|Rare: Army spokesperson brief the press|
IT WAS, says Gowher Rizvi, a close adviser to Bangladesh’s prime minister, “very quickly nipped in the bud”. He was talking of a coup plot foiled by the army. The schemers—16 were involved, and some are on the run—included disgruntled mid-ranking officers, retired officers, and others abroad. He claims investigators found a list of prominent people to be assassinated, and another list of generals expected to be “potential partners”.
Bangladesh has faced dozens of coups, failed or not, in its 40 years. But for an army spokesman to give details of one, on January 19th, was unusual. He named the plotters and blamed them for inducing others to revolt (by passing on provocative e-mails and posting on Facebook). The conspirators, he said, shared extreme religious beliefs.
The official view is that dogged opponents of Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s elected regime must now be rooted out, especially from the army. These include Islamists—many supposedly recruited to the army in the early 2000s—and those who oppose ongoing war-crimes trials (over killings during the secession war of 1971).
Mr Rizvi says the government’s legitimacy is assured and reports “absolute calm” in Dhaka, the capital. The army’s discipline looks admirable, he says, encouraged by a popular desire (in contrast to a few years ago) for men in uniform not to meddle in politics.
The equanimity is not shared by all. Many normally garrulous Bangladeshi commentators this week shunned requests to talk. A wide presumption exists that phones are bugged. Speak to one of the men accused of leading the plot, who is in hiding abroad, and a murky picture emerges. Ishraq Ahmed concedes that the arrested men are his friends, but denies religious extremism (indeed, he complains that the authorities have seized his painstakingly collected cellar of wines, Armagnacs and malt whiskies). He says the government “can show no troop movements, no guns, anything” to prove the plot.
Mr Ahmed is a former high-ranking officer from a liberal family. He says he fought “with great responsibility” for Bangladesh’s independence. Now he and other nationalists are merely trying to oppose what they see as a coup-by-stealth by Sheikh Hasina, who is letting Bangladesh be “turned into a Bantustan” run by India.
He makes many claims. Among the more plausible and specific is that spies from India’s Research Analysis Wing (RAW) operate in the country. He claims, too, that for two years RAW has had an office within the headquarters of Bangladeshi Intelligence in Dhaka and a “direct submarine cable for communications” back to India. He claims that Indians conduct electronic surveillance in the country and kidnap suspects from Bangladeshi cities. Indian prodding, he adds, encourages the government to crack down on “anyone with beards. Any practising Muslim is vilified and portrayed as Taliban.”
Mr Rizvi denies all this, saying he is “totally unaware of any Indian presence in Bangladesh”. Yet he accepts that many are uneasy about Bangladesh’s rapprochement with India under Sheikh Hasina. Bangladesh has also met Indian demands to root out Islamists’ training camps, and he concedes that some individuals—though not Bangladeshis—are taken over the border for prosecution in India.
Fractiousness will grow ahead of a general election in 2013. Returned to power three years ago, Sheikh Hasina has seen her popularity slump from 81% to 39%, according to an opinion poll published by the Daily Star on January 8th. More telling, 74% say they oppose her constitutional meddling last year, which changed how elections are organised. That may bode ill for stability. Mughal kings struggled to rule the territory over four centuries ago, lamenting that Bengal was “a house of turbulence”. Little has changed.
First published in The Economist magazine, January 28 2012