Indian Catholic News

Ershad leaves bitter Bangladesh legacy

In the wake of the former military ruler’s death, corruption and political violence continue to bedevil the nation.

Hussein Muhammad Ershad, former military ruler and president of Bangladesh, is seen at the Vatican Embassy in Dhaka on Dec. 14, 2016. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/
By Rock Ronald Rozario

“Hating someone makes him important, forgiving someone makes him obsolete,” is a saying that appeared ironic in Bangladesh when Hussein Muhammad Ershad died on July 14 at the age of 89.

To most Bangladeshis, the country’s second and, hopefully, last military dictator was not worthy of forgiveness, even after death.

He was one of the most hated persons for most people who went through or knew about his iron-fisted military regime from 1982-90. His death following a long battle with illness has triggered more loathing than sympathy among the public and media.

Ershad’s demise has brought an end to his long, controversial military and political careers marked by ups and downs. But his unsavory political legacy is likely to hang over Bangladesh in the years to come.

Born in 1930 to Bengali parents in Coochbehar district of India during British rule, Ershad and his family migrated to East Pakistan in 1948, a year after British partition.

He became a military officer in Pakistan’s army and was allegedly interned in West Pakistan during Bangladesh’s 1971 liberation war against Pakistan. However, it is rumored that Ershad didn’t support Bangladesh’s independence struggles and so, like some other Bengali officers, he didn’t flee to join Bengali liberation forces despite having chances to do so.

He joined the Bangladesh military after independence and the repatriation of Bengali military officers in 1973.

On April 24, 1982, Ershad, then military chief, declared himself chief martial law administrator shortly after president and military dictator Ziaur Rahman was assassinated in a brief military coup. He became president in 1983.

Many believe Ershad had a secret role behind the killing of Rahman for his political ambitions. Some of Rahman’s alleged killers were shot dead in custody while others were rewarded under his watch.

Ershad formed the Jatiya Party in 1986 to consolidate his power. Today it is the country’s third largest political force and the opposition in parliament. He won by a landslide in a 1986 national election that was marred by massive fraud.

In 1978, Rahman had formed the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which is now the second largest political party and archrival of the ruling Awami League.

Both the BNP and theJatiya Party are center-right, anti-secular and Islamist-leaning parties, accused of the Islamization of Bangladeshi politics and advancing agendas for an Islamic identity for Muslim-majority Bangladesh, a land long known for its secular culture and religious pluralism.

Torture and killing

Ershad’s usurping of power was bloodless but his regime was bloodied and turbulent because he followed the political ideology and methods of political annihilation of former boss Rahman.

He suspended the country’s constitution and dissolved parliament. He cracked down heavily on political opponents, including the torture and killing of pro-democracy activists. He also neutralized threats within the military by punishing and killing officers in the so-called “chain of command” procedure.

In 1988, he amended the constitution and asserted Islam as the state religion. He also introduced Friday as a weekly holiday instead of Sunday. These moves were intended to win support from the conservative rural Muslim electorate.

Although Ershad is praised for some notable administrative reforms including decentralization, infrastructure development and rural welfare initiatives, his oppression of political opponents and endemic corruption in every sector of the government made him equally hated.

His bulldozing regime sparked unprecedented unity among mainstream political forces including the Awami League, BNP and communists that sped up his downfall.

He was also infamous for having a series of extramarital affairs with women outside marriage. He published poems that were composed by hired poets. None of these attempts succeeded in presenting him as a romantic and poetic character.

Ershad was ousted in a mass democratic uprising in 1990 but since then neither the BNP nor the Awami League has dared to change the status of Islam in the constitution.

From 1991-97, Ershad was jailed on more than two dozen charges including corruption and abuse of power, and many thought it was end of his political life. But they were wrong.

Unlike most dictators of his time, Ershad survived in a democratizing country. He became a pivotal figure in Bangladesh’s tricky, dynastic and alliance politics in the following years.

Although he was in jail, Ershad’s Jatiya Party joined the Awami League-led alliance that won the 1996 national election, leading to his release the following year.

The Jatiya Party has become a mostly regional party with a stronghold only in northern Bangladesh, largely because of Ershad’s authoritarianism and a series of splits. However, the party’s support for the Awami League was important to win elections in 2008, 2014 and 2018.

Both the Awami League and the BNP tried to use Ershad for political mileage. In return, Ershad had most charges against him put on the backburner and was allowed to enjoy a rehabilitated political life full of luxury, peace and safety.

Ershad is now gone, but his dark political legacy hangs over the country.

The politics of annihilation persists between major political parties, while Islam remains the state religion despite the constitutional principle of secularism. Corruption is rampant despite socioeconomic development, while authoritarianism has crept into the ruling party.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of

Source: UCAN

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