Bangladesh’s Quest for Closure Part II

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In 1975, Dhanmondi hadn’t changed much from how it looked at Independence, with roads lined with two storey houses dating back to the 1950s. Today, there are multi-storey buildings, English-medium schools, new universities, shopping malls and hookah bars to lure younger crowds. Back in 1975, the area was quieter. In the evening, people strolled along the periphery of the large lake in the middle of the neighbourhood and at night you could hear the tinkle of the bells of the cycle rickshaws plying the roads.

On 15 August 1975, before dawn, 700 soldiers with 105 millimetre weapons left their barracks and headed for the three homes where Mujib and his family lived. Everyone was still asleep at Mujib’s home, number 677 on road 32 in Dhanomondi. Mujib’s personal assistant, Mohitul Islam, was at his desk when Mujib called him, asking him to call the police immediately. Mujib had heard his brother-in-law Abdur Rab Serniabat’s house at 27 Minto Road was being attacked. Serniabat was a minister in Mujib’s government.

Mohitul—who lived to tell the tale—tried calling the police, but the phones weren’t working. When he called the telephone exchange, the person at the other end said nothing. Mujib snatched the phone and shouted into the mouthpiece.

The guards outside were hoisting the national flag when the soldiers arrived. The guards were stunned to find army officers rushing in through the gate, ordering them to drop their weapons and surrender. There were a few shots.

A frightened servant woke up Mujib’s son Kamal, who got dressed and came down when Maj Bazlul Huda entered the house with several soldiers. Even as Mohitul tried telling Huda that it was Kamal, there was a burst of gunfire; Kamal lay dead. Huda quickly went to the landing of the staircase when he heard Mujib’s voice.

“What do you want?” Mujib asked Huda, whom he recognised.

The soldiers pulled their triggers, spraying Mujib with dozens of bullets. Before his burial the following day in his birthplace, Tungipara, the imam noticed at least ten bullets still lodged inside Mujib’s body. When I visited the house in 1986, I saw dozens of bullet marks on the wall and staircase where he was killed. Mujib had collapsed on the stairs; his trademark pipe in his hands. He was dead by the time his body stopped tumbling down the stairs.

The killers then went inside the house, and one by one, killed everyone they could find: Mujib’s wife Fajilutunessa, Kamal’s wife Sultana, Mujib’s other son Jamal and his wife Rosy, and Mujib’s brother Naser, who was heard pleading, “I am not in politics.”

Then they saw Russell, Mujib’s ten-year-old son, who was crying, asking for his mother. He, too, was killed.

© RASHID TALUKDER / DRIK

Sheikh Hasina was inconsolable when she returned to her homeland in 1981, after six years in exile.

Around the same time, another group of soldiers had killed Mujib’s brother-in-law, Serniabat at his home, and a third group had murdered the family of Fazlul Haque Moni, Mujib’s nephew, an influential Awami League politician who lived on road 13/1, about two kilometres away from Mujib’s home. At that time, Mahfuz Anam was a young reporter at the Bangladesh Times. He lived across the Dhanmandi Lake, and had a clear view of Sheikh Moni’s house. “I saw what happened,” he recalled. “Early that morning I was awakened by the sound of firing. I got up. My room was on the side of the lake. I ventured out to the boundary wall. I saw troops enter Sheikh Moni’s house. I heard plenty of firing, followed by screaming. I heard shots—some random, some from sub-machine guns. I saw the troops leave the house. It was all over in four to six minutes. I could hear the people inside groaning; it continued for some time.”

The junior officers’ coup had proceeded exactly as planned. There had been no resistance from the moment Huda and his team had reached Mujib’s home. After taming the Rokkhi Bahini, Farooq arrived at Mujib’s gate, eager to know what had happened at Mujib’s home. Huda told him calmly, “All are finished.”

When we met a decade after those killings, I asked Farooq, one of the leading conspirators, “And the ten-year-old boy: did he have to be killed?”

“It was an act of mercy killing. Mujib was building a dynasty; we had to finish off all of them,” he told me with a degree of finality, his arm slicing ruthlessly in the air, as if he was chopping off the head of someone kneeling in front of him. There was no mercy in his eyes, no remorse, only a hint of pride.

They had tried killing the entire family, but they could not get Mujib’s two daughters, Hasina and Rehana, who were on a goodwill tour in Europe. Hasina was in Bonn, Germany, where her husband, MA Wazed Miah, a nuclear scientist, was a researcher at a laboratory (He died in May 2009). Kamal Hossain, Mujib’s cabinet minister, was on an official visit to Belgrade. Speaking a week after the executions of Mujib’s killers, he told me, “I first heard there had been a coup. Later, at the home of the Bangladesh Ambassador to Yugoslavia, we sat listening to French radio, and more information began coming out. We heard about Mujib’s death, then we heard about the other family members. My first thought was Hasina’s safety.” He met her in Bonn and decided to sever his relations with the new government. He handed in his official passport to the ambassador, and left for England, which had better links with Bangladesh, and where getting information would be easier. Hasina, too, decided there was no need for her to go back. She was granted asylum in India and lived in New Delhi with her husband until 1981. Hossain returned to Dhaka in 1980.

I N OCTOBER 1986, I visited Mujib’s house, the mute witness to the ghastly events of that dawn. As if to ensure that no one will forget the tragedy, Hasina, who showed me around, had made only minimal changes to the house, preserving the crime scene. The bare walls bore bullet marks. Shattered glass lay on the ground of what was once Mujib’s library. On the

staircase on which Mujib was shot, and on the wall which he tried to grip for support as he fell, darkened blood stains were still visible.

© BABY MOUDUD COLLECTION / DRIK

Sheikh Hasina, 10, with her younger sister Sheikh Rehana and younger brothers Sheikh Kamal and Sheikh Jamal in 1957. The two brothers were killed during the 1975 coup.

Mujib was 55 when he was killed. He had been in and out of Pakistani jails, and was widely regarded—and initially revered— as Bangladesh’s founding father. At the time of Partition, what is now known as Bangladesh formed the eastern wing of Pakistan. The two parts of Pakistan were divided by thousands of kilometres of Indian territory. Islam united the two, but culture, language and the idea of nationhood divided them. The eastern half was more populous, and should legitimately have commanded greater resources, but the generals and politicians in power in the western half disregarded eastern demands, responding to eastern claims with contempt, if not repression. Punjabis dominated the Sindhis, Baluchis, and Pathans in the west, and they had even less regard for their Bengali compatriots.

Things came to a head in 1970, when in nationwide elections, Awami League secured a majority. Mujib should have been invited to become Pakistan’s prime minister, but the generals and politicians in the west thought differently. Mujib’s negotiations with Gen Yahya Khan, Pakistan’s ruler, and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party which had won a large number of seats in the west, continued interminably. Meanwhile, Yahya Khan sent Gen Tikka Khan to Dhaka. Many Bangladeshis remember planeloads of young men arriving on flights from the west. They were military men but not in uniform, and they did not carry weapons. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s navy was shipping weapons through ports like Chittagong, keeping Bengali officers in the dark, and secretly arming the men who had landed in Dhaka.

The crackdown began on 25 March 1971, as the Pakistani army brutally attempted to crush Bengali aspirations. Mujib was jailed in West Pakistan. In the east, hundreds of thousands were killed, and millions of refugees made their way to India. A civil war followed, and India aided the Mukti Bahini, as Bangladeshi freedom fighters were called. In early December, Pakistan attacked India on its western front; India retaliated, and its troops defeated Pakistan on both fronts within a fortnight. Indian troops entered Dhaka, and thousands of Pakistani troops surrendered. A few weeks later Mujib returned to the Tejgaon airport. A sea of humanity greeted the leader of the new nation, Bangladesh.

Three and a half years later, Farooq and his men annihilated most of Mujib’s family. “Even dogs didn’t bark when we killed Mujib,” Farooq told me.

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