DHAKA, Bangladesh (AA) – In the early hours of August 15 1975, a group of disgruntled and derailed junior military officers assassinated Bangladesh’s then-president, and iconic independence figure, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, at his residence in the capital of Dhaka.
Sheikh Mujib was killed along with 18 of his family members, including his wife, some of his children, and his brother. Two of his daughters — current Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her younger sister Sheikh Rehana — escaped because they were abroad at the time.
It was an event that marked a major split in Bangladeshi politics and is now celebrated by the ruling Bangladesh Awami League party as the National Mourning Day. Flags fly-half mast, the party and its associates hold cultural events and television channels air special programs documenting the slain leader’s life.
The assassination came only four years after Bangladesh won its independence in a brutal nine-month long war with Pakistan in 1971. The deaths caused a major shift in Bangladeshi politics, with military rule taking hold of the country until 1990. Muntassir Mamun, a historian at the University of Dhaka, said the event was linked to Bangladesh’s history since the partition of India in 1947 — when present-day Bangladesh became East Pakistan and was governed from Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad.
“Now it is quite evident, our fate wasn’t rooted in the divide of 1947. The perpetrators of ‘1975’ [assassinations] wanted to establish that the ‘1971’ [independence] was nothing but a historical transgression and it was ‘1947’ where our genesis was rooted,” said Mamun. “As part of heinous ploy to infuse the spirit of Pakistan, the Father of the Nation was killed.”
One of the biggest debates that has marked Bangladesh’s political path since independence has been about the place of secularism. The death of Sheikh Mujib, who advocated a secular state, heightened this rift.
“The assassination of independence hero Mujibur Rahman also buried the secular fabric in society,” says Saleem Samad, a journalist and media rights activist. “The subsequent military regimes had circumcised the state constitution into an Islamic one.”
The return of electoral governance has meant Awami League governments have tried to re-establish their vision of secularism — alienating some but winning the support of others in an increasingly polarized political sphere.
Rafiqul Islam Miah, a senior figure in the Bangladesh National Party, said that Bangladesh has not followed a democratic path since independence, even under the new elected governments.
“The spirit that worked for the independence of Bangladesh was to establish a democratic country, government would be formed through a democratic process,” said Miah. “We are far away from democracy.”
Since returning to power in 2008, the Awami League government led by Sheikh Hasina has set up controversial war crimes tribunals relating to the 1971 independence war, which killed up to 3 million people according to government figures. It has indicted nine leaders of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party and two from the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party for suspected war crimes.
The trials however, have been accused of being used to punish opposition politicians and, as a result, the political rift has expanded. The 2014 general elections saw the Awami League walk back into power after a large-scale opposition boycott.
A veteran of the independence war and prominent theatre activist Nasiruddin Yousuf Bachchu says the date marks not only Sheikh Mujib’s death and the beginning of a political divide, “but also an end of Bangalee’s cultural progress.
“The blooming culture was shattered and we are still on a continuous struggle to regain it.”
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