Ziaur Rahman, popularly known as Zia, was the second son of Mansur Rahman and Jahanara Khatun. His paternal grandparents are Moulvi Kamal Uddin and Misirun Nessa and maternal grandparents are Abul Kashib and Rahima Khatun. Zia had four brothers and sisters.
His father Mansur Rahman was a chemist who specialised in paper and ink chemistry and worked for a government department in Kolkata (previously spelt Calcutta). As a child Ziaur Rahman, nicknamed Komol, was reserved, shy, quietly spoken, and intense in many respects. His early childhood was spent partly in the rural area of Bogra and partly in Kolkata.
When Kolkata became the target of Japanese air strikes in 1940, like many urban Bengali families with rural links Mansur Rahman sent his family to his ancestral home in the small town of Bogra in northern Bengal. After Germany surrendered and the Japanese threat to Kolkata diminished, Mansur Rahman brought his family back and enrolled Zia in one of the leading boys schools of Kolkata - Hare School - where Zia studied until the independence and partition of India in 1947. On 14 August 1947, Mansur Rahman, like many Muslims working for the old British government of India, exercised his option to work for the new state of Pakistan and moved to Karachi, the first capital of Pakistan located in Sindh, West Pakistan.
Zia had to leave the Hare School in Kolkata and became a student of the Academy School in Karachi. He spent his adolescent years in Karachi and completed his secondary education from that School in 1952. Growing up, Zia wanted to become a doctor and help people. But after seeing his sasa (paternal uncle) Captain Dr. Mumtazur Rahman return from war, he was inspired to enroll into the Pakistan Military Academy. So in 1953, he got himself admitted into the D.J. College in Karachi. In the same year he joined the Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) at Kakul as an officer cadet in Tariq Company, Platoon Number 5.
Zia's character and style as one of the most effective leaders in the underdeveloped world was largely shaped by the issues, attitudes, and events during his years at Hare School. Subhas Bose, a former president of the All-India Congress Party, and Mohandas K. Gandhi were the two charismatic leaders of India whose lives baffled the young students. For trying to use the Japanese to force the British out of India, Bose was regarded a hero by the students, but the British and their supporters in India considered him a traitor for his collaboration with the Japanese. To most of the Hare School boys treason and patriotism did not seem to make much sense. Nor did Gandhi's open support of India's involvement in British war efforts clarify the appropriate role of India's leaders. What dismayed many students, particularly Ziaur Rahman, most was the inability of the authority figures – teachers, parents, and leaders – to clarify the issues or to help achieve a consensus in regard to what was a just policy.
After the war the political situation became even more amorphous. Gandhi's Congress Party and Muhammad A. Jinnah's Muslim League Party, representing the two main communities of India—Hindu and Muslim—failed to come to an agreement about sharing power in the future independent republic of India. When Syed Ahmed's two-nation theory became a reality after the referenda of 1946 which ensured the division of India the life of Muslim boys in Hare School became almost intolerable. Having lost faith in mutual cooperation and sharing as means to diffuse tension and resolve conflicts, Zia took it upon himself to justify the impending creation of Pakistan and, in the process, often became engaged in fist fights. An otherwise reserved and somewhat introverted boy of 11 often took on older school bullies and beat them.
Communal conflicts, political uncertainty, and family dislocation convinced Zia of the need for changes which the leaders seemed to be unable to bring about. During his later schooling in Karachi's D.J. College and the Pakistan Military Academy at Kakul he was struck by the economic disparities between the Bengali East Pakistan and non-Bengali West Pakistan that resulted in inequities and deprivations being suffered by East Pakistani Bengalis.
Graduating from the Pakistan Military Academy at 12th PMA Long Course in 18 September 1955 in the top 10% of his class, Ziaur Rahman was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Pakistan Army.
Zia went to East Pakistan on a short visit and was amazed by the negative attitude of the Bengali middle class towards the military, which consumed a large chunk of the country's resources. The low representation of the Bengalis in the military was largely due to discrimination, but Ziaur Rahman felt that the Bengali attitude towards the military perhaps prevented promising young Bengalis from seeking military careers. As a Bengali army officer he became a staunch advocate of military careers for Bengali youth. Zia argued that Bengali attitudes would change when they were in a position to share the resources and power of the military which was traditionally enjoyed by West Pakistanis, particularly those from the Punjab and Northwest Frontier provinces.
After serving for two years in Karachi, he was transferred to the East Bengal Regiment in 1957. He attended West Germany and UK military training schools. He also worked in the military intelligence department from 1959 to 1964.
In August 1960, his marriage was arranged to Khaleda Majumder 'Putul', the 15-year-old third daughter of Iskandar Majumder and Taiyaba Majumder from the Dinajpur District, in a simple ceremony. Ziaur Rahman, a Captain in the then Pakistani Army who was posted at that time as an Officer of the Defence Forces, was 24 years old when he married young Khaleda, who was 9 years younger than him. His father, Mansur Rahman could not attend the marriage ceremony, as he was in Karachi. Zia's mother had died earlier. The wedding reception took place after one year in the then Hotel Shahbag, which later became the PG Hospital (now Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University).
Ziaur Rahman was attracted by the charm and grace of this young girl and proposed to marry her.
After marriage, Khaleda Zia remained with her parents in East Pakistan to complete her studies and joined her husband in Karachi in 1963.
Ayub Khan's highly successful military rule from 1958 to 1968 further convinced Zia of the need for a fundamental change in the Bengali attitude towards the military. During that period Zia offered a role model for Bengali youth, excelling in his army career.
During the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965, Ziaur Rahman made his mark as a valiant fighter whilst serving in the Khemkaran sector in Punjab as the commander of a company unit of 300–500 soldiers. The sector was the scene of the most intense battles between the rival armies. Zia's unit won one of the highest numbers of gallantry awards for heroic performances. Ziaur Rahman himself won the distinguished and prestigious Hilal-e-Jurat (Crescent of Courage) medal, Pakistan’s second highest military award, and his unit won 2 Sitara-e-Jurat (Star of Courage) medals, the third highest military award, and 9 Tamgha-e-Jurat (Medal of Courage) medals, fourth highest award, from the Army for their brave roles in the 1965 War with India.
In 1966, Zia was appointed military instructor at the Pakistan Military Academy, later going on to attend the prestigious Command and Staff College in Quetta, Pakistan, where he completed a course in command and tactical warfare. Advocating that the Pakistan Army make greater efforts to recruit and encourage Bengali military officers, Zia helped raise two Bengali battalions called the 8th and 9th Bengals during his stint as instructor.
Around the same time, his wife Khaleda Zia, now 23, gave birth to their first child Tarique Rahman (more popularly known as Tareq Zia, in reminiscent of his father's main name) on 20 November 1967. Very soon Ziaur Rahman, the father, would have to combine his new found paternal instinct with his military expertise for a long suffering deprived nation hungry for justice.
Trained for high-ranking command posts, Zia joined the 2nd East Bengal regiment as its second-in-command at Joydebpur in Gazipur district, near Dhaka, in 1969. Although sectarian tensions between East and West Pakistan were intensifying, Zia travelled to West Germany to receive advanced military and command training with the German Army and later on spent few months with the British Army.
Zia returned to Pakistan the following year, and witnessed political turmoil and regional division. East Pakistan had been devastated by the 1970 Bhola cyclone, and the population had been embittered by the slow response of the central government. The political conflict between Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's Awami League, which had won a majority in the 1970 elections, the President Yahya Khan and West Pakistani politician Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had brought sectarian tensions to a climax. Sheikh Mujib laid claim to form a government, but Yahya Khan postponed the convening of the legislature under pressure from West Pakistani politicians. Bengali civil and military officers had alleged institutional discrimination through the 1960s, and now distrust had divided the Pakistani Army.
Upon his return, Zia attained the rank of Major and was transferred in October 1970 to the 8th East Bengal regiment stationed in Chittagong to serve as its second-in-command.