The day Ershad slipped into Dinhata

Pratim Ranjan Bose Dinhata | Updated on December 16, 2014 Published on December 16, 2014

Hard boiled Bangladesh's former military dictator HM Ershad

West Bengal town remembers 1975 homecoming by Bangladesh leader

In 1952, when Hussain Muhammad Ershad got an opportunity to join the Pakistani Army from the now Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, his grandmother and extended family at Dinhata, a sub-divisional town in Cooch Behar district of West Bengal, were a worried lot. They didn’t want Ershad to join the army.

The fish-eating Bengalis were not cut out to be soldiers in Pakistani army, the family said. But, now, six decades later, Dinhata basks in glory about their own Ershad Saheb, who became the army-ruler of independent Bangladesh between 1982 and 1990.

Unlikely candidate

Ask anyone, and they will recount stories of a well-mannered boy, born in one of the town’s most influential families in 1930; his association with the ‘Pioneer Club’ of Dinhata; the laurels he earned as the captain of football team and so on. Ershad has become a part of the popular folklore.

But in a twist to the tale, his cousin Moshafar Hussain (77) says Ershad’s move to East Pakistan was an exception, an accident. India was divided in 1947. In 1949, Cooch Behar – then a princely State – became a district of West Bengal, amidst communal tension and social unrest. While elders of the family decided to stay on at Dinhata, Ershad’s father decided to cross over to neighbouring East Pakistan.

Tides of change

The apprehensions about safety and security in India were proved wrong sooner than later. And, after Liaquat–Nehru Pact that offered safe return of refugees, Ershad’s father was all set to rejoin the family. “The plan got upset as Ershad joined the Pakistani Army in 1952,” says Hussain, a retired assistant public prosecutor of the district.

The news had a devastating effect in Ershad’s grandmother. She fell sick and eventually died the same year. Ershad’s brother-in-law, the principal of the Cooch Behar College, was rushed to convince him to give up the job. But, the effort went in vain.

Tough days

The family indeed had a trying time when Ershad, along with a large number of other Bengali officers, was interned by the Pakistani army in West Pakistan after the liberation war broke out in East Pakistan in March 1971.

“We couldn’t trace him for nearly two years,” Hussain says. The Shimla Accord in 1973, between Indira Gandhi and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto finally brought cheers to Dinhata, as Ershad returned to Bangladesh.

But Dinhata had to wait for another two years to meet him, in June 1975, just months before the assassination of Bangladeshi President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. “I was surprised to receive a letter carrying the seal of the Indian Military Academy at Dehradun,” Hussain said. It informed that Ershad was undergoing training in India, and would be joining the family soon.

And, what a homecoming it was. Dinhata was preparing to receive an army general, but Ershad slipped into the town like a commoner without even a guard.

He was keen to revisit his past, unhindered, a point that Ershad maintained all along. Hussain says the octogenarian former President of Bangladesh still keeps in close touch with his only surviving schoolmate Sudhir Saha of Dinhata. Saha is a retired school teacher.

Published on December 16, 2014
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