Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Clear and Present Danger

Photo AP: Troops involved in the search were forced to cover their noses as they tried to identify the bodies


FOR BANGLADESH prime minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the February 25 mutiny by Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) troops was a near-checkmate. It pitted the powerful army in direct confrontation with a smaller border guard force. The mutiny spread to districts within a day, threatening to spin out of control. But Hasina managed to avert a fratricidal conflict with decisive political intervention. Her initial announcement of a general amnesty for the mutineers upset the army. Tempers rose further when mass graves of massacred army officers commanding the BDR were found. So much so that army chief General Moeen U Ahmed was heckled by his own troops and twice offered to resign.

Hasina herself took a great risk by going to the Dhaka cantonment two days after the revolt to placate the army. She could have fallen to a lone assassin or a small group of conspirators close to the Islamic radicals. Hasina has come back from the brink, her fortunes wavering over the last two years. The military-backed interim government's advent followed her imprisonment on a host of trumped-up corruption charges. Her party was nearly split by the military intelligence agency, Directorate General of Forces Intelligence. Late last year, her fortunes improved. The corruption charges came unstuck. Her party remained united despite attempts by the 'reformist lobby' to oust her. She emerged a clear front runner once the Awami League started campaigning.

The nation had had enough of military intervention by remote control General Moeen understood that. For over a year, he had tried to develop ties with the Indian Army to convert his own army into an Indian-style professional fighting machine rather than remain a Pakistan-style political army. The interim administration is credited for organising the fairest election ever. But it is also clear that, if polls are free and fair, the Awami League and its secular allies stay miles ahead of their fundamentalist Islamist rivals. The spirit of 1971 and of Bengali nationalism has lived on, despite militant Islam's global surge, to ensure Bangladesh doesn't turn into another Pakistan.

Hasina's huge electoral victory gave her confidence to purge 'reformist elements' in her own party, especially senior leaders, heroes of the liberation generation. A relatively young cabinet, sans these tested leaders and with many women, gave her ministry a new look. Hasina also decided to press ahead with her electoral promise: the trial of 1971 war criminals. A unanimous resolution in parliament for the proposed trial of mostly top Jamaat-e-Islami leaders and some from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) as well was followed by Hasina's vocal support for a South Asian anti-terror task force that upset Pakistan and its allies in Bangladesh. Her government arrested Chittagong's leading arms dealer Hafizur Rahman and restarted the Chittagong arms seizure case in view of Rahman's confessions that the huge arsenal seized in the port city in April 2004 was meant for India's north-eastern rebel group, ULFA, and that several BNP and Jamaat leaders were involved.

Then came the mutiny. Hasina risked military intervention if the crisis was not tackled to the army's satisfaction. Home minister Sahara Khatun and local government minister Jahangir Kabir Nanak helped disarm the BDR troops. Hasina also backed off from the general amnesty, promising exemplary punishment for those who had murdered officers and their families. Military pressure is on Hasina to hand over the BDR to the army command, to punish mutineers harshly and even to disband the border guard force while sacking Khatun and Nanak for alleged proximity to the mutineers.

The BDR's grievances pay and perks, military domination since the entire BDR officer corps is from the army and denial of UN peace keeping duties are old. The rank and file seethed at not being able to raise these issues with Hasina during her Pilkhana visit a day before the revolt. But investigations now reveal calculated planning behind the mutiny, with truckloads of weapons and scores of 'outsiders' entering Pilkhana in BDR uniform to carry out killings meant to sink Bangladesh into chaos.

The massacres were not sudden. BDR chief Major General Shakil Ahmed managed to speak twice to Hasina from the barracks after the mutiny started. District processions with slogans like "BDR-Janata Bhai Bhai" involved opposition supporters. Hasina alleges the latter even provided vehicles to fleeing mutineers. The Jamaat-e-Islami, which would suffer the most in any 1971 war crimes trial, is believed to be the main conspirator with the shadow of Pakistan, whose president has appealed to Hasina to defer the trials, lurking.

General Moeen has repeatedly asserted the army is "subservient to the government of the people". He has only a few months left and is under pressure from his next rung commanders to extract the army's pound of flesh from the mutiny-rattled government. Hasina has conceded some ground, withdrawing the general amnesty and arresting hundreds of mutineers now booked under serious criminal charges. But she is lucky to have survived a deep conspiracy, emerging stronger and more confident.

If Jamaat's role in the massacre is conclusively established, Islamic radicals will risk the army's wrath. That's not bad for Hasina. Hopefully, the mutiny won't make her back out on the war crimes trials and cases related to the Sheikh Mujib murder and Chittagong arms seizure. If she doesn't go all out to decimate her Islamist rivals politically, she could be looking at another conspiracy. #

First published in Times of India, New Delhi, India, March 10, 2009

Subir Baumik, PhD is a journalist with an international news channel BBC and specialises on conflict and insurgency of north-eastern India