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Lieutenant General Ziaur Rahman, Bir Uttam, Hilal-i-Jurat ( Ziaur Rôhman) (January 19, 1936 – May 30, 1981) was a charismatic Bangladeshi war hero, politician and statesman. He was the President of Bangladesh from 1976 until 1981 and founded the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), one of the two largest political parties in the country. His widow, Begum Khaleda Zia, has been Prime Minister of Bangladesh three times and is currently the Leader of Opposition in the Jatiya Sangsad (Bangladeshi parliament). He is popularly known as Shaheed Zia, meaning martyred Zia, in reference to his assassination in 1981.

A Major in the Pakistan Army, Zia's unit (2/5 East Bengal Regiment) took control of the Kalurghat radio station in Chittagongmarker at the onset of the Bangladesh Liberation War and on behalf of Bengali nationalist leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, made the most widely transmitted declaration of independence of Bangladesh which was the third and last in a series of such declarations. Recognized as a war hero, he was honored with the second highest national award Bir Uttom in 1972. A high-ranking accomplished officer in the Bangladesh Army, Zia was appointed chief of army staff in course of dramatic events that evolved following the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975 by a group of junior military officers. This was followed shortly by another coup and counter-coup and ultimately led to the consolidation of power under Zia as Deputy Chief Martial Law Administrator. The counter-coup, sometimes referred to as a sepoy mutiny was organised by the socialist Colonel Abu Taher.

Ziaur Rahaman assumed the office of the President of the country in 1977 and won a popular referendum held in 1978 in support of his policies and leadership. He engaged himself in politics by floating a political party that came to be known as Jagodal. Later he founded the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Zia won widespread popular support for stabilising the nation and leading it in a new direction. Zia who turned out to be a right-wing politician, established free market economic policies in a 19-point program of industrialisation and development. For achieving popular support, he adopted policies bringing the government increasingly under Islam, which he included in the national constitution. It has been alleged that Zia helped individuals involved in the assassination of Sheikh Mujib rehabilitate home and abroad, immunized by the Indemnity Act. He also came to be known as Mr. Clean for his unquestionable integrity .

A popular yet controversial leader, Zia was assassinated in 1981 in an abortive military coup.

Early life

Ziaur Rahman was born in the village of Bagbari in the Bogra District of the northwest Bangladeshmarker. His father, Mansur Rahman, was a chemist working for a government department in Kolkata. Zia's childhood was divided between living in the village and the city. He was later enrolled into the Hare School in Kolkata. With the partition of India in 1947, Mansur Rahman opted to join the new Muslim state of Pakistanmarker, moving his family to East Pakistan. The family later moved to Karachimarker, the national capital located in West Pakistan, where Mansur Rahman had been transferred to work for the Government of Pakistan. Zia was enrolled in the Academy School in Karachi.

Zia spent his adolescent years in Karachi and enrolled in the D. J. College there in 1953. In the same year, he entered the Pakistan Military Academy in Kakul as an officer cadet. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Pakistan Army in 1955. After serving for two years in Karachi, he was transferred to the East Bengal Regiment in 1957. From 1959 to 1964 he worked in the department of military intelligence. In 1960, his marriage was arranged to Khaleda Zia, a young Bengali girl from the Dinajpur District who was 15 years old. Khaleda Zia remained with her parents in East Pakistan to complete her studies and joined her husband in Karachi in 1965. During the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965, Zia served in the Khemkaranmarker sector in Punjab as the commander of a company unit of 300–500 soldiers. The sector was the scene of the most intense battles between the rival armies. Zia's unit won one of the highest numbers of gallantry awards for heroic performances. Ziaur Rahman himself won the distinguished and prestigious Hilal-e-Jurat medal , and his unit won 2 Sitara-e-Jurat medals and 9 Tamgha-e-Jurat medals from the Army for their brave roles in the 1965 War with India.

In 1966, Zia was appointed military instructor at the Pakistan Military Academy, later going on to attend the prestigious Command and Staff College in Quettamarker, where he completed a course in command and tactical warfare. Advocating that the Pakistan Army make greater efforts to recruit and encourage Bengali military officers, Zia helped raise two Bengali battalions during his stint as instructor. Trained for high-ranking command posts, Zia joined the 2nd East Bengal regiment as its second-in-command at Joydevpur in 1969. Although sectarian tensions between East and West Pakistan were intensifying, Zia travelled to West Germanymarker to receive advanced military and command training with the German Army.

Zia returned to Pakistan the following year, and witnessed political turmoil and regional division. East Pakistan had been devastated by the 1970 Bhola cyclone, and the population had been embittered by the slow response of the central government. The political conflict between Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's Awami League, which had won a majority in the 1970 elections, the President Yahya Khan and West Pakistani politician Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had brought sectarian tensions to a climax. Sheikh Mujib laid claim to form a government, but Yahya Khan postponed the convening of the legislature under pressure from West Pakistani politicians. Bengali civil and military officers had alleged institutional discrimination through the 1960s, and now distrust had divided the Pakistani Army. Upon his return, Zia attained the rank of Major and was transferred to the 8th East Bengal regiment stationed in Chittagongmarker to serve as its second-in-command.

Sector Commander of Bangladesh Liberation Forces

Following the failure of last-ditch talks, Yahya Khan declared martial law and ordered the army to crack down on Bengali political activities and arrested Sheikh Mujib on March 25, 1971. One of the highest-ranking Bengali officers, Zia led his unit in mutiny of the Pakistan Army, killing the West Pakistani officers and capturing a radio station in Kalurghat near Chittagong and calling it the Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendro. On March 27, addressing the people via radio, Zia read independence declaration on behalf of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

Zia was appointed commander of Mukti Bahini ("Liberation Army") forces in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, working under General M. A. G. Osmani, the supreme commander. He worked to provide support and resources to the Mukti Bahini guerilla force and coordinate attacks against the West Pakistani army. At a later phase of the war, Zia travelled across the border into India to receive military resources and training for his troops. Zia also helped coordinate the work of Bangladesh's government-in-exile of Mujibnagar. On June 1, 1971 Zia became the commander of the first conventional brigade of the Mukti Bahini, which was named "Z Force", after the first initial of his name. This brigade consisted of 1st, 3rd and 8th East Bengali regiments, enabling Zia to launch major attacks on Pakistani forces. During the war his family was placed under house arrest. The guerrilla war continued until the direct intervention of the Indian Army, which captured Dhakamarker and forced the surrender of Pakistani forces on December 16, 1971.

After the independence of Bangladesh, the Indian Army transferred control to the newly-formed Bangladesh Army on March 17, 1972. Having earned a reputation for courageous leadership during the war and declaring the independence of Bangladesh, Zia was awarded the Bir Uttom, the second-highest military honour. He was given command of a brigade stationed in Comillamarker, and in June he was appointed deputy chief of army staff. He was later promoted to the rank of Major General by the end of 1973. As a high-ranking commander, Zia oversaw the training and development of the army.

Coup of 1975 and its aftermath

On August 15, 1975 Sheikh Mujib and his family were killed by a group of military officers. One Sheikh Mujib's cabinet ministers Khondaker Mostaq Ahmad was appointed the president and, subsequently, Major General Ziaur Rahman was appointed as the army chief after removal of Major General Shafiullah. However, the coup of 15 August caused a period of instability and unrest in Bangladesh and more so across the ranks and files of the army. Brigadier Khaled Mosharraf and the Dhaka Brigade under Colonel Shafat Jamil made a counter-coup on November 3, 1975, and Ziaur Rahman was forced to resign and was put under house arrest. A third coup was staged under Colonel Abu Taher and a group of socialist military officers and supporters of the left-wing Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal on November 7, called the "National Revolution and Solidarity Day" (Sipoy-Janata Biplob) (Soldiers and People's Coup). Brigadier Khaled Mosharraf was killed and Colonel Jamil arrested, while Colonel Taher freed Ziaur Rahman ( After few months Ziaur Rahman arrested and execute Colonel Taher )and re-appointed him as army chief. Following a major meeting at the army headquarters, an interim government was formed with Justice Abu Sadat Mohammad Sayem as chief martial law administrator and Zia, Air Vice Marshal M. G. Tawab and Rear Admiral M. H. Khan as his deputies. Zia also took on the portfolios of home affairs, finance, industry and information along with becoming the army chief of staff. However, discipline in the army had totally collapsed and it was difficult to disarm the soldiers and put them back to the barracks. Fearing that Colonel Abu Taher, who in fact rescued him few months earlier, would attempt to organise another revolt, Zia ordered his arrest. Following a secret trial in a military court, Zia authorised the execution of Colonel Taher on July 21, 1976. Zia became the chief martial law administrator following Justice Sayem's elevation to the presidency on November 19, 1976. He tried to integrate the armed forces, giving repatriates a status appropriate to their qualifications and seniority. While this angered some veterans of the Mukti Bahini, who had rapidly reached high positions following liberation in 1971, Zia defused potential threats from discontented officers by sending them on diplomatic missions abroad.

President of Bangladesh

Major General Ziaur Rahman became the 6th President of Bangladesh on April 21, 1977 following Justice Sayem's resignation on grounds of "ill health," which many believed was simply a pretext for Zia's rise to power with army's backing. Although Sayem had held the title of president, historians believe it was Zia who exercised real power from the cantonment. Sayem had promised early elections, but Zia postponed the plans. The years of disorder had left most of Bangladesh's state institutions in disarray, with constant threats of military coups amidst strikes and protests. Assuming full control of the state, Zia banned political parties, censored the media, re-imposed martial law and ordered the army to arrest dissidents. Martial law restored order across the country to a large measure and as Zia crushed several attempted uprisings with ruthless measures, discipline was finally restored in the army.
Major General Zia
In late September 1977, a group of Japanese Red Army terrorists hijacked an airplane and forced it to land in Dhaka. On September 30, while the attention of the government was riveted on this event, a mutiny broke out in Bogra. Although the mutiny was quickly quelled on the night of October 2, a second mutiny occurred in Dhaka. The mutineers unsuccessfully attacked Zia's residence, captured Dhaka Radio for a short time and killed a number of air force officers at Dhaka international airport, where they were gathered for negotiations with the hijackers. The army quickly put down the rebellion, but the government was severely shaken. Government intelligence had failed and Zia promptly dismissed both the military and the civilian intelligence chiefs. Special tribunals dealt harshly with the large groups of bandits, smugglers and guerrilla bands operating across the country. The size of Bangladeshi police forces was doubled and the strength of the army increased from 50,000 to 90,000 soldiers.

When Ziaur Rahman assumed the presidency after legalizing military coups and the revival of the multiparty system was seen again he appointed Hussain Muhammad Ershad as the new Chief of Army Staff, promoting him to the rank of Lieutenant General. Viewed as a professional soldier with no political aspirations (because of his imprisonment in former West Pakistan during the Independence War) and having a talent for Bengali speech writing, Ershad soon became Zia's closest politico-military counselor.

Domestic and foreign policies

Zia had taken charge of a nation suffering from severe poverty, chronic unemployment, shortages and economic stagnation. Muting the state's commitment to socialism, Zia announced a "19-point programme" which emphasised self-reliance, rural development, decentralisation and population control. Zia worked energetically and spent much of his time traveling throughout the country, preaching the "politics of hope" by continually urging all Bangladeshis to work harder and to produce more. Zia focused on boosting agricultural and industrial production, especially in food and grains, and to integrate rural development through a variety of programs, of which population planning was the most important. Working with the proposals of international lending agencies, he launched an ambitious rural development program in 1977, which included a highly visible and popular food-for-work program. He promoted private sector development, exports growth and the reversing of the collectivisation of farms. His government reduced quotas and restrictions on agriculture and industrial activities. Zia launched major projects to construct irrigation canals, power stations, dams, roads and other public works. Directing his campaign to mobilise rural support and development, Zia established Gram Sarkar (Village Councils) system of self-government and the "Village Defence Party" system of security and crime prevention. Programmes to promote primary and adult education on a mass scale were initiated and focused mainly across rural Bangladesh. During this period, Bangladesh's economy achieved fast economic and industrial growth.

Zia began reorienting Bangladesh's foreign policy, addressing the concerns of nationalists who believed that Bangladesh was reliant on Indian economic and military aid. Zia withdrew from his predecessors' affinity with the Soviet bloc, developing closer relations with the United States and Western Europe. Zia also moved to harmonise ties with Saudi Arabiamarker and the People's Republic of China, who had opposed Bangladesh's creation and had not recognised it till 1975. Zia also dropped the demands of reparations and an official apology demanded by Sheikh Mujib and moved to normalise relations with Pakistan. While distancing Bangladesh from India, Zia sought to improve ties with other Islamic nations. Zia's move towards Islamic state policies improved the nation's standing in the Middle East. Zia also proposed an organisation of the nations of South Asia to bolster economic and political co-operation at a regional level. This proposal materialised in 1985 under the Presidency of Hussain Muhammad Ershad with the creation of the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation in Dhaka.

Politics for development

Ziaur Rahman's philosophy of statesmanship was reflected in the coinage of the term politics for development. This was to bring an end to what is called "power politics", since he observed how ownership of the government offered an easy means for misappropriating public wealth through rent-seeking activities. He travelled thousands of miles across the country on foot to drive home his message. He addressed countless public gatherings, large and small, to encourage people to work hard for growth and development. His approach was quite idealistic in nature. His khal kata karmasuchi, for controlling the menace of annual flood, was unique and he engendered participation of people form all walks of life. Awami League leader Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir became a blue eyed boy of the president with the Ulshi Jadunathput Project which was one of the exemplary success story of this khal kata karmasuchi. Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir, then Deputy Commissioner of Jessoremarker district, planned and implemented the project with illustrative success. The country registered significant rise in food production and near-autarky was achieved by 1978 .

Islam and nationalism

Zia moved to lead the nation in a new direction, significantly different from the ideology and agenda of Sheikh Mujib. He issued a proclamation order amending the constitution, increasing the direct influence and role of Islam on the government. In the preamble, he inserted the salutation "Bismillahir-Rahmaanir-Rahim" ("In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful"). In Article 8(1) and 8(1A) the statement "absolute trust and faith in Almighty Allah"' was added, replacing the commitment to secularism. Socialism was redefined as "economic and social justice". Zia further introduced provisions to allow Muslims to practice the social and legal injunctions of the Shariat and Sunnah. In Article 25(2), Zia introduced the principle that '"the state shall endeavour to consolidate, preserve and strengthen fraternal relations among Muslim countries based on Islamic solidarity." Zia's edits to the constitution redefined the nature of the republic from the secularism laid out by Sheikh Mujib and his supporters. Islamic religious education was introduced as a compulsory subject in Bangladeshi schools, with provisions for non-Muslim students to learn of their own religions.
President Zia at a BNP conference
In public speeches and policies that he formulated, Zia began expounding "Bangladeshi nationalism," as opposed to Mujib's assertion of a Bengali national identity. Zia emphasised the national role of Islam (as practised by the majority of Bangladeshis). Claiming to promote an inclusive national identity, Zia reached out to non-Bengali minorities such as the Santals, Garos, Manipurismarker and Chakmas, as well as the Urdu-speaking peoples of Biharimarker origin. However, many of these groups were predominantly Hindu and Buddhist and were alienated by Zia's promotion of political Islam. In an effort to promote cultural assimilation and economic development, Zia appointed a Chittagong Hill Tracts Development Commission in 1976, but resisted holding a political dialogue with the representatives of the hill tribes on the issue of autonomy and cultural self-preservation. On July 2, 1977 Ziaur Rahman organised a tribal convention to promote a dialogue between the government and tribal groups.


As Bangladesh's ruler, Zia enacted several controversial measures, some to discipline the army, some to unify the nation and some to win the support of Islamic political parties. However, he took no action against Awami League leaders who were infamous for corruption. When he re-introduced multy-party politics. He allowed Sheikh Hasina, the exile daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to return to Bangladesh. However, he did not disapprove Jamaat-e-Islami, which had been earlier banned by Sheikh Mujib. Jamaat-e-Islami was widely believed to have collaborated with the Pakistani army, which committed war crimes, and in unsuccessfully preventing Bangladeshis independence. Golam Azam, the exiled chief of the Jammat-e-Islami, was allowed to come back to Bangladesh in July 1978 with a Pakistani passport on a visitor's visa, and he remained in Bangladesh following its expiry. No court case was lodged for his trial over his alleged role in committing wartime atrocities. Also, some Jamaat leaders were appointed in ministerial posts. Zia also rehabilitated Shah Azizur Rahman, a high-profile opponent of the creation of Bangladesh, and several men accused of murdering Sheikh Mujib. The Indeminity Ordinance proclaimed by President Mustaque was ratified in the Parliament when Zia's party BNP had a landslide victory in the national elction of 1979. The ordinance thereby became Indemnity Act.During the tenure of President Hussain Muhammad Ershad, the Indemnity Act was incorporated as the 5th amendment to the constitution, legalising the military coups, rule under martial law and other political events between 1975 to 1979. Zia also gave Sheikh Mujib's assassins Major Dalim, Major Rashid, and Major Faruk jobs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and in subsequent years they were appointed ambassadors of Bangladesh to African and Middle Eastern nations. Shah Azizur Rahman was appointed Bangladesh's prime minister, serving through Zia's tenure in the presidency.


Large processions follow the funeral of Zia
During his term of power, Zia was criticised for ruthless treatment of his army opposition. Although he enjoyed overall popularity and public confidence, Zia's rehabilitation of some of the most controversial men in Bangladesh aroused fierce opposition from the supporters of the Awami League and veterans of the Mukti Bahini. Amidst speculation and fears of unrest, Zia went on tour to Chittagong on May 29, 1981 to help resolve an intra-party political dispute in the regional BNP. Zia and his entourage stayed overnight at the Chittagong Circuit House. In the early hours of the morning of May 30, he was assassinated by a group of army officers along with six bodyguards and two aides.

After the assassination of Ziaur Rahman on 30 May 1981, Ershad remained loyal to the government and ordered the army to suppress the coup attempt of Zia's associates led by Major General Abul Manzoor.

Zia was buried at the Chandrima Uddan in the locality of Sher-e-Banglanagarmarker in Dhaka. People in large processions attended the funeral and paid their final respects. Vice President Abdus Sattar immediately succeeded him as the acting president.

Criticism and legacy

Ziaur Rahman is considered one of the most important and controversial political leaders of Bangladesh. Zia is criticised by historians for rehabilitating the assassins of Mujibur Rahman. Jurists regard this as a gross obstruction of justice and legitimisation of political murder, to which Zia himself fell victim. Also deeply controversial is Zia's rehabilitation of persons and political groups that had collaborated with the Pakistani army in carrying out atrocities against intellectuals and religious minorities. Zia is also criticised for creating a "managed democracy," which remained largely beholden to the military and his political party. In a verdict passed on August 30, 2005 the Dhaka High Court declared the seizures of power by military coups between 1975 and 1979, including Zia's military regime as "unlawful and unconstitutional." Zia's martial law decrees, his ascendancy to the presidency in 1977 and the referendum held in 1978 were declared "unknown to the constitution." The court ruling overruled the Indemnity Act by which these very events were accorded a legal status and enshrined in the constitution.

Former US President Ronald Reagan praised him for his leadership and said that "The United States -- indeed the world -- had come to respect President Zia's profound and compassionate commitment to a better life for his people and his dedication to the rule of law. His wisdom in international affairs will be sorely missed".

While credited for ending the disorder of the final years of Sheikh Mujib's rule, Zia is assailed by his critics for suppressing opposition. However, Zia's economic reforms are credited with rebuilding the economy and his move towards Islamisation brought him the support of much of Bangladesh's Muslim-majority population. His nationalist vision also appealed to many who resented the nation's strategic alliance with India and the Soviet Unionmarker. Moving away from Mujib's secularism, Zia asserted an Islamic political identity for Bangladesh and of membership in the wider community of Muslim nations. However, these measures also isolated and embittered many ethnic and religious minorities in Bangladesh, laying in the opinion of many historians the foundations of future communal and ethnic conflicts. Even political rivals of Zia acknowledge that he was not corrupt at all. He lived an extremely simple life, and although he was the most powerful President in the country, he opted to have his food supplied from military canteen, which had been also supplied to other army personnel in the country.

Ziaur Rahman is survived by his wife Begum Khaleda Zia and his sons Tareq Rahman and Arafat Rahman. Begum Khaleda Zia became the head of the BNP and organised a coalition of political parties opposed to Ershad's regime. In elections held in 1991, Begum Khaleda Zia led the BNP to victory and became prime minister. She lost the 1996 elections to the Awami League's Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the daughter of Mujibur Rahman but returned to power in 2001. Tareq Rahman serves as BNP senior joint secretary, regarded by many as the architect of the BNP's 2001 election victory. Zia's life and legacy are celebrated widely. November 7 each year is celebrated as National Revolution and Solidarity Day, commemorating the military coup that returned Zia to power. Zia is the namesake of many public institutions, including the Zia International Airportmarker in Dhaka, which is the busiest airport in the nation. Zia has also been honoured by the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation for his statesmanship and vision.

See also


  1. Document 4 showing The Bangladesh Gazette announcing the promotion of Ziaur Rahman to Lieutenant General in the book Bangladesh: A Legacy of Blood by Anthony Mascarenhas
  2. First sentence of the declaration of indpendence by Major Ziaur Rahman
  4. Hamid, M. A. Tinti Sena Obbhutthaan, 1993, Shikha Prokshony, Dhaka.
  5. Banglapedia

Further reading

  • Milam, William B. "Pakistan & Bangladesh " 2009. Christ Hurst. ISBN 1850659214 / 1-85065-921-4 / 9781850659211
  • Milam, William B. "Bangladesh & Pakistan : Flirting with failure in South Asia".2009-02-10. Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231700660 / 0-231-70066-0 / 9780231700665
  • Mascarenhas, Anthony. Bangladesh: A Legacy of Blood. 1986. Hodder and Stoughton. ISBN 034039420X
  • Baxter, Craig. Bangladesh: From a Nation to a State 1997, Westview Press. ISBN 0-8133-2854-3.
  • Baxter, Craig et al. Governance and Politics in South Asia 1998, Westview Press. ISBN 0813339014

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