The Biplobi Sainik Sangstha (Revolutionary Sepoy’s Organisation) was never heard of in early 1970s. The clandestine organisation’s hard-core members were mostly Junior and Non-Commissioned Officers of Bangladesh Army. The recruits of the secret group were loyal to dismissed Maj Mohammad Abdul Jalil, Commander of Sector 9 of Mukti Bahini.
The secret group began its journey on January 1, 1973 at the staff quarters of Havildar Bari of Armoured Corps. The members were drawn from serving Junior and Non-Commissioned Officers. On the founding day of the ‘Bangladesh Revolutionary and Suicide Commando Force’ they took solemn oath by touching the Holy Qur’an.
The underground Biplobi Sainik Sangstha’s members held secret meetings at Ahsanullah Hall of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET). The political wisdom, mission and visions of the revolution were tutored by Sirajul Alam Khan, political theorist and founder of the Jatiya Samjtantrik Dal (JSD) and Dr Akhlaqur Rahman, an economist.
Days after Maj Jalil was imprisoned on March 17, 1974, he send secret message to the underground organisation’s leader Corporal Altaf Hossain to contact Col Abu Taher (Bir Uttam) and seek directives from the former commander of Sector 11.
Corporal Hossain was the key person to organise the soldiers in various cantonments and motivate them to join the revolution.
On June 20, 1974, a secret meeting presided by Col Taher was organised at Sergeant Abu Yusuf Khan’s residence at Elephant Road. The retired Sector Commander told the dedicated group that his friend Maj Gen Ziaur Rahman, who was Deputy Chief of Army Staff has expressed solidarity with the group and will support their revolution.
The statement has raised the morale of the junior officers. Since then the activities of the Revolutionary Commando Force were held openly.
On the other side, most soldiers of Sector 11 and loyal to Taher joined ‘Biplobi Sainik Sangstha’ also many soldiers in Comilla Cantonment where he (Taher) once served as Commanding Officer also joined the group. He advocated for ‘People’s Army’ and through ‘class struggle’ drew political support of the soldiers.
Soon the Revolutionary Commando Force and other smaller groups among the soldiers merged into Biplobi Sainik Sangstha, after the crisis created following the assassination of the Father of the Nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in a military putsch.
Taher knew his limitation and was not a protagonist of the revolution. He decided to use Zia’s image among the soldiers to expedite the revolution. In a bid to garner more support of the soldiers he included in the Sainik Sangstha a 12-point demands for the realisation of 18 months of unpaid wages of repatriated soldiers from Pakistan. This was debated by former Mukti Bahini soldiers and was not discussed at the high command of the JSD.
Taher also formed strategic alliance with the pro-Peking (now Beijing) left groups and parties who participated in the Liberation War to form liberated areas in rural regions, so that the radical groups can create pressure on the capital Dhaka.
JSD radical political philosophy was similar to the Sainik Sangstha revolution to overthrow the autocratic regime to establish a pro-people, farmers, soldiers, workers and students national government.
On November 6, JSD party forum held an emergency standing committee meeting at a residence in Kalabagan. The meeting was attended by Sirajul Alam Khan, Aklaqur Rahman, Monirul Islam, Hasanul Haque Inu and Khair Ejaz Masud and others, writes Mohiuddin Ahmed in his recent book “Jashoder Utthan Poton: Osthir Somoyer Rajniti, Protoma Prokashon.
The agenda for discussion was to organise an indefinite shut down (hartal). A show down of strength was planned at Paltan Maidan on November 9. JSD leaders expected that thousands of industrial workers from Adamjee, Tejgaon and Tongi would participate and block the capital Dhaka for days, until the government collapse and form a national government with all parties, minus the BAKSAL leadership. Unfortunately the plan was abandoned, due to abrupt Sepoy Mutiny.
While the meeting was in progress, Taher walked in and sat to listen to the discussion. Surprisingly the Sepoy Mutiny was not in the agenda. Possibly the key leaders had no knowledge that a mutiny was brewing.
After a while, a young military officer in civilian dress barged into the meeting room, without causing any alarm among the key leaders sitting there. He whispered in the ears of Taher and handed over to him two small pieces of papers.
Once the officer departed, Taher drew the attention of the meeting and read out one message which came from Gen Zia. Which reads: “I am interned, I can’t take the lead. My men are there. If you take the lead, my men will join you.”
Those present at the meeting have never met Zia and does not know him. The first reaction came from Akhlaqur Rahman, who refused to accept Gen Zia as their leader. All the leaders had one question, whether Zia should be trusted? Taher promptly responded and confidently said, “If you trust me, then you can also trust Zia. He will be under my feet.”
He also informed the meeting that he has instructed the Sainik Sangstha to begin the revolution. Immediately all the members in the room were baffled by the announcement. The meeting tried to influence Taher to withdraw the call for mutiny. He said it was impossible to reach the decision as the communication is a one-way traffic.
The second message was from the command centre of the soldiers planning the mutiny at midnight following November 6. It reads: “Khaled Mussaraf men are moving fast. The iron is too hot. It is time to hit.”
Taher took the floor and said like what happened in the Bolshevik Revolution – Tonight or never. Sirajul Alam Khan did not say yes or no to the plan. The leaders continued to pursue Taher and frustrated the meeting abruptly ended without any plan, Mohiuddin writes.
F Rahman Hall at Dhaka University was converted into a clandestine command centre for the November 7 Sepoy Mutiny led by Col Abu Taher, commander of Gono Bahni (People’s Army).
A nervous mutineer Subedar Mehboob rang the shot an hour early than determined at 1 O’clock. The single shot at midnight from a rifle, triggered the revolution of soldiers. Thousands of soldiers joined the mutiny broke the military armoury to loot weapons and boarded trucks and jeeps and took control of strategic points.
A contingent rushed to Gen Zia’s residence to free him from house-arrest in Dhaka Cantonment hours after Maj Khaled Musharraf's coup d'etat on November 3. Taher drove in a military jeep with few JSD leaders and met Zia. “You have saved the nation,” he admired Taher amidst cheering soldiers.
Zia asked Taher of the whereabouts of Sirajul Alam Khan. It was presumed that Zia wanted to meet the top leaders of JSD, which never happened.
Since the meeting held on the eve of November 7, Sirajul Alam Khan, Akhlaqur Rahman and many senior leaders opted to maintain low profile. Possibly they believed that the mutiny would fail, and it failed.
Mohiuddin in his book writes that despite request by Taher, Zia refused to go to the radio station on an excuse that his statement could be recorded and broadcast. At the radio station Shamsuddin Ahmed, a young Turk of the Gana Bahini read out a statement which announced the Sepoy Mutiny. Unfortunately, the announcer did not mention the name of Taher or other JSD leaders or even his name.
On November 23, 1975, Zia also ordered the arrest of JSD leaders. A large police contingent surrounded the house of Col Taher's brother Sergeant Abu Yusuf Khan and took him to the police control room.
When Col Taher heard about his brother’s arrest, he rang Gen Zia but was told that he was not available. Instead Maj Gen HM Ershad, the Deputy Chief Martial Law Administrator, spoke with him. Ershad said it was a police matter and they knew nothing about it, writes Talukder Maniruzzaman in “Bangladesh in 1976: Struggle for Survival as an Independent State,” published in Asian Survey in February 1977.
The following day Taher was arrested 16 days after freeing Ziaur Rahman and was taken to Dhaka Central Jail. He was accused of 'instigating indiscipline' in the army and attempting to expand the original mutiny of November 7, 1975 towards a goal of "socialist revolution" and to kill some of the army officers.
Abu Taher's Last Testament: Bangladesh: The Unfinished Revolution by Lawrence Lifschultz published in Economic and Political Weekly, India in August 1977: “It became very clear to me that a new conspiracy had taken control of those we had brought to power on November 7 in 1975.”
“On November 24, 1975, I was surrounded by a large contingent of police. The police officer asked me to accompany him for discussion with Zia. I said I was surprised and I asked him why there was need of a police guard for me to go to Zia. Anyway they put me in a jeep and drove me straight to this jail. This is how I was put inside this jail by those traitors who I saved and brought to power.”
“In our history, there is only one example of such treachery. It was the treachery of Mir Zafar who betrayed the people of Bangladesh and the subcontinent and led us into slavery for a period of 200 years. Fortunately for us it is not 1757. It is 1976 and we have revolutionary soldiers and a revolutionary people who will destroy the conspiracy of traitors like Ziaur Rahman,” the statement concluded.
The Supreme Court has recently described the execution of Taher through an order of a military tribunal in 1976 as ‘outright murder’. It says the hanging of Taher was ‘illegal’ and a case of ‘cold blooded assassination’.
Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow (USA) is an award winning investigative reporter based in Bangladesh. Email