- Sheikh Hasina told Ambassador William B. Milam that some Awami League members still believed that America “was somehow implicated in the assassination of her father.”
- American diplomats in Dhaka apparently were in the dark about the coup initially.
- The U.S. Embassy in Dhaka denied having any direct contact with Khandaker Moshtaque immediately before or after the coup.
- A high-level meeting at the State Department where the coup was discussed also did not indicate America's involvement, but made it abundantly clear that the United States knew about the plan long before it was carried out.
Whenever a Bangladeshi hears the name of the Central Intelligence Agency, America’s spy outfit, the one thing that pops up in his mind is the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, founder of Bangladesh. When a group of military officers killed the nation’s founding leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, many Bengalis—as well as foreigners—blamed the United States. Mujib’s daughter, Sheikh Hasina, now prime minister of Bangladesh, decades later still believes that America was behind her father’s assassination.
“Sometimes in her darker moments, Sheikh Hasina felt that the assassination of her father in 1975 was in part due to our involvement,” revealed Howard Schaffer, a former U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh.
Hasina herself told William B. Milam, another former U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh, that some Awami League members still believed that America “was somehow implicated in the assassination of her father.”
The Bengalis had many reasons to support this hypothesis. The 1973 coup in Chile was still fresh in their minds, as were the 1965 bloodbath in Indonesia and the 1953 overthrow of the Mosasadegh government in Iran. Washington played an active role in all of them. Bangladesh also found it logical to blame the United States because the Mujib government had warm ties with the Soviet Union and had just introduced a Soviet-style one-party system replacing Westminster-type parliamentary democracy, which many thought went against America’s Communism-containment policy.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which supported Bangladesh’s independence and provided economic and technical aid after independence, Dhaka moved further into America’s fold. But the question of the CIA’s involvement in Mujib’s overthrow still lingered. During the 1998 trial of Mujib’s killers in Dhaka, defense lawyer Khan Saifur Rahman told the court that the CIA might have killed Mujib, prompting U.S. Ambassador David Holzman to issue a denial. America’s South Asia scholars, including the late professor Myron Weiner at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, saw no CIA complicity in the coup, but they refrained from closing the book altogether, pending the release of some classified American documents on Bangladesh.
CIA, Chile and Iran
In recent years, the State Department declassified some of those secret documents, including the ones dispatched to the U.S. State Department from the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka immediately after the coup. Unlike the CIA papers on Chile and Iran, which clearly indicated America’s association with the coup leaders in those nations, the papers on Bangladesh give no hint that the United States directly plotted to kill Mujib or replace his administration.
However, the State Department documents declassified so far suggest the Americans did know about the coup well in advance, although they lacked knowledge about the precise date or the execution plan. So, they relied on their local sources and news outlets for their information after the coup. CIA bulletins on the coup contained mere speculations about how things were unfolding in Dhaka.
“The army mounted a successful coup early today against the government of Rahman. There have been conflicting reports over the fate of Rahman. Some claim he is under house arrest, others assert he has been killed,” reads the opening paragraph of the National Intelligence Bulletin issued 15 August, the day Mujib was killed. “It is not yet exactly clear which elements of the military were involved or what the nature of the new government will be.”
American diplomats in Dhaka apparently were in the dark about the coup initially. In a dispatch to the State Department on 15 August, the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka showed its lack of information. The “government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman appears to have been overthrown,” the embassy reported. It added that Bangladesh radio was “carrying taped announcement read by an army major, which says Sheikh Mujib has been ousted and replaced by Khandaker Moshtaque Ahmed.”
The “coup apparently began just before 5:30 a.m. Explosions were heard in the area around Sheikh Mujib’s house in Dhanmandi. While they have ended, sporadic gunfire still heard as late as 7:00 a.m. There was heavy gunfire at the house of Sheikh Moni; neighbors assert he was killed but this is unconfirmed,” it continued. Moni, a powerful leader of the Awami League’s youth front, was Mujib’s nephew who aspired to succeed his uncle one day.
Embassy officials en route to the chancery from outlying residential areas encountered heavy concentration of tanks in area south of the Dhaka cantonment and in the vicinity of Intercontinental Hotel. The embassy’s Bengali security assistant reported that Flood Control Minister Rab Serniabat, Mujib’s brother-in-law, had been killed.
U.S. warned Mujib
The second-day bulletin further indicated the Americans used their best guesses and local news reports to prepare their dispatches on the coup. The “new Bangladesh government may be controlled by the military,” read the headline of the 16 August bulletin.
“The military-led coup yesterday in Bangladesh has met little resistance,” read the text. “A new civilian government has been installed, but it may only be a front for a military junta.”
In contrast to the reports from Dhaka, the CIA cables from Chile detailed the U.S. participation in the plot against Salvador Allende, the leftist president of Chile.
The U.S. Embassy in Dhaka denied having any direct contact with Moshtaque immediately before or after the coup. “No effort has been made by new authorities to be in touch with us,” the embassy reported 15 August.
The next day, it sent yet another cable: “The only official direct contact the embassy has had with the military officers of the new government so far occurred last evening. In response to the embassy inquiry regarding curfew passes, two officers of the Bengal lancers came to the embassy on their initiative around 21:30 hours to offer escort services to the mission personnel traveling between the chancery and residences during evening hours. In amiable and cooperative manner, they further urged that the embassy personnel not move about unescorted at all during curfew hours.”
A high-level meeting at the State Department where the coup was discussed also did not indicate America’s involvement, but made it abundantly clear that the United States knew about the plan long before it was carried out. Here is an excerpt of the discussion among Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Alfred L. Atherton Jr., assistant secretary of state and William Hyland, director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research:
Kissinger: “Let’s talk about Bangladesh.”
Atherton: “Well, it was a remarkably well-planned and executed coup for Bangladesh.”
Kissinger: “What does that mean? Is Mujibur alive or dead?”
Atherton: “Mujibur is dead; his immediate clique, which was largely family, nephews, brothers.”
Kissinger: “I get good advice from INR[ Intelligence and Research].”
Hyland: “He wasn’t dead when I talked to you.”
Kissinger: “Really? Did they kill him after some period?”
Atherton: “As far as we know — I can’t say we have got all the details. But the indications are that the plan was to kill him. And they simply surrounded his palace and went in and killed him. That is as far as we know now.”
Kissinger: “Didn’t we tell him that last year?”
Atherton: “In March we had lots of indications.”
Kissinger: “Didn’t we tell him about it?”
Atherton: “We told him at the time.”
Kissinger: “Didn’t we tell him who it was going to be, roughly?”
Atherton: “I will have to check whether we gave him the names.”
Hyland: “We were a little imprecise on that.”
Atherton: “He brushed it off, scoffed at it, said nobody would do a thing like that to him.”
Kissinger: “He was one of the world’s prize fools.”
Atherton: “But it seems that the coup leaders are in complete control.
Kissinger: “Who are they?”
Atherton: “They are military officers, middle and senior officers, who are generally considered less pro-Indian than the past leadership; pro-U.S., anti-Soviet.”
Kissinger: “Absolutely inevitable.”
Atherton: “Islamic. They have changed the name to the Islamic Republic.”
Kissinger: “That they would be pro-U.S. was not inevitable. In fact, I would have thought at some turn of the wheel they were going to become pro-Chinese, and anti-Indian I firmly expected. I always knew India would rue the day that they made Bangladesh independent. I predicted that since ’71.”
U.S. envoy’s views
Many Indians suspected America’s involvement in the coup the Moscow-oriented Communist Party of India had been in the forefront of those alleging U.S. complicity in the coup. The Indian Communists had possibly taken their cue from a World Peace Council statement charging that the coup was the product of a CIA conspiracy.
When the issue came up at a discussion with India’s External Affairs minister on 21 August 1975, Y.B. Chavan told U.S. Ambassador William Saxbe and visiting U.S. Senator Thomas Eagleton that America should raise the “subject of such offensive charges with the Soviet Union.”
Davis Boster, who was the U.S. ambassador in Dhaka when the coup occurred, denied having any advance knowledge of the mutiny. His denial came during a 1989 interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy, published by the Association of the Diplomatic Studies and Training in Virginia, an organization that promotes American diplomacy. Boster discussed with Kennedy in details his tenure in Dhaka and the coup:
Kennedy: “When you arrived in Dacca in April 1974, what was the situation?”
Boster: “Very bad. The fundamental problem in Bangladesh is one of over-population supported by less than impressive resources. They had bad floods, starvation, famine. The U.S. mission in Bangladesh was to a large extent reflected in the AID Mission. As I remember, there were more people in the AID Mission than in the rest of the Embassy. That is the way it should have been. We had a very large PL-480 program that supplied tremendous amounts of grain to the Bangladesh government. Our foreign policy interest was essentially humanitarian.”
Kennedy: “There was an earlier period when while the separation between Bangladesh and Pakistan was occurring that we were tilting toward Pakistan. Was there any resentment from the people over this while you were there?”
Boster: “There were occasional references to that. Everybody had the story. But it didn’t affect the bilateral relationship which was really quite good. They of course were very dependent on us. Kissinger came to visit Delhi and Islamabad – he apparently decided that he could not visit Pakistan and India and not go to Bangladesh. He was exactly right. He had a very successful visit. He and Sheikh Mujib got along beautifully. It was a one day visit, but he made a very moving speech at the Sheikh’s dinner. So in terms of atmosphere and morale building, it was very successful.”
Kennedy: “How did you feel about Sheikh Mujib?”
Boster: “He was a very charismatic figure, a wonderful man. You like this man instantly just by looking at him. You couldn’t help being impressed. You go to see him and you would notice people from villages from all parts of Bangladesh waiting to see him and, I understood, getting to see him. That is the way things operated in that society. The same thing applied to his house. It was a very modest home, large by Dacca standards, but still certainly not a house for a president of a country. The general consensus in the diplomatic community and among presidential advisers was that he was a “father figure,” a man who had a beloved place in Bangladesh history. He was the George Washington of the country who led them to independence, but did not have the managerial talent to administer the affairs of state. Someone with more managerial talent was required. They had that talent in Zia who eventually succeeded him. Mujib was a political success and a managerial failure.”
Kennedy: “While you were in Bangladesh, a number of coups occurred. Mujib was killed. What happened?”
Boster: “It was a terrible tragedy. Army people came in to his house, which was not too far away from our house. Some of the women were reportedly killed by swords. Many people were killed, including Sheikh Mujib. They wiped out the family. It was brutal. The speculation was that the people who staged the coup wanted to remove any possibility of that family being able to reassert any claim to power.”
Kennedy: “What did the embassy do during the coup?”
Boster: “As soon as we heard the rumor, we sent an immediate cable to Washington, sketchy as our information may have been. I got a call from the deputy chief of mission after my wife and I were awakened by gun-fire. He said that a coup had taken place and that I should come to the embassy. We then looked at the question of recognition of the new group. We did continue relations with the new government and began to deal with them. It was very difficult dealing with the new crowd. They were not a very experienced group. They didn’t last very long.”
Kennedy: “Did we have any major interests that would have made us interested in the continuing governmental instability?”
Boster: “No, we didn’t. We didn’t approve of what had happened – that was terrible. But it had happened and we had to carry on with whoever was running the country.”
Kennedy: “How did you deal with the Indian representatives who undoubtedly had a special relationship with Bangladesh?”
Boster: “We had very friendly relations with the Indian Ambassador and his people. As time went on during my stay, the tension between the Indians and the Bengalis grew. The Indians had played a special role in helping Bangladesh achieve independence. One might have thought therefore that the relationship would have been extremely friendly for a long time. In fact that did not happen. They had border disputes which were pretty lively and not easily solved. The relations between the two governments became almost tense.”
Kennedy: “Were we able to remain distant from this tension?”
Boster: “The Bangladesh government would complain to us about unfriendly Indian behavior. But we were not playing any mediating role.”
India, U.S. row
On 23 January 1976, a discussion in Washington between India’s ambassador and a U.S. assistant secretary of state turned into heated exchanges over the alleged CIA involvement in the coup. Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Sisco had called in Ambassador T.N. Kaul to discuss Indira Gandhi’s charge that U.S. agents were meddling in India’s internal affairs. When Kaul alleged of past CIA activity in India and Bangladesh, Sisco denied the charges: “If India has any specific charges against us, these should be brought to our attention.” Kaul then made vague references to U.S. interference in Bangladesh, asserting that over the past 20 years America had been interfering in South Asian affairs, culminating in the 1971 “tilt” toward Pakistan.
On Kaul’s reference to the U.S. interference in Bangladesh, Sisco reiterated that if India had charges against the United States, it should specify them. An exasperated Sisco had previously told Chavan that “we are not playing around in Bangladesh. How can we say it more clearly? All our efforts have been to promote good Bangladesh-Indian relations. And, now the Indians are making more unsubstantiated charges. We categorically deny them.’”
Kaul had a testy relationship with the Americans, who disliked dealing with him. On 29 December 1975, the U.S. ambassador in New Delhi reported to Washington one such unpleasant incident involving Kaul. “At a small ‘American’ dinner given on December 26 by Foreign Secretary Kewal Singh, Tikki Kaul once again became very argumentative and almost belligerent. Immediately after we left the table, Mrs. Gandhi’s private secretary, P.N. Dhar, took me aside, privately apologized for Kaul’s behavior, and said, ‘Pay no attention to his crap.’” The next day, on 27 December, Saxbe told L.K. Jha, who was India’s ambassador to Washington before Kaul, about the incident at the private dinner. Jha told the U.S. envoy that Kaul was to be replaced soon by Kewal Singh.
Kissinger, who played a crucial role in shaping South Asia’s history during the Nixon and Ford administrations, flatly denied that America played any role in toppling Sheikh Mujib. During an interview on 4 November 2011 at Hyatt Regency Hotel in Greenwich, Connecticut, when asked about the allegation that America was involved in Mujib’s assassination, Kissinger said: “That’s a lie. That’s outrageous.” But he refused to answer any more questions.
Stephen Eisenbraun, desk officer for Bangladesh at the State Department in 1975, who later served as a political counselor in Dhaka, admitted the United States received information about the plan in advance and claimed that Boster informed Mujib about the coup rumors.
“Mujib had established his own private security force that ferreted out dissenters for punishment. The private security forces, called the Rakkhi Bahini, snubbed the army, which had fought for independence. So eventually, plots of coups developed, even threats to Mujib’s life. People in Bangladesh would whisper this to the embassy. This reporting was coming back to Washington so steadily that it became clear that this isn’t idle chatter. Sheikh Mujib’s life seemed in danger. I remember the discussion of whether we had an ethical responsibility to warn Sheikh Mujib about the danger to his life. The decision was that, yes, we did have that responsibility. And the ambassador did go in.”
“Davis Eugene Boster, who died only recently. He went in to Mujib. This would have probably been late July or early August of 1975. I might have drafted his talking points, but I can’t remember for sure if I did. Anyway, the essence of what Boster was instructed to say was, we hear many threats of a coup and threats of violence against you. He didn’t name names. He merely warned Mujib to be careful. As my memory has it, Mujib was casual about it and said, ‘Don’t worry, I know my people; they love me and everything’s under control.’”