Born from the chaos of civil war, steeped in a praetorian tradition of military supremacy over the civilian political process, and racked by internal dissension, the armed forces created by Bangladesh were not disciplined during the first years after independence. By the mid-1980s, however, the armed forces had evolved into a more cohesive and professional organization. The military — particularly the army — continued to play a critical role in guiding or controlling the political process in Bangladesh. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Since formally declaring independence from Pakistan in April 1971, Bangladesh has not experienced an orderly transfer of power. Every Bangladeshi ruler initially assumed power in the aftermath of extraordinary and often bloody events, such as civil war, a military coup, or the assassination of his predecessor. Without exception, every national election staged between 1973 and 1988 was intended to legitimize the rule of a nonelected leader already in power. During the same fifteen years, there were four successful military coups, in addition to a string of jawan (soldier) uprisings, assassination plots, and abortive rebellions. As of mid1988 , Bangladeshi military authorities had been in power, either directly or as guarantor of a nominally civilian regime, for over two-thirds of the country's independent existence.*

Civilian control over the military has always been weak under elected civilian governments and nonexistent under martial law regimes. Since the early 1970s, the armed forces have distrusted civilian politicians and sought to prevent their "meddling" in the military's vital interests, such as resource allocations, pay and benefits, and promotions.*

Military and Politics in Bangladesh

Army involvement in politics during this time followed four distinct patterns. The first pattern — characterized by the military's subordination to an elected civilian government — is that which prevailed between 1971 and 1975 when the Awami League (People's League) was in power. During this formative stage, Awami League leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (Mujib), a civilian, kept a tight rein on his military commanders, some of whom were suspected of political disloyalty. After declaring a national emergency in December 1974, however, Mujib assumed dictatorial powers. Mujib's inability to address the military's grievances, limit corruption, and restore law and order in the country triggered Bangladesh's first military coup in August 1975. With Mujib's assassination and the eclipse of the Awami League, civilian control over the military was effectively ended. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

A second pattern of army involvement in politics is the classic martial law dictatorship led by a junta or a military strongman. Regimes of this type included a short-lived "revolutionary" government headed by power-seeking army officers November 3-7, 1975, and periods of authoritarian rule under Ziaur Rahman (Zia), from April 1977 to June 1978 and under Hussain Muhammad Ershad from March 1982 to May 1986.*

The third pattern is a transitional regime in which power is nominally held by a civilian figurehead who depends on army backing for political survival. Regimes of this type have been headed by Khondakar Mushtaque Ahmed from August 15 to November 3, 1975; Abu Sadat Muhammad Sayem from November 7, 1975, to April 1977; and the legally constituted civilian government of Abdus Sattar from May 1981 to March 1982.*

A fourth type of political arrangement is a quasi-military regime headed by a military strongman who retired from the army while still in power, assembled a personal political party, and engineered his own election as a civilian president. There have been two such regimes in Bangladesh: Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party government between June 1978 and May 1981 and Ershad's Jatiyo Party (National Party) government, elected to a parliamentary majority in May 1986, confirmed with Ershad's election as president in October 1986, and reaffirmed in parliamentary power in March 1988. Although each of these governments won resounding electoral mandates against a weak and divided opposition, most observers of the Bangladeshi political scene agreed that the armed forces remained the real guarantors of the government's power.*

Colonial Origins of the Bangladesh Military

The military history of Bangladesh before independence is part of that of the Indian subcontinent, particularly of British India and then of Pakistan from 1947 through 1971. The period having the greatest influence on the military establishments of the subcontinent began with the arrival of the Europeans at the start of the sixteenth century and, more particularly, Queen Elizabeth I's granting of a charter to the British East India Company in 1600. As European settlements were established, locals were employed as guards to protect company trading posts and participate in ceremonials. As the number of trading posts increased, these guards were more formally organized into companies led by British officers. Three independent forces emerged and became known as presidency armies and the troops as sepoys (a corruption of the Hindi sipahi, or soldier). Regular British troops also were incorporated into the presidency armies. In 1748 the three armies were grouped under a single commander in chief and organized, armed, uniformed, and trained by British officers. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

The rapid expansion of British control of the Indian subcontinent during the early nineteenth century was accompanied by mounting resistance. Political, social, religious, and ethnic tensions led to four eruptions in the army in the years between 1844 and 1857, although these incidents were considered minor by the British authorities. The long pent-up discontent of the sepoys then broke into open revolt at Meerut, near Delhi on May 10, 1857, starting the Sepoy Rebellion.*

The uprising, regarded by the British as a mutiny but by later South Asian nationalists as the "first war of independence," was largely confined to Bengalis in the British Indian Army, but it grew into a major conflict in northern and central India. The British used loyal Indian troops and reinforcements from Britain to crush the rebellion by 1858. A proclamation by Queen Victoria terminated the British East India Company government, India became a British colony, and the role of Indian military forces was reevaluated. Because the uprising was limited almost entirely to the Bengali troops and to the regions of north-central India and Bengal (see Glossary), the British not only disbanded the Bengali army but also became distrustful of Bengalis and concentrated military recruitment among the more favored Punjabis and Pathans of northwestern India. Additionally, a complete reorganization of the Indian forces followed. By 1895 the army was put under the central authority of the army headquarters at Delhi and was divided into four territorial commands at of Bengal, Madras, Bombay, and Punjab, each commanded by a lieutenant general.*

After the 1857-58 uprising, the British developed a recruitment policy that was to shape the Pakistani military and later that of Bangladesh. Recruitment was based on the "martial races" myth, according to which the inhabitants of certain areas or members of certain castes or tribes were reputed to make more fearless and disciplined soldiers than others. Popularization of this concept is usually attributed to Lord Frederick Roberts, commander in chief of the British Indian Army from 1885 to 1893. Roberts believed that the best recruits were found in northwestern India, including the Punjab and parts of what later became West Pakistan. Because recruitment was based on these theories, the period from 1890 to 1914 sometimes is referred to as "the Punjabization of the army." Roberts also favored staffing certain units or subunits with members of the same caste, tribal, or religious group from within the so-called martial races, a practice that became fairly common. These methods produced an apolitical, professional force responsive to British command, but one that accentuated regional and communal distinctions. Nevertheless, the British never organized a combat unit of battalion size or larger that was entirely composed of Muslims. Consequently, when the Muslim majority state of Pakistan achieved independence in 1947, existing British Indian Army formations that were transferred to the new state were severely understrength.*

Bengali participation in the military services was much lower than that of other groups, and a number of reasons have been advanced for this fact. In the 1920s, Punjab, with about 20 million people, contributed some 350,000 recruits to the British Indian Army, whereas Bengal, with a population base at least twice as large, contributed only 7,000 recruits during the same period.*

Pakistan Era

The partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 to form India and Pakistan also entailed the division of the units and equipment of the British Indian Army. Under a partition formula announced on July 1, 1947, existing military forces were divided on the basis of religious identification; units with a Muslim majority were transferred to Pakistan with their records and unit designations more or less intact. Individual Muslim servicemen who were from the areas that were to become India were given the option of remaining with the Indian armed forces or going to Pakistan. Hindus in the Muslim majority units could stay with those units when they transferred to Pakistan or be reassigned to Indian units. In both countries the newly formed armed forces continued to be organized, trained, and employed along the familiar lines of British practice. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

The armed forces that Pakistan inherited in 1947 from the division of the British Indian Army included Bengali Muslims, and there was always a small minority of them in the Pakistani armed services. These Bengalis served with their units as a matter of course in the 1947-48 and 1965 wars with India and in the numerous security operations in Pakistan up to 1971.*

Despite the participation of these Bengalis, East Pakistani spokesmen vigorously denounced East Pakistan's lack of military representation and influence in military policy. All senior military headquarters were located in West Pakistan, and almost all regular Pakistani forces were stationed there. Defense expenditures from indigenous revenue and foreign military aid in the 1950s and 1960s constituted the largest single item of the country's budget. But because of the force-stationing policy and associated allocation practices, the economic benefits from defense spending — in contracts, purchasing, and military support jobs — went almost entirely to West Pakistan. Pay and allowances to members of the armed forces also largely benefited only the West Pakistanis.*

Pakistani recruiters claimed difficulty in securing volunteers in East Pakistan. West Pakistanis held that Bengalis were not "martially inclined" — especially in comparison with Punjabis and Pathans, among whom military orientation was deeply embedded. East Pakistanis asserted, however, that as active participants in the movement to create an Islamic homeland they had a right and obligation to participate more extensively in the armed forces and should be represented in about the same ratio as their numbers in the total population. They assailed the old, entrenched doctrine of the "martial races" as ridiculous and humiliating. Arguing from the standpoint of security, they pointed out that the force-stationing policy left East Pakistan virtually defenseless against rival India and that no planning was under way to remedy this situation.*

All these arguments, although frequently and eloquently advanced, had little effect. Pakistan president Mohammad Ayub Khan (1958-69) held that East Pakistan was indefensible without the prior development of strong forces and bases in West Pakistan. On this principle he continued existing practices. In 1956 the Pakistan Army had a total of 894 officers in the grades of major through lieutenant general. Of this number only 14 (1.6 percent) were of East Pakistani origin. Of these, only one was of brigadier rank, the highest rank held until then by a Bengali. Naval officers of all ranks numbered 593, but only 7 (1.2 percent) of them were of Bengali origin. Bengalis fared slightly better in the air force, which had a total of 640 officers, 40 (6.3 percent) of whom were Bengalis.*

By 1965 the participation ratio had improved slightly, although it was still far from East Pakistani desires and expectations. Among the total of 6,000 army officers, 5 percent were Bengalis. Only one of them had become a major general. In the navy and air force, with officer totals of 800 and 1,200, respectively, the overall percentages of Bengalis had increased more than in the army but were still at a distinct minority level. Most Bengali officers in the navy and air force were in technical or administrative rather than command positions.*

In February 1966, Mujib, head of the East Pakistani Awami League, announced a six-point program calling for East Pakistani provincial autonomy with a federated Pakistan. Significantly, the sixth point of this program held that the federating units should each "be empowered to maintain a militia or paramilitary force in order to contribute effectively toward national security." This point was, in time, expanded to encompass the attainment by East Pakistan of selfsufficiency in defense matters. Specific actions called for under the sixth point included establishment of an ordnance factory, a military academy, and the federal naval headquarters in East Pakistan.*

Mujib's six-point package was unacceptable to the central government, but in July 1969 General Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan, who had succeeded Ayub as president earlier that year, announced a major policy change. The recruitment of Bengalis into the military services was to be doubled. Among steps taken to improve recruitment of East Pakistanis were establishing new recruiting centers in East Pakistan, giving greater publicity to the recruitment process, making promises (albeit vague ones) of promotions for Bengalis, and reducing the minimum height for enlistment by 5 centimeters to 162 centimeters. (Bengalis are, on the average, smaller than Punjabis and Pathans, and the old height requirement had excluded many Bengalis from military service.) East Pakistani participation in the armed forces increased, but Bengalis were still heavily underrepresented when the civil war that led to the partition of Pakistan erupted in March 1971.*

On the eve of the civil war, there were only two military units specifically identified with East Pakistan. One of these was the lightly armed paramilitary border security force called the East Pakistan Rifles; the other was the East Bengal Regiment of the Pakistan Army. The East Bengal Regiment had been established soon after the division of the British Indian Army in 1947. The First Battalion of the East Bengal Regiment was raised in February 1948 and the Second Battalion in December of the same year. Thereafter six more battalions were formed. The Ninth Battalion was being raised at the East Bengal Regiment center in Chittagong when the civil war broke out in March 1971.*

Liberation War

In the fall of 1970, a powerful opposition movement emerged in East Pakistan. During the 1971 civil war, a number of factional paramilitary bands, which included communist forces dedicated to a rural-based revolution along Maoist lines, fought against each other and engaged in terrorism. The strongest of the new paramilitary bands, and the one that would have the greatest impact on future events, was organized under the Awami League's military committee headed by Colonel M.A.G. Osmany, a retired Pakistan Army officer. This band was raised as Mujib's action arm and security force. As the political struggle between East Pakistan and West Pakistan intensified, the Awami League's military arm assumed the character of a conventional, albeit illegal, armed force. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

At first, Osmany recruited his force from three main sources: the East Pakistan Students League (the Awami League's youth branch); the security militia called Ansars (ansar is Arabic for helper) and Mujahids (mujahid is Arabic for holy warrior), who were trained, respectively, by the police and the army; and urban toughs known throughout the subcontinent as goondas. Osmany's group collected arms and ammunition and conspired with Bengali-origin officers and troops in the regular Pakistani forces and the East Pakistan Rifles. Initially, Osmany's band was called Sevak Bahini (Service Force); after its expansion, it became known as the Mukti Fauj (Liberation Force; more loosely, freedom fighters), a name that evolved into Mukti Bahini, a term of more common Bengali usage having the same meaning as Mukti Fauj. The very existence of an underground army responsive to Awami League directives convinced West Pakistani leaders that Mujib was intent on leading the secession of East Pakistan.*

On March 25, 1971, the Pakistan armed forces launched a campaign to suppress the resistance movement. During the ensuing month, military operations spread throughout East Pakistan. The East Bengal Regiment, the East Pakistan Rifles, and most of the East Pakistani police and their auxiliaries joined the revolt. They seized West Pakistani officers serving with these units and killed some of them. The wholesale, planned defection of the Bengalis from the Pakistan Army in the early weeks of the war came as a surprise to the Pakistani command and was of supreme importance to the Bangladesh cause. The Bengali units, after fighting numerous actions against West Pakistani regulars, gradually withdrew and merged with the Mukti Bahini, providing the essential core of leadership and organizational basis for the rest of the war.*

Gradually this amalgamation of forces grew into a unified military as it confronted the Pakistanis. Retired officers and troops helped train the revolutionary forces. On April 14, Osmany officially became the commander in chief of the Mukti Bahini. Although most of this force, estimated at over 100,000 strong at the height of the conflict, maintained unswerving allegiance to Mujib and the Awami League, many partisan bands operated independently. East Pakistani civilian members of the resistance operated out of Calcutta. The high command divided the country into eight military sectors, each commanded by a Pakistan Army major who had defected. India granted sanctuary to the Mukti Bahini and provided bases and substantial matériel and training. The initial operations by the Pakistan Army failed to destroy the Mukti Bahini or to prevent its expansion and development, but by late May 1971 Pakistani authority had been widely reasserted. Rebel forces were largely confined to the areas near the Indian border states of West Bengal, Assam, and Tripura. Pakistani forces received reinforcements and the assistance of an internal security force called Razakars (Keepers of Public Order) and other collaborators that had been raised in East Pakistan by the Pakistani administration. Denounced by the resistance for collaborating with Pakistani authorities, most Razakars were Urdu-speaking Muslims who had emigrated from the Indian state of Bihar at the time of partition. The weary Pakistani regulars, however, were able to contain a July monsoon offensive by the Mukti Bahini.*

Despite the setback, the Mukti Bahini had gained valuable experience and shown increased capability. Back in their border base area, they regrouped. Recruitment was never a serious problem, and numerical losses were easily replaced. Indian aid and participation materially increased, and the tempo of fighting again picked up by October, when Pakistan had raised its army troop strength to about 80,000. Border clashes between the Indian and Pakistani armies became frequent.*

In response to Indian military incursions into East Pakistan in late November, Pakistan launched a series of preemptive air strikes against Indian airfields on December 3, 1971. Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi then ordered national mobilization, and Indian forces launched a full-scale invasion of East Pakistan the next day. The initial Pakistani air strikes had been ineffective, and the Indian Air Force attained air superiority within the next twenty-four hours and held it. The Pakistan Air Force detachment in East Pakistan was destroyed, and supply and escape routes were cut off; in West Pakistan the Indian Air Force systematically struck aircraft and airfields, base installations, communication centers, and troop concentrations. At sea an Indian Navy task force immobilized East Pakistani port facilities and landed an amphibious force to cut off escape routes to Burma. At the same time, an Indian task force contained Pakistan's fleet and bombarded port installations at Karachi, West Pakistan.*

On the ground the Indian strategic plan was aimed at East Pakistan as first priority, while simultaneously containing West Pakistan. The Indian force that invaded East Pakistan consisted of nine infantry divisions with attached armor units and supporting arms. Separated into five invasion columns, Indian forces advanced rapidly, bypassing intermediate cities and obstacles and pressing relentlessly toward the capital at Dhaka. At the same time, guerrilla attacks intensified, and at least three brigades of the Mukti Bahini fought in conventional formations with the Indian forces. Overwhelmed by the speed and power of the Indian advance, Pakistan's four divisions and smaller separate units fought a number of hard actions but soon had their escape routes cut off and were without air support. On December 16 Dhaka fell, and Pakistan's commander, Lieutenant General A.A.K. Niazi, with about 75,000 troops, surrendered to Lieutenant General J.S. Aurora, the Indian commander of the combined Indian and Mukti Bahini forces. On the western front, India's forces had effectively contained Pakistani attacks and had made limited advances into West Pakistan.*

Postindependence Period

Indian military forces initially remained in newly independent Bangladesh to consolidate their victory and to assist in stabilizing the new government, but they completed their withdrawal on March 12, 1972. A flotilla of Soviet minesweepers arrived in Bangladesh shortly thereafter, ostensibly to clear Pakistani mines from Chittagong harbor. The prolonged Soviet presence, a source of suspicion among Awami League critics, ended in 1975 when Mujib's successors requested the Soviets to leave. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Regular Bangladeshi armed forces were quickly established but, because of budgetary constraints, on an extremely limited scale. The organization of these armed forces reflected not only that of the colonial British Indian Army, especially as it had continued under the Pakistan Army, but also the experience of the Mukti Bahini in the 1971 war of independence. Most of the guerrilla fighters reverted to civilian status, although some were absorbed into the regular armed forces. Countrywide, vast but undetermined numbers of small arms and automatic weapons remained at large in the population, presaging trouble in the years ahead.*

A difficult residual issue was prisoner exchanges. India held about 90,000 Pakistani prisoners of war and civilian internees, while Bangladesh retained 195 Pakistanis (mostly military) with the intent — later put aside — of bringing them to trial for war crimes. Pakistan also held some 28,000 Bengali military personnel stranded in West Pakistan. Under agreements reached by the governments of Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan in August 1973 and April 1974, prisoner release and repatriation in all categories were completed by April 30, 1975.*

The bitter rift between military personnel who returned to Bangladesh after liberation and freedom fighters who had fought in the war was to have profound consequences for the new nation.*

The repatriates, who had languished in West Pakistani jails during the civil war, were absorbed into an army dominated by former guerrillas, some of whom were civilians inducted as a reward for their sacrifices. Repatriates, by and large, felt no personal loyalty to Mujib and viewed the freedom fighters as a undisciplined and politicized element. Repatriate officers bridled under Mujib's use of the army in disarming the civilian population and taming his political opponents. Moreover, repatriates were suspicious of the regime's pro-Indian sympathies, its rhetorical support for the Soviet Union, and its efforts to circumscribe the role of Islam in national affairs. The rift between repatriates and freedom fighters worsened considerably when Mujib formed the Jatiyo Rakkhi Bahini (National Defense Force), an elite parallel army intended to insulate the regime against military coups and other armed challenges to its authority. By 1975 the Jatiyo Rakkhi Bahini had swelled to an estimated 30,000 troops. Repatriates complained that Mujib destroyed the army's integrity by disbanding the East Bengal Regiment, which was composed primarily of repatriates; funneling all new recruits to the Jatiyo; Rakkhi Bahini; favoring freedom fighters in matters of pay and promotions; and slashing the army's budget in order to sustain the Jatiyo Rakkhi Bahini.*

Other armed elements that supported Mujib roamed the countryside searching out and punishing Pakistani collaborators, opponents of the regime, and, as was often the case, anyone who offered resistance to their warlord-style rule. For instance, freedom fighter leader Kader "Tiger" Siddiqi and his estimated 3,000 armed supporters virtually ruled Mymensingh District while Mujib was in office.*

Other, more radical factions within the army viewed the liberation movement as unfinished until the "petit bourgeois" Awami League government was swept aside and replaced by a "people's government" of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party modeled after the Chinese experiment. The central figure among these factions was Abu Taher, a former Pakistan Army colonel who had been trained in commando operations in the United States and was later cashiered by Mujib because of his radical views. Taher and an inner circle of radical freedom fighters belonged to the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (National Socialist Party) and its armed wing, the Biplabi Sainik Sangstha (Revolutionary Soldiers Organization). The Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal developed deep roots in the military and among radical students connected with the Chhatro Union (Students Union) of the Bangladesh Communist Party. The Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal tailored its appeal to lower level officers and jawans. By 1975 Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal sympathizers within the military and police were estimated to number 20,000.*

Military Coup in Bangladesh in 1975

Tensions within the military exploded on August 15, 1975, when thirty middle-ranking army officers, many of whom were repatriates, staged a coup. With the support of troops from the First Bengal Lancers and the Second Field Artillery Regiment, the mutineers assassinated Mujib and members of his family and called on Ziaur Rahman (Zia) to become army chief of staff. Osmany, the former Mukti Bahini chief, lent respectability to the emerging military- political order by agreeing to serve as defense adviser to the new figurehead president, Khondakar Mushtaque Ahmed. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Freedom-fighter elements within the army countered this so- called "majors' plot" by staging a coup of their own on November 3, 1975. Following the murder of prominent Awami League officials detained in Dhaka Central Jail, troops commanded by Brigadier Khaled Musharraf dismissed the government, placed Zia under arrest, created a vaguely defined revolutionary council, and exiled the ringleaders of the original coup to Libya. A total breakdown in discipline within the military occurred shortly after this second coup, as junior army officers and jawans took to the streets to defend themselves against anticipated assaults from rival army factions. Simultaneously, the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal called on jawans to kill their commanding officers. On November 7, Zia secured his release from house arrest, reportedly with Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal backing, and staged a third coup. Musharraff was killed, Zia and other senior officers restored a semblance of army unity, and the jawans returned to barracks.*

As Zia attempted to consolidate power under his new title of chief martial law administrator, additional challenges to his authority occurred. In April 1976, conservative officers led by Air Vice Marshal M.G. Tawab attempted to overthrow Zia after recalling four of the "killer majors" from exile. The conspirators called for the creation of an Islamic state and demanded a share of political power. After officers of the two armored regiments, the First Bengal Cavalry and the First Bengal Lancers, refused to turn over the rebels, troops loyal to Zia descended on Bogra cantonment to put down the mutiny. In the aftermath of the failed coup, Tawab was exiled, the Twenty-second East Bengal Regiment was disbanded, Taher was hanged, and over 200 servicemen were tried in military courts on disciplinary charges.*

An even more serious breach of discipline occurred on September 29, 1977, when Japanese Red Army terrorists landed a hijacked aircraft at Dhaka International Airport (present-day Zia International Airport). While Zia and his senior staff officers were busy negotiating with the hijackers, an entire army battalion mutinied in Bogra. As the hostage drama continued, the revolt spread to Dhaka cantonment and to air force units at the airport itself.*

The uprising was the handiwork of the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal, which again exhorted jawans to kill their commanding officers. Their slogan was "All soldiers are brothers; blood of officers wanted; no ranks above [low-ranking] subedar." The mutineers' goal was to create a "classless army" that would act as a revolutionary vanguard in remaking Bangladeshi society in a Maoist mold.

Bangladesh Under General Zia

Alarmed by the spreading disorder within the ranks, senior army officers rallied behind Zia's leadership. After several days of heavy fighting that killed an estimated 200 soldiers, loyal troops succeeded in suppressing the rebellion. Zia then moved swiftly to purge mutinous elements from the military. Within a span of 2 months, more than 1,100 had been executed for involvement in the uprising. According to a well-informed observer, "it was the most devastating punishment exercise in the history of Bangladesh, carried out with the utmost speed and with total disregard for justice and the legal process." As additional precautions, Zia reorganized the three service branches, disbanded mutinous units, shuffled his senior commanders, and banned the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

During his six-year tenure in office, Zia implemented a number of strategies to instill discipline in the armed forces and broaden the political base of his regime. Zia recognized that officers and jawans alike nursed serious grievances against their military and civilian superiors, such as low pay, lack of promotions, corruption and political machinations. He set out to professionalize the military by promoting repatriates, increasing military pay and benefits, and building up the defense budget. Zia also co-opted the officer corps by expanding the armed forces, appointing both active-duty and retired military cronies to lucrative positions in the civil bureaucracy, and exiling potential challengers to diplomatic posts abroad. Simultaneously, Zia militarized the national police system by firing thousands of police on charges of corruption and appointing army officers to oversee the system.

Despite his efforts to curb the army's appetite for power, Zia fell victim to assassination. On the night of May 30, 1981, Major General Muhammed Manzur Ahmed, commander of the Twenty-fourth Infantry Division and a hero of the war of independence, led troops to the government rest house in Chittagong where Zia was staying. After murdering the president and his bodyguards, Manzoor seized the local radio station and called on troops elsewhere in the country to support his coup.*

Manzur announced the formation of a "revolutionary council," dismissed senior officers from their posts in Dhaka, dissolved Parliament, and abrogated the 1972 Treaty of Cooperation, Friendship, and Peace with India. Manzur apparently was convinced that freedom fighters — estimated at 20 percent of the army — would rally behind him, despite the fact that the leader he murdered was a venerated freedom fighter himself. Fearing that a successful coup might trigger another intramilitary bloodletting, senior commanders in Dhaka lined up behind Zia's aging and infirm constitutional successor, Supreme Court justice Abdus Sattar. Loyal army units converged on Chittagong, and the coup attempt was crushed within forty-eight hours. According to a government white paper published after the episode, Manzur was apprehended after fleeing to the Indian border, and he was shot "while attempting to escape." Thirty-one officers were subsequently tried for mutiny, twelve of the thirty-one were hanged, and fifty-four senior officers were dismissed.*

Zia's most impressive achievement — the creation of a viable institutional framework for promoting political stability and economic growth — did not survive long after his death. "One of Zia's strongest points," according to commentator Ashish Kumar Roy, "was the stability he symbolized in a state that seemed to have become a victim of chronic violence, both civilian and military. By assassinating him, the military itself destroyed all that Zia had sought to prove: that the army could be contained, and that genuine power could be handed back to civilians through a democratic process." *

Military Coup of 1982

Sattar lacked Zia's charisma, and the country was soon subjected to mounting political and monetary crises. Although Sattar and his inherited Bangladesh Nationalist Party won an electoral mandate in November 1981, most political observers believed another army coup was only a matter of time. To compound matters, Sattar was extremely vulnerable because of the political debt he owed the army for quashing the coup and guaranteeing constitutional order. The generals, nevertheless, were reluctant to seize power immediately because of the fear that public opinion might turn against the military. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Army Chief of Staff Hussain Muhammad Ershad pressured Sattar to grant the military a formal, constitutional role in governing the state. During a press interview in November 1981, Ershad offered "some straight talk about a very grave and deep-seated politico- military problem." According to him, the military was an "efficient, well-disciplined and most honest body of a truly dedicated and organized national force. The potentials of such an excellent force in a poor country like ours can effectively be utilized for productive and nation-building purposes in addition to its role of national defense." Ershad denied any personal political ambitions but lamented the shabby treatment civilian politicians accorded the military. "Our rank-and-file do not want military adventurism in politics, nor do they want political adventurism in the military," he declared to his political opponents, thus setting the stage for the coup he was to engineer later. To remedy the problems he saw, Ershad put forward a concept that "requires us to depart from conventional Western ideas of the role of the armed forces. It calls for combining the roles of nation building and national defense into one concept of total national defense." Ershad denied that "total national defense" amounted to military interference in the democratic process, but his contention was hotly disputed by civilian politicians.*

Sattar responded to Ershad's challenge by trying to establish a National Security Council in January 1982, comprising the three service chiefs and seven civilians. Ershad rejected the plan. Sattar, hoping to forestall an army takeover, reorganized his crumbling cabinet the following month and reconstituted the National Security Council with the three service chiefs and only three civilians. Despite this concession, which was opposed by opposition politicians and by some members of Sattar's own party, Ershad staged a coup on March 24, 1982. Unlike previous coups, there was no bloodshed, senior military commanders acted in unison, and the population accepted the military takeover, albeit sullenly. Ershad cited the political and social evils that necessitated drastic action on the part of the "patriotic armed forces" and again denied any personal political ambitions.*

Military in the Late 1980s

According to senior Bangladeshi commanders in the late 1980s, the military was the only institution capable of providing the nation with honest and efficient administration. In their view, civilian politicians were obsessed with settling political scores, undercutting the influence of the armed forces, and downplaying the military's role in leading the nation to victory in 1971. Moreover, most officers regarded politicians as hopelessly corrupt and incapable of creating confidence in the government's capacity to make the best use of vitally needed foreign assistance. The military disregarded suggestions made by the opposition to curtail its power, such as the formation of a "people's army," the outright abolition of the military, or various constitutional provisions that would circumscribe the military's political influence. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Many Bangladeshi officers asserted that they would prefer to limit their role in administering the country and concentrate on their traditional role of maintaining defense preparedness. They feared, however, that if the military were not in a position to safeguard the national interest, a government controlled by the opposition would mortgage the country's future and, conceivably, destroy the armed forces. Civilian political leaders did not reassure the military on this score. For instance, Begum Khaleda Zia, the widow of Ziaur Rahman and the head of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, has called on freedom fighters in the armed forces to take matters into their own hands and join with her party in ousting Ershad. Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the daughter of Mujib and the head of the Awami League, has campaigned against "corrupt generals" and threatened to reduce the army to an internal police force if she came to power. Faced with these kinds of threats, the military has consistently supported Ershad's cautious program of retaining the army's watchdog political role in a nominally civilian government.*

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Bangladesh Tourism Board, Bangladesh National Portal (www.bangladesh.gov.bd), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.