On 28 September 1977 a group of Japanese Red Army (JRA) terrorists hijacked Japan Airlines (JAL) Flight 472 while it was flying from Paris to Tokyo and forced it to land in Dhaka. The Douglas DC-8, en route from Paris to Haneda Airport in Tokyo with 156 passengers on board, had made a stopover in Mumbai (then Bombay), India. Shortly after taking off from Mumbai, five armed JRA members hijacked the aircraft and ordered it to fly to Dhaka. At Dhaka's Tejgaon airport, the hijackers took the passengers and crew hostage. The reason given for the hijacking by the JRA was the detention and killing by torture of comrade Hidaka by the regime of Jordan.
The JRA was a communist militant group who gained notoriety for slaughtering 12 of their own members in a training camp hideout on Mount Haruna. The Japanese hijackers had headed to what they thought was an "independent, Islamic, and popular" Bangladesh, which would be sympathetic to their cause. They were unaware that a series of coups since its independence from Pakistan had resulted in a martial rather than a democratic government.
In a bold move Bengali Air Vice Marshall A. G. Mahmud, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, then Aviation Minister of the Bangladesh government and one of the country's three Deputy Chief Martial Law Administrator (thus making him the third most powerful person in the military regime), began negotiating with the JRA spokesman on the plane codenamed 'Danke'. While Mahmud was trying to convince the hijackers from the Dhaka's control tower to release passengers, the hijackers were dictating their own terms. They demanded $6 million and release of 9 imprisoned JRA members.
Initially negotiations proceed civilly and Danke, in a rather distinct Japanese way, was often very formal but polite. There was a halting rhythm of the exchange between the two negotiators - possibly due to the fact that English was not the mother tongue of neither man.
Danke: "Respecting you, we have able to discuss in our unit and we have reached conclusion that is we cannot release all passengers. It is impossible because of our principle. First principle is we must have guarantee to protect the aircraft and lives of the crew and ourselves. Remember why we landed here - we thought the Bangladesh government is independent, Islamic, and popular government and we believe that you could help us and you could be a representative between the Japanese regime and us".
Mahmud: "Danke, you've taken too long to give me a simple answer. We have a lot of work to do together. I will request you please answer questions simply by 'yes' or 'no' so that I can quickly do all things required to help you solve the problem so that you can take off for your destination".
The relationship between these two strangers is one of power and trust.
But this changed dramatically when on 1 October 1977 a JAL plane arrived from Japan with the $6 million cash demand and 6 out of the 9 detainees. The then Japanese Prime Minister, Takeo Fukuda, announced that the Japanese government would accept the hijackers' demands on principle that "human life is more important than the world". A chartered JAL flight carried the money and the detainees to Dhaka, where the exchange took place on 2 October 1977. The hijackers released 118 passengers and crew members.
Tensions rise. The voices of Danke and Mahmud become agitated, angry and distorted through exhaustion after three days of intense negotiation. Their communication is tense and cautious, as so much depends on it. Each side appeared to be bluffing the other side. There was confusion and a long silence from Danke.
The crackly voices of these two strangers hurled into a forced, awkward intimacy with contemporaneous news and television footage... the tone with which they started their discussion was peculiarly polite, until the accord between ransom and reason reached breaking point.
Shuman Bashar, Reviewer
The style is minimalist and the conversations, at once polite and piercingly hostile, vividly reveal a political stalemate unfolding with more intrigue and surprise as any TV drama.
The plane attempted to takeoff but was blocked by the Bengalis. Strange activity was seen by the plane and Mahmud tells Danke "if I tell you these people are not mine you can kill them". This senseless remark seemed out of context. What did Vice Marshall Mahmud mean by this statement? What was happening here?
In the meantime, the hijackers forced the plane to take off and on 3 October 1977 flew to Kuwait City and Damascus, where they released 11 more hostages. Finally, the aircraft was flown to Algiers (capital of Algeria) where the authorities impounded it and the remaining hostages were freed. All the hijackers were finally captured over the next 20 years.
The whole nail-biting episode was played out live on Bangladesh's national TV, BTV, in front of a captivated audience. An unprecedented media event for the young nation of Bangladesh, whose broadcast capabilities at the time were rudimentary at best, the airplane drama dragged on for days and proved utterly riveting.
According to the filmmaker [Naeem Mohaiemen], until this incident, BTV used to have four-hour transmission everyday. To provide live coverage, the Japanese Embassy apparently gave BTV necessary equipments. So, in a way this was a landmark for our TV.
The Daily Star (Bangladesh)
The incident contrasted Europe and the United States' approach of non-negotiation with terrorists to Japan's approach of appeasing terrorists if necessary. Shortly after the incident, Japan's National Police Agency established a Special Assault Team to deal with future acts of terrorism.
Bengal visual artist Naeem Mohaiemen was only 8 years old when the hijacking was taking place. He recollects feeling frustrated as his favourite TV spy show "The Zoo Gang" was 'rudely' interrupted by pre-emptive live coverage of the hostage-taking. That’s all Naeem really remembers from the 1977 standoff. However, since 2006 Naeem has been working on 'The Young Man Was', a history of the 1970s 'ultra-left', using essays, photography, and film.
On 20 October 2011 Naeem directed and anchored a 67-minute short documentary called 'United Red Army' as the first part in a proposed trilogy. He collected archived original audio recordings between the Japanese hijackers and Bangladeshi negotiators in the airport control tower since the Bengali news footage of the hijacking no longer exists. Most of the documentary is dedicated to the intense and chilling exchanges and the crackly marathon radio conversation is presented with colour-coded transcription. On a dark background the green on-screen text is that of Air Vice Marshall A. G. Mahmud, the red that of JRA's Danke and the white text is that of the Bengali negotiating team in the airport control tower unheard by the JRA. The documentary also contains occassional Bengali black-and-white grainy video footage of the event and clips from US and Japanese media coverage.
Mohaiemen interrupts the negotiations to take a trip back to his own living room, where he followed the events as an eight-year-old, hoping it would end so he could watch his favorite TV show. The drama, dragged out for days, seemed a eternity for the little boy awaiting the return of his beloved show.
The movie has been screened in a number of universities and cultural venues across Bangladesh. In 2012 United Red Army had a World Premiere at Hot Docs in Toronto and a European Premiere at IDFA. It has also shown at various museums, including the Sharjah Biennial in UAE, The New Museum in New York and as part of a conference at Tate Modern in London.
The director Naeem Mohaiemen’s use of the real negotiation process was formidable. He did not create any imaginary scene for the movie to illustrate the negotiation.
New Age BD (Bangladesh)
The tension and drama that builds from the clipped verbal exchanges speaks volumes, escalating from polite courtesy to mortal threat. Part 1 is an experimental suspense story that relies on the sound of disembodied voices to convey the negotiations and tenuous alliance between the Japanese Red Army’s rogue rebels and the Bangladeshi military government.
Bangladesh is at this time a military dictatorship. Mahmud’s voice is precise and quasi-hypnofying. The exchanges between Danke and Mahmud are riveting. Communication and negotiation runs as smoothly and calmly as one could ever possibly expect in this situation where Danke continually threatens to execute passengers one by one. When there are no visuals, as often happens in the film, your imagination is left only to construct the picture that might be on the screen...Quite rightly said, this film is about killers talking to killers.
The Metropolitan (Canada)
Excavating and dissecting the interwoven histories of failed leftist revolutionary movements of the 1970s - both in his native Bangladesh and around the world - Mohaiemen extracts episodes from their complicated trajectories as the tremendous promise of collective utopian aspirations gave way to exhaustion, misguided violence, and failed attempts at nation building.
All seems to end relatively well until Director Mohaiemen narration explains that during the 80-hour long airplane-hostage crisis, a group of Bangladeshi officers attempted another coup at the airport - with events unfolding before the hijackers and the hostages. The Japanese hijacking provided an ideal opportunity for the "disgruntled elements" within the armed forces to stage an insurrection.
By far the most dramatic political event of 1977 was the abortive coup on 30 September 1977 and 2 October 1977 which killed 11 air force officers and 10 soldiers.
On 30 September 1977, while the attention of the government was riveted on the Japanese hijacking event, an unrelated but significant mutiny broke out in Bogra, hometown of Ziaur Rahman. The army officers of 22nd Bengal Regiment attempted to seize the local air force base in order to negotiate the freedom of Lt. Col. Syed Farook Rahman. The Bogra Mutiny resulted in the death of 10 soldiers including Lieutenant Hassan. Though the mutiny was quickly quelled on the night of 2 October 1977, a second mutiny occurred in Dhaka which coincided with the Japanese hijacking.
Indeed, just before the non-commissioned officers and men of the air force tried to seize power on 2 October 1977 the class conflict in the army heightened when the slain officers from Bogra were brought to Dhaka Cantonment for burial. The father of one of the dead charged in his eulogy that the army had fallen so low that it failed to protect its own officers against undisciplined and murderous soldiers. Brigadier M. A. Manzoor, who was then the chief of the General Staff of the army, responded that the whole Bangladesh army could not be held responsible for the misdeeds of a few soldiers, and that soldiers needed their officers for leadership. This rejoinder apparently satisfied both the parents of the dead officers and the soldiers. But for the swift rejoinder, there might have been an uprising of soldiers then and there, Manzoor's actions only delayed another attempt by the soldiers to take over the reins of government.
On 1 October 1977, at midnight, a number of non-commissioned air force officers and airmen attempted a coup against senior air force officers and the Zia regime. The coup involved a group of non-commissioned officers (NCOs), junior commissioned officers (JCOs), and soldiers from the army.
The JAL hijacking was a perfect distraction for these rebel officers. The opportunity to attack on 28th September - celebrated as 'Air Force Day' in Bangladesh - was lost not only by the suddenness of the hijacking but also because President Zia had informed Air Vice Marshall Mahmud that he was unable to be part of the celebrations. Apparently, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat meet President Zia in Cairo few days before 28 September 1977 and warned him of a plot to assassinate him over the next few days. Ziaur Rahman took the hint seriously.
The rebel officers attacked the President's house and took over the Dhaka radio station very briefly. They announced that a revolution of the workers, peasants, students, and people's army was underway and declared their coup a success.
Meanwhile, another rebel group attempted to take over Dhaka airport control tower where Air Vice Marshal A. G. Mahmud and other senior officers of the government were engaged in negotiations with the Japanese hijackers. Here the sepoy mutiny takes a savage turn. They wanted to paralyse the Bangladesh military by killing all the senior air force officers. This explains the riddle behind Air Marshal Mahmud's "if I tell you these people are not mine you can kill them" remark. He was in fact ordering his officers regarding the Bengali mutineers and not the JRA.
We hear Mahmud imploring Dankesu to shoot and kill the mutineers; Dankesu replies mechanically, with a euphemism that smacks of the strategic language of international diplomacy: "I have understood that you have internal problems". And the hostages inadvertently witness and photograph the drama from inside the aircraft.
At dawn on 2 October 1977, Vice Marshal Mahmud and Group Captain Ansar Chowdhury were led from the office of the director general of civil aviation to the ground floor of the airport by some airmen. A sergeant opened fire and Ansar Chowdhury dropped dead. The sergeant fired again, this time aiming at Mahmud. He missed.
The fighting continued and the mutineers captured a number of air force officers and executed 11 of them by firing squad. Beside Ansar Chowdhury, these included Wing Commander Anwar Ali Shaikh, Squadron Leader Md. Abdul Matin, and Group Captain Raas Masud, who was also the husband of Vice Marshal A. G. Mahmud's sister. The vice marshal himself and a number of high officials escaped unhurt and after a day of intense battle, Vice Marshal Mahmud, Air Commodore Wahidullah and Group Captain Saiful Azam were finally able to disarm the mutineers on 3 October 1977.
My family thought I had not done enough to save my brother-in-law. This created tension and unhappiness within my family, which lasts till today.
A large part of this disarmament was also down to the sharp thinking and foresight of General Abul Manzoor. Possibly suspecting another coup attempt by the non-commissioned officers and jawans, and also because of his deep loyalty to President Ziaur Rahman, General Manzoor ordered the 46th Infantry Brigade, known as the Dhaka Brigade and commanded by Lieutenant Colonel M. Ameen, to report directly to the president and bypass the 9th Division commanded by Major General Mir Shawkat Ali in case of any unrest among the rank and file.
This move proved to be a lifesaver. Since the brigade was alert and close to the action they were quick to come to the rescue of the President when the rebels tried to overpower the presidential guards and completely overrun the defence perimeters of the president's house. Meanwhile the 9th Division was based outside the capital in Savar and, despite the early warnings, failed to act in time. They came to support the 46th Brigade early in the morning (of 2 October 1977) and put an end to the rebellion.
This move by Manzoor, and the inability of the mutineers to generate widespread support from soldiers and airmen, saved Zia in October when some non-commissioned air force personnel led a soldiers' coup against the Zia regime.
The [46th] brigade's timely action, especially the courageous stand by Lt. Col. M. Ameen and his fellow officers and loyal soldiers, averted what could have the end of Zia as well as his government.
Had the final thrust by the airmen and soldiers against the president's house succeeded, fence sitters within the army air force would probably have joined the rebels. But when the rebels were defeated in the final encounter near the president's house, the attempted coup d'etat failed and what could have been a general uprising of the mass of soldiers turned into a localised mutiny of the disappointed, frustrated, and revengeful non-officer class of the air force and army.
The aborted coup attempt of 2 October 1977 was undoubtedly the most serious of them. First, it occurred in the capital, Dhaka, whereas the other mutinies generally took place in peripheral units. Second, this coordinated operation of soldiers, NCOs and JCOs belonging to the army and the air force, clearly aimed at assassinating Zia and creating a soldiers’ revolutionary committee on the same pattern as the November 1975 sepoy biplob. But the most immediate incentive for this revolt was the avenging of Colonel Taher's death, now raised by his men to the status of a martyred 'Liberation hero'. The coup, whose effects would last until January 1978, failed because of the loyalty of several top-ranking officers, like the Chief of General Staff of the Armed Forces Division, Major-General Abul Manzoor, an ex-freedom fighter who had fought with Zia in 1971, and the commander of the Dhaka brigade, Lieutenant-Colonel Ameen.
There are basically two interpretations of the 2 October 1977 attempted coup and massacre of air force officers: one view, subscribed to by a few senior Bangladesh army officers, suggest that the attempted coup by the air force NCOs and JCOs was carefully synchronised with the hijacking of the Japan Airlines plane. In collaborating with the Japanese Red Army radicals, and possibly supported by the Soviet Union, the Bangladesh air force sought to change the government in favour of a pro-Soviet regime. In support of this point of view, these senior officers (which includes Brigadier Sabehuddin, formerly Deputy Director of Jatiyo Rakkhi Bahini) have pointed out that the negotiations were intentionally made unusually long, and despite the availability of commandos who could have overpowered the hijackers, the negotiators opted for a slow process of delivering the $6 million ransom to the hijackers, the sixth phase of delivery taking an abnormally long time. The whole hijacking episode, in short, according to these officers, was designed as a diversion to allow the coup leaders sufficient time to successfully bring about the fall of the Zia government in an emergency situation.
Another view held by a few junior officers and a very important senior officer maintains that the hijacking incident actually saved Zia and his regime. According to this view, the JSD cells, after testing the determination and will of the officer and loyal soldiers through sporadic revolts of soldiers in different parts of Bangladesh, came up with a master plan for the takeover of the government by killing the high officials of the army and the government at the Air Force day reception on 9 October 1977. Their plan was totally upset by the hijacking, which caused the cancellation of the grand reception. The ringleaders could not take a chance on postponing the coup, so they struck a few days sooner, thinking that they might succeed in the melee.
The abortive October coup was no surprise to observers in Bangladesh. A politicised army like that of Bangladesh is susceptible to coups and counter coups. The liberation legacy and the upheavels of 1975 left the marks of disunity among the soldiers. Hard core followers of JSD and the Marxists were known to be working among the rank and file. Whenever there is an insurrection in Bangladesh, a number of officers are killed by the Jawans (soldiers). Leftist elements have sought to radicalise the soldiers, but personal vendettas are also at work.
The army quickly put down the rebellion, but the government was severely shaken.
After the 2 October 1977 military uprising in Dhaka, Zia appeared on Bangladesh television visibly shaken. It is said in Dhaka that fighting reached his own quarters the night of the rebellion and that he barely escaped. What followed was the mass wave of executions of all presumed and actual enemies. Politically Zia was tottering. A fresh infusion of support and a clearer sense of direction was needed if he had to survive.
It was not clear who were the actual leaders of the attempted insurrection, though the rhetoric of the mutineer's radio announcement hinted that radicals were behind the uprising. President Zia went on radio to announce that all those involved in the coup will be tried and severely punished. Initially, the Dhaka authorities played down the incident without blaming any political group for the uprising. However, a few days later, they banned the JSD, pro-Moscow Communist Party, and Democratic League for having incited the coup. Three leaders of these parties were also arrested.
As a result of the coup attempt a large number of military personnel were executed. It is believed that General Zia was under pressure from his colleagues, who fear that such coup attempts might become a periodic feature in Bangladesh, threatening the stability of the country unless drastic steps are taken to depoliticise the soldiers.
This explains why the military tribunals quickly went into action immediately after the abortive coup. Observers in Dhaka feel that Zia was under strong pressure to take such drastic action.
While only 11 died on the tarmac, countless number of suspected plotters, mostly air force officers, were rounded up afterwards and summarily tried and executed. Though it may never be possible to know the exact number, total casualties on both sides is believed to have exceeded 230, according to unconfirmed sources. This had far-reaching implications for Bangladeshi politics and history. Bangladesh Air Force took a long time to recover and subsequent to these purges, but also in alignment with the national strategic vision, the army still towers over the other two corps to this day.
The facts...are set off in an eerie pattern from the moment Zia loyalists, Mir Shawkat Ali for instance, move resolutely against the mutineers. Over the next twenty days or so, it would be an operation of relentless cruelty as the Zia regime, guided by vindictiveness and palpably oblivious to all norms of civilised behaviour, rounded up hundreds of innocent air force men and inaugurated what would eventually turn into a story of unimaginable horror. Kangaroo courts, officially described as military tribunals, swiftly handed down verdicts of guilty on those taken into custody; and night after night, inside the grim premises of the central jail in the capital, the bodies of hanged men dropped into pits for hours on end. It was Azimpur graveyard [in Dhaka] which, throughout October 1977, saw brisk nocturnal activity as the dead men were hastily buried, unbeknownst to their families.
There are other accounts, from men who were among the lucky few to escape the noose but nevertheless found themselves condemned to varied terms of imprisonment. The strand of thought throughout the stories runs along similar patterns.
Syed Badrul Ahsan, Journalist
Surprisingly, public life in Dhaka was not seriously affected by the upheavals in the military. The rebels were wiped out by dawn and the streets were open to the public except for a few restricted areas. Obviously, tension and a sense of insecurity prevailed, but this proved to be a serious problem more amongst the military then the civilian. Nevertheless, the authorities feared that people were slowly becoming sensitive to military indiscipline, especially post the turbulence of 1975, and this could "snowball into a growing sentiment" against continued martial law. Political leaders who wanted the military out of politics used the opportunity to argue for an early election in the hope of transferring power back to them.
The revolts, which attracted worldwide coverage, were dismissed by the government as a conflict between air force enlisted men and officers regarding pay and service conditions. But the execution of rebel officers received international condemnation.
The relationship between Bangladesh and India also soured after the abortive coup. On 15 October 1977 Zia strongly condemned the mutinous acts at Bogra and Dhaka and blamed the conspirators for trying to make Bangladesh a "satellite". The Government of Bangladesh blamed "foreign powers" for the attempted coup and though they stopped short of naming these 'powers', they implied both India and Soviet Union were behind the rebels. Indian unhappiness was clear when the government expressed dissatisfaction over "attempts by Dhaka to drag Delhi's name into the recent military uprisings in Bogra and Dhaka". Jaya Prakash Narayan, the prominent Indian leader, openly criticised Bangladesh for executing the alleged conspirators and large scale arrests of political dissidents. The Soviet Union and Amnesty International also criticised Bangladesh for the trial and execution of the alleged conspirators. Amnesty International also protested the summary executions.
Following the death of his colleagues in front of his eyes and the subsequent trials of air force men before martial law tribunals, Air Vice Marshall Mahmud decided to opt out of the force as he felt his command over his own force had weakened. He also declined Ziaur Rahman's offer to join his political party. However, later, he joined the cabinet of Bangladesh's second military ruler, General Ershad, after he requested Mahmud' services in tackling a probable food crisis.
Within a month of the Bogra-Dhaka revolts it was announced that Ziaur Rahman would form his own political party. Zia also inducted 6 new advisers into his cabinet with a view to having a positive and crucial impact on his political future.
The abortive coup had shaken the stability that Zia provided the country since November 1975 and on which he based most of his claim to legitimacy. The internal politics of Bangladesh has also been internationalised as a result of foreign criticism of the tough measures taken against those who were allegedly involved in the insurrection. There are signs of public uneasiness about military indiscipline and Zia will have to put a lid on the soldiers' scramble for power. The military authorities in Dhaka will have to review their political strategy in the light of what happened in the fall. How Zia will depoliticise a deeply politicised military is not yet clear.
Two main options seems to be available for the Dhaka generals: they may bow out of politics and transfer the power to elected representatives and concentrate on building a genuinely professional military which would not meddle into politics. Or the military may continue to play a political role indefinitely, oscillating between an authoritarian system and some of kind of "controlled democracy".
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