Ziaur Rahman, President of Bangladesh, 21 April 1977

President of Bangladesh

Last updated: 10 October 2017 From the section Ziaur Rahman

Major General Ziaur Rahman entered politics on the wings of a huge popularity among people at large, military and civilians alike. He became the 7th President of Bangladesh on 21 April 1977 following Justice Sayem's resignation on grounds of "ill health", which many believed was simply a pretext for Zia's rise to power with army's backing.

Although Sayem had held the title of president, historians believe it was Zia who exercised real power from the cantonment. Sayem had promised early elections, but Zia postponed the plans. The years of disorder had left most of Bangladesh's state institutions in disarray, with constant threats of military coups amidst strikes and protests.


Ziaur Rahman's accession to the Presidency was a reflection of his power over the military and his immense popularity with the public. A few of the old-time politicians objected to his accession but they were widely ignored. He was sworn in as President by the Chief Justice of Supreme Court, Justice Syed A. B. Mahmood Hussain.

Even though he became the president, Ziaur Rahman continued his position as CMLA and Supreme Commander of the Bangladesh Armed Forces. On 30 May 1977, after running the impoverished country under strict martial law for 18 months, President Zia turned to the people for a vote of confidence. Voters were asked "Do you have confidence in President Major-General Ziaur Rahman Bir Uttam and the policies and programs adopted by him?". The result saw 98.9% vote yes, with a turnout of around 34 million (88.1%).

Although he received an overwhelming 98.89% of the popular vote, his victory was tarnished by the extensive use of government machinery to induce the people to vote for him. Voter turnout was low and those who opposed Zia had nothing to vote for and no knowledge of what would happen if Zia lost. Moreover, such phrasing of the referendum question as "Do you have confidence in President Major General Ziaur Rahman and in his policies and programs enunciated by him?" gave the people little or no choice. Linking personality to policies served to control the voting behaviour of those who wanted the policies but were leery about any military ruler.


On 3 June 1977 Justice Abdus Sattar was elevated to Vice President of Bangladesh and appointed as Minister of Law and Parliamentary Affairs. Justice Sattar, a repatriate from Pakistan in 1973, was previously appointed Special Assistant to President Sayem in 1975. Now with Justice Sattar's appointment, Ziaur Rahman secured the services and aid from an ex-Judge of the Supreme Court. Justice Sattar also lived in the Government Quarters (now known as Old Ganabhaban).

  • Abdus Sattar (1906 – 5 Oct 1985) President of Bangladesh. Born in Daraka of Bolpur, Birbhum district of West Bengal, India. Obtained MA in Political Science and Law degree (1929) from the University of Calcutta. Joined Calcutta Judge Court Bar. Lawyer practising in Alipore Court (the District Court of 24 Parganas). Deputy Executive Officers in the Calcutta Corporation. Judge in the Supreme Court of Pakistan. Worked under Hamidul Huq Chowdhury a lot, even gaining influential role within Jukta Front because of him http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=3pIjwRq24YYC&pg=PA248 &hl=en&sa=X&ei=4qNyUZ6KJYmk0QXfnoDQBw&ved=0CEwQ6AEwBg#v=onepage&f=false. Appointed Acting Chief Election Commissioner during Yahya's time.
  • Syed A. B. Mahmood Hussain ()

'Taming the tiger'

Assuming full control of the state, Zia banned political parties, censored the media, re-imposed martial law and ordered the army to arrest dissidents. Martial law restored order across the country to a large measure and as Zia crushed several attempted uprisings with ruthless measures, discipline was finally restored in the army. However, he still had to confront a number of mutinies and attempted coups forcing him to adopt certain stern actions against those who had taken part in those uprisings.

Zia recognised that although much of his power base rested on the shoulders of military support, it was also obvious that there were a number of splits within the military cadre.

Prior to Zia’s takeover, the army was quite an incoherent structure with respect to its basis (factionalism of the mukti bahinis), its development (increase of manpower thanks to partisan/biased recruits), and its achievement (divisions between freedom fighters and repatriated/returning soldiers). This clear disunity was the primary source of instablity within the army from 1975 to 1982.

The main source of instability was, unquestionably, to be found in the army: the issue was not about civil-military relations, but rather about army's internal relations. This is clearly attested by the fact that, within a few months of his takeover, Zia felt the necessity to found a special police force of 12,500 men, which strongly resembled Mujib’s JRB. Because he could not rely on the army to help him hunt down the Jashod’s clandestine groups, he was, in a way, forced to create his own militarized police force. Zia’s uncomfortable position among his peers was further demonstrated by his decision to keep his COAS position until the June 1978 presidential election. And even after being elected president, he chose not to settle in the presidential palace but rather to stay at his COAS residence inside the army’s headquarters.


Ziaur Rahman’s first move was to extend this ‘de-politicization’ process to the army itself, and it became the prime target of the cleaning process. The Biplobi Shoinik Shangstha (BSS, Revolutionary Military Associations) and Jashod leaders who had carried Zia to power were systematically arrested whereas the repatriated, less threatening because of their apparent disorganization, became the regime’s fresh allies.

In the early days of military rule, Ziaur Rahman’s policies closely resembled (Pakistan's) Zia ul Huq’s in their Jacobin crushing of political parties and civilian politicians, and their suppression of dissent and protest, as he searched for a way back to stability. In Ziaur Rahman’s case these policies may have been necessary to prevent more attempts by the radical military factions (primarily from the "freedom fighter" elements of the army) to take over the government. He spent much of the first year weeding out unreliable elements in the Army and resorting discipline in the military – in which discontent remained a problem for some time. Ziaur Rahman had the disadvantage of leading a fragmented army, and attempts on the part of military factions to intervene in politics became the rule, rather than the exception.


However, the resentment brought forth from the execution of Colonel Taher resulted in a marked military instability, which inspired chain-reaction mutinies in several regiments. From November 1975 to October 1977, roughly 10 serious revolts questioned the military hierarchy. Although none succeeded, all resulted in widespread bloodshed.

The most notorious of these aborted coups were the Bogra mutinies and the attack at Dhaka Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport (then called just Dhaka International Airport) on 2 October 1977 where rebel soldiers from the army and collaborators from the Bangladesh Air Force began a mutiny akin to the Sepoy Biplob of 7 November 1975. They attacked the President's house but were unable to assassinate Ziaur Rahman. The failed coup had shaken Ziaur Rahman and led to mass execution of rebel officers.

Islam and nationalism in Bangladesh

Islam and nationalism

'Secularism' removed from Constitution and "trust and faith in Almighty Allah" inserted along with 'Bismillah...'

In 1977, after assuming office as head of the state, Ziaur Rahman struck out Article 12 of the constitution that proclaimed ‘secularism’ as a fundamental principle of the state and inserted into the book new provisions, professing ‘absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah’ and pledging that ‘absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah shall be the basis of all activities’ of the state, in Article 8(1) and 8(1A). Also in Article 8(1) socialism had been defined as 'economic and social justice'. In Article 25(2) it was also declared that "the state shall endeavour to consolidate, preserve and strengthen fraternal relations among Muslim countries based on Islamic solidarity".

The same proclamation inserted Bismiliah-ir-Rahmanir Rahim (In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful) in the beginning and above the Preamble of the constitution. Later all these political amendments were approved by the Parliament in 1979 via the Fifth Amended Act, with Lieutenant General Ziaur Rahman heading the state as its president.

Islamic education included in curriculum

The faith-oriented changes in state principles found reflection on the education system as well. A committee on curricula and syllabi was created by Ziaur Rahman’s administration with this objective in mind.

Islam is a complete code of life, not just a sum of rituals. A Muslim has to live his personal, social, economic and international life in accordance with Islam from childhood to death. So acquiring knowledge of Islam is compulsory for all Muslim men and women.

Committee on curricula and syllabi

Subsequently, the syllabi and curricula committee in question recommended compulsory Islamic courses for Muslim students of all grades from Class I (1) to VIII (8), and as an elective course for grades IX (9) and X (10). Similar courses on other religions were recommended for students belonging to non-Muslim faiths.

This period saw the introduction of Islamiat – a course on Islamic studies – at primary and secondary levels. This course was made mandatory for all Muslim students. The government established a new Ministry of Religious Affairs. Soon afterward, Eid-e-miladunabi – the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday – was declared a national holiday. The state controlled electronic media began broadcasting Azan – the call for prayers – five times a day and to carry programs on Islam’s role in daily life.

Ali Riaz (author),

The Muslim identity of Bangladesh was further sealed when in 1988, the then President H. M. Ershad – once Ziaur Rahman’s right hand man – declared Islam as the state religion of Bangladesh by inserting Article 2A through the Eight Amendment Act of the Constitution of Bangladesh.

"Bangladeshi" favoured over "Bengali"

Ziaur Rahman asserted the notion of "Bangladeshi" instead of "Bengali" identity, in an attempt to highlight the distinction between the country’s citizen from the Bengalis (largely Hindu) who lived across the border in neighbouring India. And he actively encouraged the growth of Islamic banks, mosques, and schools with funding from the Middle East. Although there were no attempts to curtail the civil rights of non-Muslims or to install Shar’ia (Islamic law) in place of modern civil and criminal law, several state-sponsored initiatives of the late 1970s asserted the country's Islamic identity.

Ziaur Rahman introduced and popularised the new concept of Bangladeshi nationalism. He believed that in a plural society like Bangladesh where people are of diverse ethnicity and where they profess different faiths, have different cultural traits and various lifestyles, nationalism should better be conceptualised in terms of territory rather than language or culture. This is what he emphasised upon. Bangladeshi nationalism took firm root and shape as a unifying force with its emphasis on national unity and integration of all citizens of Bangladesh irrespective of caste, creed, gender, culture, religion and ethnicity.


Closer ties with Muslim countries

Once internal changes were set through the resurgence of nationalistic aspirations of the people, President Zia move towards developing good relations at international level – especially with Muslim countries.

He moved to harmonise ties with Saudia Arabia and the People's Republic of China, who had opposed Bangladesh's creation and had not recognised it until he took over in 1975. Zia also dropped the demands of reparations and an official apology demanded by Sheikh Mujib and moved to normalise relations with Pakistan.

He began addressing the concerns of nationalists who believed that Bangladesh was reliant on Indian economic and military aid and made efforts to distance Bangladesh from India. He also withdrew from Sheikh Mujib’s affinity with the Soviet bloc by developing closer relations with their enemies, the United States and Western Europe.

At the international level, Bangladesh, then a lonely sojourner, picked up friends from both the right, centre and left and established a kind of viable comradeship amongst them. Bangladesh was lifted from the dead end of the Indo-Soviet axis and Indian hegemonic circle. Bangladesh came closer to the Muslim world of more than fifty states, which began to take fresh look at Bangladesh and its problems. One of the superpowers of the time became a good friend of Bangladesh, though its role was not people-friendly during the Liberation War. Bangladesh developed a good working relation with China. South East Asian countries were drawn closer. The distant Europe remained no longer disinterested in the affairs of Bangladesh.

Through certain creative moves, he drew Bangladesh into the world of the liberal west, the fraternal middle East and West Asia, and the rising South East Asia.


Ziaur Rahman, embracing an Islamic ideology, rejected outright Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's policies of secularism and Socialism at home and non-alignment abroad. He pursued a strategy of favouring China and forging closer religious and political ties with Pakistan in order to counterbalance India in South Asia. At the same time, Ziaur Rahman perceived India to be a threat to his country's security and stability, and this prodded him to cultivate special ties with Beijing and Islamabad.


Ziaur Rahman became one of the members of the Al Quds Committee on the liberation of Jerusalem (1981) and a member of the Peace Mission to end the Iran-Iraq War (1981). At home, he established the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS) on 25 June 1978 to undertake research on international affairs, security and developmental issues.

Zia succeeded to a great extent in ushering in political and economic stability to Bangladesh through three stages. First, he used moderate and left-leaning groups and their leaders to neutralize the strength of the radicals who were insisting on bringing about fundamental changes to Bengali society through revolution, if necessary.

Second, he legitimized his power through a referendum (1977), local elections (1977), a presidential election (1978), and a parliamentary election (1979). Except in the local elections of 1977, Zia and the candidates of his newly created political party—Bangladesh Nationalist Party—won landslide electoral victories. By 1980 Zia made a complete transformation from a military man to a charismatic, populist political leader, enjoying the full confidence of the vast majority of Bangladeshis. During this time he embarked on the last stage of bringing about national stability. His three-pronged peaceful revolution to achieve self-sufficiency in food, full literacy, and zero population growth signalled an era of hope for the new nation. He instinctively realized that without global cooperation his peaceful revolution could be replaced by a bloody revolution. Perhaps for this reason Zia continuously sought cooperation not only from developed countries, through the North-South dialogue, but also from other less developed countries through the non-aligned movement.


SAARC idea suggested by President Zia

President Zia visited south asian countries during 1979-80 with the objective of developing a framework for mutual co-operation. He conceptualised and proposed an organisation of the nations of South Asia to bolster economic and political co-operation at a regional level. The Bangladeshi proposal was accepted by India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka during meeting held in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in 1981. In August 1983, the leaders adopted the Declaration on South Asian Regional Cooperation during a summit which was held in New Delhi, India. Two years later, the outcome of Ziaur Rahman's efforts was the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) which was formally launched in Dhaka on 8 December 1985 under the Presidency of Hussain Muhammad Ershad. It was originally made up of seven countries: Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and Maldives. The eighth member, Afghanistan, joined SAARC at the Fourteenth SAARC Summit in Delhi, India, on April 2007.

We must seize the present momentum and forge ahead. We are fortified by one strength—a sense of practicality. Shaheed President Ziaur Rahman in pushing South Asian Cooperation pursued a purely pragmatic path. This was to achieve what was attainable; to advance cooperation where possible; to concentrate on what unites rather than what divides us and to underscore our inter-dependence in the midst of our diversity. These precepts remain ever more valid today as SAARC remains poised to take-off.

Khaleda Zia's statement at the 12th SAARC Summit in Islamabad, Pakistan, on 4 January 2004

  • Hussain Muhammad Ershad ()

First Secretary General of SAARC is a Bengali

The SAARC secretariat was established in Kathmandu on 16 January 1987. It’s role is to coordinate and monitor the implementation of SAARC activities, service the meetings of the association and serve as the channel of communication between SAARC and the international organization.

The secretariat comprises the Secretary General, eight Directors and the general service staffs. The first Secretary General was Abul Ahsan from Bangladesh, appointed on 16 January 1987. The next Bengali to fill this role was Q.A.M.A. Rahim who became the seventh secretary general on 11 January 2002.

It was President Zia who conceived of the idea of, and initiated actions for, regional co-operation in South Asia... He did not survive to see his dream come true.


  • Abul Ahsan ()
  • Q. A. M. A. Rahim ()

Encouraging growth of Bangladesh through privatisation and 'Gram Sarkar'

Working with the proposals of international lending agencies, Zia launched an ambitious rural development program in 1977, which included a highly visible and popular food-for-work program. He initiated a "19-point programme" of action on 30 April 1977 which emphasised self-reliance and rural uplift through people's participation. Its primary objectives were accelerated agricultural growth - always popular in a country in which most of the population lived on the margin of hunger - population control through family planning, self-sufficiency in food, decentralisation of administration and greater incentives to the private sector. It was designed to meet the basic needs of the people and special needs of women, youths and workers, and it aimed at establishing a political order based on social justice.

Zia worked energetically and spent much of his time travelling throughout the country, preaching the "politics of hope" by continually urging all Bangladeshis to work harder and to produce more.

As he does three or four times every week, President Ziaur Rahman recently flew to villages and country towns in Bangladesh to exhort cheering crowds to produce more food and have fewer children.

(July 1980)

Zia also launched major projects to construct irrigation canals, power stations, dams, roads and other public works to prevent Bangladesh from hurtling down the abyss of dependence.

President Zia's dynamic economic policy laid emphasis on private sector development. A new development strategy designed to encourage the private entrepreneurs, both local and foreign, and to promote agricultural development through massive subsidies to the farmers was initiated. The process of handing over nationalised industries to their former owners began. Promotion of export of conventional and non-conventional goods became a national priority. Food production reached a new height and Bangladesh began exporting rice.


Directing his campaign to mobilise rural support and development, Zia established Gram Sarkar (Village Councils) system of self-government in 1980 and the "Village Defence Party" system of security and crime prevention. Each Gram Sarkar was to be responsible for a number of activities, including family disputes, population control, food production, and law and order.


The growing role of Islam in the public life of the country was accompanied by the rehabilitation and integration of Jamaat-e-Islami into the formal political arena. Under the leadership of Ziaur Rahman, the ban on religion-based political parties was rescinded, and in 1978, the Jamaat leader Golam Azam was allowed to return to the country from exile.

Ziaur Rahman once again revived the multiparty system which had been banned during the final days of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s ruling. It was ironical that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who spent a large part of his life in prisons and fought for parliamentary democracy, abolished democracy and established one-party totalitarian rule in the country. Whereas Zia, an army officer who was catapulted to the top position through military coup and counter coups, restored democracy in the country by allowing other political parties to carry on with their political activities - except for the newly formed Baksal. Ziaur Rahman also removed the ban on newspapers and judicial system.

It was indeed a great achievement and a mark of leadership for Ziaur Rahman to be able to take the country back to normalcy by introducing electoral politics again.


Ziaur Rahman legalised the formation of political parties once again but under certain restrictions. There was a stampede to organise and register parties. Dhaka suddenly woke up to increased political activity.

Hamidul Huq Chowdhury,

Bangladesh is now ten years old. Its birth was difficult, coming after a civil war, itself following the most devastating natural disaster of the country. The liabilities lending validity to the early scepticism about its potential for survival are well known, but as Bangladesh began its existence as a nation-state, there were also assets. Not the least of these were an intense sense of national community and the use of a single national language, unique among the countries of South Asia which emerged from British colonialism.

The sense of nationalism in so far as it was personified by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and institutionalised in the Awami League was soon dissipated. Mismanagement of the political, economic and social systems of the country and the loss of legitimacy this created led to the sequences of the far too familiar pattern of repression and the stifling of criticism and initiative, a path which precludes peaceful change and ends in the use of violent means. Bangladesh was perhaps fortunate in that the overthrow of Mujib and his one-party state eventually, following further turmoil, threw up a regime under Ziaur Rahman which, while not a model of textbook democracy and high efficiency, became vastly more liberal and significantly more goal-oriented than the system it had replaced.


  • Golam Azam ()
  • Sheikh Hasina Wajed ()

Ziaur Rahman also appointed Hussain Muhammad Ershad as the new Chief of Army Staff, promoting him to the rank of Lieutenant General.

Viewed as a professional soldier with no political aspirations (because of his imprisonment in former West Pakistan during the Bangladesh Liberation War) and having a talent for Bengali speech writing, Ershad soon became Zia's closest politico-military counselor.