Saturday, March 28, 2009

Delhi can’t afford to let Dhaka slip off its radar


THE FALLOUT from Bangladesh’s February 25-26 sepoy mutiny is still floating in the wind. What first hits the senses is the sheer insensate savagery with which the mutinous riflemen of Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) slaughtered their officers, and in some cases their families, reminiscent of March 1971 and the murder of West Pakistani officers and families in a similar manner, perhaps by some of the same units. Something must have gone very wrong indeed for uniformed troops to go berserk in this manner. What could it have been? Perhaps it was some form of radical indoctrination, possibly with a religious orientation, that could whip up frenzy on an intensity far beyond mere issues of pay, rations or other administrative problems? The timing of the mutiny too raises other obvious questions: Why now? Why not earlier when the political dispensation in Dhaka was different? Or why not later, by which time Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s Awami League government would, perhaps, have had more time to settle down in office and get a firmer grip on the mechanisms of power? All indications are that the BDR mutiny was a well-organised pre-planned manoeuvre to traumatise and unbalance Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her fledgling government, and pressure them from the very beginning of their tenure. The question is: by whom, for what purpose and who stands to benefit? Is there a foreign hand? If so, it is highly unlikely to be India, then who?

Three parallel inquiries have been instituted into the events of those fateful 33 hours at the BDR’s Pilkhana headquarters, to determine the causes, sequence and responsibility for the outbreak. The first is by the Bangladesh government, the second by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the Dhaka police and the third by the Army. Bangladesh’s commerce minister Lt. Col. Faruq Khan (Retd) has been asked to coordinate all three inquiries whose findings are expected to be known by the end of March, depending of course on the progress made in each case.

Sheikh Hasina is known to be well-disposed towards India, something that would be anathema to many in the political, legislative, administrative and more significantly, the military and intelligence echelons of Bangladesh, where, as in Pakistan, political power frequently flows from the barrel of the gun. India must definitely be concerned at the turn of events because the situation developing from the BDR mutiny indeed has many disquieting overtones from earlier times, such as Ms Hasina’s somewhat precarious tenure as Prime Minister from 1996 to 2001 and, of course, the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on August 15, 1975.

The Bangladeshi armed forces, particularly the Army and the BDR, have developed their professional and corporate ethos, culture and outlook more on the model of the Pakistan Army and the West Pakistan Rangers, rather than the Mukti Bahini, in particular the disdain for civilian political authority and antipathy towards India — it is part of a legacy transplanted by the large number of Bengali officers of the Pakistan armed forces who were reinstated in the Bangladesh military after repatriation following the break-up of Pakistan.

Sheikh Mujib’s largesse was against the recommendations of his advisers and would ultimately prove fatal in 1975. This is one of the reasons why Ms Hasina and the senior hierarchy of the Awami League have never developed a rapport with their armed forces, somewhat akin to the relationship late Benazir Bhutto had with the Pakistan Army. Ms Hasina has never been comfortable in office, neither in her earlier 1996-2001 tenure and not now. Both Benazir Bhutto and Ms Hasina reigned as Prime Ministers but were not really allowed to rule. This is not the case with Begum Khaleda Zia and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) who are more attuned to the Army, to which Begum Khaleda’s personal status as General Zia-ur Rahman’s widow has definitely contributed.

This is important because in one perspective, the war in Bangladesh between India and Pakistan never really ended on December 16, 1971, but continued thereafter as a "Great Game" between the protagonists to retain Bangladesh within their respective spheres of influence. Round one went to India with the military victory in East Pakistan in 1971, the creation of Bangladesh and the installation of Sheikh Mujib as its founding Prime Minister. He was accepted as India’s protégé, but his assassination within three years and the signal failure of India’s external intelligence services to detect, warn and protect Bangabandhu was viewed in some quarters as a substantial defeat of India’s policies and, by implication, a victory for the "other side". Round two, therefore, went to Pakistan, but the violent, tortuous course of politics in Bangladesh thereafter does not lend itself to easy or coherent encapsulation. That notwithstanding, every occasion the Awami League comes to power is good news for India, while the same holds true for Pakistan in relation to the BNP.

Since there is now an Awami League government in office, the sepoy mutiny sounds like the opening bell for the next round of the "Great Game", to destabilise the government and replace the India-friendly government of Ms Hasina and the Awami League with a Pakistan-friendly one of Begum Khaleda Zia and the BNP. New Delhi will certainly not want that to happen in a country which previous non-Awami League governments had turned into a sanctuary and base of operations for jihadi terrorists groups like Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B) and anti-India separatist groups from our Northeast. New Delhi fully and totally supports the Hasina government in Bangladesh, but open Indian approval can also become a kiss of death for the Awami League. India has restricted options and has to play its cards very imaginatively and judiciously. It must, on one hand, tighten vigilance on the Indo-Bangladesh border in terms of border fencing, BSF manpower and surveillance devices and systems. And inside Bangladesh, India must encourage and accelerate economic, corporate, cultural and people-to-people, particularly Bengal-to-Bengal, contacts. All this requires hard and sustained diplomacy.

Meanwhile, even as a concerned Bangladesh awaits the outcome of the three inquiries, the names of hardcore jihadi organisations — including the Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMJB) and HuJI-B — have started emerging from the shadows. These organisations have well-known and long-established ties with counterparts in Pakistan such as the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and others, which tell their own familiar story. This is to no one’s surprise because the "Great Game" continues. But alas, too easily and all too often Bangladesh keeps slipping off New Delhi’s radar screen. This must not be allowed to happen now. #

First published in The Asian Age, India, March 24, 2009

Gen. Shankar Roychowdhury (Retd) is a former Chief of Army Staff and a former Member of Indian Parliament