A meaningful gesture to restore trust in frayed India-Bangladesh ties

The Indian government’s decision to pass and enact, in December 2019, the Citizenship Amendment Act, naming Bangladesh as a country where minorities are persecuted, had an extremely negative fallout in that country, writes  Nilova Roy Chaudhury for South Asia Monitor

Nilova Roy Chaudhury Apr 21, 2020

Abdul Majed, a former army officer and a key figure in the August 15, 1975 assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh, was sent to the gallows and hanged in a Dhaka jail on April 12, 2020, over four decades after he proudly admitted his role in the gruesome murder of Rahman, his family members and security personnel. Majed had been living incognito in West Bengal for over two decades and was among those most wanted by the Awami League government headed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Sheikh Mujib’s two daughters, Hasina, now prime minister of Bangladesh, and Rehana, both of whom were out of the country when the murders occurred, survived the assassination that removed the rest of the family, including his wife, sons and nephews.

According to reports, Majed had actively participated in and planned the conspiracy to kill Bangabandhu, as Rahman was known, and seize the Dhaka radio station right after the killings, to announce the army-backed coup and prevent any social unrest. He also admitted to killing four key army officers, who were opposed to the killings and bloody takeover of power, in jail in November 1975.

Majed was given immunity for his heinous crimes under the Indemnity Act, enacted by the government of Lt. General Ziaur Rahman, president of Bangladesh from 1977 to 1981 and founder of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which is now headed by his wife Khaleda Zia. The Act offered Majed and the other assassins immunity from any legal action despite murdering the country’s national leader. The Indemnity Act was scrapped by the Bangladesh Parliament in November 1996, after Sheikh Hasina assumed power as prime minister for the first time.

Majed was sentenced to death, in absentia, in 1998, for the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. In 2008, he was given a life sentence for the killing of army officers in jail and, subsequently the High Court confirmed his death sentence in 2009. After the ruling of 2009, five of the 12 people convicted in the assassination of Bangabandhu were executed in January 2010. Of the other seven convicts, one had died earlier in Zimbabwe, in 2001, and Majed was finally put to death on April 12.

Majed, who held positions of authority in governments before 1996, fled the country when the first Hasina government scrapped the Indemnity Act and, after travelling to Pakistan and Arab nations including Libya, landed in Kolkata in 1997. He lived incognito in West Bengal, which was then ruled by the Left Front headed by chief minister Jyoti Basu, for over two decades. In fact, he was initially lodged in Kolkata’s Alimuddin Street, near the CPI(M) party headquarters. Sources in the state government said his presence in Kolkata was known by “less than a handful” in the state government and New Delhi.

Whatever the case may be, Majed managed to live in and around Kolkata for over two decades, even acquiring an Indian passport as Ahmed Ali, a small-time preacher, and marrying an Indian woman Zareena Bibi.

As India’s relations with Bangladesh began to grow warmer, since Hasina’s second coming to power in 2009 and soared towards the "shonar adhyay", or golden chapter, after resolution of the land and maritime boundary issues, from 2014 onwards, when Hasina returned to office and Narendra Modi assumed power as prime minister in India, Majed’s presence in India had fallen almost off the radar screens, except for a very limited few. His presence was among the few potent levers that India had to keep the Khaleda–led BNP in check and prevent them from ramping up anti-India terrorist activities.

However, after the 2019 general election in India and, particularly after the National Population Register (NPR) generated enormous anti-Bangladesh rhetoric, New Delhi’s moves have been perceived in Dhaka as “unwelcome and unnecessary.”

The Indian government’s decision to pass and enact, in December 2019, the Citizenship Amendment Act, naming Bangladesh as a country where minorities are persecuted, had an extremely negative fallout in that country and bilateral relations, which had been cited as a model of good ties for the entire neighbourhood, began to unravel fast.

Knowing how keen the Hasina government was to bring closure to the tragic circumstances around the murder of Sheikh Mujib and the entire chapter of the liberation of Bangladesh and bring to book those involved, and how important it was for Hasina personally, the offering of Majed was seen as a necessary move to try and restore the mistrust that has crept into the bilateral relationship.

The 73-year-old Majed was reported missing from Kolkata on February 21, the International Mother Language Day, another key date in the history of the move toward a Bengali-dominated Bangladesh, when he left his home in Kolkata to buy medicines. His family even lodged a complaint with local police. He was last seen being escorted away by plainclothes' men. 

He was captured by the Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit of Bangladesh Police on April 7, when he was “found” in Mirpur. He reportedly told his captors that he had been living in West Bengal for 23 years.

A relieved and happy Bangladesh law minister said Majed’s execution after he was denied a presidential pardon, was a gift to the people of the country in Mujib’s centenary year. Public celebrations to commemorate Bangabandhu’s centenary in Dhaka, which Modi was due to attend on March 17, had to be called off because of the global outbreak of the coronavirus.

For the Hasina-led Awami League government in Dhaka, Majed’s return and swift execution have restored the crisis of confidence it was facing over its handling of the Covid-19 outbreak by fulfilling a key election promise to bring the murderers of the father of the nation to justice.

For New Delhi, the gesture was intended to restore trust and shore up fraying bilateral ties.

 (The writer is a senior journalist and commentator on international affairs)