Despite Serious Flaws, Ershad Left His Stamp on Bangladesh
Gen.Hussain Muhammad Ershad, former Bangladesh President and Leader of the Opposition in parliament, who died in Dhaka last Sunday at the age of 90, has been subjected to clashing assessments of his life and work.
Many deride him for his dictatorial and repressive regime lasting eight years in the 1980s. They point to his philandering and corruption after designating his country as an “Islamic” republic. Others point to his democratic reforms, his developmental initiatives and his rapport with the hoi polloi.
Be that as it may, Ershad left his stamp on Bangladesh’s history and politics.
For most of the urban Dhaka-centric elite, Ershad was a “dictator” who let loose unprecedented repression, especially on Dhaka university students, the historical vortex of Bangladesh politics. But for the poor peasants of Rangpur and other impoverished Northern districts, he was “Pollibondhu” or “friend of the rural people.” A section of the rural masses consistently stood by him through thick and thin till he died in harness as Leader of the Opposition in parliament.
While repressing the organized sections of society like students and workers, Ershad democratized the Bangladesh political structure by introducing “Upazillas” or local self-governing units. This was a seminal contribution to Bangladeshi democracy.
Although the world famous Grameen Banks (village banks giving micro-credit) were introduced by Muhammad Yunus in 1974, it was President Ershad who gave it government backing in 1983 and saw to it that the idea caught on countrywide.
Likewise, he encouraged NGOs to take on functions which were deemed to be the primary responsibility of the State sector. Today, NGO play a vital role in the economic, developmental and social sectors of Bangladesh.
Another seminal contribution was the de-centralization of the judiciary for the convenience of the masses. Ershad set up several High Courts across the country, though this was not to the liking of the entrenched judicial elite.
A quintessential peoples’ man, Ershad would not mind muddying his feet and dirtying his hands to be in contact with village folk across the length and breadth of Bangladesh. He was an incessant traveler trudging the countryside to touch base with the hoi polloi.
During the 1987-88 floods, Ershad waded through waist-level waters instead doing an aerial survey from the comfort of a helicopter as other leaders did. His organizational skills enabled Bangladesh to keep the casualties low during natural disasters. He was the one who started building cyclone shelters which have saved lakhs lives since then.
Ershad’s communication skills were legendary both at the personal interaction level and on public platforms. He was a nattily dressed and well-read sophisticate at ease with the sophisticated and he was a rustic among the rustics. He also went as a Bengali poet rubbing shoulders with the Bangladeshi literati.
To buttress his popularity among the common folk and the religious fundamentalists, a constituency which could not be wished away in Muslim majority Bangladesh at any point of time, Ershad made Bangladesh an “Islamic” country. To display it he would visit mosques dotting the country.
But his personal life was anything but Islamic life. Notorious for philandering and womanizing, Ershad was dubbed by cartoonist Kamrul Hasan as “Biswa Behaya” or the “most shameless person in the world.” He was also corrupt to the core and was jailed for it after he was forced by the public to quit office in 1990.
But Ershad was unfazed by the loads of negative publicity throughout the latter part of the 1980s. While other dictators were not put to death, Ershad lived to lead an active political life getting elected to parliament five times. He did not catch the disease of boycotting elections which periodically afflicted mainstream political parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) causing irreparable harm to democracy.
An career army man, Gen.Ershad captured power in a bloodless coup in 1982 after the assassination of another military ruler, Gen.Ziaur Rahman in the previous year. But it did were put to death take long for him to shed his military uniform, don a civilian suit and float a political party, the Jatiyo Party (JP), and become a full-fledged politico.
Though it could not match the reach of either the Awami League (AL) led by Sheikh Hasina or the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led by Khalida Zia, widow of President Ziaur Rahman, the JP held its own in Rangpur and other Northern Districts.
Ershad stood out for other reasons too. Unlike Gen. Ziaur Rahman, who defected from the Pakistan army to become a freedom fighter, Ershad took no part in the Liberation War. He was in West Pakistan during the war in 1971 and is said to have visited East Pakistan as a Pakistani army officer during the war. He relocated himself in Bangladesh only after the war.
His induction into the new Bangladesh army of freedom fighters and his rapid rise to be the second in command thanks to Army chief Gen.Ziaur Rahman, was disapproved by other army officers who had taken part in the Liberation War. But Zia apparently needed a “weak” man who could not claim to have been a freedom fighter.
When Gen.Zia became President through a coup in 1977, Ershad was made Army chief. After Zia was assassinated by a group of army officers in 1981, Zia's widow and BNP chief, Khaleda Zia, alleged that Ershad had been behind the assassination. Ershad was accused of killing Maj. Gen. M.A Manzur who led the failed coup.
In 1982, Ershad took over as Chief Martial Law Adminstrator (CMLA), deposing the elected President Justice Abdus Sattar. Ershad installed Justice Abul Fazl Mohammad Ahsanuddin Chowdhury as President. But Justice Chowdhury was merely a figurehead. Ershad’s proclamation had categorically stated that the President would not exercise any power or perform any function without the advice or approval of the CMLA.
Ershad took over the Presidency on December 11, 1983, a move which was eventually declared illegal by the High Court.
In 1986, Ershad called for parliamentary elections. The Awami League contested the elections, but the BNP boycotted it. Ershad’s newly founded Jatiyo Party (JP) had a walkover. In December, Ershad held a Presidential election which he won hands down because both the AL and BNP boycotted it.
Both the parliamentary and Presidential elections were found to be undemocratic by international observers. Street agitations followed which forced Ershad to hold parliamentary elections again in 1988. But again these were boycotted by all major parties.
Ershad’s high handedness earned him the wrath of not only the BNP and the AL, but also students because, student protestors were killed. In 1983, several students, including Zafar, Joynal, and Dipali Saha, died in police firing. In 1984, police killed Selim and Delwar by running a truck over demonstrating students.
Soon workers also joined the struggle. Noor Hossain and many other workers sacrificed their lives. By 1990, the street agitations peaked following the killing of the Bangladesh Medical Association leader Dr Shamsul Alam Milon and student leader Jehad.
Given the unending turmoil, Ershad was left with no option but to resign, which he did on December 4 ,1990. On December 6, he stepped down by transferring power to Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed. As expected, Ershad was jailed for corruption.
But the never-say-die Ershad was undaunted. Backed by his loyalists in Rangpur, he kept coming back to parliament, albeit as a minor player. He entered into an understanding with Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League. Given the abysmal score of the main opposition parties in the 2018 parliamentary elections, Ershad’ s Jatiyo Party with 34 seats became the official opposition with Ershad as the Leader of the Opposition, a post he held till his death.