Toufique Imrose Khalidi, bdnews24.com
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s customary condolence message sums up part of Gen Ershad, more in unspoken words than what’s written in the text: she referred to his “constructive role” as leader of the official opposition in Parliament.
She could not have said less or more than that. In the 1980s, for nearly nine years, Hasina and her loyal supporters led the campaign, along with BNP chief Khaleda Zia, against the military ruler who reigned with unlimited power relying on deceit, lies, religion peddling and cosmetic ‘development’. He came with a promise to fight corruption but remorselessly institutionalised it, with deeper ramifications than his lucky predecessor, Gen Zia.
Both followed the same path and style in consolidating power and trying to prolong it. Both gave birth to political parties while still in uniform-clad government service; both created a class of cronies, both relied on religion without really much faith in it, both lent support to 1971 and 1975 killers and allowed them to flourish, in politics as well as in other aspects of public life.
On 24 March 1982, many of us clearly remember, he launched himself as head of government sitting in the chair of the chief of army staff, began with a set of lies — that included a frail President Sattar elected through a poll of sorts in December 1981 (just months after the killing of Gen Zia), and handed the baton of state power to him because of unbridled corruption in his cabinet of cronies — almost all of whom had served Zia’s cabinet.
In a public rally at Gulistan, this writer heard “President Sattar” say in the presence of the likes of still-housewife Khaleda Zia, Kazi Zafar Ahmed, Serajul Hossain Khan that he was forced to step aside. Kazi Zafar, who in his characteristic theatrical tone, addressed the usurped head of state as the President. Serajul Hossain Khan went a step further, calling him “tui” and various names and challenging him to a political career sans uniform. Both, in later years, became his very loyal and subservient ministers, so did many other Awami League and BNP stalwarts.
Ershad, too, tried to make politics difficult as his dictator predecessor did. One must give him some credit for this — he truly exposed the true colours of many falsely celebrated politicians, right and left. The general would go to mosques on Fridays and announce in the presence of devotees that he had received divine instructions in dreams the previous night to come to that particular mosque. His security officers knew how big a lie that was on every occasion. The officers had to do their routine checks days before. The university students in the 1980s would find it difficult to forgive him. He did things that prolonged their student life; this writer, for one, lost four years for no fault of his own. Yes, Ershad’s senseless, mindless and remorseless acts gave student activism a different character. The nation, just 10 years after the glorious 1971 days, witnessed, again, sacrifice, bravery by students across Bangladesh. His Notun Bangla Chhatra Samaj, later renamed as Jatiya Chhatra Samaj, despite all support from his cronies in military intelligence and police, made no sense in student politics. He succeeded in buying the services of a few big names in student movement at various stages but they all turned out to be useless.
He killed students throughout his nine years in power but kept claiming he had no blood in his hands. Many of those heroes, unfortunately, remained unsung and are mostly forgotten today as Ershad celebrated his return to mainstream politics to a point where both major parties competed to secure the once-hated military ruler’s support. His triumphant return in all five parliamentary seats in 1991 just weeks after a disgraceful exit from state power was baffling. He will be remembered for many things — one being his “cancel my last announcement”, drawn from the acronym of his official title ‘chief martial law administrator’ or CMLA. His civil servants in the early 1980s knew of this habit of his, but in later years as an opposition politician he would display more of such antics more frequently.
Zia’s BNP survived in some style far longer than probably expected, riding on being an anti-Awami League platform for a motley crowd of haters, but one will be curious to see how far Ershad’s Jatiya Party, born and bred in similar fashion, can go after his departure from the stage.
Toufique Imrose Khalidi is the Editor-in-Chief of bdnews24.com