Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Mutiny in Bangladesh: An early post-mortem

The mutiny of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), the paramilitary force manning Bangladeshi borders just got more interesting as one scans the assortment of news items from various sources that google links. On February 25th, the soldiers of BDR at the headquarters in Dhaka, killed and wounded officers in a mutiny said to be over pay, work conditions and career advancement. The news trickling in on the first day was sketchy at best with the number of deaths begining at a meagre number and steadily climbing over the next three days, duration of the mutiny and beyond. The events played out thus- the mutiny, the killings, the hurried general amnesty by the Bangladesh Government to handle the crisis, then the withdrawal of the amnesty and the escape of the mutiniers and then the discovery of graves in and around the BDR complex, seemed like one of the many plots from the writings of Mario Vargos Llosa documenting the innumerable coups in the Central and South Americas.

But for us leading more simplistic lives in South Asia, it was a case of simmering anger finding the lost path to expression. The soldier's mutiny over pay and working conditions is not a regular occurance but it was understandable. The other important aspect of the event was that the officers manning the BDR are drawn from the ranks of the regular Bangladeshi Army and they discriminate against the BDR soldiers. So the story goes and since the end of the mutiny, the discovery of graves and more bodies of officers killed and which were badly mutilated are prompting a closer look at the events. Till then it seemed like an institutional problem limited to perhaps to demands of better pay and the discontent in BDR against the army, a regular developing world phenomena.

The story was fascinating for another reason which was the use of the word, mutiny, to describe the events. As mentioned, mutiny's are unheard of in South Asia due to the legacy and tradition inculcated by the British Indian Army, from which the Indian and the Pakistani army was carved out. The event and its reporting also prompted me to think of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 when a section of the Indian soldiers led by Mangal Pandey turned on their officers. This event has been dubbed as the First War of Independence by the Nationalist historians but it goes by the name of the Sepoy Mutiny in popular parlance. I thought of it in that manner due to this headline carried by The Telegraph, 26th February 2009 where they called it the Sepoy Mutiny in Dhaka.

So there it was, a rather momentous event but simple in its logic and ramifications, of a group of soldiers turning on their discriminatory officers with work conditions grievances. But then a few stories from the Indian media which I happened to come across made it appear deeper and richer than it seemed. The Times of India titled their story, Bangladesh mutineers name tycoon with Pak links, 1st March 2009, which suggested that the mutineers were backed by a Shipping tycoon with links to the Pakistani Military-Intelligence complex and the opposition Bangaldesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The current government is headed by Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League elected a month ago after a two year emergency military rule. The new reports surfaced as the committee headed by Bangladesh Home Minister started a probe into the gruesome revolt by Bangladesh Rifles. There is so far no indication that this was a intended coup. Bangladesh has witnessed many successful and failed coup attempts. Sheikh Hasina's husband was Mujibur Rehman, the man, who with the help of India achieved independence from Pakistan in 1971 and who was killed in a military coup in 1975. Sheikh Hasina is seen as close to India.

The Indian Express, meanwhile, reports, Dhaka rebels reveal plot to provoke Army, topple Govt, 1st March 2009, that mutiny was intended to 'provoke a strong Army reaction. Any such response from the Bangladesh Army would have had serious consequences. The interrogation is said to have revealed that separate plots had been hatched to assassinate Bangladesh Army Chief Gen Moeen U Khan. Already, similar plots against Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina have been uncovered in the past few weeks.

The Bangladesh Army has cooperated with the Hasina Government and has so far shown restraint despite seething anger among its officers and troops. The Bangladesh Army is now baying for blood and wants to avenge the massacre of its officers — most of whom are sons of army officers and civilian bureaucrats. Gen. Khan too has been able to demonstrate control over his forces despite fissures and camps in his Army. Former Bangladesh PM and BNP leader Khaleda Zia too have supported the inquiry launched by the government but has criticized it for wasting time in negotiations. But the political fallout of the inquiry is likely to be murkier.

The Times of India report goes on to add more of the usual ISI-Islamist connections, real or imagined, to the story when it addes that, 'Sources are also pointing to the scale of the brutality of the murders, the mutilations, etc, which they say are tell-tale signs of the Islamist ideologies that have infiltrated the lower cadres of the BDR, thanks to their extensive Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) connections. Behind the mutiny is the war crimes tribunal that Sheikh Hasina promised to set up for the trial of Pakistani collaborators or razakars from the independence war. This had created trouble inside Bangladesh and Pakistan as well. In fact, Pakistan president Asif Ali Zardari sent an emissary to Sheikh Hasina, Pervez Ispahani, to persuade her to put off this trial as it could embarrass the Pak army considerably.'

One does not mean to be sceptical of the reporting, a lot of what one has quoted is the reality in Bangaldesh, the cleavge between its Bengali linguistic identity exhibited by its warmer ties with India, the 1971 war for independence and its religious identity going back to the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan. These two tendencies are represented by the two parties, Awami League and the BNP, with the army more with the BNP in this specturm. The party of Khaleda, widow of former army chief General Zia-ur Rehman, has in its ranks a large number of former army officers as leaders.

The fact that Bill Clinton in his South Asia visit in March 2000 visited Bangladesh as it was a 'moderate' Islamic country is a bygone era, the growth and spread of fundamentalism has been an ongoing process and the last government headed by the BNP was in coalition with the Jamat-e-Islami. The mutiny and the conspiracy suggestion can perhaps be seen as a fall out of the 1971 war crime tribunal Sheikh Hasina's government intends to establish and this would implicate sections in Bangaladesh and Pakistan, therefore the need to scuttle the move. The Islamists in the 1971 war were on the Pakistani side of the proverbial fence. The Pakistan government after the independence of Bangladesh appointed a commission under the chairmanship of Hamoodur Rahman to probe the role of the Pakistan army. Hamoodur Rahman commission report revealed many aspects of politics in Pakistan army during the Civil War of 1971. Because of the nature of the findings it was not declassified for decades until an Indian newspaper published the details.

Further, see this story complicates matters as it appears the large number of mutiners are headed towards India and are seeking refuge in India and have also written to their counter-parts in the Indian Border Security Force. The Bangladesh government has requested the Indian government to disarm and hand over the rebels and it is seen to have the tacit American blessings. However, India in the next few days or so will have a tight rope to walk as it does not want to be seen as partisan to any side which has been the bane of Indian policy towards Bangladesh since its inception. The Indian position appears to merely prevent the soldiers from crossing into India, if necessary by force but it will not be aparty to disarming the rebels. The only official reaction so far is here. The Prime Minister of Bangladesh is under pressure from the army ranks to act swiftly against the rebels, the first expression of which was the withdrawal of the amnesty granted to the rebels. The army leadership has expressed their subservience to civilian authorities, the next few days will decide how Sheikh Hasina handles the issue and how the army reaction will impact on the government.

This BBC report would be the latest on the developments in Bangladesh as I publish this post on 1 March 2009, 7.30 pm, local time.


Deepa said...

Very interesting, I haven't been following this story closely. Yes, what appears to be a simple (and emerging) case of grievances of the haves against have nots is now shown to be much more complex in explanation and interconnections. See this is the bane of social science- social reality is too complex to be explained by any one thing.

What are you most persuaded by?

Anonymous said...

I don't understand why Indians are over obsessed with ISI,whenever anything goes wrong they point their fingers towards ISI.Why do they forget that Bangladesh is still incomplete till the time reunification of East and west Bengal is done,still portion of Bangladesh(West Bengal) is under Indian control.All Bangladeshis must strive for reunification of Bangladesh.