Our Leaders

Shaheed President Ziaur Rahman

Lieutenant General Ziaur Rahman Bir Uttam (1936-1981) was the founder of Bangladesh Nationalist Party. He was the declarer of independence and a valiant freedom fighter. He was also Chief of Army Staff and later became the elected President of Bangladesh. He opened up multi-party democracy in Bangladesh and defined Bangladeshi Nationalism.

Early Life

Ziaur Rahman, fondly called Zia, was born on l9 January 1936 at Bagbari in Bogra. His father Mansur Rahman was a chemist, who used to work in a government department in Calcutta. He spent spent his childhood partly in the rural area of Bogura and partly in Calcutta. After the partition of India (1947), when his father was transferred to Karachi, Zia had to leave the Hare School in Calcutta and become a student of the Academy School in Karachi. He completed his secondary education from that School in 1952. In 1953, he got himself admitted into the D.J. College in Karachi. In the same year, he joined the Pakistan Military Academy at Kakul as an officer cadet.

Life in Army

Ziaur Rahman was commissioned in 1955 as a second lieutenant. He served in Pakistan for two years. Then in 1957, he was transferred to the East Bengal Regiment. He also worked in the military intelligence department from 1959 to 1964. In the Indo-Pakistan War of 1965, Ziaur Rahman fought in the Khemkaran sector as the commander of a company. Surprisingly, his company received the maximum number of gallantry awards for heroic performances in the war. He was appointed an instructor at the Pakistan Military Academy in 1966. In the same year, he was sent to the Staff College in Quetta for attending a 'command' course. In 1969, he joined the Second East Bengal Regiment as its second-in-command at Joydevpur, Bangladesh. He received higher training from West Germany. On his return home in 1970, Ziaur Rahman, then a major, was transferred to the Eighth East Bengal Regiment at Chittagong as its second in command.

Heroism at the Liberation War

At midnight on 25th March 1971, Pakistani military forces started indiscriminately open fire on the unarmed people of the then East Pakistan and carried out the worst genocide in history. The most brutal genocide in the history of the world is known as 'Operation Searchlight'.

Major Ziaur Rahman rebelled against Pakistan on March 25, 1971. Then on March 26, he proclaimed the declaration of independence from the radio station of Kalurghat in Chittagong with the help of the workers of the Betar Kendra. He said, I Major Zia, Provisional Commander-in-Chief of the Bangladesh Liberation Army, do hereby declare the independence of Bangladesh. Considering the mental situations of liberation mongering Bangladeshi population, the declaration had an incredible impact.

Ziaur Rahman and his troops thus came to the forefront of the War of Liberation. Major Zia and the armed forces under his command kept the Chittagong and Noakhali areas under their control for a few days and then, being put under pressure by the Pakistan army, crossed the border as a strategic retreat.

Ziaur Rahman became the Bangladesh Forces Commander of BDF Sector 1 initially, and from June as BDF commander of BDF Sector 11 of the Bangladesh Forces and the Brigade Commander of Z Force from mid-July during the country's Independence war from Pakistan in 1971. During the liberation war, on August 28, 1971, Ziaur Rahman established the first civil administration in Roumari, a free area recaptured from the Pakistani invasion forces within the geographical boundary of Bangladesh. For his heroic contribution to the liberation war, Ziaur Rahman was decorated with the second highest gallantry award of Bangladesh ‘Bir Uttam’.

Inevitable Rise in Bangladesh Politics

After the most creditable performances during the nine-month war, Zia was appointed brigade commander in Comilla. In June 1972, he was made deputy chief of staff of the armed forces of Bangladesh. In the middle of 1973, he became a Brigadier, and a major general by the end of the year. Ziaur Rahman became the chief of army staff on 25 August 1975. When Khaled Mosharraf with the support of the Dhaka Brigade under the command of Shafat Jamil staged a coup d'etat on 3 November 1975, Ziaur Rahman was forced to resign his command and was put under house arrest. The Sepoy-Janata Biplob of 7 November, however, took him to the centre of political power.

On 7 November 1975, Ziaur Rahman was reassigned as the army chief. Later, in a meeting at the army headquarters on the same day, a new administrative set-up for the running of an interim government was arranged with Justice ASM Sayem as the Chief Martial Law Administrator and the three service chiefs, Major General Zia, Air Vice Marshal MG Tawab and Rear Admiral MH Khan, as Deputy Chief Martial Law Administrators. Ziaur Rahman became Chief Martial Law Administrator on 19 November 1976 when Justice Sayem relinquished his position, and ultimately the President of Bangladesh on 21 April 1977 when President Sayem resigned.

The law and order situation in the country deteriorated drastically during the post-independence government's tenure. Upon assuming power, Zia immediately moved to restore law and order to the country and to strengthen the police force, practically doubling its size from 40,000 to 70,000 and organizing its proper training. He also restored order in the armed forces. For the purpose, he took certain steps for the development of professionalism in them through rigorous training and restoring discipline. He expanded their strength substantially from less than 50,000 in 1974-75 to about 90,000 in 1976-77. Although Zia was successful in restoring discipline within the armed forces, he faced a difficult time because of the existence and operation of heterogeneous interests who staged a number of mutinies and attempted coups forcing him to adopt certain uncompromising and stern actions against those who ignored disciple and took part in those uprisings.

Visionary Statesman

After assuming office as head of the state Ziaur Rahman issued a presidential order amending the Constitution to insert Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim (In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful) in the Preamble of the Constitution. In Article 8(1) and 8(1A) the principle of 'absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah' has been added. In Article 8(1), socialism has been defined as 'economic and social justice'. In Article 25(2) it has also been provided that 'the state shall endeavour to consolidate, preserve and strengthen fraternal relations among Muslim countries based on Islamic solidarity.'

On 1 September 1978, Ziaur Rahman floated a new political party, Bangladesh Nationalist Party-BNP, with himself as its chairman. The second parliamentary elections of the country were held in February 1979 and BNP won 207 seats out of 300. On 1 April 1979, the first session of the Jatiya Sangsad was convened. On 9 April, martial law was lifted after the enactment of the Fifth Amendment. 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 introduced ‘Bangladeshi Nationalism’ as a new national identity of the Bangladeshi people. 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 conceptualized in terms of territory rather than language or culture. This is what he emphasized upon. Bangladeshi nationalism put emphasis on national unity and integration of all citizens of Bangladesh irrespective of religion, caste, creed, gender, culture, and ethnicity.

In the midst of a disorderly army Zia stood firm and resolute. He came to believe that sooner the country moved to a democratic system the better for himself and for the country. He moved as fast as he could to democratize the polity by restoring the institution of election and thus facilitating the transfer of power to elected representatives peacefully. As a first step towards his goal, Zia allowed the disbanded and disarrayed political parties to be revived and peaceful political activities pursued once again. As a result, Bangladesh Awami League gets a chance to do politics again.

Having this goal in view, Zia withdrew the ban on the newspapers and inaugurated the free flow of news by making the information media free and uninterferred. The prevailing situation persuaded him to take part in active politics. He came to believe that by restoring normal political activities and allowing the parties freely, he hoped for establishing a democratic environment in the country.

Economic Reformation

As the president, Ziaur Rahman made significant contributions in another sector. It is the national economy. Zia's economic policy laid emphasis on private sector development, which remained neglected before. He engaged a team of experts to design ways and means for achieving economic development by promoting private sector development, and by initiating agricultural development through injecting subsidies to farmers and agricultural marketing. He took various measures for handing over nationalized industries to their former owners, where possible. To develop the export sector, he took several measures including the promotion of the export of conventional and non-conventional goods. Zia's economic policy earned him considerable success. Food production reached a new height and Bangladesh was dreaming of becoming a rice-surplus country in the near future.

Ziaur Rahman's action plan included a 19-Point Programme which put emphasis on making rapid socio-economic transformation in the country. The thrust of the programme was to bring socio-economic transformation and achieve self-reliance and rural uplift through people's participation in the development efforts. Its primary objectives were to accelerate agricultural growth, population control, self-sufficiency in food, decentralization of administration and greater incentives to the private sector. It was also 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.

To achieve his economic goals, President Zia tried to transform the politics of the country into a development-oriented one, though theoretically such a dream was undoubtedly very weak. Social development area includes not only production. It has many other ramifications. However, he chalked out programmes terming them as revolutions and motivated his party men to realize those programmes through their active participation in the development drive. The first of those was canal digging, and it was designed to supply adequate water to the farmers, especially during the lean season. The second was to remove illiteracy from the society so that an air of enlightenment might emerge through both formal and non-formal education in all strata of the society. Moreover, motivational programmes were set on motion for the acceleration of productions both in the field and factories. Intensifying the Family Planning programme, revolutionary as it was, was designed to stabilize population at a level which might be termed as optimum from the economic and sustainability point of view. The institution of Gram Sarkar (village government) aimed at enlisting the support of the people for a self-reliant Bangladesh, which became a political clichE9 for Zia. One important aspect of his programme was that he did not make it a vote-catching slogan only. He tried to implement his programme in earnest. The excavation and re-excavation of more than 1500 canals in a year and a half, record production of food grains in two successive years (1976-77 and 1977-78), an average annual GDP growth of 6.4% during 1976-78, a vigorous mass education campaign, introduction of Gram Sarkar and Village Defence Party (VDP) made deep impression in the minds of the people. The donor agencies also expressed satisfaction at the development projects of his government.

An International Icon

Having the objectives of establishing good neighbourly relations with India and other South Asian countries on equal footing Zia started bringing in changes first at the internal setting through resurgence of nationalistic aspirations of the people and then by stabilizing countervailing forces at the regional and international levels.

The foreign policy goals were thus devised anew, and friendly international relations were set on with a view to achieving peace and progress on the basis of mutual understanding and trust. At the regional level, Bangladesh developed a pattern of mutuality with such states as Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Srilanka, and Maldives along with India so much so that it ultimately led to the forging of regional cooperation in the region, a move which received acclaim from all quarters locally and internationally.

At the international level, Bangladesh under his leadership tried to establish friendly and cooperative relations with states of all political varieties, right, centre and left. Bangladesh came closer to the Muslim world which began to take a fresh look at Bangladesh and its problems. Bangladesh developed a good working relation with China and America. Southeast Asian countries were drawn closer to Bangladesh. He attended many international conferences and visited many countries to promote the cause of the nation's multilateral and bilateral relations. The dividend of his drive was rich. Bangladesh was elected to the Security Council in one of its non-permanent seats in 1978 and became actively involved in the activities of the UN members. It was President Zia who conceived of the idea of and initiated actions for regional cooperation in South Asia. For this purpose, he visited these countries during 1979-80 to speak of the need to develop a framework for mutual cooperation. South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was the outcome of his efforts, which was formally launched in Dhaka in 1985.

Zia did not survive to see all his dreams come true. He was assassinated in Chittagong on 30 May 1981 in an abortive army coup. He lies buried at Sher-e-Banglanagar, Dhaka.

Chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia

Begum Khaleda Zia (Born: 15 August 1946) is the chairperson of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-BNP who served as the Prime Minister of Bangladesh three times since 1991. She is the first woman to be elected as the prime minister of Bangladesh, and second in the Muslim world.

Begum Zia was born to Iskandar Majumder and Taiyaba Majumder in Dinajpur District on August 15, 1946. Her father had migrated to what was then West Pakistan following Partition from Jalpaiguri in India where he had run a tea business. The family originally hails from Feni, a southeastern district of the country. She studied at Dinajpur Government Girls High School and later at Surendranath College. In 1960, she married Ziaur Rahman.

When Ziaur Rahman Bir Uttam became the President of Bangladesh, Begum Zia accompanied him as the First Lady and met world leaders including Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the UK and Queen Juliana of the Netherlands.

Following the martyrdom of President Zia in the abortive coup of 1981, she joined BNP as a general member of the party on 2 January 1982. She was elected as the vice-chairman of the party in March 1983, and in August 1984, the party elected her the chairperson.

After a military coup in 1982, led by the Chief of the Bangladesh Army, General Hussain Muhammad Ershad, Khaleda Zia initiated an all-out movement for restoring democracy. She was the architect of forming a seven-party alliance in 1983 to put an end to Ershad's dictatorship. She denounced the rigged election of 1986 and did not participate in the election while her rivals from Awami League, Jamaat-e-Islami and Communist Party of Bangladesh joined the election under Jatiya Party-led rule to endorse the illegitimate government. Because of her determination, she was detained seven times from 1983 to 1990. She led the mobilisation of BNP's students' front Jatiotabadi Chatra Dal (JCD) and they won 270 of 321 student unions across the country. These students were instrumental in the movement that led to the fall of Ershad's regime. She developed a reputation as the "Uncompromising leader" due to her staunch opposition against the military dictatorship of Ershad in the 1980s and her commitment to restoring democracy in Bangladesh. 

In 1991, Khaleda Zia became the country's first woman prime minister through a free and fair general election on February 27 of the year. During her premiership, Bangladesh became a parliamentary democracy. Some of the major economic transformations were initiated during her tenure as the Prime Minister of Bangladesh. The employment rate increased drastically and in the RMG sector alone, the employment growth was 29% in five years. Almost two hundred thousand women joined the RMG industry thanks to her policies.

On the global front, she raised to Ganges water-sharing problem in the United Nations to mount pressure on the neighbours to allow Bangladesh to have a fair share of water from the Ganges. She was invited to the White House in 1992 where she raised the problem of Rohingya Muslim refugees and due to global pressure, the Myanmar government entered into a deal with Bangladesh to repatriate Rohingya Muslim refugees who came to Bangladesh in the early 1990s. 

Khaleda Zia became the prime minister for a second consecutive term in 1996 after the BNP had a landslide victory, but due to her commitment to hand over the power to a caretaker government and run for election again, she resigned within a month. Though BNP lost the fresh election in June 1996, the party won 116 seats to become the largest opposition in the parliament in the history of Bangladesh.

Aiming to return to power, the BNP formed a four-party opposition alliance in 1999 with the Jatiya Party, the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Islami Oikya Jote and launched several agitation programs against the ruling Awami League. Begum Khaleda Zia was re-elected in 2001, regaining power by promising to eliminate corruption and terrorism. Forbes magazine ranked her at number 29 in 2005 in its list of the hundred most powerful women in the world for her role in promoting women's education and empowerment of women.

In 2006, she stepped down from office, passing power to a caretaker administration. In September 2007, she was arrested by the autocratic government on trumped-up and baseless charges of corruption after multiple attempts to exile her along with her family members.

When in power, the government of Khaleda Zia made considerable progress in the education sector by introducing compulsory free primary education, free education for girls up to 10th grade, an education "stipend" for girl students, and food for education programs. Her government also increased the age limit for entry into government services from 27 years to 30 years and made its highest budgetary allocation to the education sector.

Begum Zia holds a unique record of never losing in any constituency. She was elected in five separate parliamentary constituencies in the general elections of 1991, 1996 and 2001. In 2008, she won in all three constituencies from where she contested. 

Since 2009, when the Sheikh Hasina-led government turned Bangladesh into an authoritarian state, she renewed her fight for democracy. She was forcefully expelled from her house by the government and was put on house arrest twice when she launched movements for democracy. For her commitment to democracy, she was honoured as “Fighter for Democracy” by New Jersey’s State Senate in 2011.

Begum Khaleda Zia was sentenced to 17 years in prison in 2018 for the Zia Orphanage Trust and Zia Charitable Trust corruption cases. A local court found her guilty of abusing her position as prime minister by directing funds to the newly founded Zia Orphanage Trust. In its 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practises, the United States State Department stated, citing international and domestic legal experts, that the "lack of evidence to support the conviction" shows the prosecution was a political ploy to remove her from the electoral process. Amnesty International expressed worry that her "fair trial rights are not being respected."

Acting Chairman Tarique Rahman

Tarique Rahman (Born: 20 November 1967) is the Acting Chairman of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-BNP. He previously served as the Senior Vice-Chairman and Senior Joint Secretary of the party.

Mr Rahman has witnessed Bangladesh’s liberation struggles and political upheavals and became a part of it. As a boy, he witnessed the harsh reality of Bangladesh's liberation struggle alongside his mother Begum Khaleda Zia. During the war, when his father, Shaheed President Ziaur Rahman Bir Uttam, declared Bangladesh's independence and launched a resistance movement to liberate the country in March 1971, he, his mother, and his brother were arrested along with the family members and wives of other Bengali military officers, only to be released on December 16, 1971, when his father and his compatriots won Bangladesh's victory. As a result, he was one of the youngest prisoners of war fighting for Bangladesh's liberation.

After completing his initial studies at Dhaka’s BAF Shaheen College, he got enrolled in the Department of International Relations of the University of Dhaka in the 1980s. In the University, he read the political thoughts of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Voltaire, Karl Marx and other exceptional thinkers. In 1986, on the eve of the Ershad government’s staged election, he evaded house arrest and appeared at the Press Club to address a press conference where he narrated how security agencies tried to block their movement against the lopsided election. As a result, to muzzle his voice, he along with his mother was frequently kept under house arrest by General H. M. Ershad’s autocratic government.

He took the streets with his mother during the anti-Ershad movement and joined BNP as a general member in 1988 at the Gabtali Upazila, a sub-district unit of the party. He mobilized people from the grassroots and contributed to the fall of H. M. Ershad's government.

He campaigned with his mother Begum Khaleda Zia in practically every district of the country before the 1991 election and won the election. His mother became Bangladesh's first female Prime Minister. He initiated a democratic process of electing leaders from the grassroots in Bogura, where was an executive member of the BNP unit. In 1993 in the Bogura district unit, he organised a convention where leadership was chosen through secret ballots to serve as a model for other district units of the party. Following the successful conference in Bogra, he encouraged other district units to elect their leaders democratically.

Prior to the 2001 election, Mr Rahman established an office in Dhaka to do studies on local-level problems and good governance. He also held discussions with intellectuals and civil society members there. Thanks to his efforts, the BNP won a landslide victory in the 2001 elections. Despite being the chairperson's son and receiving widespread support from the grassroots, he did not assume any public office by nepotism and concentrated on empowering the party's grassroots by bridging the gap between their representatives and the people. As a recognition of his efforts to build the party, he was appointed as the Senior Joint Secretary of BNP by the Standing Committee in 2002.

In 2005, Mr Rahman convened a countrywide grassroots forum that included every upazila or sub-district in Bangladesh. He visited every sub-district, addressed grassroots leaders and activists, held one-on-one conversations with locals, offered his opinions and listened to supporters' feedback, and preached the BNP's visions to the people. He informed people about government subsidies for farmers, allowances for the elderly, the anti-plastic bag movement to maintain ecological balance, and the distribution of stipends for female students, which greatly raised the gender ratio in schools. He personally signed at least 18,000 response letters to conference registrants. These response letters addressed regional issues and proposed possible solutions.

Tarique Rahman was targeted by the new vindictive dictatorship in 2007 after the unlawful takeover of power by an Awami League-backed military regime. Insiders of the system later revealed to the author of a book about the regime that the caretaker government's kingpins forced officials from several offices, including the anti-corruption commission, to file bogus allegations against Mr Rahman. Furthermore, he was tortured while in detention and had to leave the country for better treatment.

He was elected Senior Vice-Chairman of the BNP in 2009 and gradually became involved in the BNP's reorganisation. In 2018, when his mother, the former three-time Prime Minister, Begum Khaleda Zia was imprisoned under false charges, he was nominated as the Acting Chairman of the party. He has been leading the pro-democracy movement against autocrat Sheikh Hasina since then.

In 1994, Tarique Rahman married Dr Zubaida Rahman, the daughter of the former Bangladesh Navy chief and a two-time minister in subsequent governments Late Rear Admiral Mahbub Ali Khan. Zubaida Rahman is a qualified cardiologist by training and studied at Dhaka Medical College. They have a daughter named Zaima Zarnaz Rahman.