Power play behind Bangladesh's mutiny By Sreeram Chaulia

Power play behind Bangladesh's mutiny By Sreeram Chaulia

As the body count from the bloody mutiny by the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) crosses 140 amid the exhuming of fresh graves, questions arise whether this pre-planned event could have been motivated by simple economic grievances.

The standard line being disseminated in public about the two-day running battle between the BDR and the Bangladesh army in urban centers of Dhaka, and in Teknaf, Cox’s Bazaar, Naikhongchari and Sylhet, is that the rebels were demanding better pay, clearance to participate in lucrative United Nations peacekeeping missions and a change in the command and control structure of the force.

Though these are by no means petty concerns, the scale of the mutiny and the brutality of its perpetrators were far more vicious than rationally required to press mere economic demands. If pay scales were the principal bone of contention, BDR cadres could easily have resorted to the standard trade union tactic of going missing without leave or refusing to take orders from their superiors. That they could take senior army officers hostage in the BDR headquarters in Dhaka and massacre so many of them suggests strongly that the forces behind the upheaval had their eyes set on a much bigger prize – political power.

The first indication that the BDR revolt was politically driven comes from its timing. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had barely settled into her post, taking oath of office on January 6 after her Awami League party swept the general elections which had been long delayed due to military intervention.

For nearly two years before her victory, the Bangladeshi military had taken virtual control of the country in the name of a civilian caretaker government. If the BDR had pent up frustrations owing to economic reasons, why did they not attempt a mutiny when the Bangladesh army was in charge? That they chose to attack just after civilian rule under a secular and liberal leader was restored is one sign of the elaborate plot behind their actions.

Already, hints are emerging that the BDR mutiny enjoyed the secret backing of some Bangladesh army officers who had been sidelined by Army Chief Moeen Ahmed. Ahmed is widely seen as a secular officer who clamped down on the fundamentalist outfits that had been close to the previous civilian regime of Begum Khaleda Zia, the leader of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP).

Ahmed made a commitment to roll back the “Talibanization” of Bangladesh, which was going on for several years of Begum Zia’s rule. The latitude and state legitimacy that Begum Zia showered on the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) had given Islamists free rein to terrorize Bangladesh’s Hindu minorities and enforce strict moral restrictions on the country’s majority Muslims and secular intellectuals.

Since the 1975 military coup d’etat that overthrew Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s civilian rule in Bangladesh, pro-Islamic forces have gone from strength to strength within the army ranks.

The dictatorships of General Ziaur Rahman (1976-1981) and of General Muhammad Ershad (1982-1986) took Bangladesh down the path of Islamic theocracy and boosted the pelf and power of Islamist officers.

During Begum Zia’s second term in office (2001-2006), a large swathe of the Bangladesh army was infiltrated by JI and JMB elements to strengthen the permanent Islamist constituency in the country’s most powerful institution. Many rank-and-file and non-commissioned officers of the Bangladesh military today have Islamist educational backgrounds because madrassa (Islamic school) graduates joined in large numbers and brought with them a fundamentalist fervor that coexisted uneasily with the more secular top echelons of the army led by Ahmed.

There is every possibility that the BDR mutiny in Dhaka was backed by “pro-Islam” army officers. This is why it is being rumored that Ahmed will have to carry out yet another purge within the army after the failed uprising.

The geopolitical dimension of internal feuds within the Bangladesh army has to do with the India-Pakistan rivalry in South Asia. From the very beginning, the “pro-Islam” segments of Bangladeshi society and the army had sympathies for Pakistan and opposed the independence of Bangladesh in 1971. The JI leadership was at the forefront of mass atrocities on behalf of the Pakistan army on the eve of Bangladeshi independence. When the secular Hasina returned to power in January, she implemented a bold initiative to seek war crimes prosecutions with UN assistance of the JI figures who spearheaded the killings in 1971.

Just a few days prior to the BDR mutiny, trials had begun against the JI chief, Matiur Rahman Nizami, and nine others for “carrying [out a] massacre during the war of independence in 1971”. Hasina’s steps against the fundamentalists were based on detailed investigations and a collection of documents over a long period by non-governmental organizations and associations of former freedom fighters. That the JI and JMB would hit back in the form of terrorist attacks or serial bomb blasts in the country was expected, but few thought that they could attempt a mutiny through sympathizers in the army and the BDR.

The BDR itself is staffed entirely by Bangladesh army officers, many of whom have distinctly anti-India and pro-Islamic leanings. In 2005, BDR’s chief Jehangir Alam Chowdhary alleged that “some criminal elements from India had colluded with the Bangladeshi groups” to carry out the sensational 500-bomb serial attacks all over the country.

Although all evidence suggested that the attacks were the handiwork of the JI and the JMB, the BDR insisted that the blasts had a sinister foreign hand. The BDR’s forces were also been involved in a major security incident along the border with India in 2001, when 16 Indian soldiers were killed. The shared perception of Indian intelligence agencies is that the BDR’s lower rung cadres, who executed the massacres in last week’s failed mutiny, were completely under the JI and the JMB’s ideological sway.

General Ahmed himself was not present in the BDR headquarters when the mutiny broke out, but he was a likely target of the plotters because of his perceived secular and pro-India character. In March 2008, he visited India and met the top civilian and military leadership, generating newfound confidence in New Delhi that they could do business with him. The assessment in India for the past two years has been that the caretaker government under Ahmed’s supervision was cracking down on the “pro-Islam” juggernaut that had gone on the rampage during Begum Zia’s rule.
The master plan of “Talibanizing” Bangladesh with state power and the backing of religious sections of the army and the BDR fell flat when Ahmed shepherded the transition to democracy in December 2008 and installed the secular Sheikh Hasina in power. The election of Hasina was a severe blow to jihadi sections in Bangladeshi society, the army and the paramilitaries who were intent on Islamizing the country along the model of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. If there was a combine which badly wanted to stage yet another coup d’etat, it was this coalition of “Islam-pasand” (“Fond of Islam” in Bengali) elements desirous of a counter-revolution against Hasina’s government.

Hasina’s government and Ahmed’s army are obviously going to try to get to the root of the matter in the following days, and they will probe Indian “leaks” of a Pakistani hand in the affair. What is certain is that the BDR putsch had grand religious and geopolitical causes which are far more profound than the relative trifle of a salary raise.

Sreeram Chaulia is a researcher on international affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs in Syracuse, New York.

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