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Strong-arm tactics

Bangladesh needs to punish the guilty. But it also needs leaders like Hasina and Ahmed at the helm of affairs to usher in a new phase of democracy. For his role in establishing democracy and then preserving it, the army chief should be commended. Sumon K Chakrabarti examines.

india Updated: Mar 03, 2009 01:16 IST

Two decisions taken last week have ensured that Bangladesh’s tryst with democracy continues. One was taken on February 25, within hours of the bloody mutiny by the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) erupting on the streets of Dhaka and leaving more than 70 senior army officers dead. The country’s new civilian government decided to intervene and politically negotiate with the mutineering BDR soldiers who had taken control of the headquarters and held senior officers hostage.

Barely two months after she was elected with a overwhelming mandate, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina stepped in and engaged the mutineers in a successful carrot-and-stick strategy for the next 24 hours. In a country with a history of coups, the army — which had already rolled out tanks on the streets of Dhaka — was kept at bay. But it’s doubtful whether Hasina’s efforts would have yielded much if one man had not played along and hadn’t taken an equally vital decision. Bangladesh army chief General Moeen U. Ahmed didn’t disappoint. For the first time in the 38-year-old history of the nation, an army chief openly declared that his forces were “subservient to the government”.

By deciding to make this statement, Ahmed ensured that his army, seething with anger and ready to be provoked, showed restraint, especially at a time when the cruelty of the mutineers (who according to some reports had even mutilated the wives and children of some of the officers) and the scale of the carnage had made it clear that it was not a mutiny simply over a pay dispute. It was a pre-planned massacre led by a core group of about 30 BDR soldiers, bankrolled by some rich businessmen and plotted by a few former ministers and sidelined army officers along with the country’s largest Islamist political party.

The mutiny was not just an act of treason. It wasn’t plotted only to destabilise Hasina’s fledgling democratically elected government. It was also to challenge Ahmed and the ‘professional’ Bangladesh Army, a concept new to the country. Hasina might have won a landslide, but it was the army chief who largely ensured that it happened. In the two years of military rule since 2006, Ahmed ensured that Bangladeshis could only vote if they had an identity card –– an exercise that resulted in deleting the names of millions of fake voters. And he guaranteed something that Bangladesh had witnessed only once before in 1971: a free and fair election.

Everyone now wants to know why the violent mutiny broke out. And it is slowly opening a can of worms that would take the joint might of Hasina’s diplomacy and Ahmed’s prudence to tackle. An answer to why the mutiny broke out, however, remains hidden in the Byzantine conspiracies that were behind plotting the ‘uprising’. A day before the massacre, Hasina was inaugurating the annual week-long celebrations of the BDR inside the same complex where it all started. There were distinct murmurs of discontent among the rank-and-file of the country’s border guards. Reports even suggested that many BDR personnel were prevented from meeting Hasina to complain about their low salaries. Yet no intelligence was provided to the Prime Minister’s Office by the Directorate-General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), a feared institution in the country.

The DGFI’s involvement in Bangladesh’s internal politics is too close for comfort. It is blamed often for numerous human rights abuses and for funding terror acts inside and outside the country. But the masters of numerous such conspiracies failed to detect the biggest of them all in Bangladesh’s recent history. And that’s precisely why Hasina can now turn round and tell the army that’s seething with rage that it is the DGFI that’s supposed to sniff out a conspiracy of such a scale. The fact that it failed to spot a mutiny in the making points the finger of blame at the army.

To establish democracy in Bangladesh, Ahmed has earned the wrath of many sidelined DGFI and army officers. These officers have links with hardline Islamic groups that have flourished in the country since 2001, when Khaleda Zia formed a government with the Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islamist political party and considered to be the fountainhead of hardline Islamic groups in Bangladesh.

Groups like the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI), the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, and the Hizb ut-Tahrir suddenly got active, oiled by money from West Asia. The recent poll saw the political liquidation of the Jamaat, a party that had opposed the very formation of the Bangladeshi nation. The PM’s plans to establish a war crimes tribunal to punish those who collaborated with the Pakistani army in the 1971 war of independence would have put the entire leadership of the Jamaat behind bars. This is because most Bangladeshis see Jamaat leaders as the perpetrators of the worst genocide in Asia’s post-colonial history — one that left 2.5 million people dead.

It’s getting clear that the ‘uprising’ was the handiwork of a nexus of radical Islamic organisations, mainstream politicians and a few hardline army officers who would face prosecution if Bangladesh opens the 1971 files, thereby, making democracy a challenge for their survival.

While the country condemned the cold-blooded murders, the Jamaat took three days to react. Questions are now being raised on the whereabouts of Khaleda Zia during the initial hours of the mutiny. Why did she advocate the use of an army assault when the government’s successful negotiations could have saved thousands of lives? It’s clear that the ‘red handkerchiefs’ — which the BDR jawans used to cover their faces — were supplied to them. Investigators are also expected to probe into the extent of militant penetration of the BDR by radical organisations that had promised to turn the country into another Talibanistan.

The hunt is on. Bangladesh needs to punish the guilty. But it also needs leaders like Hasina and Ahmed at the helm of affairs to usher in a new phase of democracy. For his role in establishing democracy and then preserving it, the army chief should be commended. He is a soldier with a difference, one who is trying his best to turn his forces modelled on Pakistan’s concept of a political army into a model, professional army.

Sumon K Chakrabarti is National Affairs Correspondent, CNN-IBN