu murder stripped off their uniforms and ran away from Bangabhaban at that time. That incident indicates that the infantry regiments had the strength in 1975 to unnerve the army units with tanks and artillery guns.
But no infantry battalion was moved, nor the fighter planes were used on August 15 to neutralise the units that conducted the vicious killing of the president as well as many innocent civilians. The then chief of army staff, Major General Safiullah, said that he had instructed then 46 Brigade Commander Colonel Shafaat Jamil in the early morning of August 15 to send three infantry battalions immediately to confront the forces that moved to the city, whereas Colonel Shafaat Jamil said he had received no such order from the army chief and so he did not move the infantry battalions.
Perhaps, we would never be able to know which of these officers' claims is true. But the fact that then army high command on August 15 failed to contend with two units taking part in brutal killings, raises the question whether they were at all willing that day to suppress the rebellion by using force. It is also known that some soldiers were expressing happiness in the cantonment after hearing that the president was killed, and the martial law was declared in the country.
Two majors ― Farook Rahman, then second in command of Bangladesh Army's only armoured unit 1st Bengal Lancers, and Abdur Rashid, then commanding officer of the 2nd Field Artillery Regiment – were instrumental in planning and organising the attacks on Bangabandhu's residence and other places on August 15. From the books written by two military officers serving in the Bangladesh Army until 1975, it is known that on two occasions before August 15, 1975, Farook Rahman wanted to stage a coup by using the tanks. Although the senior army officials knew about Farook's desire for mounting a coup to overthrow the government, no disciplinary action was taken against him.
Instead, he was allowed to work in the tank unit stationed in Dhaka Cantonment. Abdur Rashid, the other key planner of August 15 killings, was posted in Jashore Gunnery School. But he managed to cancel his appointment in Jashore, and got a posting as the commanding officer of 2nd Field Artillery Regiment in Dhaka Cantonment in April 1975.
Why did the then army high-ups show such a supportive attitude towards these two officers? These officers were hatching the plot to kill the president while they were in Dhaka Cantonment. Yet, the then army intelligence units did not have the foggiest idea about their conspiracy.
On August 15, the army headquarters assigned soldiers of the 1st Field Artillery Regiment from Cumilla Cantonment to do guard duty at Bangabandhu's residence. Shariful Huq Dalim and Bazlul Huda, two majors involved in the killing of Bangabandhu, were former officers of the 1st Field Regiment.
Seeing their former officers among the invaders, the soldiers from Cumilla Brigade became confused and they did not stop the attackers from entering the president's house. It needs to be noted that soldiers of the 2nd Field Regiment under the command of Major Rashid were doing guard duty at the house of Colonel Shafaat Jamil on that night.
Was it just a coincidence or was it a plan to keep the soldiers of Rashid's unit in the house of the 46 brigade commander that night so that they, if need be, could stop the commander from taking any action against the lancers and artillery soldiers?
In the early morning of August 15, an armed Major Rashid went to Colonel Shafaat's house and told him that they had killed the president. Rashid's unit was under the command of Colonel Shafaat. Yet, Rashid warned his commander not to take any reprisal against them.
After some time, retired Major Dalim came to the army headquarters and ordered the army chief, Safiullah, to go to the radio station to pledge allegiance to the new president. Around midday, Major Farook entered the 46 brigade headquarters. Instead of condemning Farook for organising such cruel acts, many officers congratulated him.
At that time, Farook disclosed that the tanks led by him did not have any gun ammunition. In spite of knowing this, the then army high-command did not make any attempt to arrest Farook, Rashid, Dalim and their accomplices on that day.
Rather, orders were issued to get gun ammunition for the tanks from Rajendrapur Ordnance Depot. At that time, the arms and ammunition of Rakkhi Bahini were temporarily kept at the arms depot of Bangladesh Rifles in Pilkhana.
On August 15, when Rakkhi Bahini members went to collect their arms and ammunition, they were not even allowed to enter Pilkhana. Brigadier Nur-uz-Zaman, the influential director of Rakkhi Bahini, was abroad at that time. Because of his absence and without sufficient weapons, the members of Rakkhi Bahini were at a loss about what to do in that critical situation.
In a video interview, Major Farook said that in March 1975, he informed Major General Ziaur Rahman, then deputy chief of army staff, of their intention to topple the president. According to Farook, General Zia said that if the junior officers would like to do this, they may go ahead.
In 1976, when journalist Anthony Mascarenhas asked Zia about Farook's claim, Zia neither denied nor confirmed it. The conversations recorded from the US secretary of state's staff meeting held on August 15, 1975, revealed that Washington informed Bangabandhu of a plot against him in March 1975 but Bangabandhu "brushed it off, scoffed at it, and said nobody would do a thing like that to him."
Why did the then local intelligence agencies fail to uncover this plot? Were most of the influential military officials back then aware of the likelihood of an army coup in 1975, and yet they remained unperturbed? Does their foreknowledge of the coup explain their subsequent reluctance to act against the perpetrators?
These questions are still shrouded in mystery. The then military high commands' inaction after the brutal murders of August 15 was as deplorable as it was unprincipled. It was appalling enough to inspire shame in those responsible. Let us hope that the unresolved questions will be addressed in the days to come.
Dr Naadir Junaid is a Professor in the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, University of Dhaka.