On 16 October 1951, Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan, chief lieutenant of Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Pakistan’s first prime minister, was assassinated as he addressed a public rally in Rawalpindi. The lone gunman who fired the fatal shot that ended the prime minister’s life was immediately set upon by a mob, which lost little time in lynching the man. The consequence was terrible. No investigation could be made into Liaquat’s assassination and therefore it was never to become clear as to who were the elements behind the plan to murder Pakistan’s prime minister.
The Liaquat assassination, indeed the failure to unearth the conspiracy behind his killing, was to be the earliest sign of a subsequent failure of the state, in both Pakistan and post-1971 Bangladesh, to solve the many mysteries involved in the commission of criminal acts down the years. If you sit back awhile and reflect on the strange and inscrutable ways in which truth has regularly been a casualty in the two countries, you will perhaps have a fair idea of why the rule of law has not quite taken hold in the lives of the citizens of Pakistan and Bangladesh.
In the year in which Liaquat Ali Khan died, the Pakistani authorities came forth with the revelation of a conspiracy involving some senior military officers and writers, the purpose of which, it was suggested, was a takeover of the state through armed insurrection. Men like General Akbar Khan and the renowned intellectual Faiz Ahmed Faiz were put behind bars, in which condition they stayed for quite some years before being freed. Akbar Khan was subsequently to be an adviser to Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Faiz would go on to earn greater fame as a leading Urdu poet and symbol of liberalism. To this day, though, it has never been made clear as to what the nature of the Rawalpindi Conspiracy, as it came to be known, was.
Many years down the line, the regime of Field Marshal Ayub Khan would go for something of a repeat of the Rawalpindi case when his government told Pakistanis in late 1967 of a conspiracy involving Bengali military officers of the Pakistan armed forces as well as Bengali civil servants aimed at effecting a breakaway of East Pakistan from the rest of the country. Weeks later, the regime inserted the name the name of the imprisoned Awami League leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman into the list of those accused of the conspiracy. Of the thirty five Bengalis charged with conspiracy, Mujib was accused number one. Though the regime instituted a trial of the accused, beginning in Dhaka in June 1968, a trial that was to be abandoned in the face of a mass upsurge in East Pakistan against Ayub Khan, the government was never able to convince people that it actually had a case in hand.
In similar manner, successive governments in Pakistan before and after 1971 have never revealed the nature and course of the trial Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was subjected to in Mianwali during the duration of Bangladesh’s War of Liberation in 1971. In early August 1971, a terse announcement in Rawalpindi spoke of the Bengali leader’s impending trial in camera. The trial commenced on 11 August 1971 and it was stated by the Pakistan authorities that the eminent lawyer A.K. Brohi had been engaged as Mujib’s defence lawyer. Nothing more was to be heard until late November of the year, when unconfirmed news reports in the West suggested that the Awami League chief, who had in April of the year been named President of Bangladesh by his colleagues in the Mujibnagar government, had been sentenced to death. To date, no clear details of the trial, the cross-examination and sentencing are available. Pakistan has kept its silence. Bangladesh, for its part, has not sought any report or document from Pakistan on the proceedings of the trial of its founding father in Mianwali.
The legacy of incomplete information, of half-finished inquiries or of no investigations at all has persistently undermined the concept of democratic governance in both Pakistan and Bangladesh. The trial of the assassins of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, while focusing on the army officers who actually fired the shots that killed the Father of the Nation and members of his family, did not focus on the role played by civilians like Khondokar Moshtaque, Taheruddin Thakur, Mahbubul Alam Chashi, ABS Safdar and others in the planning of the conspiracy behind the coup d’etat of 15 August 1975. No charges were ever laid at the door of these civilians and it was even suggested, rather inexplicably, that Moshtaque had not been charged since he had died before the process of the trial got under way. The idea that there is such a thing as a posthumous trial has been ignored.
In the period of the BNP administration between 2001 and 2006, the trial of Bangabandhu’s assassins was put on hold. As for the issue of the jail killings of 3 November 1975, it was suggested that only a single soldier, Moslemuddin, went inside Dhaka Central Jail and murdered Syed Nazrul Islam, Tajuddin Ahmad, M. Mansoor Ali and AHM Quamruzzaman. The fact that there were witnesses who saw the killers making their way into the prison, that a voice from Bangabhaban, the presidential palace, (in all likelihood Moshtaque’s) asking for the killers to be let in, was papered over. It is quite possible that so many years after the gruesome tragedy was committed, the truth will never be revealed.
In similar manner, the men behind the murder of General Khaled Musharraf and his two fellow officers on the morning of 7 November 1975 have neither been named nor identified. Many of them are yet around, growing old in the belief that they die peacefully in bed. And if you have kept in touch with the consistently delayed process of the Manzur murder case --- twenty judges have come and gone in the course of the trial --- you know who the criminals behind the general’s killing were. Again, a good number of them are amongst us, enjoying life to its last dregs. The finger of suspicion was always pointed at General Ershad. No one did anything about it.
In Bangladesh, no official inquiries have been made into the summary trials, executions and disappearances of hundreds of soldiers and airmen in the aftermath of the many abortive coups against General Ziaur Rahman. The families of those murdered by the state will never know under what circumstances their men were put to death by a ruthless military regime. Add to that the mysterious manner in which thirteen military officers, charged with conspiracy to murder General Ziaur Rahman, were tortured and tried by a military court and swiftly led to the gallows. The nation has never been informed about the nature of the ‘conspiracy’ or the proceedings of the trial. The military court which sentenced these men to death was presided over by General Abdur Rahman. Ironically, Rahman was sent off soon after to Paris as Bangladesh’s ambassador, where he was to die suddenly. No inquest or inquiry was ever initiated into his death.
In Pakistan, no inquiry has revealed any names behind the conspiracy to blow up General Ziaul Haq in the skies above Bahawalpur in August 1988. Nothing has come down to Pakistanis in the nature of information on how Murtaza Bhutto, son of the executed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was gunned down in 1996, at a time when his sister was in office as prime minister. For that matter, no explanation has been adequate where an examination of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007 is concerned. The assassination of the prominent Pashtun politician Abdus Samad Achakzai in Quetta in 1973 has remained shrouded in mystery. In the Pervez Musharraf years, the army assault which resulted in the death of Nawab Akbar Bugti, an eminent politician, Baluch nationalist and former chief minister of Baluchistan, was never answered to public satisfaction.
For Bangladesh’s people, it has always been a question of how the extreme leftwing leader of the Sarbahara Party, Siraj Sikdar, died even as he was in the custody of the state. Following his capture, he was brought to Dhaka from Chittagong and at one point was reportedly taken before Bangabandhu. Then he was taken away. It was later given out that he was shot and killed while attempting to escape from police custody. No inquiry was ever initiated into his killing. Nothing was done to question those in whose custody Sikdar was killed.
The legacy of crime being committed, of inquiries remaining incomplete or not undertaken at all, of criminality gradually forgotten and criminals strutting about without shame and without fear, has gone on. It began with the death of Liaquat Ali Khan. It may not end anytime soon.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is the author of biographies of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Tajuddin Ahmad and writes on politics and diplomacy.