The intervention of the court to find out what really transpired that led to the hanging of Col. Taher is welcomed. It is significant not just because Taher was a man of history with many followers and admirers but also because his death is still shrouded in mystery. Not only do we not know yet if there were major violations of the rule of law and due process in the trial but as many have said, it could well be a ‘judicial murder’. Where the court was used and in this case, a military court to try a civilian no matter whose actions involved soldiers of the army. Taher is dead but the people have a right to know what happened.
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Bangladesh’s history has produced four major deaths that have reverberated in history and influenced thinking and action till today. They are the violent deaths of Shiraj Shikder, Sheikh Mujib, Col. Taher and Gen. Zia. There are certain similarities and certain discordances amongst the four which need to be noted
In this parade of blood and death, Shiraj Shikder’s case happened first. A Maoist opponent of Sheikh Mujib and his Awami League, he mounted a challenge which was more in principle than real but objectified the sense of rage and resentment that many felt towards the regime then. He was killed while in custody amidst jubilant descriptions from national media and AL politicians.
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Sheikh Mujib’s death has been documented more than everyone else’s but the brutality is still shocking. He was killed by a rogue band of army officers along with many members of his family in a gruesome episode of national life. Various anti-AL regimes gave shelter to his killers and the constitution was even doctored for their protection. Ultimately, during the present regime, many were caught, tried and hanged.
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Taher was hanged by Zia in a secret military trial although he was a civilian. He had participated in a coup in which soldiers played a major role and the effort was also linked to the leftist political party JSD. The soldier involved in the coup later released Gen. Zia from jail who became the hero, took over power, had Taher arrested and later tried him leading to his death. It is hoped that the recent court based enquiry will bring out much information on the entire episode.
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Zia was mowed down by a group of Bangladeshi army officers –mostly war of independence veterans – in Chittagong. They thought he was betraying the ‘spirit of 1971’ through his actions. Killed in the same city where he began his war in 1971, the bloody event spilled on after his death with a section of the cantonment rebelling and later being put down by the main army. The officers responsible for the killing of Zia and others were tried in a military court and hanged.
However, questions remain particularly about the involvement of Gen. Ershad and the investigative trial that began looking into it was not continued.
Together these four deaths have contributed to the creation of the ‘legitimacy’ of extrajudicial killings, failure of due process of law, conspiracies to kill using the powers of the state and accepting that such acts are part of a murderous doctrine of necessity in Bangladesh politics, military or civil. Together they have nullified the principle of rule of law in general.
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Of the four, two of them, Mujib and Zia were in power and were killed by their contestants who sought to take over the state. Shiraj Shikder and Taher were killed by Mujib and Zia respectively as threats to their power, big or small.
The death of Mujib, Zia and Taher were all actions taken by army officers in their quest for power.
Shiraj Shikder was the only one in the quartet who was killed by a civilian regime.
The tradition was not established by one killing but murders in each regime have strengthened the process with each act of violence.
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Shiraj Shikder’s death was foundational as it established the system of killing off enemies – inconvenient or dangerous – by the state represented by the government in power. He was a communist revolutionary who was the first person to articulate the East Pakistan-West Pakistan relationship through Marxist lenses and concluded that independent Bangladesh was the only solution. His party fought independently of Mujibnagar against the Pakistanis and after independence fought against Sheikh Mujib’s regime. He was an outlaw and killed several of his own party members including Prof. Humayun Kabir of Dhaka University. His protests reflected the resentment many felt towards the then regime.
He was captured in 1973 and then tortured in custody. I met a few ex-NSI officials as a journalist who told me that they were involved with the interrogation of Shiraj Shikder claiming to have eye witnessed torture. I had asked whether the authorities knew about this and they asked back whether it was possible to torture a ‘national enemy’ without the sanction from the top.
“His death while trying to escape was faked. A man who had so many limbs broken could hardly run. He was shot.” I didn’t dare ask him if he was personally involved but the encounter recollection has stayed with me though I am not sure it happened. I remember the regular announcements on the radio that the “criminal Shiraj Shikder has been killed while trying to escape”. Of course no one believed the radio.
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By the time he was killed, people had already come to accept such encounter killing courtesy to the Rakkhi Bahini, another terribly misguided attempt to obtain security through random acts of mayhem ignoring every notion of rights and common human decency. Worse, they set off the tradition of custodial, extrajudicial and plain murder by the people who were supposed to protect the very principles they violated often acting AL supporters themselves as records show.
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Mujib and Zia were killed by army officers because they thought the two leaders were bad rulers. Both were ineffective rulers and people suffered much during their regimes. Both committed massive human rights abuses and themselves have been accused of many wrong deeds. Sheikh Mujib’s BKSAL and cronyism initiated a platform that was used by his enemies to kill many, doctor the constitution and in general establish a tradition of bad politics that continues to haunt Bangladesh till today.
Mujib himself with his authority and stature was a poor manager of the state and most traditions including partisanship was very much a product of the first regime that is now a national tradition. It is important to recognise that the end of Mujib whose departure’s principal beneficiary was Zia produced no better regime and was marked by a great deal of bloodshed.
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Zia’s regime produced many negatives including using money and favours to create political groups, introducing and rehabilitating state enemies like the Jamaat-e-Islami, establish corruption as a form of official income and infect money as a grease of power and influence that affected his own children.
During his regime many coups were noted, many soldiers killed and hanged and a brand of politics was initiated that is cynical to the extreme.
It is impossible to give anything but mixed reviews to both and also add that both established and enhanced the tradition that is so much part of all the negatives that bedevil us now.
That by no means can ever justify the end of these two. There never can be excuses for murder.
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Taher and Shiraj Shikder were both civilians seeking power and broke the law while doing so. Considered as enemies of the state they were dealt with violence both physical and legal. No matter how horrendous their crimes, no one can be bumped off according to convenience. Because it all happened in the first decade they have become such an integral part of the national psyche. If one wants to look at the roots of present day encounter killings the answer lies in the traditions that included the death of these two political opponents of Mujib and Zia.
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It is also interesting that both these two were followers of their own brand of Marxism/Maoism. What is even more interesting is that many if not the majority of the encounter killings that occur in Bangladesh including now involve Maoists in Bangladesh according to the South Asia Terrorist Portal. The situation is the same for India.
Maoists are not targeted ideologically but as rural operators with no political support or pressure group, it is easier to kill them, even display their dead bodies on TV because there is no one to protest or answer.
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Unless we condemn all killings and seek restoration of judicial justice, the present tradition will continue and we stand to lose from that. Knowing Bangladesh’s tribalised politics, the truth will not come out in one go. Let’s hope that during this regime, as the killers of Mujib have been dealt with, all the information about the Taher killings will be found out and made public information. JSD activists are friendly with the present regime and trashing Zia will be welcomed by the AL.
And let’s hope when the BNP comes to power, they will explore in the same manner the circumstances around the death of Zia which was begun and investigate the process that led to the death of Shiraj Shikder. It will embarrass the AL which BNP will like.
But in the end it is not for them but for us.