Mahdin Choudhury / The Financial Express

President Zia of Bangladesh: A Political Biography
By Mahfuz Ullah Published by Adorn Publication, Dhaka,

February, 2016  670 pages


Not many books have been written on the life of President Ziaur Rahman, hence Mahfuz Ullah’s initiative to unfold his life-story definitely calls for attention of all sections of readers. Information available on the web and books on him basically provide a brief heroic account of what Zia did in 1971, but his life before and after 1971 is still not known to many.

The author of the book, Mahfuz Ullah, is an eminent journalist who is well-known for his involvement in left movement and his role in the Liberation War of Bangladesh. As a journalist he has witnessed the rise of Ziaur Rahman from close and this opportunity placed him in a position to sketch the life of the leader thoroughly with authentic references.

President Zia was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but in an enlightened and educated family where no one of his generation was left uneducated. The description of the author of Zia’s early life confirms the fact that the late President was a tough, reserved and thoughtful person; and these qualities have always distinguished him from others. The influence of military profession on Zia’s later political career is also a highlight of the book. As a president, Ziaur Rahman neutralised many military coups plotted against him. The factual details of these events have not been narrated in the book in detail by the author except the one which ultimately took his life.

The author has efficiently analysed Zia’s transformation from a soldier to President of Bangladesh. His role was crucial to restoring democracy in Bangladesh through establishing multi-party democracy,  strengthening the state institutions, and restoring nationalism in the heart of common Bangladeshis. The author narrates how Ziaur Rahman became an iconic leader, winning friends in the Muslim world who were once hesitant to recognise Bangladesh let alone lending us their helping hand.

Ziaur Rahman’s political philosophy of Bangladeshi nationalism is excellently described in the book. The late President wanted to give this country a true identity and it is inclusive of all races, ethnic groups and religions. Such philosophy of Bangladeshi nationalism is not beyond criticism, but it was passionately embraced by an overwhelming majority of ordinary Bangladeshi citizens.

Ziaur Rahman’s success as a statesman was mostly due to the principles he had adopted for economic development. He abolished the socialist economic policies and established his own idea of self-reliance, rural development, decentralisation, free market and population control.  These steps witnessed immediate successes during his tenure. There was major growth in agriculture, export, industrialisation and women’s empowerment in that period, and the author has rightly spent enough words describing these successes in the light of available statistical data.

Ziaur Rahman arguably moved away from the blocs which Bangladesh initially belonged to, but he succeeded in developing relations with the Western world and the Middle East. He also made a settlement with Indian leaders on the sharing of the waters of the Ganges. His role was pivotal in establishing the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) to bolster economic and political cooperation between the countries of South Asia. The author successfully narrates Zia’s own perception of foreign policy: to consolidate and safeguard independence and sovereignty, to develop friendly bilateral, regional and international cooperation with a view to accelerating the process of political and social development of the country and to cooperate with the international community in promoting the cause of peace, freedom and progress.

The author has hardly attempted to compare leader Ziaur Rahman’s success with any others. Records say that as a President he was out of the capital for more than 15 days a month to personally know the problems of the masses and to come out with a practical solution so that his countrymen could sleep happily. Such passion and enthusiasm for the development of the country is unparalleled. A comment by William Milam, former US ambassador to Bangladesh, which has been quoted in the book, deserves mention: “It is hard to imagine what would have happened to Bangladesh had Ziaur Rahman been assassinated in 1975 instead of 1981. A failed state on the model of the Afghanistan or Liberia might well have resulted. Zia saved Bangladesh from that fate. He did so with method, that were, at first, anything but democratic, though never as harsh as some other authoritarian military regimes.”

The author lastly provides a comprehensive portrayal of the killing of Ziaur Rahman and the aftermath. The attendance in his janaza showed the love and affection of the people of the country for their 45-year-old President. Reactions of the international community after his untimely death are also described in the book. These are unknown to the youths of this generation. Egypt, Maldives and Cuba announced three-day mourning, while Nepal a two-day national mourning for Ziaur Rahman. A number of condolence messages from the leaders of different blocs are quoted by the author.

In course of writing this book, Mahfuz Ullah has interviewed as many as 52 persons to understand their views about President Ziaur Rahman, his personal life, work method and passion for establishing Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). He has referred to 105 publications in the last part of the book as bibliography.

The book summarises the chronological events in Ziaur Rahman’s life. This, in short, tells the whole life-story of this great statesman. The author has also included in his narrative the text of some speeches of President Ziaur Rahman for the curious readers. The book finally appears to be truly instrumental to objectively understanding the political life of Ziaur Rahman, and his contribution to Bangladesh. The book is a must-read for the younger generations who are interested in the politics of Bangladesh.

– The writer is a Barrister-at-Law, and Advocate, Supreme Court of Bangladesh.