Abdus Sattar

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Abdus Sattar.

Justice Abdus Sattar (1906 - October 5, 1985) was a Bangladeshi jurist and politician who served as the 9th president of Bangladesh from May 30, 1981 until March 24, 1982, following the assassination of Ziaur Rahman. He had previously served as Zia's vice-president from June 3, 1977. Elected to the Pakistan parliament in 1955 he was briefly minister for home affairs and education before his appointment as a Judge of the High Court of East Pakistan in 1957. In 1967 he was promoted to the Supreme Court. When Pakistan's military ruler, Yahya Khan called an election in 1970, Sattar played a key role as chief election commissioner. East Pakistan's Awami League emerged as the single largest party but was prevented from forming a government, precipitating East Pakistan's secession as Bangladesh. After holding several quasi-government appointment, Sattar became Special Assistant to the President in 1975. Shortly afterwards, he was made responsible for the ministry of law and parliamentary affairs. As Zia's Vice-President, Sattar organized, then led, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) although "Zia was the real leader."[1] The Party won the parliamentary election of 1979, which has been described as "mostly free and fair."[2][3]

Automatically acting president after Zia's assassination, Sattar stood for the presidency as the nominee of the BNP against the Awami League candidate and won with a majority of 65.5 percent.[4] This peaceful transition of leadership via the ballot box by which a military ruler was succeeded by a civilian nominated by the party he had founded has been described as "a unique development in the political-military systems in Bangladesh as well as in the Third World."[2] Unfortunately, his health was failing, the BNP was rife with internal squabbles and the chief of army staff, Hossain Mohammad Ershad was demanding a role in governance. When Sattar refused to oblige, accusing the government of corruption and inefficiency, Ershad seized power. In doing so, he followed a tradition of military intervention inherited from Pakistan. Sattar died in 1985, so did not live to see Ershad imprisoned for corruption followed by the election of a BNP government led by Khaleda Zia. Committed to peace and stability for his young nation, Sattar may have been better suited to running a department of government than to the role of head of state. Arguably, however, he played an important part role in Bangladesh by helping to establish a party that has subsequently played a key role in the democratization process.[5] Sattar spent his life in public-service and, though briefly, occupied his nation's highest office. Unlike others, he did not line his own pockets, or attract accusations of corruption.

Early life

Abdus Sattar was born in 1906 in the village of Daraka in the Birbhum District of the province of Bengal (now in West Bengal, India). Sattar obtained a master's degree in political science and a law degree from the University of Calcutta and joined the bar at the court in Kolkata (then Calcutta). He entered politics by joining the Krishak Praja Party of Bengali politician A. K. Fazlul Huq. He entered the bar of the Kolkata High Court in 1941. He served as councilor of the Calcutta City Corporation (1939) and a member of the Calcutta Improvement Tribunal (1940-42) and the chief executive officer of the city corporation (1945). He also joined the Muslim League and supported the Pakistan movement.

Political career

After the partition of India, Sattar moved to Dhaka in East Pakistan in 1950, and joined the Dhaka High Court. He joined the Awami Muslim League of Fazlul Huq and Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy in 1953 and was elected to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan in 1955. Sattar was appointed minister of home affairs and education in the short-lived cabinet of prime minister Ibrahim Ismail Chundrigar (1957). After the dismissal of the government, Sattar was appointed justice at the Dhaka High Court, serving from 1957 to 1968. In 1968 he was appointed to serve on the Supreme Court of Pakistan and became the chief election commissioner of Pakistan from 1969 to 1972. In this to key post as Chief Election Commissioner, Sattar was responsible for supervising the 1970 elections, which led to a major political crisis between East Pakistan's Awami League, the Pakistan Peoples Party of West Pakistan and the military ruler Yahya Khan. The Awami League under Sheikh Mujibur Rahman emerged as the single largest party but with no seats in West Pakistan, where Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's PPP was the largest party with no seats in the East. Yahya Khan refused to allow Mujib to form the government, which would have ended the historical hegemony and exploitation of East Pakistan by West Pakistan and, when Mujib in turn refused to compromise by accepting a power-sharing arrangement with Bhutto, Bangladesh began its war for independence.

As the war began (March, 1971) Justice Sattar was called in Islamabad in May 1971. He refused to serve the government of Pakistan and was immediately put under house arrest. He remained under house arrest until his escape to Bangladesh, via Afghanistan, in 1973. Upon his arrival, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman now Prime Minister of the new state asked him to join the Awami League government, which he respectfully declined. Upon the Prime Minister's request to serve the newly independent country in some fashion, he agreed to serve as chairman of the Bangladesh Jiban Bima Corporation (Bangladesh Life Insurance Corporation), the Journalist Wage Board and the Bangladesh Institute of Law and International Affairs for the next two years. Following the military coup on November 7, 1975, Sattar was appointed special adviser to the president Abu Sadat Mohammad Sayem, then to the ministry of law and parliamentary affairs.


He supported the army chief Ziaur Rahman's elevation to the presidency in 1977 and was subsequently appointed vice-president of Bangladesh. Vice President Sattar established the organization of the Jatiyatabadi Ganatantrik Dal, a political alliance composing Zia's political allies. After Zia's victory in the 1978 elections, at Zia's request, Sattar organized the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which became one of the largest political parties in the nation winning parliamentary election that year. In 1976, Zia lifted the ban on multi-party politics imposed earlier by Mujib and began a process of transforming his own regime from a military to a civilian government. Rather than align himself with an existing party, Zia chose to found his own. He criticized the existing parties for being out of touch with the masses, promising to "make politics different" by involving the large rural population in his party.[2] Initially, the Islamic parties hoped to form the main opposition to the Awami League, which they criticized for its secularism but Zia played an astute move by introducing some Islamic reforms that appealed "to more devout voters" without shifting his polices from the center ground. He created a ministry for religious affairs, made Religious Studies a compulsory subject and changed the constitution to enshrine "absolute faith and trust in Almighty Allah" a guiding principle of the state, replacing secularism.[6] Partly, this was to sideline the Islamist parties. Partly, it helped to attract petro-dollar aid from the oil rich Muslim states but Zia was also interested in improving relations with Pakistan and with the West as well. On the one hand, he wanted to legitimize his Presidency and establish a civil power base. On the other, he appears to many commentators to have had a genuine desire to democratize. His "reputation for personal honesty," too, aided this process. The fact that his civilian Vice-President was officially leader of the BNP also suggests a genuine desire to shed his military image, although his personal popularity owed much to his status as a hero of the independence war.

Under Zia and Vice-President Sattar, Economic progress was made. Zia and his vice-president also attempted, with some success, to tackle corruption.[7] Under Sattar's oversight, the BNP became a effective political machine, it "spread its branches and affiliated bodies among students, youths, labor, women and peasants."[2]

According to Hussain, this effective party organization under Sattar delivered Zia his victory in the 1979 elections, which he considered to have been free and fair. The authoritarian record of the Awami League was contrasted with the promise of genuine participation and democracy under a BNP government. The "soldier turned politician advocated unfettered democratic rights, participation of the masses at all levels of government, production-oriented economy, peace and security".[2] The actual improvement in "food supply" attracted, says Hussain, the subsequent electoral victory. Other commentators are less complimentary, attributing BNP's impressive poll (207 of 300 "directly elected seats"; Awamiu League won only 39.[8]

President of Bangladesh

Ziaur Rahman was assassinated on May 30, 1981, in an abortive military coup instigated by Major General Abul Manzur in Chittagong. Sattar, under the constitution, automatically became acting president. He suppressed the coup, as he was able to retain the support of the Bangladesh Army. Constitutionally, a Presidential election had to be held within 180 days.[7] Upholding the constitution, Sattar led the BNP to a major victory in the elections held in 1982. Hussein comments that the choice of a civilian to succeed a military ruler by a party that was founded by a military ruler is a unique event; "Justice Sattar being voted to power as its nominee and the establishment of an entirely civilian government after the demise of the military founder of the party, is a unique development in the political-military systems in Bangladesh as well as in the Third World."[2]

However, while Sattar had proved to be an effective Vice-President and party organizer, he lacked the "charisma" of Zia and is said to have been a compromise candidate for the Presidency. The Party was split by various rival factions, include those led by the Prime Minister and the General Secretary; there was also rivalry between the Deputy Prime Minister and the Deputy Speaker. Sattar's nomination as presidential candidate "minimized the conflict."[9] Some wanted a younger nominee but "the party was unable to agree on any other candidate" so Sattar was chosen.[1]

However, dissatisfaction amongst senior military officers who disliked what they saw as the political sidelining of the army led to a coup by the army chief Lt. Gen. Hossain Mohammad Ershad on March 24. No soon had Sattar assumed the Presidency than Ershad was demanding a "constitutional role" for the military, which Sattar resisted. Ershad accused the government of incompetency, of corruption and asserted that only the army had the skill and track-record of efficient government to save the country. He claimed that it had a special role to play in the task of nation-building. There were corrupt people in government but Zia's and Sattar's record suggest that they were relatively successful in rooting out corruption, while Sattar had built up a personal reputation as a competent administrator.[10] In power, Ershad actually continued many of the policies of the government he replaced, except that he was later put on trial for and found guilty of corruption. He also reversed almost all of the democratic reforms introduced by the Zia-Sattar administration; he re-introduced the ban on parties, restricted freedom of the press and later declared that a Western style democracy was "unsuitable for Bangladesh.[6] Instead of attempting to demilitarize his rule, he tried to change the constitution of local government to provide military representation.

Like Zia, he founded a party, the Jatiya Party but unlike the BNP, his party was an extension of himself; the party could not act without his blessing even when he was in jail.[11]

Chowdhury describes Ershad's regime as the "most corrupt … in the history of Bangladesh" pointing out that whenever a civilian regime has been overthrown by the military the result has been bloodshed, political and economic instability with strikes and demonstrations paralyzing the country.[12] Ershad knew that Zia was popular at the time of his assassination, so he did not act immediately to seize power, aware that the public were unhappy with the army's role in Zia's death.[13]

Ershad's regime was denounced as illegitimate but he was much more ruthless than Zia had ever been in silencing opposition. The majority of intellectuals and members of the professions also denounced the coup, accusing Ershad of violating "the constitution" and destroying "the growing democratic institutions, particularly the electoral method as transfer of power."[2] Ershad drew on a long history of military intervention in government initiated in Pakistan by Ayub Khan, then perpetuated by his hand-picked successor, Yahya Khan. Ershad's justification for his coup sounds similar to the justifications used by his Pakistani predecessors, who argued that the politicians had had their chance and failed.[14] Ershad's downfall was itself precipitated when soldiers refused to fire on demonstrators in 1990.[6]


After the coup, Sattar was briefly arrested by Ershad's regime but released after a few months. He died in Dhaka on October 5, 1985. Sattar's Presidency was brief but in his vice-presidential role he did much to assist Zia both in developing a stronger democracy and in organizing the BNP which has subsequently emerged not only as a major party but as one of two main parties within Bangladeshi politics, alongside the older Awami League. Founded by a military ruler but headed by the civilian Sattar, the BNP's commitment to democracy and to civilian governance played a key role in leading the opposition to Ershad that led to the downfall, and trial for corruption, of a military strong-man. There are relatively few examples of military dictators being toppled as a result of civil society opposition. The BNP has proved to be a "rare example of a military creation getting civil sanction even after the withdrawal of martial rule."[2] The BNP government under Khaleda Zia became the first to complete a term in office and to hand-over power to an elected successor. To facilitate this process, Khaleda Zia introduced a constitutional amendment establishing a care-taker government of national unity to oversee elections.[15] The development in Bangladesh of what is virtually a two party system has described as a "milestone towards democratic political development in Bangladesh."[2] Khaleda Zia, appointed leader after the coup against Sattar, was uncompromising in her opposition to military rule, calling for the restoration of democracy.[2] Sattar's support for Zia as a military ruler in 1977 does not represent a compromise of his commitment to democracy, since, following Mujib's assassination in 1975, the country descended into complete chaos so it could be convincingly argued that only the military could restore order. When Ershad removed Sattar from power, the situation in the country was very different: The nation was not in chaos; Sattar was the democratically elected head of state and military intervention enjoyed no popular support at all.

Shortly after he became President, Sattar "urged his tragedy-plagued people to 'Maintain peace and discipline.'"[16] His life of public service, as a jurist, member of parliament, minister, vice-president and president stood for the rule of law and for governance of, by and for the people. Often behind the scenes and not in the public eye, Sattar did much to help to make Zia the "most successful of post-independence leaders" of Bangladesh.[17] Sattar's legacy continues in the party he helped to shape, which, as one of the two main political parties in the state, has "facilitated the process and growth" of a "two-party system" in Bangladesh, which Hussain describes as "an important condition for a sustainable democratic order."[2] Chowdhury takes it as axiomatic that a two-party system is a sign of a mature democracy and comments that this is clearly emerging in Bangladesh.[18] His argument, referring to lessons to be learned from the United States politics and from other two-part systems, is that a system where two parties are able to attract enough support to gain power at intervals, which transfer power peacefully via the ballot box, ensures stability and while also preventing the monopolizing of power.

Preceded by:
Ziaur Rahman
President of Bangladesh
30 May 1981–24 March 1982
Succeeded by:
Hossain Mohammad Ershad


  1. 1.0 1.1 Robert C. Oberst, Charles H. Kennedy, Yogendra K. Malik, and Mahendra Lawoti, Government And Politics In South Asia (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2008, ISBN 978-0813343891), 277.
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 Golam Hussain, "Bangladesh National Party: From Military Rule to Champion of Democracy." In Subrata Kumar Mitra, Mike Enskat, and Clemens Spiess (eds.), Political Parties in South Asia (Westport, CT: Praeger, ISBN 978-0275968328), 196-215.
  3. Dushyantha Mendis, Electoral Processes and Governance in South Asia (New Delhi, IN: Sage Publications, 2008, ISBN 978-0761935773), 57.
  4. Mahfuzul H. Chowdhury, Democratization in South Asia: Lessons from American Institutions (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003, ISBN 978-0754634232), 37.
  5. Mitra and Enskat, "Introduction," in Mitra et. al., (2004), 21.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 D. Hugh Evans, "Bangladesh: An Unsteady Democracy." In Amita Shastri and A. Jeyaratnam Wilson, The Post-Colonial States of South Asia: Democracy, Identity, Development, and Security (Routledge, 2001, ISBN 978-0700712922), 69-87.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Oberst (2008), 255.
  8. Oberst (2008), 254.
  9. Chowdhury (2003), 120.
  10. Mendis, 59.
  11. Chowdhury (2003), 111.
  12. Chowdhury (2003), 52.
  13. Chowdhury (2003), 38.
  14. Ziring (1997), 317.
  15. Oberst (2008), 267.
  16. Wolpert (1977), 402.
  17. Oberst (2008), 273.
  18. Chowdhury (2003), 61.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Chowdhury, Mahfuzul H. Democratization in South Asia: Lessons from American Institutions. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003. ISBN 978-0754634232.
  • Mendis, Dushyantha. Electoral Processes and Governance in South Asia. New Delhi, IN: Sage Publications, 2008. ISBN 978-0761935773.
  • Mitra, Subrata Kumar, Mike Enskat, and Clemens Spiess. Political Parties in South Asia. Political Parties in Context. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004. ISBN 978-0275968328.
  • Oberst, Robert C., Charles H. Kennedy, Yogendra K. Malik and Mahendra Lawoti. Government And Politics In South Asia: Sixth Edition. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0813343891.
  • Shastri, Amita, and A. Jeyaratnam Wilson. The Post-Colonial States of South Asia: Democracy, Identity, Development, and Security. Routledge, 2001. ISBN 978-0700712922.
  • Wolpert, Stanley A. A New History of India. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1977. ISBN 978-0195021530.
  • Ziring, Lawrence. Pakistan in the Twentieth Century: A Political History. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1997. ISBN 0195778152.


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