The recent events that left in its wake a trail of death, destruction and irrefutable damage to the reputation of the Armed Forces in Bangladesh, has instigated my nether senses. The diabolical conspiracy by pitting the country’s 200 year old paramilitary forces, the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), against the ranks of the professional military unit, Bangladesh Army who embodied their command structure, once again points clearly to an attempt by the Fifth Columnists to destabilize the security apparatus of the country and to prove beyond any reasonable doubts the tendentious attempts of a group of subservient local clique to tarnish the image of our Armed Forces. Or is it a greater international conspiracy by agent provocateurs hatched to create a bloodbath in a disciplined, well organized state supported forces that have long been the cornerstone of our defense and security? A long drawn out plan and intense preparation must have been in place. Who started it? Who funded it? Who directed it? The preliminary diagnosis showed a possible external link which was trying to drive a wedge between the Bangladesh Army and BDR. The command structure of BDR is entirely manned by the Army officers and by destroying it the BDR will become dysfunctional. This will weaken Bangladesh Armed Forces as being the sole line of defense and also deprive trained border guards manning country’s porous borders through which extremists encroach into the mainland.
From the morning of 25th February, 2009, when the durbar was in session, armed people entered the hall brandishing heavy combat weapons – a phenomenon not seen in any of the armed forces informal gatherings. As if on cue, four gunmen accounted for the Director General Major General Shakil Ahmed, and the mayhem began. Soon a core of fifty to hundred gunmen started rounding up officers, young and old, and summarily executed them. The senior officers did not have the time to react, aghast at seeing own soldiers resorting to such a cowardly and dastardly act. Out of 179 officers of all ranks only 32 managed to survive, and that too, because their orderlies had hidden them and found it difficult to kill them in cold blood. The carnage did not end here. Afterwards, these brutal, murderous rag tags slowly walked up to the Officer’s quarters and brought out the inmates – men and women, children and old and set their quarters to fire. Before that, many of these animals pounced on whatever expensive items they could find and looted gold, ornaments, jewelries, money.
In a revelry befitting the medieval bloodthirsty marauders, these armed miscreants then arrogantly got on top of the towers of the main gates and sporting red bandannas over their heads proclaimed in a nebulous fashion why they have revolted on the megaphone to the passerby people, waiting journalists and administrative officials. Many of them had their face covered but they would only be very happy to have their presence felt in the electronic media, “Mama, see I am on the Television.”Not to show off their murderous intent, they would scorn at all the Army officers and tell the public to remain at a distance or else, we shoot off again. They couldn’t say who their leader was, but the fact that the DG, DDG and the Project Director of the Daal Bhaat programme had siphoned off enormous amount of funds that was to be their benefit money and so on and so forth. Also important was their oft repeated pejoratives about all Army officers and that they should not be in the command structure of the BDR. Rather, BCS officers should be appointed for the running of BDR. The cruelty, the deprivation, the poor ration, the insufficient pay, the rankdowns on flimsy pretext was getting a bit too much for them. Their backs were pinned to the wall. They had no other alternative.
At first, the local media played up the rebel tune. So effective was that pitch for their propaganda that soon it was reverberating in the supportive slogans of the general public in Gates 1 and 2. It seemed like an old history of deprivation, privation and humiliation and the class problem of officers and jawans, the have and the have-nots etc., the dialectics of the state and the people that rack our inner souls from time to time. The practical issues of wages, perks and budget, rewards and benefits, promotion, pension and last if not the least: the behaviour of ranked senior officers towards their junior or non ranked subalterns, especially in the context of 21st Century.
Had all these been the issues for a aggrieved hopelessly poor all rank formations who had revolted for fairness, justice, good behaviour and a few certain rewards for their hard work, how are the attacks on innocent women and children and non officers justified? Nay, the mutinous rebels got more audacious. After all, they got more than they desired. They won prime time TV spot, public adulation and sympathy, “motherly love” from the Home Minister and even a private “durbar” with the Prime Minister who granted them an instant “General Amnesty”. The conspirers must have been tearing their hairs for such a colossal faux pas. Had the officers not been killed and incarcerated, it could have easily been the greatest hostage taking of all times and a total humiliation and inefficiency of the BDR management, or should I say, a “command failure”.
The Government of Bangladesh, who had just taken over power 50 days backs, was initially reacting to damage limitation. It had more time later to find out the causes but for now, they had to talk to the rebels and heel them down. The Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also tried brinkmanship. So the tough option of a military strike first was ruled out. The Home Minister, Sahara Khatun, was an active livewire, trying to fan up the flickering light of hope through negotiations and building a buffer between the rebels and the hostages. The chief Whip, Mirza Azam and Jahangir Kabir Nanak, MP did commendable jobs in engaging the rebels and not let them take potshots at passing pedestrians. The political dialoging got more wind in its sails and drew out throughout the night, but it did not make the rebels surrender.
By the next morning, two bodies were found in the sluice gates of the sewage outfall of the Hazaribagh area. It was that of a Colonel Mujibul Huq and a Lieutenant Colonel Enayet of the BDR. Both of these officers were at the forefront of the “Daal Bhaat” programme last year and according to some disgruntled jawans, were responsible for misappropriating huge funds from the programme along with DG. People and the reporters were now asking all sorts of questions to the rebels: How many prisoners do you have? Where are they? Are they alive or dead? Where is DG Shakil? The answers weren’t unequivocal; and by the afternoon time, many of the BDR jawans abandoned their posts and started telling the truths. They talked about a possible massacre and shooting down of most of the Army officers in the Durbar Hall and then burying them in unknown spots. This had happened all in the first day and that they were forced to join the rebels or face certain death. A few officers and their families were also released after talks with rebels and they narrated of harrowing times in the last 24 hours. The PM then came on the Television and declared no harm would come to those who are willing to lay down arms. On the other hand, if the rebels fail to do will be dealt with severely.
The speech worked like a tonic. Thousands of incendiary soldiers surrendered their arms expressing full confidence in the PM. Thousand other fled through the back doors with the evacuating public. By this time, the Home Minister, IG Police, DG, RAB had all entered the premises of BDR and saw the first glimpses of the wasteland followed by a bevy of newsmen, servicemen, medical personnel, Fire Brigade and curious onlookers. All night long, worried relatives of the Army Officers kept an all night vigil against all dying hopes.
At the end of all this, we have nearly a hundred and a quarter of the best professionally trained Army officers dead; some as highly ranked as Generals and Colonels. It cannot be just over petty increase in salaries or better working conditions or rationing or what have you. It wasn’t as if 10,000 soldiers mutinied at the same time but a band of just a few trouble mongers who set the forest on fire. This was indeed challenging times for the newly elected democratic government.
The government did not delve in strategic risk analysis but crisis management through political tools. It did not call on international terror experts and hopelessly compromised intelligence which was already on the anvil. The Prime Minister should not have met the rebels in person. However, it did defuse some of the tensions when the equanimity and firm resolve of the daughter of Bangabandhu puzzled the mutineers. For the first 24 hours the government was vulnerable. Non state actors were having their ways; their powers may have been quite consolidated because BDR units were rebelling all over the country. The international borders were left insecure. It looked that the final objective was going to be met beyond their expectations. A head on confrontation between the Army and the BDR was in the offing, the heavy air of suspicion was tearing the nation apart, Dhaka and the whole country was filled with rumours of an impending military take-over. The Prime Minister’s office with the Press Secretary, the Home Ministry, parliament members were passing sleepless nights in anxiety.
However, things started turning on its head from day 2. Many of the rebels were recanting now. Some of them started fleeing. The so called leaders of the revolt were busy in their negotiations to have their demands met (mainly to seek government protection from a military assault). The government machinery grinded unabated with a humongous task of co-ordination from the PM’s office with the press, Armed Forces Directorate (the PM is also the Defense Minister and Commander in chief of Armed Forces in Bangladesh), PID (civilian information cell that gives govt. press releases and communiqués), Home Ministry, Foreign Ministry, Law Ministry and all the other related organizations – Police, Fire Service, Ansar-VDP (civilian defense). The opposition also participated and expressed solidarity and unity with govt. and line agencies. All this dealt a further blow to the militant BDR mutineers. As the clock ticked by, the ultimatum to strike was very much on the cards. The government started mobilizing the Army. The Army had taken position from Day 1 in the vicinity with its field guns, mortars and machine gun batteries but kept its measurable distance and restraint awaiting higher authority orders. Now the tanks were coming in and encircling the Peelkhana sprawling complex in all directions. This had unnerved the mutineers even more. A clash with the Armed Forces would mean inevitable death.
While this entire whirlwind was blowing, the international observers were also watching developments in the BDR intensely over the channel transmissions. The Indian and Pakistani media were particularly keen observers, especially India with which Bangladesh shares a 2000 km border, much of it being barbed wired and cordoned off to prevent cross state infiltration. Two of the TV channels and the largest publishing house in Kolkata, the AnandaBazar Publications Ltd. came out with a connection of the BDR attack with the latest Mumbai terrorist strikes. It believes that the planning had taken place from cells in Pakistan and transmitted to their sister organization in Bangladesh, mainly the Harkatul Jamia Islamia or HUJI with training cells conducted by ISI operatives. Many such speculations of an international link had been rife and the presence of a grey van laden with 20 crates of arms and clips in front of the BDR Durbar Hall is a growing testament to it.
Some instigators who were supporting the rebels from outside Gate 3 and conducting processions until Thursday afternoon on Day 2 were also under the microscope. Who are these people? Where did they come from? Why weren’t the rebel soldiers shooting at them? Right now, all these answers remain unsolved.
The immediate task would be to restore confidence and take charge. Already some of the peripheral mutiny has died down and the mutineers returned back to their border outpost. Once the border is secure, the HQ will have to get back its command structure which was decimated in the February 25 rebellion. A new Director General (DG) has already been appointed. A strong investigation committee has been constituted to find out the reasons for this mutiny headed by the Home Minister and this committee will submit its report in 7 days time. The escapees and the plotters and their ringleaders will be brought in and interrogated to see if any international connection with terrorism exists. The perpetrators of this heinous crime will then subject to the sternest punishment according to the law of the land. At least that may bring some peace and justice to the near and dear ones of the slain innocent officers.
There are so many lessons that need to be learnt here. The security apparatus need to remodeled and revamped. The securities of VIPs have to be strengthened. Institutional security and defense mechanisms need to be understood and personal safety has to be beefed up. Now the state level activities will have to be pro-active with the help of national and international defense analysts and strategists. The counter terrorism aspect will also have to be strengthened and finally, intelligence gathering nationally, regionally and internationally will have to be co-existent and co-ordinated. An overall policy that is commensurate with international policies in the “War on Terror”, UN charters and regional counter terrorism laws and regulations will have to be chalked up by local and international experts. Care must be given so that constitutional provisions of this country is not over stepped and no clause that compromises our sovereignty as an independent nation is breached.
[Maskawaith Ahsan is a broadcaster, journalist, author, blogger and the editor of The-Editor.net]