Sunday, March 8, 2009

What’s happening in Bangladesh?

From the 25th of February, disturbing news started coming in from Bangladesh. The Pilkhana headquarters of Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) in Dhaka was seized by a mutiny and at least sixty-four army officers along with seven non-army personals including women and children were massacred by the mutineers. The dead includes the BDR chief Major General Shakil Ahmed and other high ranking officers. The killings mainly happened in the ‘Darbar Hall’ inside the BDR premise during the annual gathering of BDR commanders and according to the few survivors most of the killings were done between 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. on the first day. After killing the senior officers, the mutineers stormed the residential officer’s quarters, attacked and dragged out the family members and set the quarters on fire. Gold ornaments, jewelries and money were looted. The dead bodies were disfigured with bayonets and later dumped into nearby sewers and mass graves inside the BDR compound. The full horror of the mutiny became evident when bodies of the slain officers including the wife of the Director General were recovered. The mutiny was also reported to have spread to twelve border districts of the country including Dinajpur, Chittagong, Rajshahi and Naugaon.

Intense rumors of an imminent army take-over soon spread out like wildfire all over Bangladesh. But according to media report, the army chief Moin Ahmed assured Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina by saying that “Rumors are swirling… but the army belongs to you.” His force remained loyal to the civilian government which took over power just in December last year after a landslide victory in the general elections. This assurance reinforced the government to deal with the situation with firm resolve. It was Hasina’s insistence for a political solution of the crisis that the army kept itself away from any direct confrontation with the mutineers. Sheikh Hasina herself met fourteen representative leaders of the BDR rebels and after discussing their grievances initially announced to grant them amnesty. Various leaders and ministers including the Home Minister Sahara Khatun were busy throughout the night to keep dialogues between the government and rebel soldiers open. In a daring act, Ms. Khatun and State Minister Jahangir Kabir Nanak entered the BDR premise at midnight and rescued an injured officer and forty family members who were held hostage by the rebels. However, when all sorts of negotiation failed to make the mutineers to surrender, the government strategically started mobilizing the Army on the second day. Eleven tanks moved in to encircle the Pilkhana complex; people living near the BDR headquarters were evacuated. Hasina addressed the nation in a televised statement and appealed to the troops to surrender the arms. Finally, on 26th of February between 4:30 to 6:00 p.m. the unnerved rebels surrendered by laying down their arms. By then, many of the rebel soldiers had fled their posts. Two hundred mutineers were arrested while trying to escape in civilian outfits. The police started a massive manhunt ‘Operation Rebel Hunt’ throughout the country to capture the fugitive masterminds of the revolt and soon arrested BDR's Deputy Assistant Director Touhidul Alam and four other suspects. According to an official estimate, about two thousand suspected mutineers are still absconding. The government later clarified that the general amnesty announced by Sheikh Hasina will not be applicable for the masterminds who was directly involved with the planning and killings.

Formerly known as East Pakistan Rifles, BDR is presently a 67,000-strong paramilitary force deployed to guard the 4,427 kilometer long Bangladesh boarders with India and Myanmar with additional anti-smuggling operational charge. The force revolted in 1971 against the West Pakistan army by joining the Bangladesh liberation war. After the emergence of Bangladesh the force was renamed as Bangladesh Rifles and emerged as the new country’s leading paramilitary force. BDR administration is mostly controlled by officers from the Bangladesh Army.

Rebel leaders speaking to private television channels affirmed that the mutiny was directed primarily against the corruption of their officers who came from the army. According to them, the other central reasons of the uprising were the disparity of pay, benefits, working conditions and promotional opportunities as compared to their army counterparts. Their 22-point demand includes withdrawal of army officers from the command structure of BDR. The mutineers were initially successful to represent the uprising as a class conflict between exploitive officers and exploited soldiers and accused the officers as abusive and utterly insensitive towards the woes of ordinary soldiers. They claimed that their long-standing grievances were repeatedly raised before the authorities but all fell on deaf ears. Unofficial reports suggested that BDR Director General had promised to discuss their grievances with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina but failed to keep his promise when Hasina visited the barracks on 24 February to inaugurate the BDR week events. The uprising might be partly impulsive though there are ample reasons to suggest that there could be a ‘deep-rooted conspiracy’ behind it.

Since Bangladesh was born in 1971 there were several big and small coup attempts in the country. The country’s history of army coups started in 1975 when Sheikh Hasina’s father, the country's iconic founder president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was brutally assassinated along with his wife and three sons by junior officers of Bangladesh army. Given its history of coups and counter coups, the first thing that obviously appeared in the mind from the uprising was that the country was heading for another coup. The present army leadership’s credible pro-democracy stance has negated this proposition. The cross-border theory of a ‘bigger conspiracy’ involving Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) which has strong pockets of influence in the BDR came next. It suggested that the violence was the handiwork of the ISI, aimed to spoil growing ties between Sheikh Hasina’s government and India. The ISI also wanted to signal India about its capability to stall New Delhi’s growing influence in Bangladesh. Indian media came up with the story of Salauddin Qadeer Chowdhury, a senior Bangladeshi businessman and BNP politician. Involving Chowdhury with the conspiracy for having close links with the ISI, the media reports also stated that the original planning was hatched in Pakistan and then passed on to radical Islamist organizations operating in Bangladesh like the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami (HUJI). Differing to the Indian side story, conspiracy theories were floated within Bangladesh which claimed that India’s external intelligence agency RAW was involved to revenge the death of nineteen of their Border Security Force (BSF) personals killed by the BDR at Padua of Sylhet and Boraibari of Roumary in 2001. The name of Britain based Islamist organization Hizb-ut-Tahrir also popped up which for the last couple of years is known to reckon Bangladesh as its area of interest.

Was it really a deliberate and well crafted attempt to incite the army to apply force, take over power and subsequently destabilize the new democratically elected government? Questions were asked why the mutineers had brutally killed the officers and their family members instead of following the usual method to accomplish their demands by holding the army officers as hostages. The modus operandi of the uprising and latest developments emerging from the investigation is supporting this speculation. Investigators have started gathering evidences which are contrary to the initial perception that the uprising stemmed out of grievances. The perpetrators might have exploited the deprived feelings of the common BDR men and motivated a section of them in the heinous act. Latest revelation from the investigation hints about the presence of uniformed outsiders during the massacre. BDR soldiers who had fled Pilkhana through the back doors and now reporting back are claiming that masked soldiers brandishing guns and firing blank shots forced them to join the revolt. Whatever might be the truth, one thing is certain. The evolving events do suggest that Hasina’s government is fronting an extremely intricate problem to deal with. It has to move cautiously otherwise the ramification could turn disastrous.

Sheikh Hasina’s well-known pro-India stand has caused enough displeasure to the pro-Pakistan elements of Bangladesh. Fingers of suspicion are been pointed towards the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami, their extensive network of grassroot organizations and the former Razakar and Al-Badars – who has regrouped within the Jamaat fold. These are the atrocious elements that had collaborated with the Pakistan Army during the nine months long Bangladesh’s Mukti Juddho (liberation war) and staged the mass genocide of millions of their own people and enforced million others to flee to neighboring India as refugees. After Mujibur Rahman was assassinated, Zia Ur Rahman helped to resettle these Islamist collaborators in Bangladesh politics. He legalized Jamaat-e-Islami as a political party, allowed them to carry on with their vicious socio-political activities and had also permitted Jamaat leader Golam Azam to return to Bangladesh from his exile. Azam’s citizenship was previously nullified by Mujibur Rahman for his resolute opposition to creation of Bangladesh. After the resettlement, Jamaat-e-Islami continued to flourish and strengthened their base at the time of General Hossain Mohammad Ershad’s regime in areas like Chittagong, Sylhet and Rajshahi and steadily became politically important in Bangladesh. Jamaat allied with Zia Ur Rahman’s wife Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), lead a four-party coalition government during 2001-2006 and held two Ministries in the government. There is little doubt that Jamaat-e-Islami has a sizeable presence in the country’s rural areas and their fanatic Mullahs has infested enough Pan-Islamic religious extremism and hatred among the illiterate and poor populace. The BDR rank and file is drawn mainly from these economically backward and poor rural belts.

These elements are infuriated and deeply worried about Hasina's plans to set up a war-crimes tribunal to put on trial the collaborators of West Pakistani army. In the second week of February, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari had sent his special envoy to Dhaka and pressurized the Bangladesh government to retract from the trial which the government immediately turned down. By pulling the ear, the head comes along – besides a number of Jamaat leaders, some of the bigwigs of Khaleda Zia’s BNP could also be in genuine trouble if the government goes ahead with the trial. Hasina has also announced that she will not allow Bangladesh’s soil to be used as a haven for terrorist activities. Her government has promised to eliminate terrorist camps in Bangladesh and to restrain ISI operations from Bangladesh territory. All these factors are enough to incite rage and enmity among co-religionist and Pan-Islamic elements against the present government and army leadership. From their extremist inspiration these elements apparently might have tried to send a warning to the government that it should restrain from implementing their secular-democratic agenda.

Historically, Bangladesh’s political style has always been marked by its confrontational nature. This style of politics was introduced during the liberation movement when the political class, bureaucrats, army, students, elites and intellectuals became divided either into pro-liberation or pro-Pakistan camps. This hate-inspired division has eventually created a gravely corrupt political system and weak institutions. This sense of hatred has been aggravated by centralization of power in the hands of the executive class. Taking advantage of the chaotic state of Bangladesh politics that prevailed following the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the army directly got involved into the political sphere to play the role of the savior, fingered external relations and consequently demolished the democratic values. The subsistence of successive post-Mujib regimes heavily depended on the army support. The present army leadership appears to be committed for democratic values and is free from Islamist bias. This is a positive sign for Bangladesh’s future in contrast to the lopsided role the army has opted so far.

Bangladesh is still one of the poorest countries in the world. Concentrating on the precarious economic situation is therefore the utmost job of the new government. Sanitizing a corrupt political system and standing firm against rampant corruption in the high offices is also another major objective to attain. It also needs to carefully address the menace of religious fundamentalist elements in its society. Whether in Bangladesh, India or Pakistan, the face of religious fundamentalism is common. It is always autocratic, brutal and driven primarily by hatred. In a society where most of the people are illiterate and miserably trapped in poverty and religious inducement, the incidence of the BRD mutiny will remain a matter of deep concern.

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