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Will Naheed Ezaher Khan’s wait for justice finally come to an end in Bangladesh?

The three officers, all freedom fighters, murdered in a counter coup on 7 November 1975

Naheed Ezaher Khan was a child in November 1975. So was Mehjabeen Khaled. Today Khan is a member of parliament in Bangladesh. And Khaled has served as a lawmaker in an earlier parliament in the country.

Khan and Khaled had their fathers, senior military officers, along with another military officer, murdered on the morning of 7 November 1975 by soldiers loyal to other military officers. Khaled Musharraf, Khondokar Najmul Huda and A.T.M Haider, having initiated a coup aimed at a restoration of the chain of command broken by the violent coup against the government of President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in August 1975 by a clutch of majors and colonels, had their attempts foiled by a counter-coup led by loyalists of General Ziaur Rahman and Col Abu Taher.

Early on 3 November 1975, Brigadier Khaled Musharraf and his loyalists in the Bangladesh army, among whom were Huda and Haider, launched a coup, the first step in which was the removal of General Ziaur Rahman from the position of chief of army staff and his detention at home. Over the next few days, Musharraf engaged in intense negotiations with Khondokar Moshtaq Ahmed, who had been installed in office by the assassins of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as Bangladesh’s President in August, over a removal of the coup makers who till then had been ensconced at Bangabhaban, the official presidential residence.

In the end, Musharraf, who had taken over as the new chief of army staff and had been promoted to the rank of major general, succeeded in having the assassin-majors and colonels and their families put on a flight out of the country. It would later transpire, though, that prior to the assassins being sent off into exile, they had carried out the assassinations of four senior leaders of Bangladesh in prison, where they had been lodged since the murder of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The four men — Syed Nazrul Islam, Tajuddin Ahmad, M. Mansoor Ali, A.H.M. Kamruzzaman — had played pivotal roles in the Bangladesh government-in-exile in 1971 and later served in the Mujib government in post-liberation Bangladesh.

On 6 November, General Musharraf finally removed Moshtaq from the presidency, replacing him with Abu Sadat Mohammad Sayem, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Musharraf and his allies, army units loyal to Zia outside the capital Dhaka were organising themselves; and in Dhaka cantonment itself Col Taher, supported by the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (JSD), a political party formed in 1972 and violently opposed to the Mujib government, busily organised the counter-coup that would topple Musharraf and restore Zia as chief of army staff.

The coup led by General Musharraf collapsed early on 7 November 1975. Convinced that 10 Bengal, an army regiment considered loyal to him and one he had led in the war against Pakistan, would provide him with safe sanctuary, Musharraf took shelter in its headquarters along with Huda and Haider. It soon became apparent, however, that they had in fact stepped into hostile territory. Within minutes of their arrival there, exhausted as they were and sitting down to breakfast, they were taken prisoner by Zia-Taher loyalists and murdered. Across Dhaka, soldiers raising the Islamic chant of ‘Nara-er-Takbir’ and ‘Allah-o-akbar’ paraded the streets in triumph.

The tragedy for Bangladesh is that in these forty-eight years that have gone by since Khaled Musharraf and his two fellow officers were murdered, no investigation into their killings has been undertaken and hence no trial of the perpetrators of the crime has taken place. Among citizens, there have of course been speculations about the tragic incidents of the day. It is well to recall that soon after the fall of Khaled Musharraf, Najmul Huda and A.T.M. Haider, apologists of the new regime led by Zia disseminated the falsehood that the three officers had been pro-Indian officers in league with Delhi regarding the coup of 3 November.

Musharraf and the two officers, together with Zia and Taher, were honoured freedom fighters during Bangladesh’s armed struggle for liberation in 1971. Musharraf was regarded as a brilliant tactician and one of the smartest officers in the Mukti Bahini. Ironically, in the period beginning in 1975 and ending in September 1981, an entire group of freedom fighter officers lost their lives in internecine struggles for power.

That the wheels of justice, insofar as the murder of Musharraf, Huda and Haider is concerned, are beginning to turn is a process Naheed Ezaher Khan, the daughter of Col Najmul Huda, has now initiated. Khan has filed a case at a police station in Dhaka, seeking justice over the killing of her father close to five decades ago. She has charged Major (retired) Abdul Jalil, who was with 10 Bengal Regiment on the day Huda and the two other officers were killed, with committing the crime. She has also mentioned in the case that the murder of her father was carried out on the orders of General Ziaur Rahman.

The case filed by Khan is only the beginning. The fact remains that Bangladesh’s history between August 1975 and September 1981, spent as it was in a series of power struggles by army officers, needs closure. But that can only happen when meaningful measures are taken to inquire into the circumstances of all the tragic incidents that have occurred. The issue of who in the military hierarchy were involved in the making of such tragedy; of all the men, officers as well as jawans, involved in the killings; of a need to ferret out the guilty who are yet alive and passing through old age — all of this calls for focused inquiry.

The trial of the killers of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman has been completed, with a good number of the assassins walking the gallows. Five others remain on the run, outside the country. There is too the need to launch an inquiry into the role Khondokar Moshtaq played in the assassinations of August 1975. Likewise, the identities of the murderers of the four national leaders in prison in early November 1975 as also those of the men who sanctioned the killings must be known if arriving at justice is the goal.

Of those who took part in the killing of Khaled Musharraf and his fellow officers as well as those who celebrated the assassinations, some may have passed into their graves. But there are others, officers and ordinary soldiers, who ought to be netted and brought to trial. Questions have abounded too about the role of such JSD stalwarts as Hasanul Haq Inu, who on 7 November was spotted in the company of General Zia and Col Taher. In his subsequent career, Inu had his faction of the JSD align with the Awami League, making it possible for him to serve in Sheikh Hasina’s government as minister for information.

The killings of 3 and 7 November 1975 were not to be the end to Bangladesh’s tragedy. In October 1977, an abortive revolt by men of the air force led to mass arrests of hundreds of these men by General Zia’s regime and their quick despatch, without due process, to the grave. By July 1976, Col Taher, having masterminded the pro-Zia coup against Khaled Musharraf and then falling out with him, was tried by a military court in camera and hanged by the Zia dispensation.

In his five years in office as Bangladesh’s first military ruler, General Ziaur Rahman withstood as many as eighteen attempted coups against his regime. He fell on the nineteenth when on 30 May 1981 a putsch led by a group of soldiers led to his assassination in Chittagong. Within days, General M.A. Manzur, general officer commanding in Chittagong and accused of having organised the putsch, was apprehended and detained in the cantonment. A senior army officer was then sent from Dhaka allegedly by General Hussein Muhammad Ershad, the chief of army staff. The officer shot Manzur dead.

No investigations have gone into the Zia and Manzur killings. Thirteen officers, including a brigadier, were charged with Zia’s murder, court martialled and hanged in September 1981. Questions have persisted as to whether these officers were actually involved in the Zia murder or whether their executions were a move to cover-up the truth.

The case filed by Naheed Ezaher Khan should be opening the door to a process of justice, for many are the truths which have lain concealed in silence all these decades. With the government of Sheikh Hasina in office, an administration which has gone, however carefully, into the task of restoring a secular ambience in Bangladesh, the responsibility of ensuring the rule of law, of bringing the guilty, dead or alive, to trial becomes an imperative.

Bangladesh needs closure in all these instances of a gross miscarriage of justice. Any more delay in having the job done can only undermine the very spirit which led the country to freedom fifty-two years ago.

Also Read: March 1971–Why Bangladesh will never forget the genocide and its cover up