HM Ershad is again the talk of the town, and again about to play the power game as he does so well. Will he, won’t he join the ruling alliance? Will they, won’t they withdraw all the corruption cases against him? While everyone is busy trying to guess the answers, Mahfuz Sadique retraces the life and times of the greedy tyrant

The Machiavellian villain of Bangladesh politics is back on centre stage. His moves are well known. For nearly two and a half decades now, HM Ershad aka Bishwa Behaya (he would have preferred ‘Polli Bandhu’ to stick) has remained a regular fixture in the national drama of ‘power’, especially come election season. After taking over power through a ‘bloodless’ coup in March, 1982, following the assassination of another military-turned-civilian ruler — Ziaur Rahman — the year before, and still mentioned in many quarters as the mastermind of the Chittagong carnage itself, this army strongman held an unwilling audience captive for eight years. The black pitch of Dhaka’s boulevards had to be splashed with Nur Hossain’s blood to ‘free Democracy’, to get rid of the junta-syndrome of Bangladesh. In December 1990 as the streets of Dhaka wore the festive mood of freedom on a reinvigorated Victory Day, having ousted the tyrant, few had remembered that politicians were myopic to history. And therefore, three general elections (not counting the ‘general’ nature of the February 1996 election) later, like a trapeze artist, pulled on both sides by the power-hungry two-headed snake that Bangladesh’s political landscape has come to represent, Ershad remains on the rope, still standing. The devil still seems to have a few tricks in his sack.

The late Muhammad Maqbul Hussain’s son Hussain Mohammad Ershad had grown accustomed to authority from an early age. Being the chhawal (son) of Rangpur, the northern district more in the news for monga these days than their ‘son of the soil’, HM Ershad had done his higher secondary studies from the then prestigious Carmichael College in his home town. His civilian life ended, so to speak, after that. He joined the army right after, still in his teens, and received his commission from the Pakistan Army in 1952.

According to the official Curriculum Vitae provided by Ershad’s Jatiya Party, his birth date is February 1, 1930. That makes him 76, but the real age many insiders whisper is 80. Taking the official version, Ershad was commissioned by the army at the age of 22. During the next 18 years, Ershad rose through the ranks. Then came the War of Independence. Ershad was stationed in Pakistan during the entire period of 1971, and like many Bangladeshi military officers stationed there, was never a part of the fight for a new nation.

Political and military experts have opined that this simple fact had a great impact in the history of Bangladesh in later years. As a senior army officer not part of the ‘band of brothers’ who fought for independence, and due to an ‘extra’ two-year default promotion given to all officers who took part in the war, Ershad was left behind. So were many other returnee officers in the army. An inevitable, and unavoidable, conflict of two different hierarchy streams of army personnel with same seniority started surfacing soon. When Ershad eventually became the chief of staff on December 1, 1978, along with a promotion to lieutenant general, it was long overdue. And his true colours started showing soon after.

When the special broadcast of the Bangladesh Betar announced the death of president Ziaur Rahman on May 30, 1981, a new actor in Bangladesh’s power stage was putting on his tyrant’s hat. He was not in Bangladesh during the previous change of power in 1975. Ershad was in New Delhi. This time Ershad was the one preparing the stage of a long one-act play. But as a shrewd and calculative player adept in the many ‘silent acts’, it was not until March 24 of the next year that he had the erstwhile president Justice Abdus Sattar, elected the previous November as Ziaur Rahman-founded Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s candidate, deposed. But political observers have observed that Ershad had already divided the BNP, and also the Awami League, in the interim period between May 1981 and March 1982. Ershad started playing the classic political tool of ‘divide and conquer’ at a dramatic scale. Political observers comment that while Ziaur Rahman first introduced the act of dividing political camps, be it through intimidation or accommodating previous grievances, and eventually moving in for the kill, it was Ershad who perfected the art. His use of the intelligence apparatus of the state, especially the more efficient and clandestine military intelligence wings, in the process of gathering information and intimidation of political opponents was almost indiscriminate — a trend that continued throughout his regime.

In this game of deserters, the first victim was the BNP. A faction of the party broke off with two big leaders — Dr Matin and Shamsul Huda Chowdhury — to form a counter BNP. Under the direct supervision of the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, the thugs of Dhaka University and Jagannath College were brought together to form Notun Bangla Chatra Shomaj. This new entity was to be used to counter the frequently gathering storm of anti-Ershad movements at the university.

Ershad’s first big political breakthrough was bringing the Jatiyo Shamajtantrik Dal to his will. With JSD bigwigs Major Jalil and ASM Rob under his ‘care’, JSD’s spattering of factions and anti-factions went into hyper-drive. Over the next few years, Bangladesh’s politics saw the worst degeneration it has ever witnessed. In fact, it was during this period that the entire political establishment of Bangladesh started becoming a whirlwind of desertion, and with the ‘minister-card’ Ershad almost made a mockery of many leaders of the then 15-party and 7-party opposition alliances. And in a culmination of this game of shame, the mock general elections of 1986 became a grand money-making fiasco for most of the major political parties. In fact, it was the elections of 1986 that saw big money enter the scene. Ershad knew then, and it seems he still does, when and where to push the envelope, or the button, whichever works.

Another major constitutional shift made by Ershad in 1988 was to have far reaching repercussions in the political landscape of Bangladesh. That year with pressure mounting from various radical Islamic groups, who had started gaining ground for the first time after the Liberation War during Ershad’s ‘accommodating’ political strategy, Islam was declared as the state religion of Bangladesh. It was in direct contradiction with one of the four basic pillars of Bangladesh’s founding constitution, and violated the primary premise for the Liberation War. As a result of this constitutional amendment, which was never reversed, gradually various Islamic parties, including the mainstay Jamaat-e-Islami and its cohorts started gaining ground on both political and public spheres at a faster pace. Looking back, today’s problem of militant Islam and the ever-growing power of the Islamic political bloc, has Ershad’s decision for constitutional safeplay to blame to a great extent.

Ershad’s rule of eight years was all about big projects and big money: large infrastructural projects such as roads, bridges, complexes. And the main reason was that it all accommodated his unending desire of more for his personal coffers, and not the peoples’. He had created an intricate network of beneficiaries as any self-respecting dictator does to protect the throne. Starting from his ministers to grassroots sympathisers — all got a ‘cut’. If the time has come to evaluate the effects of his eight-year rule, it can be said that the widespread ‘acceptability’ of corruption in all establishments was his legacy to Bangladesh. Corruption in Bangladesh did not get where it is in one day. We owe it to the Behaya.

While power and politics may have been one of Ershad’s playgrounds, he has another, almost equally intriguing, character trait: he really ‘loves’ women! While his long-term wife, Raushan Ershad, has been by his side when he feels like accommodating her, the tall, ‘handsome’ military dictator had his way with the women he fancied. Starting from the once ‘toast of the town’ Zeenat Mosharraf to Marium Mary Badruddin, who was the reason of the infamous feud between the flamboyant tycoon Aziz Mohammad Bhai and Ershad, the women in his life have come and gone with the same frequency as he changes political alliances these days. His latest adventure — Bidisha — had lasted quite a few years. And what a finale! While most observers say that his divorce- and court-drama with Bidisha last year was due to political pressure from today’s ‘interest groups’, the trend throughout his life had been no different. His future lineage has always been in question of authenticity too. Be it the ‘divine’ intervention of sorts in the sudden appearance of a son on the lap of Raushan Ershad in those BTV-days of the 1980s, or the confusion over why his son with Bidisha, Erik, has his mother’s ex-husband’s title as a last name rather than the once-coveted Ershad at its end.

A close acquaintance of Ershad tells of a very calm man. Ershad the general, the military dictator, has always been calm and reserved in his reactions. His shrewdness comes out in his actions. Ershad has very few public instances of unaccounted for, or rude, behaviour. But his decisions have always been self-interest driven, be it those relating to the state or those pertaining to the women in his life. There have been many instances when he has made public announcements of appointments to a particular public position, only to retract it the next day. From appointing his party’s general secretary, or a new vice chancellor of a public university, Ershad has always played on his gut feeling — a classic survivor’s instinct! His name as Bishwa Behaya, which literally translates to ‘scoundrel of the world’, may have more to it. He rarely keeps promises.

Like a tyrant true to the traditions of indulgence, HM Ershad was also a heavy spender when it came to the arts and culture. The only difference was that he enjoyed indulging in his own work more than those of others. Ershad had used all his eight years of rule to establish himself as an ‘undiscovered genius’ in poetry. While his attempts to lure many of the country’s most gifted poets to ghost write for him had somewhat failed, he still acquired a few fallen angels for his court. With their help he has ‘dozens’ (that is the most appropriate unit to count them) of poetry titles to his credit. For the sake of historical reference only, here are the names of a few: Ek Prithiby Agami Kaler Janney, Judha Ebong Onnannya Kabita, Etihashe Matir Chena Chitra and O’ My Motherland. A thorough review of the last one (which is available on Jatiya Party’s website) might actually give an insight into Ershad’s version of patriotism!

As the general elections of 2007 draw closer, and as soon as the caretaker government takes power, be sure to expect some more of the ‘old magic’ from Ershad the Behaya, back on the political stage. But then again, if Bangladesh’s political establishment has allowed him to muster political leverage and public space to show his magic fifteen years on, the obvious question remains: who is/are the real behaya?

Published: The New Age/ August, 2006


7 thoughts on “The life and times of a Machiavellian tyrant

  1. Since you are so good at writing about bishwa behaya,
    Why don’t you try writing about bishwa murkha Khaleda Zia
    and bishwa hypocrit Sheikh Hasina.

    Call yourself a writer when you can write unbiased political views, otherwise
    people like Khaleda, Tarek, and Sheikh Hasina will become writers too.

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