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  15 Aug 2021, 19:53
Update : 16 Aug 2021, 18:00

Unfolding records strongly indicate Zia’s crucial stake in Aug 15 plot

By Anisur Rahman

DHAKA, Aug 15, 2021 (BSS) - The trial of direct assassins of August 15, 1975 carnage was completed several years ago, and by now six of the 12 convicted sacked military officers were executed, one died a natural death abroad and the rests are on the run to evade hangman’s noose.

But as speculations are still underway about the plot's behind the scene characters, unfolding evidence point figure to Bangladesh’s first military ruler Ziaur Rahman as "central figure" of the conspiracy.

Several military personnel, even those who were close to Zia, the then deputy army chief, said he remained unmoved as Bangabandhu’s murder was brought to his knowledge.

The two direct putsch leaders -- sacked colonels Farook Rahman and Abdur Rashid--, on the other hand, precisely said Zia was informed about their coup plan.

One of Bangladesh’s leading economists and Planning Commission’s the then deputy chief Dr Nurul Islam in his memoirs wrote Zia had indicated an impending  change in political scenario in a meeting with him, months ahead of the massacre.

In his book titled “Making of a Nation Bangladesh – An Economist’s Tale”, Islam wrote he was planning to go abroad quitting the government job when Zia met him visibly to urge him to stay back.

“He (Zia) was confident that in the 'not too distant future', the situation will improve and the prevailing drift and uncertainty would disappear,” Islam wrote.

Islam added: “I was surprised by the tenor of his talk, and the confidence with which he spoke . . . particularly by his confidence that in not ‘too distant future . . .”

Few years after Bangabandhu murder in an interview with journalist Anthony Mascarenhas both Farook and Rashid said that Zia had known about the coup beforehand while Farook particularly pointed out they met on March 20, 1975.

Talking to a BSS journalist years after the Bangabandhu Murder Trial verdict was delivered, a key convict fugitive sacked colonel Abdur Rashid’s daughter Mehnaz Rashid indicated Zia actually used her father.

“My father now is regarded as the killer, but who used him? . . . that man eventually appeared as the hero,” she said in a clear reference to  Zia.

Famous US journalist Lawrence Lifshultz, known for his extensive studies on fateful events of Bangladesh and particularly the 1975 coup, in a long exclusive interview with BSS journalist Anisur Rahman several years ago described Zia as the "key shadow man" behind the August 15 coup.

"Without Zia's clear support, I do not believe the coup d'etat could have moved forward, Lifshutz, the former South Asia correspondent of the Far Eastern Economic Review, had said in that interview published in the Daily Star newspaper in 2014.

The US journalist exhausted years in exploring spy agency CIA links to the August 15, 1975 coup and suggesting the US intelligence agency had a hand in the episode while in a recent conversation with this writer he referred to his article titled "August 15, 1975: A long road in search of the truth".

Dhaka Tribune published the piece that shed a ray afresh on the episode while Lifshultz said this update opened “a new chapter of an old story which has importance not only for Bengalis, but also for Americans like myself”.

The US journalist in his article said he knew a Bangladeshi businessman acquainted to him had arranged a meeting at his house between Zia and then CIA's station chief Philip Cherry, who was operating under a "political officer's" cover posting in Dhaka, on latter's request days ahead of the carnage, knowing nothing about their intensions or background.

"This gentleman (businessman) had many friends among the diplomatic community in Dhaka. These friendships and relationships were in the nature of the businesses he owned and ran.  He told me he had a friend at the American Embassy, a political officer, named Philip Cherry," Lifshultz wrote.

According to Lifshultz the businessman had no idea that Cherry was operating a backchannel without the regular embassy officials and the ambassador's knowledge.

Towards the end of July or early August in 1975 this "diplomat" called the businessman and asked him if he could organize a dinner at his home, and the proposal he accepted, and wanted know did Cherry want some particular guests to be invited.

Cherry confirmed to the prospective host that he only wanted one guest to be invited and "that guest was General Ziaur Rahman" and "naturally, the guest would also bring his wife".

Since the businessman was familiarised to Zia, he gladly agreed, and accordingly arranged the dinner and both the guests arrived with their wives and received by the host couple.

"It became clear as soon as both men (Zia and Cherry) arrived that they had things to talk about on their own. General Zia and Philip Cherry went into the garden and spent nearly an hour talking with each other before dinner was served," Lifshultz wrote.

"After dinner they again went into the garden to continue their discussion. All seemed innocent enough at the time."

Lifshultz wrote, however, after the coup, "as one (host) family member put it, the host and his family felt they had been 'used'" and that "the dinner they hosted and the Zia-Cherry meeting was not for social purposes".

"They clearly understand what Zia’s role was in the coup in keeping the army from turning on Major Farooq and Major Rashid as they undertook targeted murders in the pre-dawn hours of August 15," he wrote.

The then army chief major general KM Shafiullah off late made public with a detailed account of the situation during and after the carnage in his book “15th August: A National Tragedy,” accusing outright his deputy of protecting the killers from military actions.

“From the day one (onward Aug 15, 1975) whatever action he took and whatever assistance that he tried to give me was all to help the rebel troops (killers),” wrote the octogenarian general recollecting the sequences of the August 15 episode.

Shafiullah said on August 15 morning he summoned Zia and army’s chief of general staff (CGS) brigadier general Khaled Mosharraf to his house and both appeared within 15 to 20 minutes.

But Zia was “dressed in uniform, properly shaved, in his official car and driven by his official chauffeur” whereas Khaled was “dressed in Pyjama (night dress), without a shave and driving himself in his personal car”.

“Although both of them were in front of me within about 15 to 20 minutes time, yet these differences did not strike me then. When I had time to think, then only I realized who was doing what!” he wrote.

Shafiulah said he ordered Khaled to go to 46 Brigade area to help its commander Colonel Shafaat Jamil to move troops against the killers but “General Zia vehemently opposed” saying, “He (Khaled) is going to spoil it.”

“When I try to recollect those moments now, the question arises what Brig. Khaled was going to spoil for which General Zia was so worried. Was those action in 46 Brigade area likely to go against the plan that he made?,” he wrote.

Shafiullah recalled that yet Khaled went there and on his return “General Zia suggested that the CGS should not go out now and should sit down to prepare an Operations Order (Ops Order) for the army to move towards the border to face an Indian offensive”.

“Though this could be a possibility, there was no such indication till then (and) the most important task for me then was to handle the death of Bangabandhu … I, therefore, told General Zia that let me handle this delicate situation first,” he said.

Shafiullah said he now believed Zia probably did not want “any interference in whatever was happening and whatever he was doing”.

He said Rashid later revealed to him that Zia had assured him “if they succeeded in their scheme in that case he would give them a helping hand.”

“The rebel (killer) troops were thus going ahead as per their plan and with the blessings of General Zia," Shafiullah wrote adding that Khaled’s action could put their plan in jeopardy.

He said Zia’s apprehension of so-called Indian aggression was "nothing but a deceitful way to divert my attention”.

Shafiullah said Zia actually had been harbouring ill motives against Bangabandhu and his government right from the time when “I was made the Chief” while Khandaker Moshtaque knew about this and he became his ardent sympathizer.

After Bangabandhu's assassination Moshtaque, with the direct  support of the killers, appointed Zia as the army chief.

“General Zia finally achieved what he wanted and started his activities to achieve his final objective!,” added Shafiullah, the first chief of Bangladesh army.

BSS/AR/SH/1950 HRS

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