How founding father’s assassination turned Bangladesh media overnight on its head

In writer-activist Shahriar Kabir’s words, the newspapers of the time did not risk being marked as dissenters by the usurpers of power during martial law.

The Father of the Nation Sheikh Mujib, then President of the new republic, was killed along with most of his family by a group of disgruntled army officers at his Dhanmondi residence in Dhaka on this day 43 years ago.

Khandakar Mushtaque Ahmed took charge and martial law was clamped. Mushtaque made Ziaur Rahman army chief after 10 more days and the way to try the killers of the independence architect was blocked through passage of the Indemnity Act.

The Daily Ittefaq and three other newspapers were being published nationally at the time after Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League or BKSAL was founded through the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution in January, 1975.

The newspapers had been carrying news on Bangabandhu and his government but that changed quickly after his murder. Not even the news of the bloody massacre was in the headlines. Instead, some ran stories hailing the new government. News of the military coup and takeover was hidden from the public as well.

Before Bangabandhu’s assassination

Bangabandhu was killed early in the morning by which time the newspapers had already gone to the press. As a result, most of the stories were as usual on Bangabandhu; some lauding his government. The news of army takeover and Mushtaque taking charge were published the following day, Aug 16.

On and before Aug 15, the front pages of the newspapers were different. The headline of the six-column lead story of the Dainik Bangla, edited by Ehtesham Haider Choudhury, was “Second revolution is for financial freedom” on Aug 14. It was on the remarks of Korban Ali, an Awami League leader at the time, made at a BKSAL programme.

The largest circulated English newspaper The Bangladesh Observer, edited by Obaidul Haque, carried a report on Awami League leader Muhammad Mansur Ali’s call upon the engineers to use their skills to speed up development.

It also ran separate stories on comments by Tofail Ahmed and BKSAL secretaries Sheikh Fazlul Haque Moni, Zillur Rahman and Abdur Razzak at a Bangabhaban programme.

On Aug 15, the Observer’s six-column top story read: “Bangobandhu visits DU today/Hearty welcome will be accorded”. The headline of another news was, “Korean envoy lauds leadership of Bangobandhu”.

The lead news was on the Dhaka University’s arrangements to welcome Bangabandhu to its convocation, which was cancelled after the killing of the independence hero.

Ittefaq also made the convocation its top story. Both the newspapers published supplements on the occasion.

Dainik Bangla on Aug 15 made the lead story on the then industries minister AHM Kamaruzzaman’s comment that Bangladesh needed to generate jobs in the villages.

After Bangabandhu’s assassination

The killings of Bangabandhu and other members of the family could not make the headline in the Daily Ittefaq on the following day. The story was surprisingly the same for the other media.

Ittefaq, the best-selling Bangla newspaper of the day, prioritised the army takeover over the killings in its Aug 16 edition.

Its six-column lead headline screamed: “Miltary takes power under Khandakar Mushtaque’s leadership”.

And the lead read, “The Bangladesh armed forces led by President Khandaker Mushtaque Ahmed took over the power in greater interests by toppling former President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman yesterday morning.”

“During the takeover, former President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was killed in his home,” it went on.

Next to the lead, there was a two-column editorial headlined “Historic New Journey”.

Nurul Islam Patwary was editor of the newspaper at the time and Asafuddowla Reza news editor.

Daily Ittefaq, edited by Tofazzal Hossain Manik Mia, was known to be a mouthpiece of the Awami League before independence.

The other headlines on the first page of that day’s edition of the newspaper included “Vice president, 10 ministers and 6 state ministers take oath”, “Return of up to Tk 8,000 of invalid currency”, “Takeover in the greater interest of nation”, “US to continue normal diplomatic operations”, “People heave a sigh of relief”, “Felicitations by several quarters”, “Status of foreign embassies to remain unaffected”, and “BA Siddique becomes Red Cross Chairman”.

The headline of the eight-column lead story of Dainik Bangla was: “Khandaker Mushtaque new President”, with the shoulder: “Sheikh Mujib assassinated: Martial law and curfew declared: Armed forces express loyalty”.

The headline of its editorial on the front page was “A Historic Step”.

The top daily also reported on the front page: “No compromise with corruption”, “Alliance-free policy will be followed: President”, “10 ministers and 6 state ministers take oath”, “US to continue diplomatic operations with new govt”, “Up to Tk 8,000 of invalid Tk 100 currencies will be refunded”, and “Pakistan decides to give recognition”.

Like Ittefaq, Dainik Bangla also published Khandaker Mushtaque’s photo along with the lead story.

The Bangladesh Times’ eight-column lead story read: “Mushtaque Assumes Presidency”. The kicker was: “Martial Law proclaimed in the country: Mujib killed”.

In its op-ed section – ‘Our Comments’ – a write-up was headlined: “On the Threshold of the New Era”.

The other headlines on the front page of the newspaper edited by Abdul Ghani Hazari included: “People thank Armed Forces”, “Mujib’s picture’s removed”, “US ready for normal ties”, “Vice-President, ten Ministers, six State Ministers sworn in”, “Values have to be rehabilitated”, and “Help make Bangladesh a prosperous country”.

Photo of Mushtaque taking oath was run with the lead story.

The Bangladesh Observer’s top headline was “Mushtaque becomes President”.

The shoulder read: “Armed Forces take over: Martial Law proclaimed: Curfew imposed”, while the kicker was: “Mujib killed: Situation remains calm”.

The eight-column story also contained a photo of Mushtaque being sworn in.

The editorial was headlined “Historical Necessity”, flanked by the reports with headlines: “Special prayers” and “Mushtaque calls for co-operation”.

The other stories were “People hail take-over”, Pakistan accords recognition”, “Inviolability of foreign missions assured”, “Justice must be established: President/Work hard to improve condition quickly”, US ready to conduct normal diplomatic business”, and Curfew relaxed for Juma prayers”.

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