By Syed Badrul Ahsan
With all the firestorm raging around President Zillur Rahman's grant of clemency to an individual convicted of murder -- and for all the right reasons -- it is perhaps time for a brief observation of the many pitfalls the nation's presidency has been up against in these past four decades.
Begin with Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury, for he brought to the office of president of the republic the dignity one normally associates with it. And yet Chowdhury also turned out to be a president who clearly felt uncomfortable in a situation where things were clearly going awry. It needed a man of courage and principle to inform Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman that he wanted out. But Justice Chowdhury did it. He left Bangabhaban in late 1973.
The next president, Mohammadullah, simply could not measure up to the intellectual brilliance or clout of his predecessor. That clearly had to do with the fact that he was beholden to Bangabandhu. And naturally too, for with the Father of the Nation occupying so large a part of the nation's political canvas, any politician would feel overwhelmed. Which is why when the Fourth Amendment to the constitution came to pass in January 1975, Mohammadullah quietly made way for Bangabandhu and cheerfully agreed to take up a ministerial position in the government?
Mohammadullah's career remains one of the more curious of studies in political character in Bangladesh's history. After August 1975 he went on to serve General Ziaur Rahman and then, for a few hours, he became President Sattar's vice president in 1982. Both men were suddenly made jobless when General H.M. Ershad decided to commandeer the country in March of that year.
A most bizarre moment in the history of the presidency was surely Commerce Minister Khondokar Moshtaque Ahmed's seizure of power once Bangabandhu and his family had been gunned down in August 1975. Vice President Syed Nazrul Islam simply did not have a chance, for the wrath of the assassins would fall on him too.
Mercifully for the country, General Khaled Musharraf did the necessary thing of ejecting Moshtaque from power on November 6, 1975 and replacing him with Justice Abu Sadat Mohammad Sayem. The irony, a deeply painful one, is that when Musharraf was murdered by mutinous soldiers early the next morning, Sayem kept his hold on the presidency thanks to Zia's willingness to have him stay on.
And yet when he eventually said farewell to Bangabhaban in April 1977, Justice Sayem did not leave in a blaze of glory. It was on his watch that Colonel Abu Taher was hanged after a sham trial in July 1976. The president could have stayed his hand, could have refused to cave in to Zia's pressure to send Taher to the gallows, could indeed have resigned rather than commit that blunder.
When the moment of reckoning came, Justice Sayem did not and would not listen to his conscience. It was then fairly easy for Zia to ease Sayem out of the presidency and take the job for himself as the nation's first military dictator. Stories of how many hundreds of soldiers and air force men died at the hands of the Zia regime are legion. That was the point where Bangladesh's history first came under systematic assault, a scandal we are yet engaged in trying to put behind us.
In more ways than one, Justice Abdus Sattar remains the first properly elected president of Bangladesh. General Zia's election in June 1978 against General Osmany was very much a managed affair; and General Ershad's in the 1980s clearly lacked the stamp of legitimacy. President Sattar might have turned out to be a good, elderly leader, the father figure the nation was in need of at that point, had he not been ambushed by General Ershad into giving the military a role in politics through the national security council and then being shown the door altogether through the coup d'etat of March 24, 1982.
If Justice Sattar's presidency was a missed opportunity, that of Justice Ahsanuddin Chowdhury was sheer pointlessness. Raised to the office by the military, Ahsanuddin Chowdhury was then lifted off it, again by the military. It was the judge's reputation that took a mauling.
When you reflect on the rise and fall of the presidency, you might have reason to believe that despite all the odds presidents are often confronted with, there are men who sometimes do uphold the dignity and integrity of Bangabhaban. Abdur Rahman Biswas' decisive action against General Nasim only days before the general elections of June 1996 was a sign of a president ready and willing to assert his authority in moments of crisis. It was authority that Justice Sayem and Justice Sattar should have exercised in their times, but did not.
Biswas' successor Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed was a refreshing change. He brought gravitas to the presidency. He demonstrated, both in his tenure as acting president following General Ershad's fall in 1990 and after his election to the office in 1996, the intellectual sagacity which presidents operating in a parliamentary form of government could bring into a moral powering of the office.
Professor Iajuddin Ahmed's occupancy of Bangabhaban was, in the end, a tale of deep embarrassment for the country. Suffice it to say that he was stopped, to the nation's immense relief, from doing what he set out to do, at the eleventh hour -- in January 2007. We breathe a lot easier today because the elections scheduled for later that month were shelved; because proper, credible elections were organised in December 2008.
But that does not quite obscure the new, patently dark truth before us, which is that with Zillur Rahman in charge the presidency is once more under a cloud. Things should not have happened this way.
The writer is Editor, Current Affairs, The Daily Star.
Source: The Daily Star, Dacca