Khaled Musharraf: A lost autumnal spring

 Syed Badrul Ahsan

As the War of Liberation rolled on in 1971, Khaled Musharraf perfected the art of guerilla warfare against the occupation Pakistan army. He was a hands-on soldier, in that conventional sense of the meaning, and yet he had quickly proved adept in planning and employing all those hit and run tactics that have historically laid traditional armies low all across the globe.

Anyone who came across Khaled Musharraf in 1971 understood, swiftly and with a tinge of pleasant surprise, the impeccable quality that defined his performance.

He was ruthless in his view that the war was all, that the enemy needed to be destroyed, that the friends of the enemy needed to be hunted down and weeded out. In that broad respect, he was far ahead of many of his colleagues in the Mukti Bahini.

He was articulate; and in his dealings with the foreign media that made their way to liberated zones in Bangladesh, he easily put the message across that the country of the future which Bengalis were struggling to construct in their present was to be a land defined by democracy and liberalism. Bangladesh was to be a people’s republic with secularism as its underpinning.

It was these self-same principles that General Khaled Musharraf sought to put into play in November 1975 as he made his move against the assassin majors and colonels who had, in August of that year, wiped out Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and most of his family in a violent coup. In terms of history, therefore, Musharraf’s place in the Bengali consciousness remains on an elevated scale, for he was the first man in that tumultuous period whose decisiveness eventually brought to an end the darkness that had kept Bangladesh in its grip for close to three months.

When you recall the weeks and months that followed the August 15 carnage, you might remember with a start that no one who could have taken action against the plotters, against Khondokar Moshtaque Ahmed, gathered the courage or the willingness to set the course of history aright once more. General Ziaur Rahman, having replaced General K.M. Shafiullah, dithered and proved singularly inept in re-establishing the chain of command in the army, earlier broken by the killers of August.

Perhaps General M.A.G. Osmany could have handled the conditions, but he had already undermined himself when he agreed to be defence advisor to Khondokar Moshtaque. Bangabandhu’s cabinet, with the exception of Kamal Hossain, was under Moshtaque’s sway, and not a single minister demonstrated any visible sign of trying to move out of it. The four leaders of the Mujibnagar government were in prison and, as events turned out, would never emerge from their incarceration alive.

The country, as you recall through the old terror, was in the vise-like grip of Moshtaque and his fellow plotters. Men of insidious intent, in company with murderers, ran the show. In the cantonments, as in the rest of the country, a sense of growing unease defined the situation. By November, it was for Khaled Musharraf, Shafaat Jamil, Najmul Huda and A.T.M. Haider to understand that it was they who needed to act if there was to be a reversal of the situation.

Zia did not appear too keen on challenging the assassins, though he was clearly in a state of discomfort over leading an army that could not have its renegades back under proper command.

On November 3, when Khaled Musharraf assumed control of the army and effectively took charge of the country, the early whispers of positive change were heard. Those of us who lived through those extraordinary times cannot say for certain that the threat Musharraf posed to the assassin majors and colonels was not the opportunity for change you thought it was. Khaled Musharraf placed Zia under arrest, which was not so bad considering the latter’s helplessness in his position, and was upgraded from the rank of brigadier to major general.

All these years after November 1975, that old image of Musharraf being decorated with his new epaulettes by Rear Admiral M.H. Khan and Air Vice Marshal M.G. Tawab flashes in your mind. It is a beaming Khaled Musharraf you see, or remember, with nary a thought to the cataclysm on the way. And then Musharraf did something more: he showed Moshtaque the door once it became known that the Mujibnagar leaders had been murdered in Dhaka central jail.

You now ask: Why did Khaled Musharraf and his fellow officers not know of the murders in the central jail? Even better, you might ask: if General Osmany knew, even as Musharraf was consolidating his coup d’etat, that Syed Nazrul Islam, Tajuddin Ahmad, M. Mansoor Ali and A.H.M. Quamruzzaman had been done to death, why did he keep the news concealed from the new chief of army staff?

These are questions you may never find answers to. But what you will surely remember, in good feeling and in thoughts of what might have been, is that in that autumn of fear and discontent, Khaled Musharraf demonstrated once more all those qualities that had always substantiated the gentleman in him.

He was determined that Ziaur Rahman and all others opposed to him would not be harmed. He showed not the slightest inclination toward taking power as president of the republic. And that was not all. One of the prime objectives behind his action against Moshtaque and the other conspirators was the creation of conditions that would facilitate a return to popularly elected government and a restoration of the 1971 ethos that the August 15 coup had left badly frayed at the edges.

In the four days in which he wielded authority in Bangladesh, Khaled Musharraf rekindled hope in all of us. When his mother and brother joined a procession demanding the trial of Bangabandhu’s killers, we cheered. Morality, we told ourselves, was on its way back into our lives. Justice Abu Sadat Mohammad Sayem took over as president of Bangladesh in the afternoon of November 6. We went home, convinced that the heavens were finally smiling on us once more.

That was a misplaced feeling. What appeared to be change on a cheering scale turned out to have been an illusion as the hour rolled past midnight and into November 7. It was counter-revolution that took over; and like all counter-revolutions, this one put paid to our collective dreams of a restoration of decent, civilised and legal government in the country.

Khaled Musharraf died in the midst of the men he loved in 10 Bengal; and with him died Najmul Huda and A.T.M. Haider. All three were murdered in what was beginning to unravel as a vast intrigue. Note that these three brave men became the earliest soldiers of freedom to be consumed in the fury let loose by conspiracy. Others would take the same road to martyrdom, in the weeks, months and years ahead. The country would bleed.

This morning, it is the nobility of spirit in Khaled Musharraf that we recall. He could have made a difference. That he did not, that the life was taken out of him before he could sketch his dreams for a country he had gone to war for, does not in any way take away from us the glory of the soul that throbbed in him.

[Khaled Musharraf, freedom fighter, was born on November 9, 1937 and assassinated on November 7, 1975]

(Syed Badrul Ahsan: contributing columnist, Shottobani)

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