Ziaur Rahman, Liberation War, and Awami League Propaganda: Debunking Lies

New Wave of AL Propaganda: Vilifications of Zia

Hasan Mahmud, then Awami League Publicity and Publication Secretary, while speaking at a discussion at Dhaka Reporters’ Unity in 2014, commented that Ziaur Rahman worked as a ‘Pakistani spy’ during the Liberation War. He also claimed he had the ‘proof’ of Zia’s involvement with the Pakistani intelligence agency ISI. (2 December 2014, bdnews.com)

This comment by Hasan Mahmud is just one example of the countless propaganda against Ziaur Rahman. Besides being the founder of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Shaheed President Ziaur Rahman is also the most prominent freedom fighters of the Bangladesh Liberation War who fought and led the war in the frontline. His diverse role in the war is well known, including his involvement in the Declaration of Independence. During the war, he was one of the Sector Commanders and the Brigade Commander of Z- Force. Zia was awarded the gallantry award Bir Uttam in 1972 for his valiant contributions to the Liberation War.

However, the Awami League government, for the past decade, has been running vicious propaganda against Ziaur Rahman, which on the one hand, denies and undermines his role in the war and, on the other hand, attempts to portray him as a “villain.”

Shahriar Kabir, one of the leading pro-AL intellectuals of Bangladesh, slandered Zia claiming his involvement with Pakistani agencies. While speaking at a discussion in 2018, Kabir said that Zia was an agent of the Pakistani intelligence agency Inter-Services Intelligence who was assigned to take part in the war as a part of a ‘mission.’ According to him, the ‘mission’ was to prevent the development of Bangladesh if it had obtained independence. He also included the ‘spread of pro-Pakistan and fundamentalist sentiments’ in the so-called ‘mission’ (29 July 2018, New Age).

One of the most scandalous consequences of the propaganda against Ziaur Rahman by the state is the proposal to revoke his gallantry award. Although he was awarded this award in 1972 by the Sheikh Mujib government for his active role during the War, the Jatiya Muktijoddha Council (National Freedom Fighters Council), known as Jamuka, formed a three-member committee in 2021- which included MP Mosharraf Hossain as the head of the committee, and MP Shahjahan Khan and Md Rashidul Alam as members – to take a final decision on revoking Ziaur Rahman’s ‘Bir Uttam’ gallantry award. (25 February 2021, Prothom Alo).

The other AL leaders, of course, take their cue from their party chief —perhaps recognizing the importance of Zia’s iconic status among Bangladeshis, Sheikh Hasina regularly vilifies Zia, even if it means telling outright lies. While speaking about Ziaur Rahman’s role and engagement in the war at a public meeting, she said, ‘no one can prove it’ that Ziaur Rahman fired a single shot against the Pakistani forces (31 August 2021, Prothom Alo)! Just as Sheikh Hasina’s tendency to deny and undermine Zia’s role was evident from her comment, her ignorance of military warfare is apparent in the attempt to judge the role of a sector commander by whether or not he fired a shot in the war (please see page … for more on Zia’s direct participation in the Liberation War). Interestingly, by this line of reasoning of Sheikh Hasina, the Pakistani military officers, who planned the genocidal operations and gave orders but did not take part by firing or killing directly, can also be acquitted. This demonstrates the absurdity, irrationality, and ignorance behind the attempts to belittle Zia’s heroic role in the 1971 War.

From 1972-1974: Zia as a War Hero

The AL propaganda to vilify the image of Ziaur Rahman that appears in the speeches and statements of AL leaders have been increased significantly in the recent years. Dreaded by Zia’s popularity and acceptance among the mass people, AL propagandists started spreading outright lies, mainly in the last decade. In contrast to this slander, Zia’s role in the Liberation War was widely commended by the media during the Mujib regime after the war. Every year from 1972 to 1974, on March 25-26, newspapers used to publish reports on the valiant contribution of Ziaur Rahman in the war and his involvement in the declaration of independence.

On 25 March 1972, Dainik Bangla carried a report on the front page with Ziaur Rahman’s picture titled ‘How the Freedom Struggle Began.’ It was written about the night of 25 March as follows, ‘..Then all the Bengali soldiers of the 8th East Bengal Regiment were called together and announced the mutiny. They all unanimously supported the rebellion and supported Major Zia’s leadership’. The report also said, ‘He [Zia] made this announcement [declaration of independence] … This one radio announcement brought back the morale of the Bengalis. And the Western invaders [Pakistani Military] trembled with fear..

Dainik Bangla also published an exclusive interview with Ziaur Rahman on its inside page titled ‘The way freedom struggle began in Chittagong that day’ on 26 March 1972. This interview highlighted various activities of Ziaur Rahman and his regiment from 25 March to 30 March 1971.

Dainik Bangla again published a report about the night of March 25-26 and the subsequent events on its last page on 26 March 1973. Along with Ziaur Rahman’s picture, the report carried the title: ‘The declaration that trembled the invaders.’ The report highlighted Ziaur Rahman’s heroic actions. The newspapers also published an article titled ‘Our Soldiers’ by him that day. In 1974 the newspaper reprinted the same report under the same title, while using a different image of Zia.

In sum, Ziaur Rahman’s heroic and gallant actions were highlighted in newspapers even during the regime of Sheikh Mujib. The epitome of this news coverage was how he rebelled on the night of 25 March and later became involved with the Declaration of Independence. The manufacturing of lies about the role of Ziaur Rahman in the 1971 war by the Awami League propagandists is a glaring example of distorting history.

In the Eyes of Allies and Enemies: ‘Charismatic’ and ‘Idealistic’ 

Although the AL propagandists try to portray Ziaur Rahman as a “spy of Pakistan”, his ferocity during the war against Pakistan military is evident in the statements of various officers of Indian military. For example, Ramdhir Sinh, in his book titled A Talent for War: The Military Biography of Lt Gen Sagat Singh, wrote ‘On 27 March 1971, troops of 8 East Bengal Regiment (EBR) under Maj Zia-ur-Rahman rebelled, killed their West Pakistani Commanding Officer, and colleagues and broke out of Chittagong Cantonment.’

Furthermore, he also commented on Zia, reflecting his mindset towards Pakistani attack: ‘8 EBR was commanded by Zia-ur-Rahman (the future President of Bangladesh), the most charismatic and idealistic of the military leaders. Unfortunately, his hatred of the Pak Army and some incidents of extreme behaviour of his troops made him somewhat of an enigma. He was prickly about his independence and status though few doubted his dedication and professional competence. Zia was made the commander of 1 EB Brigade/’Z’ Force (consisting of 1 and 3 EBR and a battery of 3.7-inch howitzers) when it was raised, thus acknowledging his place in the Bangladesh military hierarchy. Since the Force had been organised in the Garo Hills, Sagat offered it to Krishna Rao who unhesitatingly accepted it under Zia’s leadership.’

The statement of Pakistani military officers also substantiates the attitude of Zia towards the Pakistani military during 1971. Maj-Gen Hakeem Arshad Qureshi, a Pakistani military officer, wrote in his autobiography titled, The 1971 Indo-Pak War: A Soldier’s Narrative, ‘I had known him (Zia-ur-Rahman) since 1967… I had liked him: he was intelligent, mild-mannered, and very easy to get along with… Meeting him, one got the impression that he was not narrow minded or parochial, but a gentleman with a broad outlook on life….One could not think of him as an intriguer, a traitor, a rabble-rouser, or a murderer, but that is how he is reported to have behaved during the upheaval of 1971.’ Ramdhir Sinh also quoted Qureshi’s above statement to narrate the changes in people’s character as a consequence of the crackdown and brutality of the Pakistan Army.

Even regarding the declaration of independence, researchers depicted the fact that not Mujib but Ziaur Rahman had declared war against Pakistan. For example, Amit Das Gupta writes in a book titled Serving India: A Political Biography of Subimal Dutt (1903-1992), India’s Longest Serving Foreign Secretary on Subimal Dutt, India’s first High Commissioner to Bangladesh. While discussing on the events of 25th March 1971, Amit das writes, ‘That Mujib occasionally had other priorities than truthfulness was learnt by Dutt from Abdul Gaffar Chaudhury, the editor of Janapad. Chaudhury maintained that it had not been Mujib who had declared war against Pakistan on the night of 25 March 1971, but Major Zia on his own initiative. Chaudhury, who takes down dictation of Sheikh’s memoires by Sheikh himself, asked him why it was necessary to falsify history; he could rightly claim credit for giving a call for independence at the public meeting on 7 March 1971. Sheikh, however, feels that he must claim the credit for the opening declaration when the liberation war actually started on the 25-6 March 1971.’

The statements of Indian and Pakistani military officers and researchers clearly refute the preposterous claim of the AL propagandists. These memoirs also demonstrate that how AL leaders, even Sheikh Mujib, falsified the history to claim absolute control over the grand narrative of the Liberation War.

Zia’s Views on Liberation: A People’s War

As mentioned earlier an article titled ‘Our Soldiers’ by Ziaur Rahman was published in the Bangladesh Observer on 26 March 1973. Dainik Bangla and Daily Ittefaq also published Bengali version of the article.

The article illustrated the role of soldiers in the emergence of Bangladesh in the context of the 1965 Indo-Pak War and the 1971 Liberation War of Bangladesh. Ziaur Rahman wrote his experience of fighting in these two wars as a front-line soldier. He said, ‘During our war of independence, the people witnessed their sons – the soldiers fighting on their own land for a cause that could be no more sacred and greater.’

When the people of Bangladesh and the soldiers revolted and overthrew the mighty warlords of the Pakistan Army in the wake of the Pakistan Army’s brutal military action, he believed that ‘our soldiers have inherited this great quality from the people of the land.’ In the article, he paid tribute to the sacrifices of martyrs in the war. He said, ‘once again the Bengali people and soldiers rose to the occasion…..and the invaders were destroyed.’

According to Ziaur Rahman, the war of 1971 affected every one of this land. The entire population of this land from all walks of life got involved in the war in various ways. The battle was not limited to the warfare of the trained military personnel or soldiers; people from every part of society participated in it, which gave the war the character of a people’s war. Zia wrote, ‘The art of warfare no longer remained the exclusive privilege of the uniformed soldiers. Moreover, the soldiers of the East Bengal Regiment and others who had pioneered at the early days were not many in number. Students and others in thousands came in the fold of the uniformed soldiers, received training and were inducted in the Battalions of the East Bengal Regiment during the war and thereafter.’ 

Orwellian State: “Controlling the Past” 

It is very clear from the discussion that the claims made by the AL leaders and pro-AL intellectuals on the role of Ziaur Rahman during the Liberation War of 1971 are egregious lies. Zia was widely admired for his contribution to the Liberation War by media, civil society, and mass people even during Mujib regime. Furthermore, statements and narratives from India and Pakistan exemplify his contribution as well as refute the false and fabricated propaganda to slander his image. This article also showed how he acclaimed the contribution of the common people to the Liberation War.

In his novel 1984, renowned English novelist George Orwell wrote “Those who control the present, control the past, and those who control the past control the future.” Distorting historical facts, propaganda and dissemination of lies are crucial for controlling the past in an Orwellian sense. The examples indicate that the AL regime systematically conducted state-sponsored propaganda to deny and undermine the role of Ziaur Rahman’s role during the Liberation War. This sort of propaganda is being used as a political tool to legitimize political disenfranchisement and repression against BNP. Moreover, distortion of historical truth, partisan polarization of history, presentation of party history as the only narrative of the national history, and use of state institutions to protect that narrative are signs of an authoritarian government system, which is clearly evident in the current AL regime.