Sunday, March 01, 2009

Eye on rebels on the run, Bangladesh request India

Photo Reuters: A rescuer searches for bodies at a mass graveyard inside the BDR headquarters in Dhaka

SUJAN DUTTA

Dhaka has requested New Delhi to disarm and hand over Bangladesh Rifles mutineers trying to flee into India with the Bangladesh Army hot on their heels, officials here told The Telegraph.

The increased security on the border with Bangladesh has largely to do with this request. The border — which runs for more than 4,000km, is largely fenced inside Indian territory and does not follow defined markers — has been reinforced with additional BSF units.

The security establishment has concluded that it does not require a realignment of forces in the eastern and northeastern theatres for this purpose.

Dhaka has told New Delhi that firing that may be heard on this side, or bullets that may cross the border, should not be misunderstood as signs of aggression: they are aimed at mutineers who have not yet turned themselves in. Around 700 armed BDR men are said to be on the run.

But it is the request to disarm BDR mutineers that is uncomfortable for India. The US too is encouraging India to play a “stabilising role” in the region.

“India doesn’t want to meddle in Bangladesh’s internal affairs, though it risks being affected by them,” said Sreeradha Datta, Bangladesh specialist and fellow at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis.

“While India may be sympathetic to what is happening with Bangladesh’s internal crisis, it will not be dictated (to on) what action it should be taking.”

Datta explained: “I would try to prevent elements from coming over to India, by force if necessary and even if the US wants us to. India should not be seen as a party to disarming the BDR.”

Yesterday, home minister P. Chidambaram had confirmed that BDR soldiers at outposts in two or three places had communicated to their BSF counterparts in some frontier bunkers that they might request shelter because the army was after them.

The appeals have been made in about 30 places on the borders in Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura.

In some outposts, BDR soldiers have sent written notes to their BSF counterparts seeking shelter, saying they have a rampaging army pursuing them.

The developments signal that the Bangladesh Army is now baying for blood and wants to avenge the massacre of its officers — most of whom are sons of army officers and civilian bureaucrats — by the BDR mutineers.

It also explains the turnaround by Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina who said amnesty would not be granted to killers. The army chief, General Moeen U. Ahmed, himself under pressure from his cadre, had met Hasina and conveyed the demand from the army for swift justice.

The army wants public punishment, even death, for the killers of the BDR director-general, Major General Shakil Ahmed, his wife, the deputy director-general and scores of other officers whose bodies are being dug out of mass graves. The army is expecting 50-100 mutineers to be handed exemplary punishment that could go up to the death sentence.

Indian officers monitoring the developments said General Moeen Ahmed was confronted by his officers in the cantonment before he went to meet Hasina.

If Hasina can restrain the army and follow the due process, she will emerge stronger. “The next five-six days are crucial,” a source said, suggesting the government was focusing its efforts on preventing a backlash from the army.

One silver lining — for India, too — is that the Bangladesh Army is not as politicised as the BDR is. The army had also built bridges with India of late.

After the meeting last night, General Moeen Ahmed reaffirmed army support for the government. “Let me tell you all again that the Bangladesh Army is subservient to the government,” he said.

“We are a people’s army serving the nation and upholding democracy. Please stay calm. We are trying to address the situation and resolve (disputes) with the help of everyone.”

Hasina’s long-standing rival, Opposition leader Khaleda Zia, offered to co-operate with the government in its investigations into the mutiny but criticised the Prime Minister for initially offering amnesty to the BDR rebels.

“This gave them time to kill more people and conceal their brutality,” Khaleda said.

Hasina’s Awami League has had a traditionally tenuous relationship with the army, which has had better relations with Khaleda’s Bangladesh National Party.

The party of Khaleda, widow of former army chief General Zia-ur Rehman, has also attracted former army officers as leaders in larger numbers than the Awami League.

Indian officers, however, admit that the grievances over pay and perks in the BDR are genuine and the mutiny, if organised, could not have been the handiwork of the Jamaat and fundamentalist elements from the very beginning.

This is understandable because disgruntlement in the Indian security forces is all too real. Indian military forces, for example, are now resentful over recommendations of the sixth pay commission.

Other agencies, like the Assam Rifles officered by the army, too have issues which they have raised time and again with the government and which are still being addressed.

The latent discontent in the BDR is suspected to have been fanned by fundamentalist forces, aided by the ISI. Other sources said that over the years, the BDR, which had fought against Pakistan in the Liberation War, had been politicised and came to be divided into two camps — one supporting Awami League and the other backing the BNP. The BNP faction is said to have been infiltrated by elements sympathetic to the Jamaat and the Huji.

The spilling over of the BDR mutiny outside Dhaka may have been fomented by the Jamaat, the sources said.

Dhaka’s request that the mutineers be disarmed by Indian forces and be handed over to the Bangladesh Army has the tacit blessings of the US.

But India does not want to be seen as acting under international pressure and wants to confine itself to acting in its own interests. #

Published in The Telegraph, March 1, 2009