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Mainstream, Vol XLVII No 13, March 14, 2009

BDR Mutiny: A Rude Shock to Democracy in Bangladesh

Sunday 15 March 2009, by Muchkund Dubey

The Bangladesh polity is going through a grave crisis following the mutiny on February 15 by the BDR forces stationed at its Dhaka Headquarters. The worst phase of this crisis has been tided over, but the government has yet to deal with its far-reaching consequences. When Sheikh Hasina went to the BDR Headquarters on February 24 to inaugurate the celebration of the BDR Week and spent a few pleasant hours there, she did not see much evidence of the tragedy that was enacted the very next day. The next morning, the citizens of Dhaka woke up to the noise of shooting which continued intermittently the whole day. That is when following a tension-filled meeting between the then Director-General of the BDR, General Shakeel Ahmed, and the BDR cadres, a well-planned massacre of most of the senior officers seconded from the Army took place. The brutal and heinous nature of this revolt came to be known only the following day when after the surrender of the mutineers, the Army units entering the BDR Headquarters discovered a mass grave containing 39 officers whose bodies were badly mutilated after they were killed by gunshots. Subsequently, two more mass graves were found containing 30 corpses of assassinated Army officers. The death toll at that time amounted to 77 and was likely to go up to 100. Some Army officers were held as hostages, who were released after the suppression of the insurrection. Thous-ands of BDR jawans absconded, several of whom returned to the Headquarters and surrendered, while the hunt for the rest is continuing. The mutiny is reported to have spread also to the BDR units located outside Dhaka. It was the first full-fledged mutiny by security forces in Bangladesh after the assassination of General Ziaur Rahman in 1980. By now, the ring-leaders of the mutiny have been identified and arrested and tribunals have been set up for their rapid trial in order to mete out appropriate punishment to those found guilty.

BDR jawans have been entertaining a number of grievances, particularly against the Army officers occupying senior positions in the Force. They have alleged mistreatment by these officers. They have complained that these officers are involved in rampant corruption and have made service in the UN Peacekeeping Force their sole preserve without giving any chance to the BDR cadre also to serve. They have demanded the purging of the BDR of Army officers on deputation. In addition they have been demanding higher pay, more subsidised food supply and more holidays.

But given the well-planned manner in which the mutiny was executed, it is very difficult to believe that it was a spontaneous outburst of pent-up feelings and suppressed grievances. There is, therefore, a number of conspiracy theories going round to explain the motivations behind the mutiny. The most frequently cited theory is that it was a well-calculated move to discredit the security forces of Bangladesh, particularly the Army, and undermine the government of Sheikh Hasina which came to power with a massive popular support, allegedly with the help of the Army. The principal actors behind this conspiracy are alleged to be extremist religious forces, which have vastly enhanced their influence and power in Bangladesh during the BNP regime under Begum Khaleda Zia, of which they were a participant. It is also alleged that the segment of the BDR which played the leading role in unleashing the brutality on the Army officers are the infiltrators into the BDR from these extremist religious forces. Some political analysts, especially in India, see in this conspiracy the involvement of external forces, particularly the international network of the Al-Qaeda and Taliban, of which Bangladesh has become a part, as well as that of the ISI, the intelligence wing of the Pakistan armed forces.

It is very difficult to express a clear-cut view on this conspiracy theory. In any case, the entire mutiny is under investigation by a high-powered committee set up by the Bangladesh Cabinet. Wisdom, therefore, would dictate that one should await the findings of this committee before pronouncing a judgement on these allegations. One should also remember that security forces in Bangladesh have demonstrated themselves to be prone to descending to the most heinous and brutal acts of violence in pursuit of their misguided objectives or imagined grievances. In this connection, one recalls the large-scale elimination by killing in 1971 of intellectuals by the then Pakistani armed forces just a day before their surrender to the Mukti Bahini and Indian Forces. One is reminded of the cold-blooded murder in 1975 of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and most of his progeny. One also cannot forget the brutal assassination in prison of arrested senior Awami League leaders, following the coups and counter-coups which culminated in President Ziaur Rahman coming to power. In 1980, President Ziaur Rahman was killed in a shooting spree in the Circuit House in Chittagong. This was followed by the pursuit and assassination of General Manzur and his associates in the Chittagong conspiracy. In the background of this blood-soaked history of Bangladesh, the mayhem that took place in the BDR Headquarters should not come as a total surprise.

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By all accounts, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina handled this delicate and difficult situation extremely well. In this, she combined flexibility with firmness in order to prevent the situation from going out of control. She was, of course, aware of the BDR grievances. She, therefore, first attempted a political solution to this problem. That is why when the reverberations of the violence unleashed in the BDR Headquarters were felt in the city, she sent high-level emissaries to negotiate with the BDR representatives. When it did not work, she herself spent two hours negotiating a settlement with them. It was agreed that the rebels would surrender and go back to the barracks and will be granted amnesty. It was also agreed that their grievances would be looked into by a high-powered committee under the Home Minister, which will complete its work within a time-bound framework. When the mutineers went back on the understanding reached with her and did not surrender, she sent some of her seniormost Cabinet colleagues to neogitate further with them—a process which continued until late that night.

However, when the ugly face of the mutiny came to light, she in a broadcast once again asked them to surrender and warned them of stern action if they did not comply. This was simultaneously followed by her orders for moving the 9th Division of the Bangladesh Army, stationed in Savar in the outskirts of the capital city, to move and surround the BDR Headquarters so that the uprising could be suppressed by force, if necessary. Accordingly, the 9th Division moved to and placed at gates of the BDR Headquarters tanks, armoured battalions and field guns. It is widely believed that this military move was insrumental in forcing the mutineers to finally surrender.

A redeeming feature has been that the Army stood behind the government in handling the situation and acted in a proper and correct manner and in keeping with the traditions of a democratically elected government. They remained calm and restrained under the extreme provocation of a large number of their senior officers having been brutally killed, and did not act unilaterally out of anger or reprisal. In the beginning, they waited for the Prime Minsiter’s conciliatory move to work, but when this did not happen, they moved the 9th Division to surround the BDR Headquarters.

Sheikh Hasina, on her part, displayed great sensitivity to the loss and indignity suffered by the Army. She announced a three-day mourning as a mark of respect to the Army officers who lost their lives. She visited the combined military hospital to see the injured officers and meet their family members. Later, she went to the Dhaka Cantonment to meet the top brass of the Army there and spend some time with them. She promptly announced that the amnesty granted to the mutineers did not apply to those directly involved in the killing. She simultaneously set up a special tribunal for a quick trial of the culprits with a view to meting out to them exemplary punishment.

The crisis is not yet over and Sheikh Hasina’s political wisdom and sagacity is still on trial. She has to ensure that the Army continues to back the government in dealing with the aftermath of the mutiny. She has to cope with the resentment that would be provoked in some quarters when the BDR personnel found guilty are inevitably given death sentences. She has also to take on the task of restructuring and reorienting the BDR, which should be one of the inevitable outcomes of the mutiny and which may also be necessitated by the large-scale desertion. Finally, if the high level committee set up to investigate the mutiny comes out with the finding of a conspiracy, the follow-up action on it woud have to be taken very carefully. This will call for the cooperation of the main Opposition party. Until now, apart from criticising the leniency shown by Hasina towards the BDR at the early stage of the crisis, Begam Khaleda Zia has shown restraint and offered to cooperate with the government in carrying out the investigation. One of the challenges before Sheikh Hasina in the coming weeks would be to keep the nation united in handling this delicate situation. In this connection, her publicly announced intention to seek the assistance of the FBI, Scotland Yard and the United Nations in carrying out the investigation is a tactically clever move, though it is unlikely to fructify or yield any significant result. For, given the political sensitivity, these organisations themselves would be averse to getting involved in this affair. The Government of India has acted wisely in expressing its full sympathy to the government of Sheikh Hasina and expressing its willingness to extend full support and cooperation which she richly deserves.

The author, a former Foreign Secretary of India, was the High Commissioner to Bangladesh for several years. He is currently the President of the Council for Social Development, New Delhi.

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