TOWARDS AN UNCERTAIN AND VIOLENT FUTURE
Despite banning separatist outfits and its efforts to restructure the BDR, Bangladesh faces a threat from entrenched fundamentalists, writes Sankar Sen
The mutiny by the Bangladesh Rifles was a serious challenge to the authority of the newly-elected Awami League government of Sheikh Hasina Wajed. It was about to spark off a national crisis. The intelligence agencies of Bangladesh have now been able to unearth a series of significant developments in Dhaka prior to the unprecedented and unexpected mutiny. Soon after coming to power, the new government had decided to prosecute the war criminals responsible for killing thousands of innocent people during the country’s liberation war. Hasina’s government ordered an official investigation into the role of the Jamaat chief, Matiur Rahman Nizami, and nine others for carrying out the massacre of freedom fighters.
A similar initiative was called off after the 1975 political-changeover that followed the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. It is now learnt that just a few days before the BDR mutiny, the Pakistan president, Asif Ali Zardari, had sent one of his emissaries, Zia Ispahani, to Dhaka to request Hasina not to reopen the war criminals’ case. Ispahani apparently made it clear that any attempt to reopen these cases would adversely affect relations between the two countries. Ispahani also met Begum Khaleda Zia. Hasina, however, did not accede to this request.
Investigating agencies are also probing the role of a Bangladesh Nationalist Party leader and business tycoon, Salauddin Kader Chowdhury, alias Saka Chowdhury, who has had several graft cases against him. Chowdhury earlier had come under the scanner for allegedly smuggling truckloads of arms into Bangladesh through Chittagong in 2004. Intelligence agencies have also discovered that large amounts of money as well as arms had come from outside before the BDR troopers went on rampage. Bangladesh army’s Rapid Action Battalion, in its mopping-up operation, has already discovered funds to the tune of a few crores from Pilkhana, thereby strengthening suspicions about the involvement of outsiders. The parents of an absconding BDR soldier were arrested for allegedly keeping a large amount of money that was unaccounted for. Lieutenant colonel Shams, a survivor of the massacre, described how he had seen arms being unloaded from a grey coloured vehicle while he was hiding inside the BDR headquarters in Pilkhana.
The Bangladesh government has now reconstituted the body ordered to investigate the mutiny. Retired secretary, Anis-uz-Zaman Khan, has replaced the home minister, Saira Khatoon, as the head of the inquiry committee. The committee has now been expanded from six members to a eleven-member body. The committee includes three members from the armed forces as well as the newly appointed BDR chief, Brigadier Mainul Islam.
Efforts are also afoot to reorganize the BDR. The government has already decided to rename the force. Senior army officers are of the view that there is no alternative but to raise the border force anew as they feel that nothing good or meaningful can be expected from the old BDR any more. The Bangladesh government and the army are convinced that the intelligence wing of the BDR played a rather dubious and unsavoury role in the whole episode. The video footage from close circuit electronic devices showed that outsiders present inside the BDR headquarters at the time of the massacre had donned uniforms of the paramilitary force. It seems that the intelligence agencies of the government, particularly the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, either had no clue about the mutiny or deliberately kept Hasina’s government in the dark. There was also a lack of coordination among the different intelligence agencies, a problem that bedevils the Indian intelligence agencies as well. The government has now appointed Brigadier General Mansoor Ahmed as the new chief of the National Security Intelligence. It has also changed the chiefs of the special branch and criminal intelligence departments of the police. Hasina has also directed the intelligence agencies to work in a cohesive and coordinated manner in order to thwart the possibility of a repetition of incidents such as the massacre at the BDR headquarters. In this context, it may be mentioned that both the DGFI and NSI in Bangladesh are headed by military officers who are in active duty. Significantly, they are not headed by intelligence officials, as is the practice in many other democratic countries. However, the reorganization of the BDR is not going to be an easy task. The new head of the BDR has issued a statement, which has been sent to BDR camps around the country, to root out the “bad elements” within the force and respect the chain of command. He has further stated that members of the force would be screened to assess their suitability for continuing in service. It is a fact that large-scale infiltration of fundamentalist elements in the BDR had taken place during the earlier BNP regime.
At present, the relationship between the army officers deputed to BDR and the BDR staff remains charged with tension and suspicion. Army officers deputed to different BDR battalions across the country are feeling insecure about returning to their posts. As a result, many posts at present are being run by the BDR’s junior officers and men. Large quantities of looted arms and ammunition also remain untraced and unaccounted for.
The BDR mutiny, unfortunately, has had the effect of weakening the authority of the democratic government vis-à-vis the army. Hasina has had a tough time with army officers for initially declaring amnesty for the BDR mutineers. Hasina could ride out this storm because of steadfast support from the army chief, Moinuddin Ahmed, and his other trusted generals. But this has also made her over-dependent on the army’s support. This does not augur well for a fledgling democratic government. In the coming days, she will have to mobilize support of the democratic forces and civil society to thwart the fundamentalists.
The commerce minster, Farook Khan, has admitted that there are militant connections in the February massacre inside BDR headquarters as well as reports about the infiltration of militants inside the security establishment in Bangladesh. Intelligence agencies in the Bangladesh, in a report to the prime minister, mentioned about 12 militant outfits active in Bangladesh that have foreign links as well as relations with the local political parties. They include the Harkat-ul Jehad-Ul-Islam, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, Islamic Democratic Party, Jagrata Muslim Janata Party and so on. However, it did not mention the Khatmey Nabuat Movement and Khatmey Nabuat Andolan, which are instrumental in massive repression of the Ahmadiyya religious minority groups in Bangladesh.
The Bangladesh government has, so far, banned four Islamic outfits. They are the JMB, Huji, JMJP and the Shahadat-e-al-Hikma comprising cadre of the Freedom Party whose top leaders assassinated Mujibur Rahman. But countering the extremists is not going to be an easy job. The urban middle class may resent the fundamentalists, but their influence is growing in the countryside. The role model for many young men in rural areas, as a foreign diplomat puts it, is “a dedicated Islamic cleric with skull cap, flowing robes and beard”.
The situation in Bangladesh remains highly volatile. Hasina and her government are going to face serious challenges from the entrenched fundamentalists in the coming days. There are also grave threats to her personal security. At present, the army is supporting her. But the fact remains that the Bangladeshi army remains faction-ridden and politicized. During the 16 years of democratization, alternative political parties have been manipulating the army’s hierarchy and strengthening its various political factions. Under the caretaker administration, the army demonstrated its intention to play a decisive role in Bangladesh’s political destiny. Hence, developments within the Bangladesh army will have an important bearing on the future of the present government. There are strong pro-Khaleda elements within the Bangladesh army that view the Awami League’s return to power with anger and apprehension.
The recent developments in Bangladesh are of utmost concern to India. Secessionism in Northeastern India is closely connected with Islamic militancy in Bangladesh. During Khaleda’s regime, there were more terrorist camps in Bangladesh than in Pakistan, and a larger number of Indian extremists had found shelter in Bangladesh than in Pakistan. With Hasina coming to power, several secessionist outfits in Northeastern India. like United Liberation Front of Asom and the All Tripura Tiger Force, are trying to shift their camps out of Bangladesh. There are also reports that several ATTF cadre have crossed over and surrendered before the law enforcement authorities. Hence, efforts to destabilize the Hasina government will remain a matter of utmost concern for India.
The author is a former member of the IPS and was director-general, National Human Rights Commission
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