COMMENTARY: The Ershad years . . . and the denouement

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Badrul Ahsan Syed Badrul Ahsan

Twenty eight years ago today in 1990, a mass upsurge drove General Hussein Muhammad Ershad and his regime from power. It was the culmination of a long, arduous struggle waged by the fifteen-party alliance led by Sheikh Hasina and the seven-party combine headed by Khaleda Zia for a restoration of democracy in the country. The central idea behind the movement against the Ershad dispensation was a need to give back to the people of Bangladesh their inalienable right to freedom of expression, indeed to liberty in consonance with pluralistic principles practised around the globe.

The objective behind the movement against Ershad was to remove the stigma attached to national politics through his coup d’etat against the elected government of President Abdus Sattaron 24 March 1982. Nothing, absolutely nothing was there to justify the coup. But, again, no coup is or can ever be justified in any country. By the time General Ershad and his friends seized the country, Bangladesh had had a long, painful experience in coups, counter-coups, abortive coups, all of which were accompanied by mayhem and murder.

Months prior to the coup of March 1982, General Ershad had publicly begun advocating the creation of a national security council, a stance that was in clear violation of the rules of service relating to his position as chief of army staff and was deeply offensive to every notion of democracy. A presidential election having been held in November 1981, it was the national expectation that politics would begin to shape itself into a proper, standardized pattern, with the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party playing major roles in a restorationof stability in the country.

The coup of March 1982 put paid to such expectations. President Sattar, a former judge who had served as Chief Election Commissioner in pre-1971 Pakistan at the time of the December 1970 general elections before taking over as Vice President of Bangladesh under President Ziaur Rahman, was sent home. In the early stages of the Ershad regime, a toothlesspresidency under Justice Ahsanuddin Chowdhury operated or otherwise at Bangabhaban. Months later, in line with the tradition put in place by Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan in 1958 and General Ziaur Rahman in 1977, General Ershadseized the presidency.

In all these years since his fall from power, General Ershad has been playing a mercurial role in national politics. Where dictators in Africa, Asia and Latin America were unable to return to the centre stage of politics once they were pushed from power, Ershad has survived marvelously well. His has been a balancing act, for at various times since December 1990 he has played his cards rather well both with the Awami League and the BNP. He has been a survivor unlike any other politically involved individual anywhere.

All extra-constitutional regimes systematically corrupt the political process. During his time, General Ershad and his friends offered politicians in the various political parties, including the AL and the BNP, tantalizing offers of power. Unconstitutional dispensations do not share power but do tempt politicians with thoughts of it.

It was thus that General Ershad pulled into his camp, by now called the Jatiyo Party, such well-known political figures as Korban Ali of the Awami League and Captain Abdul HalimChowdhury of the BNP. Kazi Zafar Ahmed was a prominent figure in the seven-party combine, promising to see the country return to democracy. He ended up joining Ershad. MoududAhmed, a minister in General Zia’s cabinet, was initially loyal to Begum Zia. The Ershad regime sent him to prison on charges of corruption. He soon emerged free and promptly joined Ershad’scamp, rising to the position of Bangladesh’s Vice President. Not long after Ershad fell, Moudud made his way back to the BNP.

Ershad drew into his tent Shah Moazzam Hossain, who had been part of the Awami League and then of Khandakar Moshtaq’sDemocratic League. Moazzam, indeed everyone else, stayed cheerfully in the Ershad camp until the last day and then of course veered off in other directions, seeking newer pastures.Sirajul Hossain Khan, a journalist and leftwing politician, denied that he was joining Ershad’s government. Days after the denial, he was observed on television being sworn into office by President Ershad. Into the cabinet came Moulana Abdul Mannan, whose record of collaboration with the Pakistan occupation army in 1971 has always been dark, as Minister for Religious Affairs. Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury and SyedaRazia Faiz became ministers in the regime, as did the journalist Anwar Zahid. A prominent presence in the Ershad government was the owner-editor of the Ittefaq, Anwar Hossain Manju.

Justice B.A. Siddiky, who was Chief Justice of the East Pakistan High Court in 1971 and had refused to swear in General TikkaKhan as governor in early March (the situation changed on 25 March 1971), headed a faction of the Bangladesh Muslim League by the time General Ershad seized power. He soon abandoned his party and with alacrity accepted Ershad’s offer to serve as Bangladesh’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations. Justice Nurul Islam, chief of the East Pakistan Red Cross in 1971, found himself in the position of Bangladesh’s Vice President under President Ershad. There were other judges who, refusing to go along with Ershad’s decision to break up the High Court into separate benches, were summarily dismissed by the regime.

In his initial days in power, General Ershad travelled to Tungipara and offered prayers at the grave of BangabandhuSheikh Mujibur Rahman. And then he followed it up by allowing Bangabandhu’s assassins to form a political party called Freedom Party. The chief among the assassins, FarookRahman, stood as a candidate at the presidential elections against Ershad in 1988. There were other elections the regime organized in its attempts to legitimize its hold on power. Parliamentary elections, held in 1986, saw the Awami League take its place as the opposition in the Jatiyo Sangsad. For its part, the BNP boycotted the elections and undertook a campaign against the new parliament, which was disbanded two years later in 1988. Fresh elections to the Jatiyo Sangsad took place in 1988. Boycotted by the AL and the BNP, the elections were a free run for Ershad’s Jatiyo Party. The leader of the opposition was the JSD’s A.S.M. Abdur Rab, who had at one point in his career denigrated parliament as a pigsty.

Throughout the entirety of the Ershad regime’s hold on power, the political struggle to dislodge it continued apace. As mass protests against the regime gained in intensity, with all sections and classes of people coming together in defence of a restoration of democracy, the major political parties formulated plans for a non-political caretaker government to take over from General Ershad and his outfit and prepare the country for general elections.

Early on 6 December 1990, Vice President Moudud Ahmed tendered his resignation to President Ershad, who then swore in Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, as the new Vice President. The next step was for General Ershad to resign and pave the way for Justice ShahabuddinAhmed to take over as Acting President of Bangladesh.

On 6 December 1990, Bangladesh’s people, in triumphant mood, set about preparing the country for a return to elected government, to democracy.

(Syed Badrul Ahsan:  Editor-in- Charge, Tha Asian Age. Contributing Columnist, Shottobani)

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