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BNP Founder and President Ziaur Rahman 1936 - 1981

President Ziaur Rahman, Bir Uttam, (Bengali: জিয়াউর রহমান Ji-yaur Rôhman) (January 19, 1936 – May 30, 1981) was a Bangladeshi politician and general, who made the declaration of Independence of Bangladesh on March 27, 1971 on behalf of the national leaders. He later became the seventh President of Bangladesh from 1977 until 1981. A highly decorated and accomplished military officer, he retired from the Bangladesh Army as a Lieutenant General. He was the first sector and brigade commander of the Bangladeshi Forces during the Bangladesh war of independence with Pakistan. As a Military ruler, he first founded JAGODAL but he himself did not become a member of it. Then he founded the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), one of the two largest political parties in the country. He is popularly known as Shaheed President Zia, meaning martyred Zia, in reference to his 1981 assassination.

President of Bangladesh
In office
21 April 1977 – 30 May 1981
Prime Minister Mashiur Rahman (Acting)
Shah Azizur Rahman
Preceded by Abu Sadat Mohammad Sayem
Succeeded by Abdus Sattar
Personal details
Born 19 January 1936(1936-01-19)
Bagbari, British Empire (now Bangladesh)
Died 30 May 1981(1981-05-30) (aged 45)
Chittagong, Bangladesh
Political party Nationalist Party
Spouse(s) Khaleda Zia
Alma mater D. J. Science College
Pakistan Military Academy
Command and Staff College
Profession Public Service
Religion Islam
Military service
Allegiance Pakistan
Bangladesh Forces
Service/branch Pakistan Army
Bangladesh Army
Years of service 1953–1977
Rank Lieutenant General
Awards Bir Uttom


Ziaur Rahman, commissioned military officer by career, attained the rank of Lieutenant General before retiring and then assuming the office of the presidency of Bangladesh. During the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965, Zia served in the Khemkaran sector in Punjab as the commander of a Pakistani company unit of 300–500 soldiers. The sector was the scene of the most intense battles between the rival armies. The Pakistani government awarded Zia's unit with the highest numbers of gallantry awards for heroic performances during the war. Ziaur Rahman himself won the distinguished and prestigious Hilal-e-Jurat medal, and his unit won 2 Sitara-e-Jurat medals and 9 Tamgha-e-Jurat medals from the Army for their brave roles in the 1965 War with India.

During the afternoon of 25 March 1971, when the West Pakistani Army started a genocide was still sporadic against the Bengalis of East Pakistan, Major Zia revolted and announced this in front of the soldiers of his regiment. On evening of 27 March, Major Zia's unit (2/5 East Bengal Regiment) and members of the EPRarrived the Kalurghat radio station in Chittagong from where a number of people already read out Declaration of Independence on behalf of their great leader Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and rad out the declaration independence of Bangladesh. On the early morning of 28 March 1971, radio stations repeated Zia's original declaration of independence in the name of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. After the declaration, the war broke all out, Ziaur Rahman served as the commander of sector no. 1 for a month and then set up his HQ at Sabroom, Tripura. At the end of May Zia was transferred to Teldhala, north of Roumari, he built Sector 11 and commanded it along with 'Z' Force Brigade. He moved with his brigade to Sylhet for operations against the Pakistan Army on 10 October, when he handed the sector over to Major Abu Taher. Recognized as a war hero in Bangladesh, the government of Bangladesh honored him with the second highest gallantry award Bir Uttom in 1972 and was made brigade commander in Comilla. A high-ranking accomplished officer in the Bangladesh Army, Zia was appointed deputy chief of army staff in 1973. After being appointed chief of staff in 1975 by the Mushtaq government, a coup led by Khaled Musharraf, had Zia arrested. Zia was rescued by members of No. 2 Artillery Battery and confined there for safety. After Brigadier Khaled Musharraf was killed by another uprising and mutiny by disgrunteled members of the army inside Dhaka Cantonment led by former freedom fighter retired Lt.Col. Taher, who was at the time JSD leader created a serious chaos. Zia reorganised himself, took full control of the situation and brought down the chaos to a standstill. Major General returned to his post of Army chief and declared a State of Emergency and Martial Law and announced himself as Deputy Chief Martial Law Administrator. Chief Justice of Bangladesh was handed over the charge of the President of Bangladesh. Ziaur Rahaman assumed the office of the President of the country in 1977 and won a popular referendum held in 1978 in support of his policies and leadership. He engaged himself in politics by floating a political party that came to be known as Jagodal. Later he founded the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Zia won widespread popular support for stabilising the nation and leading it in a new direction. Zia who turned out to be a right-wing politician, established free market economic policies in a 19-point program of industrialisation and development. For achieving popular support, he adopted policies bringing the government increasingly under Islam, which he included in the national constitution. A popular leader, Zia was assassinated in 1981 in an abortive military coup.

Early life

Ziaur Rahman was born in the village of Bagbari in the Bogra District of the northwest Bangladesh. His father, Mansur Rahman, was a chemist working for a government department in Kolkata. Zia's childhood was divided between living in the village and the city. He was later enrolled into the Hare School in Kolkata. With the partition of the British-Indian sub-continent in 1947, Mansur Rahman with his family returned to East Bengal, which became part of the new state of Pakistan. The family later moved to Karachi, the federal capital located in Sindh West Pakistan, where Mansur Rahman had been transferred to work for the Government of Pakistan. Zia was enrolled in the Academy School in Karachi.

Zia spent his adolescent years in Karachi and enrolled in the D.J. College there in 1953. In the same year, he entered the Pakistan Military Academy in Kakul as an officer cadet. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Pakistan Army in 1955. After serving for two years in Karachi, he was transferred to the East Bengal Regiment in 1957. He attended West Germany and UK military training schools. In 1960, his marriage was arranged to Khaleda Khanum, a young Bengali girl from the Dinajpur District who was 15 years old. Khaleda Zia remained with her parents in East Pakistan to complete her studies and joined her husband in Karachi in 1965. During the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965, Zia served in the Khemkaran sector in Punjab as the commander of a company unit of 300–500 soldiers. The sector was the scene of the most intense battles between the rival armies. Zia's unit won one of the highest numbers of gallantry awards for heroic performances. Ziaur Rahman himself won the distinguished and prestigious Hilal-e-Jurat medal, and his unit won 2 Sitara-e-Jurat medals and 9 Tamgha-e-Jurat medals from the Army for their brave roles in the 1965 War with India.

In 1966, Zia was appointed military instructor at the Pakistan Military Academy, later going on to attend the prestigious Command and Staff College in Quetta, where he completed a course in command and tactical warfare. Advocating that the Pakistan Army make greater efforts to recruit and encourage Bengali military officers, Zia helped raise two Bengali battalions during his stint as instructor. Trained for high-ranking command posts, Zia joined the 2nd East Bengal regiment as its second-in-command at Joydevpur in 1969. Although sectarian tensions between East and West Pakistan were intensifying, Zia travelled to West Germany to receive advanced military and command training with the German Army.

Zia returned to Pakistan the following year, and witnessed political turmoil and regional division. East Pakistan had been devastated by the 1970 Bhola cyclone, and the population had been embittered by the slow response of the central government. The political conflict between Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's Awami League, which had won a majority in the 1970 elections, the President Yahya Khan and West Pakistani politician Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had brought sectarian tensions to a climax. Sheikh Mujib laid claim to form a government, but Yahya Khan postponed the convening of the legislature under pressure from West Pakistani politicians. Bengali civil and military officers had alleged institutional discrimination through the 1960s, and now distrust had divided the Pakistani Army. Upon his return, Zia attained the rank of Major and was transferred to the 8th East Bengal regiment stationed in Chittagong to serve as its second-in-command.

Sector Commander of Bangladesh Forces

Following the failure of last-ditch talks, Yahya Khan declared martial law and ordered the army to crack down on Bengali political activities and arrested Sheikh Mujib on the early mornings of March 26, 1971. He then joined the war of liberation on 27 March 1971, forced by his Bengali fighters. During the evening hours Zia rushed to protect the pro-liberation radio station at Kalurghat, Chittagong. Later during the night of March 27, 1971, Ziaur Rahman made the first official declaration of independence of Bangladesh and declared himself head of the provisional revolutionary government of Bangladesh, against the Pakistani occupation army. Later on 28 March he again made another declaration which read:

This is Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendro. I, Major Ziaur Rahman, do, hereby declare the independence of Bangladesh on behalf of our great leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

Zia organised an infantry unit gathering all Bengali soldiers from military and EPR units in Chittagong. He designated it Sector No. 1 with its HQ in Sabroom. A few weeks later, it was restructured officially under Bangladesh Forces as the sector in the Chittagong and Hill Tracts area, under General M. A. G. Osmani, the Supreme Commander of Bangladesh Forces, of the Provisional Government of Bangladesh HQ'd at 8 Theatre Road, Calcutta, WB, India. On June 30, 1971 Zia was appointed the commander of the first conventional brigade of the Bangladesh Forces, which was named "Z Force", after the first initial of his name, followed by K-forces in August and S-force in September, named after Major Khaled Musharrafand Major Shafiullah respectively. His brigade consisted of 1st, 3rd and 8th East Bengali regiments, enabling Zia to launch major attacks on Pakistani forces. Having earned a reputation for courageous leadership during the course of the war and reading the declaration of independence of Bangladesh in a critical time , Zia was awarded the Bir Uttom, the second-highest military honour by the Government of Bangladesh . He was given command of a brigade stationed in Comilla, and in 1974 June he was appointed deputy chief of army staff. He was later promoted to the rank of Major General by the end of 1973. As a high-ranking commander, Zia oversaw the training and development of the army.

Coup of 1975 and its aftermath

On August 15, 1975 Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family were killed by a group of military officers. One of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's cabinet ministers Khondaker Mostaq Ahmad was appointed the president and, subsequently, Major General Ziaur Rahman was appointed as the army chief after removal of Major General K M Shafiullah. However, the coup of 15 August caused a period of instability and unrest in Bangladesh and more so across the ranks and files of the army. Brigadier Khaled Mosharraf and the Dhaka Brigade under Colonel Shafat Jamil made a counter-coup on November 3, 1975, and Ziaur Rahman was forced to resign and was put under house arrest. A third coup was staged under Colonel Abu Taher and a group of socialist military officers and supporters of the left-wing National Socialist Party on November 7, called the "National Revolution and Solidarity Day" (Sipoy-Janata Biplob) (Soldiers and People's Coup). Brigadier Khaled Mosharraf was killed and Colonel Jamil arrested, while Colonel Taher freed Ziaur Rahman and re-appointed him as army chief. Following a major meeting at the army headquarters, an interim government was formed with Justice Abu Sadat Mohammad Sayem as chief martial law administrator and Zia, Air Vice Marshal M. G. Tawab and Rear Admiral M. H. Khan as his deputies. Zia also took on the portfolios of home affairs, finance, industry and information along with becoming the army chief of staff. However, discipline in the army had totally collapsed and it was difficult to disarm the soldiers and put them back to the barracks. Fearing that Colonel Abu Taher, who in fact rescued him few months earlier, would attempt to organise another revolt, Zia ordered his arrest. Following a secret trial in a military court, Zia authorised the execution of Colonel Taher on July 21, 1976. Zia became the chief martial law administrator following Justice Sayem's elevation to the presidency on November 19, 1976. He tried to integrate the armed forces, giving repatriates a status appropriate to their qualifications and seniority. While this angered some veterans of the Mukti Bahini, who had rapidly reached high positions following liberation in 1971, Zia defused potential threats from discontented officers by sending them on diplomatic missions abroad.

President of Bangladesh

Major General Ziaur Rahman became the 7th President of Bangladesh on April 21, 1977 following Justice Sayem's resignation on grounds of "ill health", which many believed was simply a pretext for Zia's rise to power with army's backing. Although Sayem had held the title of president, historians believe it was Zia who exercised real power from the cantonment. Sayem had promised early elections, but Zia postponed the plans. The years of disorder had left most of Bangladesh's state institutions in disarray, with constant threats of military coups amidst strikes and protests. Assuming full control of the state, Zia banned political parties, censored the media, re-imposed martial law and ordered the army to arrest dissidents. Martial law restored order across the country to a large measure and as Zia crushed several attempted uprisings with ruthless measures, discipline was finally restored in the army.

In late September 1977, a group of Japanese Red Army terrorists hijacked an airplane and forced it to land in Dhaka. On September 30, while the attention of the government was riveted on this event, a mutiny broke out in Bogra. Although the mutiny was quickly quelled on the night of October 2, a second mutiny occurred in Dhaka. The mutineers unsuccessfully attacked Zia's residence, captured Dhaka Radio for a short time and killed a number of air force officers at Dhaka international airport, where they were gathered for negotiations with the hijackers. The army quickly put down the rebellion, but the government was severely shaken. Government intelligence had failed and Zia promptly dismissed both the military and the civilian intelligence chiefs. Special tribunals dealt harshly with the large groups of bandits, smugglers and guerrilla bands operating across the country. The size of Bangladeshi police forces was doubled and the strength of the army increased from 50,000 to 90,000 soldiers.

When Ziaur Rahman assumed the presidency after legalizing military coups and the revival of the multiparty system was seen again he appointed Hussain Muhammad Ershad as the new Chief of Army Staff, promoting him to the rank of Lieutenant General. Viewed as a professional soldier with no political aspirations (because of his imprisonment in former West Pakistan during the Bangladesh Liberation War) and having a talent for Bengali speech writing, Ershad soon became Zia's closest politico-military counselor.

Domestic and foreign policies

Zia had taken charge of a nation suffering from severe poverty, chronic unemployment, shortages and economic stagnation. Muting the state's commitment to socialism, Zia announced a "19-point programme" which emphasised self-reliance, rural development, decentralisation and population control. Zia worked energetically and spent much of his time traveling throughout the country, preaching the "politics of hope" by continually urging all Bangladeshis to work harder and to produce more. Zia focused on boosting agricultural and industrial production, especially in food and grains, and to integrate rural development through a variety of programs, of which population planning was the most important. Working with the proposals of international lending agencies, he launched an ambitious rural development program in 1977, which included a highly visible and popular food-for-work program. He promoted private sector development, exports growth and the reversing of the collectivisation of farms. His government reduced quotas and restrictions on agriculture and industrial activities. Zia launched major projects to construct irrigation canals, power stations, dams, roads and other public works. Directing his campaign to mobilise rural support and development, Zia established Gram Sarkar (Village Councils) system of self-government and the "Village Defence Party" system of security and crime prevention. Programmes to promote primary and adult education on a mass scale were initiated and focused mainly across rural Bangladesh. During this period, Bangladesh's economy achieved fast economic and industrial growth.

Zia began reorienting Bangladesh's foreign policy, addressing the concerns of nationalists who believed that Bangladesh was reliant on Indian economic and military aid. Zia withdrew from his predecessors' affinity with the Soviet bloc, developing closer relations with the United States and Western Europe. Zia also moved to harmonise ties with Saudi Arabia and the People's Republic of China, who had opposed Bangladesh's creation and had not recognised it till 1975. Zia also dropped the demands of reparations and an official apology demanded by Sheikh Mujib and moved to normalise relations with Pakistan. While distancing Bangladesh from India, Zia sought to improve ties with other Islamic nations. Zia's move towards Islamic state policies improved the nation's standing in the Middle East. Zia also proposed an organisation of the nations of South Asia to bolster economic and political co-operation at a regional level. This proposal materialised in 1985 under the Presidency of Hussain Muhammad Ershad with the creation of the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation in Dhaka.

Politics for development

Ziaur Rahman's philosophy of statesmanship was reflected in the coinage of the term politics for development. This was to bring an end to what is called "power politics", since he observed how ownership of the government offered an easy means for misappropriating public wealth through rent-seeking activities. He travelled thousands of miles across the country on foot to drive home his message. He addressed countless public gatherings, large and small, to encourage people to work hard for growth and development. His approach was quite idealistic in nature. His khal kata karmasuchi, for controlling the menace of annual flood, was unique and he engendered participation of people form all walks of life. Awami League leader Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir became a blue eyed boy of the president with the Ulshi Jadunathput Project which was one of the exemplary success story of this khal kata karmasuchi. Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir, then Deputy Commissioner of Jessore district, planned and implemented the project with illustrative success. The country registered significant rise in food production and near-autarky was achieved by 1978.

Islam and nationalism

Zia moved to lead the nation in a new direction, significantly different from the ideology and agenda of Sheikh Mujib. He issued a proclamation order amending the constitution, increasing the direct influence and role of Islam on the government. In the preamble, he inserted the salutation "Bismillahir-Rahmaanir-Rahim" ("In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful"). In Article 8(1) and 8(1A) the statement "absolute trust and faith in Almighty Allah"' was added, replacing the commitment to secularism. Socialism was redefined as "economic and social justice". Zia further introduced provisions to allow Muslims to practice the social and legal injunctions of the Shariat and Sunnah. In Article 25(2), Zia introduced the principle that '"the state shall endeavour to consolidate, preserve and strengthen fraternal relations among Muslim countries based on Islamic solidarity." Zia's edits to the constitution redefined the nature of the republic from the secularism laid out by Sheikh Mujib and his supporters. Islamic religious education was introduced as a compulsory subject in Bangladeshi schools, with provisions for non-Muslim students to learn of their own religions.

In public speeches and policies that he formulated, Zia began expounding "Bangladeshi nationalism", as opposed to Mujib's assertion of a Bengali national identity. Zia emphasised the national role of Islam (as practised by the majority of Bangladeshis). Claiming to promote an inclusive national identity, Zia reached out to non-Bengali minorities such as the Santals, Garos, Manipuris and Chakmas, as well as the Urdu-speaking peoples of Bihari origin. However, many of these groups were predominantly Hindu and Buddhist and were alienated by Zia's promotion of political Islam. In an effort to promote cultural assimilation and economic development, Zia appointed a Chittagong Hill Tracts Development Commission in 1976, but resisted holding a political dialogue with the representatives of the hill tribes on the issue of autonomy and cultural self-preservation. On July 2, 1977 Ziaur Rahman organised a tribal convention to promote a dialogue between the government and tribal groups.

After the formation of Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Zia took initiative for formation of political institutes and sponsored workshops for the youth to get active political lessons on Bangladeshi nationalism. In such an workshop in September 1980, Zia spoke to the learners,

Eventually an effective political ideology cannot be based on any certain religion. Religion can offer some contribution, but an entire political activism cannot be oriented in accordance with religion. Political history of this region has the example of religion-based politics attempted in Pakistan and it failed. Not only in Islam, people in other religions of many regions try to keep on politics based on religion. It's not right. It's important and it should be remembered.


As Bangladesh's ruler, Zia enacted several controversial measures, some to discipline the army, some to unify the nation and some to win the support of Islamic political parties. However, he took no action against Awami League leaders who were infamous for corruption. When he re-introduced multy-party politics. He allowed Sheikh Hasina, the exile daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to return to Bangladesh. However, he did not disapprove Jamaat-e-Islami, which had been earlier banned by Sheikh Mujib. Jamaat-e-Islami was widely believed to have collaborated with the Pakistani army, which committed war crimes, and in unsuccessfully preventing Bangladesh's independence. Golam Azam, the exiled chief of the Jammat-e-Islami, was allowed to come back to Bangladesh in July 1978 with a Pakistani passport on a visitor's visa, and he remained in Bangladesh following its expiry. No court case was lodged for his trial over his alleged role in committing wartime atrocities. Also, some Jamaat leaders were appointed in ministerial posts. Zia also rehabilitated Shah Azizur Rahman, a high-profile opponent of the creation of Bangladesh, and several men accused of murdering Sheikh Mujib. The Indeminity Ordinance proclaimed by President Mustaque was ratified in the Parliament when Zia's party BNP had a landslide victory in the national election of 1979. The ordinance thereby became Indemnity Act.

During the tenure of President Hussain Muhammad Ershad, the Indemnity Act was incorporated as the 5th amendment to the constitution, legalising the military coups, rule under martial law and other political events between 1975 to 1979. Zia also gave Sheikh Mujib's assassins Major Dalim, Major Rashid, and Major Faruk jobs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and in subsequent years they were appointed ambassadors of Bangladesh to African and Middle Eastern nations. Shah Azizur Rahman was appointed Bangladesh's prime minister, serving through Zia's tenure in the presidency.


Chittagong Circuit House

Large processions follow the funeral of Zia

During his term of power, Zia was criticised for ruthless treatment of his army opposition. Although he enjoyed overall popularity and public confidence, Zia's rehabilitation of some of the most controversial men in Bangladesh aroused fierce opposition from the supporters of the Awami League and veterans of the Mukti Bahini. Amidst speculation and fears of unrest, Zia went on tour to Chittagong on May 29, 1981 to help resolve an intra-party political dispute in the regional BNP. Zia and his entourage stayed overnight at the Chittagong Circuit House. In the early hours of the morning of May 30, he was assassinated by a group of army officers along with six bodyguards and two aides.


After the assassination of Ziaur Rahman on 30 May 1981, Ershad remained loyal to the government and ordered the army to suppress the coup attempt of Zia's associates led by Major General Abul Manzoor.

Major General Abul Manzoor was shot to death by army soldiers (name were not disclosed till 2010 by government). A military investigation kicked off immediately and 13 army officers were hanged while 19 officiers were ousted from army on 31 October 1981. Officers who were removed from army were Brigadier Abu Said Matiul Hannan Shah, Brigadier AKM Azizul Islam, Brigadier Gias Uddin Ahmed Chodhury (bir bikram), Brigadier Abu jafar aminul huque (bir bikram), Colonel Md. Bajlul goni patwari (bir protik), Lt. Colonel AS Enamul huque, Lt.Colonel Md. Jainul abedin, Lt. Colonel Md. Abdul hannan (bir pratik), Major Manjur ahmed (bir pratik), Major Wakar hassan (bir pratik), Major Md. Abdul jalil, Major Md. Asaduzzaman, Major Rafiqul islam, Major MD. Abdus salam, Major AKM Rezaul islam (bir pratik), Captain ASM Abdul hai, Captain Jahirul huque khan (bir pratik), Captain Majharul huque, Lt. Abul hasem

Zia was buried at the Chandrima Uddan in the locality of Sher-e-Banglanagar in Dhaka. People in large processions attended the funeral and paid their final respects. Vice President Abdus Sattar immediately succeeded him as the acting president.

Criticism and legacy

Mausoleum of Ziaur Rahman in Chandrima Uddan in Dhaka. Seen on the walls are posters of his widow, Begum Khaleda Zia.

Ziaur Rahman is considered one of the most important and controversial political leaders of Bangladesh. President Zia re-introduced a very limited form of multi-party democracy in Bangladesh after the country's founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, resorted to de facto one-party rule through BAKSAL in 1975. As president, General Zia notoriously legislated the Indemnity Bill, pardoning the subsequently-convicted killers of President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in August 1975. Also deeply controversial is Zia's rehabilitation of persons and political groups that had collaborated with the Pakistani army. Zia is also criticised for creating a "magna democracy", which remained largely beholden to his political party. Because other political parties like Awami League has internal tension barring its greater participation in politics. In a verdict passed on August 30, 2005 the Dhaka High Court declared the seizures of power by military coups between 1975 and 1979, including Zia's military regime as "unlawful and unconstitutional." Zia's martial law decrees, his ascendancy to the presidency in 1977 and the referendum held in 1978 were declared "unknown to the constitution." The court ruling overruled the Indemnity Act by which these very events were accorded a legal status and enshrined in the constitution.

Former US President Ronald Reagan praised him for his leadership and said that "The United States -- indeed the world -- had come to respect President Zia's profound and compassionate commitment to a better life for his people and his dedication to the rule of law. His wisdom in international affairs will be sorely missed".

While credited for ending the disorder of the final years of Sheikh Mujib's rule, Zia is assailed by his critics for suppressing opposition. However, Zia's economic reforms are credited with rebuilding the economy and his move towards Islamisation brought him the support of Bangladesh's far-right, Muslim fundamentalist factions, including former opponents to the Liberation War. His nationalist vision also appealed to many who resented the nation's strategic alliance with India and the Soviet Union. Moving away from Mujib's secularism, Zia asserted an Islamic political identity for Bangladesh and of membership in the wider community of Muslim nations. However, these measures also isolated and embittered many ethnic and religious minorities in Bangladesh, laying in the opinion of many historians the foundations of future communal and ethnic conflicts. It is generally acknowledged that he lived a simple life, which included opting to have his food supplied from the army canteen.

Ziaur Rahman is survived by his wife Begum Khaleda Zia and his sons Tareq Rahman and Arafat Rahman. Begum Khaleda Zia became the head of the BNP and organised a coalition of political parties opposed to Ershad's regime. In elections held in 1991, Begum Khaleda Zia led the BNP to victory and became prime minister. She lost the 1996 elections to the Awami League's Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, but returned to power in 2001. Tareq Rahman serves as BNP senior joint secretary, regarded by many as the architect of the BNP's 2001 election victory. Zia is the namesake of many public institutions, formerly the Zia International Airport in Dhaka, which is the busiest airport in the nation. Zia has also been honoured by the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation for his statesmanship and vision.