Bangladesh's first 25 years of existence was marked by two assassinations, three coups and 19 coup attempts. Sheik Mujibur Rhaman’s death triggered a series of military coups that resulted in a military-backed government and subsequent creation of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in 1978. The Awami League was all but destroyed. It took 30 years build it back. Bangladesh was governed by the military for the 15 years, 1975 to 1990. The years of military rule stunted Bangladesh's economic growth, exacerbated poverty and made it dependent on foreign aid.

The diplomatic status of Bangladesh changed overnight. One day after Mujib's assassination President Bhutto of Pakistan announced that his country would immediately recognize the new regime and offered a gift of 50,000 tons of rice in addition to a generous gift of clothing. India, however, under the rule of Indira Gandhi, suffered a setback in its relations with Bangladesh. The end of the Mujib period once again brought serious bilateral differences to the fore. Many Bangladeshis, although grateful for India's help against Pakistan during the struggle for independence, thought Indian troops had lingered too long after the Pakistan Army was defeated. Mujibist dissidents who continued to resist central authority found shelter in India. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

The assassins of Mujib arrested the three senior ranking officers in Mujib's cabinet but installed as president the fourth in charge, a long-time colleague of Mujib and minister of commerce,Khondakar Mushtaque Ahmed (1918-1996). Mushtaque, a conservative member of the Awami League (the name to which the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League reverted after Mujib's death), was known to lean toward the West and to have been troubled by Mujib's close ties with India. Many observers believed him to have been a conspirator in Mujib's assassination. Mushtaque, a former minister of commerce, pledged support for the constitution and the four guiding principles of state ideology. He dissolved the BAKSAL, declared martial law but restored the parliament.

Mushtaque’s was soon overthrown in a military coup launched by senior military officials on November 3, 1975. The coup leaders named Chief Justice Abusadat Muhammad Sayem (1916–1997) as president and chief martial law administrator. However, the leaders of the November 3 coup were killed in a counter coup on November 7, which brought forward Ziaur (Zia) Rahman (1936–1981) as the new chief of staff of the army and strongman of the country.

Mushtaque’s role in the new regime was circumscribed by the majors, who even moved into the presidential palace with him.Mushtaque announced that parliamentary democracy would be restored by February 1977, and he lifted Mujib's ban on political parties. He instituted strong programs to reduce corrupt practices and to restore efficiency and public confidence in the government. He also ordered the transfer of all the equipment and assets and most of the personnel of the Jatiyo Rakkhi Bahini to the army and the eventual abolition of the Jatiyo Rakkhi Bahini. Mushtaque promised to dissolve the authoritarian powers that Mujib had invested in the office of the presidency, but the continuing unstable situation did not improve enough to permit a significant degree of liberalization. In order to keep Mujib supporters under control, Mushtaque declared himself chief martial law administrator and set up a number of tribunals that fell outside constitutional jurisdiction.

Despite the economic and political instability during the last years of the Mujib regime, the memory of the Bangabandhu evoked strong emotions among his loyalists. Many of these, especially former freedom fighters now in the army, were deeply resentful of the majors. One of these Mujib loyalists, Brigadier Khaled Musharraf, launched a successful coup on November 3, 1975. Chief Justice Abu Sadat Mohammad Sayem, who had served Mujib in the Supreme Court, emerged as president. Musharraf had himself promoted to major general, thereby replacing Chief of Staff Zia.

In a public display orchestrated to show his loyalty to the slain Mujib, Musharraf led a procession to Mujib's former residence. The reaction to Musharraf's obvious dedication to Mujibist ideology and the fear that he would renew the former leader's close ties with India precipitated the collapse of the new regime. On November 7, agitators of the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal, a leftist but decidedly anti-Soviet and anti-Indian movement, managed to incite troops at the Dhaka cantonment against Musharraf, who was killed in a firefight. President Sayem became chief martial law administrator, and the military service chiefs, most significantly the army's Zia, became deputy chief martial law administrators. Zia also took on the portfolios of finance, home affairs, industry, and information, as well as becoming the army chief of staff.It was not long before Zia, with the backing of the military, supplanted the elderly and frail Sayem. Zia postponed the presidential elections and the parliamentary elections that Sayem had earlier promised and made himself chief marital law administrator in November 1976.

General Ziaur Rahman (Gen. Zia)

General Ziaur Rahman (Gen. Zia, 1936–1981) became martial law administrator in December 1976 and president in 1977. A former captain in the Pakistan army, he became the leader after series of coups and coups over five days after the assassination of Khalid Musharaf. Some believe he was involved in assassination of Sheik Mujibur Rahman.

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “After Sheikh Mujib was assassinated in 1975, Ziaur Rahman (1936–81), a decorated major general, became chief martial law administrator, and in 1977 he was elected president. Opposed to the secular status of the newly independent country, he proclaimed Islam as the religion of Bangladesh. In 1979 Ziaur Rahman formed a new political party, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), which emphasized Islam as the religion of the people, thus distinguishing them from the Bengalis of India. In 1981 Ziaur Rahman was assassinated. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

In 1978, with limited political activity permitted, Zia was elected president and lifted martial law. In February 1979, he restored parliamentary government after elections gave his new party, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly. On May 30, 1981, Zia was assassinated by army officers.

In the opinion of many observers, Zia, although ruthless with his opponents, was the nation's best leader since independence. A dapper military officer, he transformed himself into a charismatic and popular political figure. Once described as having an air of "serene hesitancy and assured authority," Zia had boundless energy and spent much of his time traveling throughout the country. Zia preached the "politics of hope," continually urging all Bangladeshis to work harder and to produce more. Unlike Mujib, Zia utilized whatever talent he could muster to spur on the economy, and he did not discriminate, as Mujib had, against civil servants who had not fully participated in the freedom struggle. Zia was a well-known figure who first emerged nationally during the independence struggle. His "Z Force" (Z for Zia) had been the first to announce the independence of Bangladesh from a captured radio station in Chittagong. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Zia also tried to integrate the armed forces, giving repatriates a status appropriate to their qualifications and seniority. This angered some of the freedom fighters, who had rapidly reached high positions. Zia deftly dealt with the problem officers by sending them on diplomatic missions abroad. Zia made repatriate Major General Hussain Muhammad Ershad the deputy army chief of staff. Having consolidated his position in the army, Zia became president on April 21, 1977, when Sayem resigned on the grounds of "ill health." At that time Zia held the dominant positions in the country and seemed to be supported by a majority of Bangladeshis. *

Gen. Zia Rise to Power

Two days after Bangladesh independence was first proclaimed on March 26, 1971, the "Voice of Independent Bangladesh" announced that a "Major Zia" (Ziaur Rahman) would form a new government with himself occupying the "presidency." Zia's selfappointment was considered brash, especially by Mujib, who in subsequent years would hold a grudge. Quickly realizing that his action was unpopular, Zia yielded his "office" to the incarcerated Mujib.

On August 15, 1975, a group of young military officers seized power, killing Mujib and many of his family members and imposing martial law. The leader chosen by the military officers was overthrown in a military coup three months later launched by senior military officials on November 3, 1975. The coup leaders named Chief Justice Abusadat Muhammad Sayem as president and chief martial law administrator. However, the leaders of the November 3 coup were killed in a counter coup on November 7. It was not long before Zia, with the backing of the military, supplanted the elderly and frail Sayem. Zia postponed the presidential elections and the parliamentary elections that Sayem had earlier promised and made himself chief marital law administrator in November 1976.

Initially, Zia retained Sayem as president and chief martial law administrator while he exercised power from behind the scenes. After a year of that, on November 30, 1976, Zia became the chief martial law administrator. Still acting behind the scenes, Zia aimed to energize government policy and administration. While continuing the ban on political parties, he sought to raise morale in the neglected bureaucracy, launch economic development programs and push family planning. [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook” 2009]

On April 21, 1977, Zia became president when Sayem abruptly resigned, citing ill health. Twenty-four hours after officially assuming power, through a martial law ordinance, Zia introduced yet another fundamental amendment to the constitution. Two of the four guiding principles of state ideology were changed. Secularism was dropped and replaced with "absolute trust and faith in Almighty Allah" and socialism was reinterpreted to mean "social justice." [Source: Governments of the World: A Global Guide to Citizens' Rights and Responsibilities , Thomson Gale, 2006]

Zia Maintains Grip on Power While Introducing Reforms

Gen. Ziaur Rahman ruled under martial law and although his rule was repressive he improved national economy. He refused to move into the official residence. Instead he moved in a house in the main military barracks in Dhaka. He outlawed opposition parties and the press. In 1977, after canceling elections he had promised, Zia declared himself president based on a referendum on military rule that purportedly won the support of 80 percent of Bangladesh's eligible voters. Under Gen Zia, Bangladesh was kept afloat with $1 billion in food supplies and other aid from a World-bank consortium of 16 nations and five international agencies. In return for the assistance, the Western-lead Bangladesh Aid Group supervised the economy.

As President, Zia announced a 19-point program of economic reform and began dismantling the MLA. In May 1977, with his power base increasingly secure, Zia drew on his popularity to promote the nineteen-point political and economic program. Zia focused on the need to boost Bangladeshi production, especially in food and grains, and to integrate rural development through a variety of programs, of which population planning was the most important. He heeded the advice of international lending agencies and launched an ambitious rural development program in 1977, which included a highly visible and popular food-for-work program. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Fortified with his manifesto, Zia faced the electorate in a referendum on his continuance in office. The results of what Zia called his "exercise of the democratic franchise," showed that 88.5 percent of the electorate turned out and that 98.9 percent voted for Zia. Although some doubts were cast on how fairly the referendum was conducted, Zia was, nonetheless, a popular leader with an agenda most of the country endorsed. Zia consciously tried to change the military bearing of his government, eventually transferring most of the portfolios held by military officers to civilians. Continuing the process of giving his regime a nonmilitary appearance, in June 1977 he chose as his vice president Supreme Court justice Abdus Sattar (1906–1985)), a civilian who had long been involved in Bengali politics. *

One of the most important tasks Zia faced was to change the direction of the country. Zia altered the Constitution's ideological statement on the fundamental principles, in particular changing the Mujibist emphasis on secularism to "complete trust and faith in almighty Allah." While distancing Bangladesh from India, Zia sought to improve ties with other Islamic nations. Throughout his regime, Zia pursued an active foreign policy, and the legacy of his efforts continued to bear fruit in the late 1980s. In 1980 Zia proposed a conference for the seven nations of the subcontinent (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) to discuss the prospects for regional cooperation in a number of fields. This initiative was successful in August 1983 when the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation was established. *

Zia and the Military

Zia's administration reestablished public order, which had deteriorated during the Mujib years. Special civil and military tribunals dealt harshly with the multitudes of professional bandits, smugglers, and guerrilla bands. A continuing problem with one of these armed groups led by Kader "Tiger" Siddiqi, a one-time freedom fighter and former enlisted man in the Pakistan Army, was eased when the Janata Party came to power in India in early 1977. The new Indian prime minister, Morarji Desai, discontinued the assistance and sanctuary that Indira Gandhi's government had given to pro-Mujib rebels working against the government. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

President Zia's efforts to quiet the military — divided and politicized since independence — were not entirely successful. In late September 1977, Japanese Red Army terrorists hijacked a Japan Air Lines airplane and forced it to land in Dhaka. On September 30, while the attention of the government was riveted on this event, a mutiny broke out in Bogra. Although the mutiny was quickly quelled on the night of October 2, a second mutiny occurred in Dhaka. The mutineers unsuccessfully attacked Zia's residence, captured Dhaka Radio for a short time, and killed a number of air force officers at Dhaka International Airport (present-day Zia International Airport), where they were gathered for negotiations with the hijackers. The revolts, which attracted worldwide coverage, were dismissed by the government as a conflict between air force enlisted men and officers regarding pay and service conditions. *

The army quickly put down the rebellion, but the government was severely shaken. The government intelligence network had clearly failed, and Zia promptly dismissed both the military and the civilian intelligence chiefs. Three of the aspirants to the army chief of staff post, at the time held by Zia, were also removed; in 1981 one of them, Major General Muhammad Manzur Ahmed, was to lead the coup that resulted in the assassination of Zia. After the Dhaka mutiny, Zia continued with his plans for political normalization, insisting on being called "president" rather than "major general" and prohibiting his military colleagues from holding both cabinet and military positions. *

Elections Under Zia and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)

A series of elections were then held under martial law during Zia early years. Later, bans on political parties were lifted. Zia himself floated his own political party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), composed of members from both the Left and Right. [Source: Governments of the World: A Global Guide to Citizens' Rights and Responsibilities , Thomson Gale, 2006]

Keeping his promise to hold elections, Zia announced In April 1978, that elections would be held to "pave the way to democracy," adding that the Constitution would be amended to provide for an independent judiciary as well as a "sovereign parliament." Zia also lifted the ban on political parties. He was supported by a "national front," whose main party was the Jatiyo Ganatantrik Dal (National Democratic Party). As the candidate of the Jatiyo Ganatantrik Dal-led Nationalist Front, Zia won overwhelmingly, taking 76.7 percent of the vote against a front led by General M.A.G. Osmany, the leader of the Mukti Bahini during the war. Shortly after, Zia expanded the Jatiyo Ganatantrik Dal to include major portions of the parties in the Nationalist Front. His new party was named the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and was headed by Sattar. Parliamentary elections followed in February 1979. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Zia won a 5-year term in June 1978 elections. In November 1978, his government removed the remaining restrictions on political party activities in time for parliamentary elections in February 1979. After campaigning by Zia, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party won 207 of the 300 seats in Parliament with about 44 percent of the vote. These elections, which were contested by more than 30 parties, marking the end of martial law and the culmination of Zia's transformation of Bangladesh's Government from military regime to a democratically elected, constitutional one. Zia continued its rule for two more years.

The Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), founded in 1978 by Zia, emerged as the two major parties. The initial constructive engagement between the AL and BNP broke down within two years. Both parties clashed, often violently, over several municipal and parliamentary by-elections (special elections held to fill a vacancy). The AL, alleging election fraud by the BNP in a parliamentary by-election, demanded the resignation of the government, requesting a new national election to be held under a neutral caretaker government. Other parties in parliament, including the Jatiya Party and Jamaat-I-Islami, supported the AL's demand. The country was repeatedly shut down by strikes. Finally, the opposition parties led by the AL resigned from parliament in December 1994.

Gen. Zia's Assassination and Its Aftermath

Zia was assassinated on visit to Chittagong on May 30, 1981, probably in a bungled coup attempt, His killers was arrested and died under mysterious circumstances. The plot was allegedly masterminded by Major General Manzur, the army commander in Chittagong. Manzur had earlier been chief of the general staff and had been transferred to Chittagong in the aftermath of the October 1977 mutiny. He was scheduled for a new transfer to a noncommand position in Dhaka and was reportedly disappointed over this. The army, under its chief of staff, Major General Hussain Mohammad Ershad, remained loyal to the Dhaka government and quickly put down the rebellion, killing Manzur. In the trials that followed, a sizable number of officers and enlisted men received the death penalty for complicity. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

The attempted coup never spread beyond Chittagong and the major conspirators were either taken into custody or killed. In accordance with the constitution, Vice President Justice Abdus Sattar was sworn in as acting president. He declared a new national emergency and called for election of a new president within six months. Although there was some speculation that Zia's widow, Begum Khalida Ziaur Rahman, and Mujib's daughter, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, would be candidates, Sattar ran against a number of political unknowns in the November election and won the presidential election with two-thirds of the vote. President Sattar sought to follow the policies of his predecessor and retained essentially the same cabinet, but the army stepped in once again. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Sattar was an elderly man who his critics thought to be ineffective, but his greatest weakness, in the eyes of the military, was that he was a civilian. Although Zia had downplayed his own military background, given up his position of army chief of staff, and adopted civilian dress and mannerisms, he maintained strong links with the armed services. Immediately following the 1981 election, Ershad pushed Sattar for a constitutional role for the military in the governance of the country. After initial resistance, Sattar, faced with the prospect of a coup, agreed to set up the National Security Council in January 1982 with the president, vice president, and prime minister representing the civilian side and the three service chiefs representing the military. In a last attempt to limit the influence of the military, Sattar relieved a number of military officers from duty in the government. [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook” 2009]

Sattar's decision to curtail military influence in the government provoked an immediate response from Ershad. On March 24, 1982, Ershad dismissed Sattar, dissolved the cabinet and the Parliament, and assumed full powers under martial law. Echoing the words of many past military leaders, Ershad announced that the military, as the only organized power in the nation, had been forced to take over until elections could be held.

Zia's assassination and Abdus Sattar’s ouster was set back for the progress that Zia had made restoring democracy. Declaring martial law, Ershad became Chief Martial Law Administrator (CMLA), suspended the 1972 constitution, and banned political parties. Ershad assumed authority and established the Jatiya party (JP). In late 1982 he became president, remaining in that position until 1990, when he was deposed, subsequently tried and convicted of a number of offenses and sent to prison.

After Zia was killed, Bangladesh was led for 10 years by another general who became president, Hussein Muhammed Ershad. Ershad assumed the title of "president of the ministers," or prime minister, but to many Bangladeshis he was a usurper who overthrew a legitimately elected president and reversed the arduous liberalization of Bangladeshi politics — the "politics of hope" begun earlier by Zia.


General Hussein Muhammed Ershad (1930-2019) seized power in Bangladesh in a coup in 1982 and led the country as president and military dictator through much of the 1980s. He became president of Bangladesh in December 1983 and held that post until 1990, when he was ousted in an uprising led by Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, who have ruled Bangladesh intermittently since its return to democracy in 1991. Ms. Hasina is the current prime minister. While in office, General Ershad suspended the country’s constitution and Parliament and cracked down on his political opponents. He amended the constitution by declaring Islam the state religion in 1988, a move that angered the Hindu minority.. After he was ousted he was convicted on corruption charges. [Source: Associated Press, July 15, 2019]

Ershad assumed the title of "president of the ministers," or prime minister, but to many Bangladeshis he was a usurper who overthrew a legitimately elected president and reversed the arduous liberalization of Bangladeshi politics — the "politics of hope" begun earlier by Zia. Like the military dictators that preceded him, Ershad suspended the constitution and — citing pervasive corruption, ineffectual government, and economic mismanagement — declared martial law.

Ershad initially gained support by cracking down on corruption and opening up the economy to foreign trade. Martial law remained until 1986. In an effort to gain legitimacy, Ershad later resigned his military office and won a disputed presidential election in 1986 ensuring the general his position as president until 1990, when opposition forced his resignation and new elections. In the end, Ershad lead a notoriously corrupt regime. After he left office he was sentenced to 13 years in jail. He was jailed from 1990 to 1996 and 2000 to 2001; he was convicted on additional charges in 2006 but sentenced to time already served.

Ershad’s Early Life and Career

Hussain Muhammad Ershad was born on February 1, 1930, in the Coochbehar district of West Bengal state in India, which was under British rule at the time. His parents migrated to what is now Bangladesh but was then part of Pakistan in 1948, after the end of British colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent. [Source: Associated Press, July 15, 2019]

He attended officer training school in Kohat, Pakistan, and was commissioned into the Pakistan Army in 1952. He was an adjutant in the East Bengal Regiment, the largest formation in the future Bangladesh Army. After completing advanced courses at the Command and Staff College in Quetta, Pakistan, in 1966, General Ershad returned to Bangladesh in 1973, two years after the country won independence from Pakistan following a nine-month war.

General Ershad He took over as the chief martial law administrator in a bloodless coup in 1982 and removed the elected government. He assumed power as the military and declared himself president the next year. He later created the Jatiya Party and was elected in 1986, although his victory was marred by charges of vote fraud.

Ershad Seizes Control of the Bangladesh Government

On March 24, 1982, the army chief of staff, Lieutenant General Hussain Muhammad Ershad, seized control of the government in a military coup. He proclaimed martial law, dismissed Sattar and his cabinet, made himself chief martial law administrator , with the navy and air force chiefs named as his deputies, and dismantled the structures of democratic government that the administration of the late president Zia had carefully built during the previous five years. Ershad suspended the Constitution, disbanded Parliament, prohibited all political activities, and deprived the president, vice president, and cabinet ministers of their offices. Three days after the coup, Supreme Court justice Abdul Fazal Muhammad Ahsanuddin Chowdhury became interim president. Ershad became chief minister of a new cabinet, and by December 1983 he had officially taken over the presidency. He declared that he expected a return to democratic rule in about two years. In fact, martial law lasted until November 1986. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Ershad had pledged his loyalty to the BNP government when Abdus Sattar became president. “According to Governments of the World”: “However, factionalism within the BNP and Sattar's advanced age made the government vulnerable. General Ershad demanded an institutionalized role for the military in governing the country. Sattar initially rejected the notion, but under pressure from the military he finally agreed to establish a national security council, composed of the president, vice president, prime minister, and chiefs of the three military services. This did not satisfy the military, however, and, after months of rumor about an impending coup, Ershad declared martial law. [Source: Governments of the World: A Global Guide to Citizens' Rights and Responsibilities , Thomson Gale, 2006]

Ershad cited as reasons for his coup the growing corruption and inefficiency of the civilian government dominated by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. After the assassination of President Zia as part of a local military rebellion in Chittagong in May 1981, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party fell into conflicting factions that could not be controlled by Zia's successor, President Abdus Sattar. Without Zia at the helm, the powerful leaders of the military distrusted Sattar's civilian government. Thus, because the major political forces in the country could not cooperate with each other, there was no resistance to Ershad's takeover. *

Ershad as the Leader of Bangladesh

According to Associated Press: “While critics say General Ershad destroyed many state institutions, defenders point out that he decentralized Bangladesh’s administrative structure by bringing rural areas under a development agenda that included the construction of many highways and other infrastructure projects. During his rule, Bangladesh improved relations with the United States and nations in the Middle East.” [Source: Associated Press, July 15, 2019]

After establishing control of the country, he had three main priorities for bringing political chaos to an end and for governing Bangladesh. His goals were to act against corruption and reorganize the administrative apparatus in order to implement overdue reforms, stand as a strong centralizing force while keeping his civilian opponents at bay, and placate the military so as to prevent further coup attempts. Through mid-1988 Ershad proved remarkably capable at accomplishing these goals, and he had become the longest ruling political leader in the history of independent Bangladesh. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

During his tenure as chief martial law administrator, Ershad divided the country into five martial law zones, each headed by a handpicked senior army officer. Twenty-four special and summary martial law courts directly involved the military in local administration. Although the civilian court system continued to function, violations of martial law ordinances were handled by these extraconstitutional martial law tribunals, where active-duty military officers met in secret sessions to try cases ranging from violations of press censorship to vaguely defined "antisocial activities." Those convicted of political crimes had no right of appeal, and defendants were tried in absentia. Martial law deprived the Supreme Court of its jurisdiction over the protection of fundamental rights, and criticism of martial law was punishable by up to seven years' imprisonment. *

Ershad moved forcibly to end corruption and reorganize the government. Several hundred politicians, including six former cabinet ministers, were jailed on charges of corruption. Ershad announced that one of his highest priorities was a reorganization of the government in order to decentralize decision making and development projects. In order to outline procedures for this decentralization project, he appointed the Committee for Administrative Reorganization-Reforms, which instituted sweeping changes in local administration. The Land Reforms Ordinance of 1984 granted important rights to tenants for the first time in the history of Bangladesh, and a new plan for the divestment of government industries promised to move the country away from socialism. Ershad built on Zia's earlier platform of advocating an increased role for Islam in the culture and politics of Bangladesh. *

Ershad's style of democracy — which did not include the participation of the opposition — had weathered a long political storm. On April 12, 1988, he lifted the state of emergency, and Parliament duly convened on April 25 amid another general strike. Ershad took the occasion of his opening speech to Parliament to advocate Islam as the state religion. This call grew from Ershad's long-term commitment to Islam as an integral part of state ideology, but it also brought his party's position closer to that of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Jamaat e Islami, and smaller fundamentalist parties. Again Ershad appeared to be making overtures for a reconciliation with part of the opposition. On June 7, 1988, Parliament, dominated by the Jatiyo Party, passed the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, making Islam the state religion and setting up six permanent high court benches outside Dhaka. The parliamentary opposition voted against the measure, and a general strike paralyzed Dhaka.

After six years in power, Ershad could look back on a series of major personal achievements. He had reconciled differences in the armed forces and prevented further military coups, efficiently managed international diplomacy and aid programs, and guided the country through a period of modest economic growth. He served as chief executive of Bangladesh for a longer period than any leader since independence and, in doing so, brought a sense of stability to the nation. However, Ershad had also kept opposition politicians from sharing power, and although he engineered the change from direct military rule to a civilian government, he made no progress in reconciling the political opposition to his regime. Despite the trappings of a democratic system, the government remained a structure for one-man rule, with a packed Parliament, a handpicked judicial system, and questionable election practices. The opposition conducted its politics in the streets and refused to grant any legitimacy to Ershad. Stability depended on Ershad's personal survival and his ability to keep street politics under control.

Emerging Opposition Under Ershad in the Mid 1980s

Ershad had a clear political stage for about a year after the coup because of his severe repression of opposition parties and because of intense factional fighting within all major political groupings. By early 1983, however, a pattern of confrontation politics had emerged. This pattern dominated the public life of Bangladesh until the late 1980s. Paradoxically, the government's Islamic policies provided a common cause for the first large anti-Ershad demonstrations. A proposed education program was designed to introduce English and Arabic as compulsory subjects in primary and secondary schools. This touched sensitive nationalist nerves, especially among university students, who saw it as a threat to the Bangla language. Several of Ershad's speeches favoring a stronger Islamic movement provoked riots on university campuses, which escalated into battles between students and police on February 14 and 15, 1983. Although the government imposed a curfew and closed the universities, the student movement stirred the opposition into more unified coalitions. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Dozens of political parties existed in Bangladesh during the 1980s, but the two major opposition parties to Ershad's rule were the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The Awami League, which originated in 1949 and emerged preeminent at the beginning of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's era, gradually united around the leadership of Sheikh Hasina Wajed, Mujib's eldest daughter. A fifteen-party alliance led by the Awami League began to act in unison during 1983. The leadership of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party fell to Begum Khaleda Zia, the widow of President Zia, and the party became the center of a seven-party alliance distinct from the one led by the Awami League. The two major alliances distrusted each other intensely, but they formed the heart of a larger thirty-two-party front, comprising socialist, communist, and Islamic groups, called the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy. This movement adopted a five-point program demanding an end to martial law, restoration of fundamental rights, parliamentary elections, release of political prisoners, and the trial of persons responsible for police brutality in the February student protests. The opposition alliances successfully engineered two general strikes in November 1983, the second resulting in widespread violence and hundreds of casualties among demonstrators and security personnel. *

Political events for the next several years revolved around attempts by the Ershad government to move from a military dictatorship to a civilian government with the cooperation of the political opposition. Ershad's program called for local elections at the union and subdistrict levels, followed by presidential and parliamentary elections, while a national party supporting the government would integrate all political groups in the same way the Bangladesh Nationalist Party had functioned during Zia's regime. Ershad relaxed the ban on political activities in January 1984 and repeatedly called for dialogue with opposition parties, but the major opposition alliances adamantly refused to cooperate while martial law remained in effect. The government held elections for union and municipal councils between December 1983 and February 1984, but repeated public demonstrations by opposition parties forced the cancellation of subdistrict and parliamentary elections. A rising crescendo of violence and civil disobedience led Ershad to reimpose harsh martial law restrictions in March 1985 and to put under house arrest Hasina, Khaleda Zia, and other opposition leaders. The government-sponsored party, Jana Dal (People's Party), had been formed in November 1983, but it had little chance to become organized before the new ban on political activity went into effect. *

In 1985 the government went ahead with a "civilianization" program without the participation of the opposition parties. With martial law being fully enforced, a referendum was held on March 21, asking voters: "Do you support the policies of President Ershad, and do you want him to continue to run this administration until a civilian government is formed through elections?" The official count of "yes" votes amounted to 32,539,264, while "no" votes totaled 1,290,217. The opposition had organized a general strike on referendum day and subsequently claimed that the results were fraudulent. In May the government conducted subdistrict council elections. Run on a nonparty, nationwide basis, the elections featured 2,300 candidates competing for 458 seats as council chairmen. Keen local contests occurred amid widespread violence and claims of fraud by the opposition. After these elections, the government released Hasina, Khaleda Zia, and the other opposition leaders from house arrest, and on October 1 it canceled the ban on indoor meetings and rallies of political parties. Meanwhile, the pro-government Jana Dal became the leading component of the new Jatiyo Party (National Party), which featured members who had played prominent roles in Ershad's cabinet. By late 1985, the stage had been set for parliamentary elections. Despite constant opposition party pressure, Ershad's regime had used its control over the government and the military to maneuver the country toward civilian rule. *

Elections Under Ershad

According to “Governments of the World”: “Following in Zia's footsteps, Ershad eventually civilianized his military regime, holding a series of elections under martial law and floating a political party, the Jatiya Party (JP), with state patronage. Local government elections were held in 1984, a national referendum in 1985, and parliamentary and a presidential elections in 1986. BNP boycotted the 1986 parliamentary election, in which the AL participated. Ershad retired from the army and was elected president without opposition in October 1986 in a state-controlled election. [Source: Governments of the World: A Global Guide to Citizens' Rights and Responsibilities , Thomson Gale, 2006]

According to “Countries of the World and Their Leaders”: “During most of 1984, Ershad sought the opposition parties’ participation in local elections under martial law. The opposition's refusal to participate, however, forced Ershad to abandon these plans. Ershad sought public support for his regime in a national referendum on his leadership in March 1985. He won overwhelmingly, although turnout was small. Two months later, Ershad held elections for local council chairmen. Pro-government candidates won a majority of the posts, setting in motion the President's ambitious decentralization program. Political life was further liberalized in early 1986, and additional political rights, including the right to hold large public rallies, were restored. At the same time, the Jatiya (National) Party, designed as Ershad's political vehicle for the transition from martial law, was established. [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook” 2009]

“Despite a boycott by the BNP, led by President Zia's widow, Begum Khaleda Zia, parliamentary elections were held on schedule in May 1986. The Jatiya Party won a modest majority of the 300 elected seats in the National Assembly. The participation of the Awami League — led by the late President Mujib's daughter, Sheikh Hasina Wajed — lent the elections some credibility, despite widespread charges of voting irregularities. Ershad resigned as Army Chief of Staff and retired from military service in preparation for the presidential elections, scheduled for October. Protesting that martial law was still in effect, both the BNP and the AL refused to put up opposing candidates. Ershad easily outdistanced the remaining candidates, taking 84 percent of the vote. Although Ershad's government claimed a turnout of more than 50 percent, opposition leaders, and much of the foreign press, estimated a far lower percentage and alleged voting irregularities.

“Ershad continued his stated commitment to lift martial law. In November 1986, his government mustered the necessary two-thirds majority in the National Assembly to amend the constitution and confirm the previous actions of the martial law regime. The President then lifted martial law, and the opposition parties took their elected seats in the National Assembly.

“In July 1987, however, after the government hastily pushed through a controversial legislative bill to include military representation on local administrative councils, the opposition walked out of Parliament. Passage of the bill helped spark an opposition movement that quickly gathered momentum, uniting Bangladesh's opposition parties for the first time. The government began to arrest scores of opposition activists under the country's Special Powers Act of 1974. Despite these arrests, opposition parties continued to organize protest marches and nationwide strikes. After declaring a state of emergency, Ershad dissolved Parliament and scheduled fresh elections for March 1988.

“All major opposition parties refused government overtures to participate in these polls, maintaining that the government was incapable of holding free and fair elections. Despite the opposition boycott, the government proceeded. The ruling Jatiya Party won 251 of the 300 seats. The Parliament, while still regarded by the opposition as an illegitimate body, held its sessions as scheduled, and passed a large number of bills, including, in June 1988, a controversial constitutional amendment making Islam Bangladesh's state religion and provision for setting up High Court benches in major cities outside of Dhaka. While Islam remains the state religion, the provision for decentralizing the High Court division has been struck down by the Supreme Court.

Relaxation of Martial Law in 1986

In March 1986, Ershad removed military commanders from key civil posts and abolished martial law offices and more than 150 military courts in an attempt to ease martial law restrictions. Because these moves satisfied some of the demands of the opposition, an eight-party alliance comprising the Awami League and some smaller parties agreed to participate in parliamentary elections. However, the seven-party alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party boycotted the May 1986 elections, and according to the opposition parties the elections were marred by extensive fraud, including overt support for Jatiyo Party candidates by Ershad and other government officials, theft of ballot boxes, and beatings of opposition party workers. Official figures claimed the turnout at the polls was between 45 and 50 percent of the electorate, but other observers estimated that only 10 to 30 percent participated. The elections gave the Jatiyo Party an absolute majority of 153 seats in Parliament; its close ally, the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (National Socialist Party), took 7 seats. The Awami League gained seventy-six seats, the Jamaat e Islami took ten seats, and a number of smaller parties and independents won a total of fifty-four seats. All thirty seats reserved for women went to supporters of the Jatiyo Party, giving Ershad's supporters a comfortable majority. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

With Parliament under his control, Ershad proceeded with plans for a presidential election. He resigned as army chief of staff in August 1986 but remained chief martial law administrator and commander in chief of the armed forces. He officially joined the Jatiyo Party in September, was elected its chairman, and became the party's candidate for president. The opposition parties did everything in their power to block these moves, claiming that the trappings of a democratic process were a sham while martial law was in effect. Awami League members of Parliament refused to attend its opening session, and in July Parliament adjourned for an indefinite period. Leftist parties and the alliances led by the Awami League, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and Jamaat e Islami boycotted the elections and organized widespread demonstrations, leading to the jailing of many opposition leaders and the house arrest of Hasina and Khaleda Zia. Yet the opposition's tactics did not prevent the successful completion of the presidential election in October. Ershad easily defeated 11 other candidates, officially obtaining 22 million votes (84 percent) of the electorate. Opposition parties again claimed that the election results were fraudulent, and they asserted that only 3 percent of the electorate had cast ballots.

Firmly in control of a civilian government as well as the military establishment, Ershad took steps to legitimize his rule of the previous four years. He summoned Parliament into session on November 10, 1986, to consider a seventh amendment to the Constitution, which would ratify his assumption of power in 1982 and all subsequent actions of his martial law administration. The opposition again took to the streets in protest. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Jamaat e Islami, and a leftist five-party alliance led a general strike on November 10. The Awami League, demanding the lifting of martial law, boycotted Parliament and instead held a "parallel parliament" on the stairs of Parliament House. Inside, the 223 representatives present for the session voted unanimously in favor of the Seventh Amendment, and hours later Ershad announced in a national address the withdrawal of martial law and the full restoration of the Constitution. Prime Minister Mizanur Rahman Chowdhury proclaimed these events a "glorious chapter," but Hasina described them as a "black chapter" in Bangladesh's history.

In early 1987, it appeared that Ershad had outmaneuvered his opponents and made the transition to a civilian leadership. The opposition was in disarray. By the time Awami League had decided to participate in Parliament in 1986, its coalition had shrunk from fifteen to eight parties. As a result, it had lost any opportunities it might have had for immediate cooperation with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and other parties, and it forfeited its claims to moral leadership in the fight against Ershad's regime. The rift between the Awami League and other opposition parties widened during the first half of 1987. For example, the newspapers were full of reports of the insults exchanged between Hasina and other opposition leaders. Ershad took advantage of the situation by convening Parliament in June to consider measures to consolidate his regime further. The most controversial measure was the District Council (Zila Parishad) Bill. This act expanded representative government by allowing elected representatives (members of Parliament and chairmen of subdistrict and municipality councils) to sit on district councils, but it also made provision for members of the military to participate as nonvoting members. The opposition viewed this move as an attempt to install the armed forces in the administration of the country on a permanent basis, thus favoring Ershad and his military supporters. The furor raised by the District Council (Zila Parishad) Bill grew into a storm that reunited the opposition and seriously destabilized Ershad's government from mid-1987 to mid-1988.

More Opposition Pressure on Ershad in the Late 1980s

Opposition alliances began public protests against the District Council Amendment Bill in June 1987. The five-party alliance implemented a half-day general strike in Dhaka on June 23. A week later, another half-day general strike supported by the parliamentary opposition paralyzed most cities and towns. Nevertheless, on July 12, 1987, the Jatiyo Party majority in Parliament passed the bill. Two days of strikes and public demonstrations followed. Ershad, responding to opposition pressure, sent the bill back to Parliament for "reconsideration." The opposition, realizing that its disunity would allow Ershad to strengthen his hold over the country, intensified its street demonstrations, and its leaders made moves toward greater cooperation against the government. The opposition parties called for Ershad's immediate resignation and new elections under a caretaker government. On July 24, the longest general strike in Bangladesh's history, a 54-hour campaign led by the Workers-Employees United Council (Sramik Karmachari Oikkiya Parishad), ended after 11 people were killed and 700 injured in street violence between demonstrators and security forces. In October the Workers-Employees United Council led another lengthy strike. The strike lasted for forty-eight hours and ended on October 21. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

By the fall of 1987, political events had come to a head. Extensive flooding from heavy monsoon season rains led to widespread misery in the countryside and intense criticism of the government's relief efforts. Hasina and Khaleda Zia met on October 28, signaling a new phase of cooperation between the two leading opposition coalitions. A liaison committee of the eight-, seven-, and five-party alliances was formed to coordinate the moves of the opposition. The "final showdown," known as the Siege of Dhaka, occurred between November 10 and 12, when the opposition parties brought thousands of supporters into the streets. The government was well prepared for the confrontation, arresting Hasina, Khaleda Zia, and other leaders and sending thousands of security personnel into urban areas to control demonstrations.

Extensive security measures prevented a complete breakdown of public order, and after a week Dhaka was again under control. However, continuing agitation prevented a return to normal life throughout the country, leading Ershad to declare a state of emergency, with familiar restrictions on civil rights, on November 27. The opposition's tactics had shaken the government, but street violence and civil disobedience proved unable to dislodge Ershad's regime.

On December 6, 1987, Ershad dissolved Parliament, which had not met since July. According to the Constitution, he was required to arrange for new elections within ninety days. Also scheduled for early 1988 were elections for union councils and for municipal officials in Dhaka, Chittagong, Khulna, and Rajshahi. These elections were occasions for further public agitation by the political opposition. In early January, five smaller parties joined the opposition coalition, which then implemented a two-day general strike on January 20 and 21. Another general strike occurred on February 6, coinciding with the last date for filing nominations for the municipal elections. On February 13 and 14, following the union council elections, the opposition held another general strike. None of these actions prevented the government from implementing its election plans, but they kept the nation in a state of constant protest; the opposition may have hoped that Ershad's supporters in the military would eventually view him as a political liability and force him to resign.

The elections for union councils on February 10, 1988, were particularly hard fought, and they became a major security problem for the government. There were 115,000 candidates vying for 44,000 positions at 20,000 polling stations throughout the country. Widespread violence marred the elections. The official count listed 85 dead and about 500 injured, although opposition figures claimed 150 had been killed and up to 8,000 had been wounded in street battles between demonstrators and security forces. Election violence forced re-voting at 5,500 polling centers in early April, bringing another round of violence that left 4 dead and 100 more injured.

After the union council elections, the government deployed numerous police and paramilitary personnel and army troops for the parliamentary elections held on March 3, 1988. Schools were closed March 1-5, and a public holiday was declared during the two days before the elections. The Awami League's eight-party coalition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party's seven-party coalition, the leftist five-party coalition, and Jamaat e Islami led a general opposition boycott. There were 1,168 candidates competing for the 300 seats. The Jatiyo Party won 251 seats, and the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal, a close ally of the Jatiyo Party in the preceding Parliament, won 21 seats. Other small parties and independents took only 27 seats. The opposition again claimed a very small voter turnout in these elections — about 1 percent — while the government claimed a 50 percent turnout.

Ershad Ousted

In July 1987, mounting opposition to his often dictatorial rule among the united opposition parties led Ershad again to declare a state of emergency, dissolve the assembly, and schedule new elections for March 1988. His Jatiya Party triumphed in those elections, due mainly to the refusal of the opposition parties to participate. By 1989, the domestic political situation in the country seemed to have quieted. The local council elections were generally considered by international observers to have been less violent and more free and fair than previous elections. However, opposition to Ershad's rule began to regain momentum, escalating by the end of 1990 in frequent general strikes, increased campus protests, public rallies, and a general disintegration of law and order. [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook” 2009]

At the end of 1990, in the face of widespread demonstrations and some Hindu-Muslim violence, his opposition had grown so strong that Ershad was forced to resign the presidency. On December 6, 1990, Ershad offered his resignation, turning the government over to Supreme Court Chief Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed, the unanimous choice of the opposition parties. On February 27, 1991, after two months of widespread civil unrest, the interim government headed by Shahabuddin Ahmed oversaw what most observers believed to be the nation's most free and fair elections to that date.

According to “Governments of the World”: “Despite becoming civilians, the Ershad regime continued to face popular movements against its rule; this resistance gained additional momentum in 1987. To seek a new mandate, Ershad called another parliamentary election in 1988. This time both the BNP and AL boycotted the election. The new JP-led parliament passed the eighth constitutional amendment on June 7, 1988; it declared Islam as the state religion. [Source: Governments of the World: A Global Guide to Citizens' Rights and Responsibilities , Thomson Gale, 2006]

“This growing tilt toward Islam could not stem the tide of a popular movement against Ershad. Civil society, particularly professional associations, cultural societies, and women's organizations, actively participated in the movement. The student wings of the BNP and AL united, thus bringing together the nation's two largest parties in cooperation against the government. Senior leaders of the military withdrew their support of Ershad, and he resigned on December 4, 1990, handing over administration to Chief Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed, who was chosen by the political opposition to act as president of a caretaker government that would oversee a free and fair election. For the first time in Bangladesh, a regime was forced from power not through a bullet but through a citizens' movement.

After his ouster, Ershad was arrested in 1991 on more than two dozen charges. He was acquitted of many of them but convicted of corruption and imprisoned for six years. He was also accused of backing a 1991 military coup in which one of his close military associates was killed. That case is still pending. He was elected to Parliament in 2008, 2014 and 2018. He died in 2019 at the age of 89. [Source: Associated Press, July 15, 2019]

After he left office he was sentenced to 13 years in jail. He was jailed from 1990 to 1996 and 2000 to 2001; he was convicted on additional charges in 2006 but sentenced to time already served. He was greeted by supporters after being released from prison in 1997. At his death, he was the opposition leader.

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 (, 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

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