This story is being republished on account of National Mourning Day
This indeed proved to be true when Indira Gandhi warned Bangabandhu about a possible plot by then Maj Gen Ziaur Rahman and Lt Col Faruk Rahman. Bangabandhu told Indira he considered them as his sons and he believed they could never think of harming him.
Bangladesh was barely four-years-old when some derailed army officers and their men staged a bloody coup and killed the man who had led the nation to freedom from Pakistan in 1971.
In an interview with Anthony Mascarenhas, self-confessed killers Faruk and Col Abdur Rashid said that Zia had known about the coup beforehand.
The killers had to find someone to put in Bangabandhu’s place and the obvious choice was Zia, a man from the army.
Faruk said they chose Zia as he “was not tarnished.” He admitted to meeting Zia on March 20, 1975 as part of carrying out their plan.
“General Zia said: ‘I am a senior officer. I cannot be involved in such things. If you junior officers want to do it, go ahead’,” Faruk said, adding that he had told Zia that the whole plan was chalked out keeping him in mind.
“We want your support and your leadership,” he said.
Zia did not disappoint them. Subsequent military rulers allowed the killers to go scot-free. BNP founder Zia appointed the killers at foreign missions after assuming power.
Back to the drawing board
In his book “India, Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh Liberation & Pakistan (A Political Treatise)”, retired Indian diplomat Sashanka S Banerjee says the coup in 1975 was the culmination of months of planning. He also discusses Zia’s close ties with Faruk.
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This reporter caught up with Banerjee, who served in East Pakistan from 1960-65, in London. Banerjee recalled a war game started in the spring of 1973 in London where the deputy army chief himself played the protagonist.
Indian intelligence had tipped off how furious Pakistani generals were planning to terminate Sheikh Mujib. The discussions also included possible options for a military takeover during the chaos that would follow the killing. Pakistani army officials wanted to run a clandestine popularity campaign to set the operation in motion.
But before that, they ran propaganda against Sheikh Mujib among the people.
Asked how he reached the conclusion in 1973 that army officials in Rawalpindi were chalking out a plan to kill Bangabandhu and put Zia in his place, Banerjee pointed out that Zia had bonded with Rawalpindi’s military intelligence and army officers when they received training at the same centre.
“Moreover Ziaur Rahman was an officer in the Pakistan army, which meant that he was a good option for the Pakistani intelligence and generals.”
Plan set in motion
Around 1973, there were rumours in India that Pakistan intelligence ISI and CIA were plotting to kill Mujib. At that time, Zia met ISI members in Washington, Banerjee said.
Indian intelligence learned that Zia had also met Pakistan’s military attaché in Washington. “But he did not tell me about his meeting with ISI. When I asked him about it referring to our intelligence report, he admitted that he had had a meeting with the Pakistan military attaché,” Banerjee added.
US President Richard Nixon, on the other hand, was angry with Indira Gandhi’s government. She had ordered her forces to pressure Pakistan to surrender seeing the presence of the 7th fleet in the Bay dispatched by Nixon.
The 7th fleet’s return without firing a single shot was a huge defeat for the US before China. Nixon’s personal grudge would have subsided a bit if the Indira-backed government was toppled, Banerjee explained.
‘The suitcase war game’
Bangabandhu had turned his attention to forming a non-aligned policy for Bangladesh after independence.
Delhi and Moscow’s contribution in the Liberation War had led to close ties with Dhaka. Sheikh Mujib sent his then deputy army chief Col Zia to Washington in 1973 as his personal envoy to foster diplomatic ties with the US as part of Bangladesh’s gradually flourishing non-aligned policy.
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In his six-week US tour, Zia build ties with the Pentagon, CIA and State Department heads. He also met then Indian High Commission attaché Banerjee in London on his way back.
Bangabandhu’s self-confessed killer Faruk had asked Banerjee to keep his suitcase and colonel baton before leaving to join the Liberation War on December 3 from London. Zia had mainly gone to London to take the suitcase back.
Banerjee said he had learnt details about Zia’s Washington tour from intelligence sources. He asked Zia why he was going to run an errand for a junior officer collecting his suitcase. “Zia replied, ‘Col Faruk is my close friend. That’s why I want to give him the suitcase myself’,” the former diplomat said.
Banerjee said the statement made it clear to him that Zia had a latent desire to grab state power through a coup. Zia seemed nervous when Banerjee asked him about his meeting with Pakistan embassy’s military attaché in the US.
“After pressing Zia for a while on the matter, he said, ‘You have a very creative imagination. You have played an intriguing war game with me over a mere suitcase’,” Banerjee recalled.
Banerjee told Zia that he would file a report to Delhi based on their conversation, to which Zia reacted: “You should have worked for the intelligence instead of foreign service, Mr Banerjee.”
Based on that report, then Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi had cautioned Bangabandhu but the latter, who loved his people too much, had said Zia and Faruk were like sons to him and that sons never kill their parents.
It did not take much time for Zia to promote himself to the post of general shortly after the killing of Bangabandhu on August 15, 1975.
“Zia took over as military dictator in November that year, fulfilling his suitcase war game,” the former diplomat said.