The BDR rebellion in Bangladesh: prevailing uncertainties

A subaltern uprising

That is how private TV channels had reported it, and how it had generally been perceived on 25 February when BDR (Bangladesh Rifles) soldiers – border security forces, additionally entrusted with anti-smuggling operations – rebelled at the Pilkhana headquarters in Dhaka city.

Discontentment had been the issue. Over food rations (three months, as compared with twelve for the army), denial of UN peacekeeping mission services, low pay (the average BDR guard earns about 70 dollars a month), non-payment of promised daily allowances for extra duties rendered, corruption in the officer ranks. What appeared to have rankled most was army control, since the BDR administration and nearly all its officers are from the army. In the words of one mutineer, ‘we are not against the nation, or the Government. We want that the BDR should belong to the BDR.’

It was the second day of the annual BDR week. Three thousand BDR soldiers, along with their commanding officers, had come to Pilkhana for the occasion, joining the three thousand plus stationed there. The 33-hour-long mutiny broke out at a meeting in the Darbar Hall of the BDR compound, which stretches over 3 square kilometres, and is located in the city centre. How many actively took part is anybody’s guess. The police have since filed charges of rebellion, killings, arson and looting of armories against more than a thousand BDR soldiers. The army, police and RAB (élite force) have launched Operation Rebel Hunt to capture rebel soldiers, missing firearms and ammunition. Two hundred and thirty six BDR soldiers have been arrested so far, including the suspected ringleader, deputy assistant director Syed Tawhidul Alam.

The horror and brutality

As bodies of army officers dumped in sewage canals far away surfaced; as mass graves in the HQ compound were unearthed; as the decomposed bodies of the director general, and others – mostly senior army officers – were discovered; as mutilated bodies were found, bayoneted, eyes gouged out, some burned: the subaltern uprising story receded into the background. Wives of two army officers and a domestic maid had also been killed. Allegations of rape surfaced. As horror at the brutality encompassed the nation (more than 74 were killed, including three civilians killed by random bullets, and seven soldiers; according to the latest updates, 2-3 officers are still missing, while 4 bodies remain unidentified), army officers publicly contested Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s decision to resolve the rebellion through political rather than military means. She should not have sat for negotiations with the mutineers, nor sent Government ministers and her party leaders to talk to the rebels, nor declared a general amnesty (later clarified to exclude the killers). Instead, the army should have been allowed to ‘crush’ the rebellion. It would have been over in a matter of minutes. Lives of precious army officers would have been saved.

As horror at the brutality encompassed the nation, army officers publicly contested Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s decision to resolve the rebellion through political rather than military means.

Calmer, more reasoned voices argued, mainly in the blogosphere, since the national media (print, TV) was also under attack for having highlighted the BDR soldiers’ grievances, that a military operation would probably have resulted in more deaths, of hostage officers and their family members, and also of civilians, living in adjacent densely-populated neighbourhoods. That anti-aircraft guns could hardly have been used to flush out rebels hiding among innocent people living in residential quarters and office buildings. That terrorists and hostage-takers could have been attacked, but only after all other means had failed. That news of an army operation could have led to a nationwide escalation since the rebellion had spread to other parts of the country. That it was undoubtedly a massive intelligence failure. That even though the army had borne the brunt of the BDR carnage, parliamentary discussions and public debate on corruption in the army should go ahead.

Contesting authority

Rumours of an army take-over circulated wildly (not surprisingly, given that it has occurred three times in the nation’s 38 year old history). Grief-stricken and enraged members of the army were repeatedly urged to show restraint, even after the army chief General Moeen U Ahmed had declared that the army would be ‘loyal to democracy’, and would remain ‘subservient to the (elected) government’. Civilian authority was contested, at times outrageously, via widely-circulating e-mails purportedly from officers of the army, and leaked audio recordings of the Prime Minister’s closed-door meeting with aggrieved army officers in Dhaka cantonment. The US ambassador extended support to the newly-elected democratic government, adding later that the US Government would also assist Bangladesh in combating terrorism. As the immediate crisis was overcome, Sheikh Hasina’s display of leadership in having resolved it peacefully was lauded by other foreign dignitaries and leaders. And within the nation, the army was repeatedly congratulated for having exercised restraint. Even though, as a Bangladeshi blogger pointed out, this was precisely what the military should be doing, i.e., supporting the civilian government, and working under its leadership.

The Government has instituted a high-powered probe into the mutiny, assisted by FBI and Scotland Yard investigators. The army has launched an independent probe. However, there is nationwide apprehension that the truth may not be revealed

The Government has instituted a high-powered probe into the mutiny, assisted by FBI and Scotland Yard investigators. The army has launched an independent probe. However, there is nationwide apprehension that the truth may not be revealed, that the reports may not be made public, and that judicial processes may falter. Calls for the formation of an all-party parliamentary inquiry committee have not been heeded by the Government. Mud-slinging has erupted between the political party leaders, by the Prime Minister herself, and her ministers, equally matched by the ex-Prime Minister and the current leader of the opposition Khaleda Zia, and other BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party) leaders. Meanwhile, the Government has done away with disparities in food subsidies that had existed between the officers and the lower ranks of the police force. Concerns are being voiced in human rights and political activist circles over a demonization of the BDR as a whole, even though individual soldiers had risked their own lives to save several army officers during the hostage crisis.

Tensions and turbulence

Several feminist activists think that questions need to be raised about military training per se, that rape, looting and utter disregard for human values seem to accompany the actions of armed forces the world over. Others feel this is not the time to raise these questions, or bring up the decades-long allegations of indigenous peoples in the militarily-occupied Chittagong Hill Tracts. The present, they say, is too perilous. That the worst may not be over is signalled by the Government's recent decision to cancel the Independence Day parade, on 26 March.

That the rebellion was pre-planned and could well have de-stabilized the Government and the nation by igniting a series of cascading ‘tensions and turbulence’ is no longer doubted

The subaltern uprising story has paled away as threats to the nation’s territorial sovereignty have become clearer. Were foreign forces involved? Did they capitalize on long-standing and simmering grievances among BDR subalterns, those who are regarded as ‘the nation’s first line of defence’? The Indian media has pointed its fingers at the ISI (Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence), at Pakistan’s reluctance for 1971 war criminals to be tried by Sheikh Hasina's Government. Counter-theories have emerged, arguing that RAW (Research and Intelligence Wing, India’s foreign intelligence agency), and thereby the Indian Government, stand to gain most from turning Bangladesh into a vassal state.

That the rebellion was pre-planned and could well have de-stabilized the Government and the nation by igniting a series of cascading ‘tensions and turbulence’ is no longer doubted. But it is also true that recent revelations by a government minister about JMB (Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh, a banned Islamist organization) links are not only pre-mature but also unwise.

Earlier, Sheikh Hasina had expressed her support for the US war on terror, and pledged to work for the formation of a joint anti-terrorism taskforce by SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) countries. Whether the rebellion will facilitate Bangladesh in joining the US-led ‘war on terror club’ remains to be seen. If it does, it will not help to build a strong national army free of political aspirations. Nor will it aid the people in their ongoing struggles for greater democratization of state and society. Clearly, it will not be in Bangladesh’s national interest.

Victory, impunity and terror

It was a victory for electoral democracy.

I was the first one to cast my vote. We had gone, en famille. My mother was next. Rini, my sister-in-law and Saif, my brother, had taken their precious national ID cards with them, only to be told by polling-centre officials that these were not needed, that they should go to the stalls opened by political parties outside the polling centre grounds to get their voter registration number. That updated and complete voter lists were to be found there. Rini was astounded and kept repeating, even after she had cast her vote, `But it is the national Election Commission that registered me as a voter, I didn’t register with any political party’. Someone else’s photo, name, and father’s name graced the space where Saif’s should have been. After a lot of running around and long hours of waiting, he gave up. It was close to four, the polling booths were closing. He was dismayed, and perturbed.

A handsome young man, showing-off with a thumbs-up sign, caught his eye. He was proud. He had voted for a return to democracy

A proud voter gives the thumbs-up

Shahidul Alam

My partner Shahidul, made wiser by their experiences, ran off to a political party booth to collect his serial number. After quickly casting his vote, he rushed back to take pictures. A handsome young man, showing-off with a thumbs-up sign, caught his eye. He was proud. He had voted for a return to democracy.

A landslide victory for the Grand Alliance and its major partner, the Awami League (AL). As the results emerged through the night, I remained glued to the TV screen, hopping from one channel to another, listening to election reporting, news analysis, and discussions. As votes in favour of Abul Maal Abdul Muhit tipped the scales, I watched seasoned journalists debate over whether political superstition - whichever party candidate wins Sylhet-1 forms the government - would prove to be true. And it did, yet again. The candidate of the ruling Bangladesh National Party (BNP) candidate, ex-finance minister Saifur Rahman, lost to Abdul Muhit by over 38,000 votes.

Strong words of caution

In the early hours of the morning, as the AL’s massive victory became apparent, I watched Nurul Kabir voice strong words of caution on one of the election update programmes on a private channel: given the rout of the opposition, the biggest challenge for the incoming government would be to not lose its head. Words to be repeated by others, later. AL leader Sheikh Hasina herself, in the first press conference, pronounced it to be a victory for democracy. A victory for the nation. People had voted against misrule and corruption, against terrorism and criminal activities, and against fundamentalism. They had voted for good governance, for peace, and secularism. Poverty, she said, was enemy number one. Expressing her wish to share power with the opposition, Sheikh Hasina urged ex-Prime Minister Khaleda Zia to accept the poll results. Our government, she said, will be a government for all. It will initiate a new political culture, one that shuns the politics of confrontation.

Congratulations poured in, in both the print and electronic media. A new sun had risen over the political horizon. 29 December were the best elections ever, kudos to the Election Commission. Awami League’s charter for change was a charter for the nation. It was a charter that had enabled the nation to dream again. To wake up again. A historic revolution - a ballot box revolution - had taken place. Let 2009 herald new political beginnings for Bangladesh. Let darkness be banished, let peace and happiness engulf each home. Let insecurities and turmoil be tales of yesteryears. Let us, as a nation, build our own destiny.

There were more cautious, discerning voices too. Promising to lower prices of daily necessities is easy, effecting it is harder. Democracy is much more than voting for MPs, it is popular participation, at all levels of society. In order to change the destiny of the nation, the AL needs to change itself first. Landslide victories can herald landslide disasters.

Explaining the victory

I turned to analysts who sought to explain the victory. What had brought it about, what did it signal? It was the younger voters, a whole new generation of voters. It was women voters. It was the Jamaat-ization of the BNP, and the anti-India vote bank, the Muslim vote bank, were now proven to be myths. Khaleda Zia’s pre-election apology had not been enough, people had not forgiven the four-party alliance government’s misrule, and its excesses. The BNP party organization at the grassroots level had failed to perform their duties with diligence, during the election campaign, and also later, when votes were being counted. The spirit of 1971 had returned, thanks to the Sector Commanders Forum, and to writers, cultural activists, intellectuals, media. People had cast their votes for a separation between state and religion, for the trial of war criminals, for rebuilding a non-communal Bangladesh. I watched Tazreena Sajjad on television argue that we should not go into a reactive mode, that we should not prejudge that the AL, since it had gained victory, would now forget the war crimes trial issue. It was important, she said, that war crimes trials be adopted as a policy approach, that the government review the available expertise, the institutional infrastructure and witnesses needed etc. It was important, added Shameem Reza, another panelist on the programme, that the social pressure for holding the trials should continue unabated.

At a record 87 per cent, the voter turnout was the biggest ever. International poll monitoring groups, including the Washington-based National Democratic Institute (NDI), Commonwealth Observer Group, Asian Network for Free Elections, an EU delegation and a host of foreign observers, unanimously termed the polls free and fair, the election results as being credible. There was no evidence of ‘unprecedented rigging’ or of the polls having been conducted according to a ‘blueprint’. But, of course, observers maintained, ex-Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s allegations should be carefully investigated. At a press conference, the leader of the 33-member NDI delegation, Howard B Schaffer, also an ex-US ambassador to Bangladesh, said that these elections provide Bangladesh with an opportunity to nourish and consolidate democracy.

Will the victory for electoral democracy in Bangladesh be a victory for long-term, deep-seated democratic processes?

As I read reports of the press conference, I think that neither the US administration nor its ruling classes are known for nourishing and consolidating democracy. The NDI delegation had also included a former official of USAID, an organization known for promoting US corporate interests rather than democracy. Most of USAID’s activities are, as many are probably aware, concentrated in Middle Eastern countries. Many Arabs regard US foreign aid as ‘bribe money’, offered to governments willing to overlook Israel’s policies of occupation. Larry Garber had served as Director of USAID’s West Bank and Gaza Mission from 1999-2004, a period that was partially preceded by four years (1996-200) of USAID withholding $17 million in assistance for a programme to modernize and reform the Palestinian judiciary. The Israelis did not want an independent judiciary. They were afraid it would lead to a sovereign Palestinian state. USAID obliged. And of course, there are other, much worse, US administration stories of felling rather than nurturing democracy. After Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian legislature in January 2006, the Bush Administration had embarked on a secret project for the armed overthrow of the Islamist government.

Serious misgivings

Will the victory for electoral democracy in Bangladesh be a victory for long-term, deep-seated democratic processes? This, of course, remains to be seen. I myself, have two serious misgivings.

Reporters had asked Sheikh Hasina as she came out after her meeting with Fakhruddin Ahmed, chief adviser, on 31 December: will your government legitimize the caretaker government? The reply, highlighted in nearly all newspapers, was: Parliament will decide; I have initiated discussions with constitutional experts; a committee will be formed to discuss the matter. Sheikh Hasina also added that government is a continuing process. It is the duty of a new government to continue processes that have been initiated by the preceding government, in the interests of a smooth transition. But I had watched news reports on TV, and had noticed the slip between the cup and the lip, between what was said, and what was reported in the print media: the ordinances passed by the Government will be discussed, those that are good will be accepted, and those that are not…

How can something as grave, as sinister as the takeover of power by a coterie of people who were backed by the military, be referred to as a bunch of ordinances that need to be discussed and separately reviewed? We have seen the suspension of ‘inalienable’ fundamental rights of the people during a 23-month-long period of emergency, the abuse of the judiciary, the intimidation of the media by military intelligence agencies, illegal arrests leading to already bursting-at-the-seams prisons, custodial tortures, crossfire deaths, the destruction of means of livelihood of countless subsistence workers, the closure of mills, havoc wreaked on the economy. Are some of these to be accepted, others not?

Diluting? Diverting? As I said, I have misgivings.

The separation of religion and politics subsumes the issue of the trial of 1971 war criminals, the local collaborators, the rajakars. But as I watch AL parliamentarians talk on TV channels, I notice a linguistic elision, a seepage occur into discussions of the trials of war criminals. The present is carried over into the past, the past slips into the present. Those who had collaborated in the Pakistan army’s genocide take on Bushian overtones: rajakars are religious extremists are Islamic militants are ‘terrorists.’ A seamless whole seems to be in the making.

And, as I read of Sheikh Hasina’s support for the US war on terror (expressed to the US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Richard Boucher on 25 July 2008), and her more recent pledge to work for the formation of a joint anti-terrorism task force by SAARC countries, I wonder whether ‘the spirit of 1971’ will be cashed in to manufacture support for the US-led war on terror, one that has killed millions, and made homeless several millions more. All in the name of democracy.

This piece first appeared in the Bangladeshi newspaper New Age on 7 January.

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