The death of General Hussein Muhammad Ershad – the former military dictator of Bangladesh – on July 14, 2009, at the age of 89, gives us an opportunity to look back at the eventful decades of 1970s and 1980s and draw some parallels between civil-military relations in some of the countries in South Asia.

Such discussions help us understand the peculiarities of political developments that facilitate or hamper democratic struggles and the roles various state and non-state actors play in them. In the first two part of this series we look at the pre-Ershad period – the first decade of Independent Bangladesh from 1971 to 1981.

The first phase of the decade ended in August 1975 when Sheikh Mujib and most of his family were murdered by some renegade soldiers of the Bangladesh army. The decade culminated in the assassination of the then president of Bangladesh, General Ziaur Rahman on May 30, 1981. In a way, the 1970s and 1980s were decades when this entire region was awash with bloodshed, civil wars, constitutional maneuverings, dictatorships – both civil and military – and states of emergency. Civilian leaders tried to become dictators; and dictators removed both civilian and military rivals.

Starting with the military action and war in East Pakistan the region embarked on a gory and gruesome journey. In Afghanistan, Sardar Dawood, Noor Muhammad Taraki, Hafeezullah Ameen were assassinated and a long civil war ensued that is still raging after over four decades. In Iran, several presidents and prime ministers were killed or removed during and after the revolution and the war with Iraq lasted for eight years (1980 – 1988). In Pakistan, Z A Bhutto tried to concentrate powers in his hands, crushed the opposition, faced a backlash and lost his power and life. In India, almost the same happened with Indira Gandhi.

Since our point of reference in Bangladesh, let’s start from there. When Mujib was released from jail by Z A Bhutto in January 1972, the Bangladesh government in exile had an acting president and an acting prime minister – Nazrul Islam and Tajuddin. In independent Bangladesh, Mujib took over as president and faced multiple problems such as rehabilitation of refugees and reconstruction of the country after widespread destruction during almost a year of military action and war. If you want to read just one book about that period, read 'Bangladesh: A Legacy of Blood'. It is a non-fiction account of the history of Bangladesh from 1971 to 1986, written by journalist Anthony Mascarenhas.

Mujib’s rule lasted just three and a half years in which the first three years he ruled as PM from January 1972 to January 1975, when he decided to become an executive president. His three years as PM were quite similar with the premiership of Z A Bhutto in Pakistan. Both gave their countries a new constitution and then manipulated the constitution to strengthen their own powers. Both tried to control the army, crush the opposition, manage the judiciary, and introduce some sort of socialism. Both initially succeeded but ultimately the army became restless, the opposition resurfaced, the judiciary just changed sides with the changing balance of power, and the pseudo-socialism was undone.

Another similarity was the creation of new security forces under the direct control of the prime ministers. Z A Bhutto created the Federal Security Force (FSF) and Mujib established the National Security Force (Jatiya Rakkhi Bahini). Both were let loose to target the opponents of the governments in power. Both committed atrocities with or without the instructions of their respective PMs. These forces became a blot on the face of democracy and precipitated its demise. Both began campaigns of brutal human rights violations against the people in general and against opponents in particular.

One major difference was in the composition and structure of the army in both countries. Bangladesh had no functioning army apart from a ragtag amalgam of Mukti Bahinis (Liberation Armies) and erstwhile soldiers and officers who were repatriated from Pakistan after remaining stranded for over two years. Pakistan – even after facing defeat against India and the Mukti Bahinis – still retained a slightly damaged central command and control system which was quickly put back in place. This difference in the two armies played a central role in the years to come.

The new constitution of Bangladesh that came into force in December 1972, created a strong executive prime minister and largely ceremonial presidency. The same happened in Pakistan and both appointed Chaudharys as presidents: 50-year-old Abu Sayeed Chowdhury in Bangladesh and 70-year-old Fazl Ilahi Chaudhary in Pakistan. The difference was that in Bangladesh they had a unicameral legislature whereas Pakistan had a bicameral one. As opposed to Bhutto’s Islamic Socialism, Mujib introduced four basic principles: nationalism, secularism, socialism, and democracy. While Bhutto also professed democracy and socialism, he avoided nationalism and secularism as slogans.

Another difference between the approaches of Bhutto and Mujib was that Bhutto continued with the result of the 1970 elections whereas Mujib preferred to hold new parliamentary elections under the new 1972 constitution. In Bangladesh, elections were held in March while in Pakistan the constitution was in the process of approval by the parliament that was elected in 1970. In Bangladesh, the Awami League again won a massive majority in the new elections as no other political party was able to challenge the League’s broad-based appeal and strength. In Pakistan, Bhutto had to face a vibrant opposition from the beginning but he was much more experienced in matters of statecraft.

Mujib and his cabinet had no such experience in administration or governance. So there emerged a strong reliance on civil servants and political factions of the Awami League. Bhutto and Mujib started amending their own constitutions almost as soon as they were enforced. Mujib started this process earlier with his first and second amendments in 1973. The first amendment allowed prosecution and punishment of any person accused of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes and other crimes under international law. This amendment also specified inapplicability of certain fundamental rights in those cases.

The second amendment in the Bangladesh constitution passed in September 1973 made provisions for the suspension of some fundamental rights of citizens in an emergency. In Pakistan the first amendment was passed in April 1974, ostensibly to delete the mention of East Pakistan but it had a more sinister aspect to it. Drastic changes were made to Article 17, paving the way for curtailing the freedom of association. The federal government of Pakistan arrogated to itself the power to declare any political party as working against the sovereignty and integrity of Pakistan.

Both Bhutto and Mujib nationalized their economies, banking and industrial sectors, almost on the same pattern as Indira Gandhi had done in India. In all three cases, economic conditions took a serious downturn, and facilitated corruption. This corruption was more pronounced in Awami League party members and senior leadership, adding to the devastation and famine in Bangladesh in 1974. By the end of 1974, Mujib decided that economic deterioration and resulting civil disorder required strong measures. The fourth amendment to the Bangladesh constitution was passed in January 1975 to introduce the presidential form of government in place of the parliamentary system.

Mujib went a step ahead of Bhutto by establishing a one-party system in place of a multi-party democracy. Mujib also curtailed the powers of the National Assembly (Jatiya Sangsad) and the judiciary also lost much of its independence when the Supreme Court was deprived of its jurisdiction over the protection and enforcement of fundamental rights. Mujib also extended the term of the first Jatiya Sangsad. In India too – though she didn’t turn to the presidential system – Indira imposed a state of emergency in June 1975 and suspended civil liberties, detained the entire opposition, censored all the newspapers, and banned all forms of political protest.

In the next part of this article, we will discuss the differences and similarities in how Bhutto, Indira, and Mujib approached their downfalls.

To be continued