The Zia Regime and Its Aftermath, 1977-82

Bangladesh Table of Contents

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.

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." Zia now held the dominant positions in the country and seemed to be supported by a majority of Bangladeshis.

In May 1977, with his power base increasingly secure, Zia drew on his popularity to promote a 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.

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, 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'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.

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. In April 1978, Zia announced 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. After campaigning by Zia, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party won 207 of the 300 seats in Parliament with about 44 percent of the vote.

Zia was assassinated in Chittagong on May 30, 1981, in a plot 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 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.

After Zia's assassination, Vice President Sattar became acting president and, as the Constitution stipulates, called for new elections for president within 180 days. 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.

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.

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.

Ershad almost immediately assumed the title of "president of the ministers," or prime minister, but to many Bangladeshis he was a usurper, one who overthrew a legitimately elected president and who would reverse the slow liberalization of Bangladeshi politics--the "politics of hope" begun earlier by Zia. The events of March 1982 reflected much of the tumultuous history of the country and, many critics agreed, foreshadowed a turbulent future for the struggling nation of Bangladesh.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress