New Delhi — The May 30 assassination of Bangladesh President Ziaur Rahman has sent another shudder of instability across the troubled Indian subcontinent. And it presents the poor but heavily populated country itself with a formidable problem: how to overcome the divisions dramatized by the coup attempt , let alone find a successor to a man of such stature.
The late President Zia's powerful personality had dominated the Bangladeshi political scene, and the ranks of would-be leaders of national stature and appeal are splintered and thin.
The whole subcontinent is already in a state of considerable tension. Pakistan and India appear headed into another arms race in the wake of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and American countermoves to strengthen Pakistan's defenses.
Bangladesh and India have been at loggerheads over the ownership of a tiny island which has emerged in their river boundary and over the use of one of the subcontinent's more precious commodities -- water -- from the Ganges River.
Indo-Bangladesh tensions heightened two weeks ago upon the triumphant return to Bangladesh of Hasina Wazed, daughter of the country's assassinated first president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, from six years of exile in India.
Mrs. Wazed had been elected in absentia as chairman of her father's old Awami League party. Although badly splintered, the Awami League represented the most potent opposition to Zia's ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
Zia reportedly saw both a political threat and a meddlesome New Delhi hand in Mrs. Wazed's election and return, and -- by Indian accounts -- had been orchestrating an anti-India campaign to head off the threat.
There have been no indications of Awami League involvement in the coup attempt, and India has hotly denied any role. Indeed, preliminary indications were that the leaders of the attempted coup are anti-Indian, as seen by their early broadcast over Chittagong radio that the 1972 Indo-Bangladesh friendship treaty "stands abrogated."
(An unconfirmed Indian news agency report said that Mrs. Wazed had been arrested by Bangladesh government forces during an attempt to cross the border back into India on Sunday.)
The coup attempt has simmered down to a war of words over the radio waves between the Dacca government and the rebels in Chittagong, the country's main port and second-largest city. Dacca has called on loyal troops to disarm the rebel leaders, who have been broadcasting from Chittagong's captured radio station, claiming total control of the city and urging rebels soldiers to maintain a vigil against "enemy forces."
Abdus Sattar, vice-president and supreme court justice, has taken over as acting president, and most of the country is reported quiet and under Dacca control.
With Zia's death, south Asia has lost one of the few leaders who coupled the rhetoric of economic development with a strong personal push to help make it happen.
Unlike "Zia west" -- President Zia ulHaq of Pakistan -- who also came to power via a voup and martial law administration, Bangladesh's "Zia east" came through on his promise to hold elections and restore his country to parliamentary democracy.
Zia first came to national attention, when, as a young Army major, he signaled the start of the bloody civil war that would result in the freedom of Bangladesh -- then the eastern wing of Pakistan -- from the Pakistan central government located the full width of India away.
The euphoria of independence, finally won with the help of India's armed forces nine months later, crumpled in the face of Bangladesh's overwhelming mass poverty and the political chaos which Sheikh Mujibur Rahman tried to stem by assuming authoritarian powers. The sheikh was assassinated in 1975 and, after a series of coups and counter-coups, Zia emerged as a key figure, later martial law administrator.
Zia pledged a return to civilian government, won a national referendum on his programs, and swept a 1978 presidential election. The following year, he led his Bangladesh Nationalist Party to victory in parliamentary election.
Although the Bangladesh political pot continued to bubble, Zia is credited with giving his country the longest period of political stability it has known.
A unque feature of his presidency was his personal zeal in promoting the economic development of a country mired in mass poverty, where annual per capita income is less than $100 dollars and 80 percent of the people live below subsistence poverty levels.
To complement the massive foreign aid flowing into Bangladesh, he preached a near-revolutionary message to his impoverished countrymen: that they must work harder, help themselves, make use of the modern methods the government was providing to limit their families, grow more food, and learn to read and write.
His travels by helicopter nearly 20 days a month to far-flung villages were beginning to pay off. Irrigation canals, dug by volunteer village labor, were doubling or tripling the growing season. More couples were volunteering for family planning, a necessity in a country already densely packed and growing at an alarming rate. Even Zia's No. 1 goal, which he called a matter of national survival, appeared within a few years' grasp: food self-sufficiency.