Twenty nine years ago today, on 6 December 1990, we as a people reclaimed the country for ourselves. On that day, it was the will of the people which forced the fall of a military dictatorship, in a manner similar to the way in which an earlier generation of Bengalis had sent another dictatorial regime packing.
On 25 March 1969, the regime of Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan bit the dust in the face of a mass upsurge. On 6 December 1990, the regime of General Hussein Muhammad Ershad crumbled through a nation's determination for democracy to be restored.
The fall of the Ershad regime nearly nine years after the general seized power from an elected government in March 1982 was the culmination of a concerted struggle waged by the fifteen-party alliance led by Sheikh Hasina and the seven-party combine headed by Khaleda Zia for a restoration of popular rule in the country. The principle behind the movement against the Ershad dispensation was simple: to restore to the people of Bangladesh the rights guaranteed to them by the constitution and through an enunciation of the values we held dear during the War of Liberation. The goal was a reassertion of the pluralistic principles so necessary for the country to rejoin the club of global decency.
The stigma attached to national politics through Ershad's coup d'etat against the elected government of President Abdus Sattar on 24 March 1982 needed to be wiped off the national political canvas. Nothing, absolutely nothing, had been there to justify the coup. Besides, a coup d'etat is never a proposition to be argued for or defended, for it militates against the fundamental idea of life being an exercise of human dignity and liberty. When, therefore, General Ershad and his friends seized the country, Bangladesh had already had a long, painful experience in coups, counter-coups, abortive coups and assassinations. It was this dark legacy which needed to be pushed back.
The nation will not easily forget that in the months before the coup of March 1982, General Ershad had publicly been advocating the creation of a national security council, behaviour that was in clear violation of the office he held as chief of army staff. It was insubordination that blatantly and crudely challenged the elected government of President Abdus Sattar. A presidential election having been held in November 1981, it was the national expectation that politics would begin to shape itself into a proper, standardized pattern, with the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, along with other political organizations, playing their individual as well as collective roles in a restoration of stability in the country.
The coup of March 1982 put paid to such expectations. President Sattar, a former judge who had served as Chief Election Commissioner in pre-1971 Pakistan at the time of the December 1970 general elections before taking over as Vice President of Bangladesh under President Ziaur Rahman, was sent home. In the early phase of the Ershad regime, a toothless presidency under Justice Ahsanuddin Chowdhury operated at Bangabhaban. Months later, in line with the tradition put in place by Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan in 1958 and General Ziaur Rahman in 1977, General Ershad further dispensed with niceties and seized the presidency for himself.
All extra-constitutional regimes systematically corrupt the political process. That has been part of history in South Asia as also elsewhere. During his time, General Ershad and his friends offered politicians in the various political parties, including the AL and the BNP, tantalizing offers of power. Unconstitutional dispensations do not share power but do tempt politicians with thoughts of it. That was how Ershad injected corruption into the political process, to the detriment of the country.
General Ershad pulled into his political tent, in the form of his political outfit the Jatiyo Party, such well-known political figures as Korban Ali of the Awami League and Captain Abdul Halim Chowdhury of the BNP. The veteran politicians Ataur Rahman Khan and Mizanur Rahman Chowdhury served as prime ministers in the regime. Kazi Zafar Ahmed was a prominent figure in the seven-party combine, determined to see the country return to democracy. He then went for a change of course, ending up as part of the Ershad dispensation. Moudud Ahmed, a minister in General Zia's cabinet, was initially loyal to Begum Zia. The Ershad regime sent him to prison on charges of corruption. He soon emerged free and promptly joined Ershad's camp, rising to the position of Bangladesh's Vice President. Not long after Ershad fell, Moudud made his way back to the BNP.
Ershad pulled into his camp Shah Moazzam Hossain, who had been part of the Awami League and then of Khandakar Moshtaq's Democratic League. Moazzam, like everyone else tempted by the illusion of power, remained with Ershad until the general's last day in office and then of course moved off in other directions, seeking newer pastures. Sirajul Hossain Khan, a journalist and leftwing politician, denied that he was joining Ershad's government. Days after the denial, an entire nation observed him on television being sworn into office by President Ershad. Into the cabinet came Moulana Abdul Mannan, whose record of collaboration with the Pakistan occupation army in 1971 has always been dark, as
Minister for Religious Affairs. Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury and Syeda Razia Faiz became ministers in the regime, as did the journalist Anwar Zahid. A prominent presence in the Ershad government was the owner-editor of the Ittefaq, Anwar Hossain Manju.
Justice B.A. Siddiky, who as Chief Justice of the East Pakistan High Court in March 1971 had refused to swear in General Tikka Khan as governor of East Pakistan, headed a faction of the Bangladesh Muslim League by the time General Ershad seized power. He soon turned his back on his party and with alacrity accepted Ershad's offer to serve as Bangladesh's Permanent Representative to the United Nations. Justice Nurul Islam, chief of the East Pakistan Red Cross in 1971, found himself in the position of Bangladesh's Vice President under President Ershad. But there were other judges, men of integrity, who refused to go along with Ershad's decision to break up the High Court into separate benches. They were summarily dismissed by the regime.
Hypocrisy was part of the Ershad character. Early on in his dictatorship, he made his way to Tungipara to pray at the grave of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He soon followed it up by granting Bangabandhu's assassins the right to form a political party they called the Freedom Party. The leading assassin, Farook Rahman, stood as a 'candidate' at the presidential elections against Ershad in 1988. There were other elections the regime organized in its attempts to legitimize its hold on power. Parliamentary elections, held in 1986, saw the Awami League take its place as the opposition in the Jatiyo Sangsad. For its part, the BNP boycotted the elections and undertook a campaign against the new parliament, which was disbanded two years later in 1988. Fresh elections to the Jatiyo Sangsad were called in 1988. Boycotted by the AL and the BNP, the elections turned into a farce. The JSD's A.S.M. Abdur Rab, who had at one point in his career denigrated parliament as a pigsty, became leader of the opposition in the Jatiya Sangsad.
Corruption was a trademark of the Ershad regime. And the regime went out on a limb to ensure that the secular ethos of the country was systematically undermined. General Ershad decreed Islam as the religion of the state, thereby adding further substance to the process of a de-secularisation of the state that had been set in motion by Khondokar Moshtaq and General Ziaur Rahman. His much-publicised visits to mosques were touted by his loyalists as happening in light of his 'dreams' on the preceding night. In his nine-year rule, pretensions to poetry led him into giving shape to a club of prominent verse-makers who would disown him as soon as the regime fell.
Throughout the entirety of the Ershad regime's hold on power, the political struggle to dislodge it continued apace. Despite the curfews, despite the rounds of tear gas hurled into the crowds demanding a return to democracy, despite trucks being driven roughshod over students, despite the shooting of Noor Hossain and Dr Milon, the struggle to push the Ershad regime from power was relentless. With an entire nation coming together in defence of a restoration of democracy, the major political parties strategised plans for a non-political caretaker government to take over from General Ershad and his outfit, with the aim of preparing the country for general elections.
Early on 6 December 1990, Vice President Moudud Ahmed submitted his resignation to President Ershad, who then swore in Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, as the new Vice President. This step was followed by General Ershad's resignation through handing over power to Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed, who took over as acting President of Bangladesh, mandated to oversee new elections to parliament.
On 6 December 1990, Bangladesh's people went home, happy in the knowledge that they had triumphed in their struggle to force an illegitimate regime from power.