Please don’t take the government ‘hostage’

by Abdul Quader | March 2, 2009 4:05 pm

Every sensible person in the country was visibly horrified by the last week’s senseless and brutal massacre at the headquarters of Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) in Dhaka. The show of high emotions, anger and resentment among sections in the community, including the army, was understandable.

The BDR members responsible for brutal killings should be brought to justice the soonest possible following the due process of law, with the accused having the opportunity to mount legal defence as allowed under the law of the land. While emotions have a place in certain circumstances, reason and logic should prevail in effectively dealing with any acts of crime. Anyway, criminals must be punished.

Newspapers reports suggest that many army officers expressed their deepest emotions, frustrations and excitements, with a list of 32 demands when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina met with them at the Sena Kunja on 1 March 2009 (The Daily Star 2 March 2009). The Prime Minister assured the audience that culprits involved will be hunted down and put to trial, saying that the trial would be free and fair.

Some sections in the society, including the opposition, are now speculating whether the government could have adopted a different approach to ending the mutiny that would have resulted in fewer losses of lives, especially of the army officers. This view was also expressed by some officers at the meeting with Sheikh Hasina at Sena Kunja, suggesting that faster mobilisation of the army could have avoided more killings at the BDR headquarters and suppressed the mutiny much earlier.

Apparently for obvious reasons, a number of army officers made a proposal that each of the families of the officers killed be provided with a compensation package that should comprise a cash handout of Tk 1 crore and a residential flat or plot. Some other officers considered that awarding of pensions to each of the families of the victims compatible with the ranks of the officers would be more appropriate providing longer-term benefits.

Other demands or proposals made by the army officers at Sena Kunja included restructuring of BDR, quick development of an organogram by the government and a change of the name of BDR to “Bangladesh Border Guards”. The army officers also expressed their grievances concerning political interference in the transfer and promotions in the armed forces.
Quick and sometimes thoughtless reaction to an event is not unusual. If we correctly remember, it was suggested by some influential people in the United States that Saudi Arabia be bombed because most of the culprits who flew the planes into the twin towers in New York on 9/11 were Saudi citizens. That was an example of quick and not-so-well thought-out reaction to 9/11.

Here we may invoke a range of relevant issues surrounding the reactions in the army to the events at the BDR headquarters and the approach and steps the Bangladesh government need to take to bring the alleged culprits to justice. Let us look at a couple of pertinent questions.

A) How would the army have reacted to the events at the BDR headquarters if the BDR had its own officer cadre just as the police force does have (from an Assistant Commissioner of Police to Inspector General of Police)?
B) Being supposedly a disciplined force, is it rational for the army officers to be so emotionally charged and make a host of demands (points) at a time when the government is in a very precarious position to find a way out of the crisis having ramifications of immense national significance?
C) Who should make decisions about how a government organisation should be structured and operated – an elected government or any particular agency?

From our experience since liberation of Bangladesh from the oppressive regime in Pakistan, successive governments have failed to develop credible national institutions to govern in the best national interest. In many cases, governments have politicised civil administration, educational institutions and trade unions, and have patronized criminal activities to their own benefit. These are no secrets and ample evidence is there to substantiate this claim. The hydra-headed monster of student and trade union politics needs to be restrained for effective governance of the country.

On the other hand, governments also had to deal with army interference in civil administration, including posting of many army officers to civil posts, including in the foreign service. This tradition started especially during the regime of President Ziaur Rahman. This kind of wrong policy has the potential to generate discontent among the officers and other staff members within a civil service organisation.

Every government agency has its own mandate and they should implement this mandate with appropriate resources and staffing provided by the government under budget appropriations – both revenue and development. Each organisation is supposed to perform efficiently and effectively with its own resources without being dependent on deployment of staffing from other agencies.

The government itself is often responsible for hindering the management capacity-building of different organisations and sowing the seeds of discontent. The so-called deputation of BCS cadre service officers to various posts in corporations, directorates and other autonomous and semi-autonomous government agencies is a case in point. This practice restricts the opportunity of officers and other staff members of these organisations to achieve career advancement such as promotions to higher posts and the deputed officers do not generally develop a sense of belonging to the these organisations.

The government has a lot of lessons to learn from the current state of affairs if it wants to govern the country in the national interest. Old habits need to be shunned for the sake of good governance.

In any case, given the existing situation concerning the ruthless massacre at the BDR headquarters, the topmost priority of the government is to constitute an impartial inquiry committee drawing representation from all relevant stakeholders, including from the army and the legal profession. Ideally a judicial inquiry headed by a High Court or Supreme Court judge should investigate the events in question. However, any inquiry should have comprehensive terms of reference and a realistic timeframe. Haste is of the devil, it is said.

The government should not take any firm decision on the future organisation of BDR before the completion of the inquiry and making the inquiry report public. All decisions and actions should have due regard to upholding the national interest first. However, the government should take into account the findings and recommendations of the inquiry. Hasty and poorly thought-out actions are likely to lead to perverse and undesirable outcomes.

It is high time for all sections of the community concerned to extend cooperation, assistance and honest advice to the newly elected government of Sheikh Hasina to overcome the difficulties arising from the unfortunate events at the BDR headquarters in Dhaka. We should not take the government ‘hostage’ by placing unrealistic demands at the heat of the moment. Let us reflect, take time and work to unite the community in the greater national interest.

Abdul Quader writes from Canberra

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