Hussain Muhammad Ershad, a major witness to South Asia’s politics for seven decades, passes away

Former military ruler and President of Bangladesh Hussain Muhammad Ershad passed away on Sunday. He was 89.

From a commissioned officer of the Pakistan Army to a military dictator who was later deposed in Bangladesh, the nattily dressed General Ershad, with many acknowledged love affairs and relationships, was a major witness to South Asia’s politics for seven decades.

Born in West Bengal’s Cooch Behar district (then Rangpur of undivided India in 1930, Ershad was commissioned into the Pakistan Army, when Bangladesh was part of Pakistan, as a Sector Commander. Following his return to Bangladesh after the country’s independence, Ershad quickly rose through the ranks in the Bangladesh Army.

He spent his formative years as an Army personnel in India — around the time Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated in 1975 — in the country’s Defence College and developed deep links with India’s ruling elite. He was particlarly close to members of the deep state in many countries in South Asia, including India.

He shared a complex professional relationship with General Ziaur Rahman, the late President of Bangladesh, which is yet to be explored in depth. Rahman brought Ershad back from India and promoted him in the Army. Later, Ershad turned against Rahman.

Former Bangladesh Prime Minister and wife of Ziaur Rahman, Khaleda Zia, had alleged that Ershad played a role in her husband’s assassination. Ershad was also accused of killing an Army officer. The case is yet to be reopened by the current Awami League government which is in a coalition with Ershad’s Jatiya Party.

After Rahman’s death, Ershad usurped power in a military coup, replacing the elected government. He ruled the country first as a military dictator, staying behind the scene, and later took over the presidency in 1983. With flawed elections or without any semblance of election-driven democracy, Ershad continued to rule the country till 1990. Later, he was again voted to Parliament as his constituency in north Bangladesh remained loyal to him.

Following the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s decision to boycott polls in 2014, Ershad’s Jatiya Party got the status of the Opposition party in Parliament. After the 2018 elections, Jatiya Party retained the position and Ershad remained its chief.

He is often credited for the division of Bangladesh’s large districts, creating upazilas [subdistricts]. He will also be remembered for introducing Islam as the State religion in a country with strong secular fabric.

In his last conversation with this correspondent, Ershad regretted that the land adjacent to his house in West Bengal’s Cooch Behar district, where a section of his family still resides, had been acquired by local miscreants. He requested the Chief Minister of West Bengal to recover the land but to no avail.