ON February 24, while inaugurating the annual Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) Week in Dhaka, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina re-emphasised the new government’s policies vis-a-vis the country’s border management and said that no one would be allowed to use the territory of Bangladesh for terrorist activities. The next day, however, BDR jawans themselves unleashed a reign of terror in the capital, marking another black chapter in the turbulent history of Bangladesh and posing the first serious challenge to the almost two-month-old government.
The trouble began at the darbar hall of the BDR headquarters in Dhaka’s densely populated Pilkhana area where senior officers, numbering about 150, led by BDR Director-General Major General Sakil Ahmed and a few thousand low-ranking jawans of the paramilitary force were attending an annual conference. The BDR comes under the Ministry of Home Affairs, while its senior officers come on deputation from the Bangladesh Army.
As the meeting progressed, a jawan ran towards Sakil Ahmed, who was talking about the force’s programmes, and questioned why the demands of the troops for better pay and facilities had not been met. A heated exchange followed and soon a few hundred heavily armed rebels, who are said to have come from outside the hall, surrounded the officers. Reportedly, they then lined up the officers and sprayed bullets into them. Thus began a 33-hour-long mutiny that shook the country whose fragile democracy was restored after a long gap when a civilian government led by Sheikh Hasina was sworn in.
The infuriated jawans killed their commanding officers after taking most of them hostage and tortured their family members at their residences. Joined by most of the lower-ranking soldiers at the headquarters, the armed rebels quickly took control of the headquarters, firing indiscriminately and killing a number of civilians.
Unlike in the past when independent electronic media were almost non-existent and the press was controlled, the mutiny got wide coverage. People thus got to see how the new government, which was yet to settle down, reacted to the serious challenge as much as they saw the mutineers holding the country to ransom, using bullets, mortar shells and automatic weapons.
The mutineers raised many issues including “rampant corruption” by officers and their long-pending grievances over pay, welfare and benefits. But the most prominent issue was that of “army control” over the paramilitary force.
Many demands of the soldiers seem valid, but the question remains unanswered as to why such an unprecedented outburst took place without prior notice or negotiation. Some analysts believe that while the grievances of the jawans were deep-rooted, their revolt on February 25 was far from spontaneous. The BDR mutineers had no national agenda. Moreover, they had options to make their demands heard but did not use them, the analysts feel.
Some others believe that vested interests within the BDR may have worked as a catalyst to inflict a heavy blow on the new government, which had just started consolidating power. Some quarters in the government believe that it was “sabotage”. Only an investigation can reveal the truth.
The police and the army, which started searches after the rebels surrendered on February 26 following Sheikh Hasina’s call, recovered scores of bullet-ridden bodies. This included the decomposed bodies of Sakil Ahmed and that of his wife and many officers from the rank of major general and brigadier general to lieutenant. According to an army estimate, of the officers present at the BDR headquarters, 63 were found dead and 33 had survived. As many as 72 officers were missing.
As the bodies were being brought out from the sewers one by one and as several mass graves were excavated within the BDR headquarters, it became clear that the rebellion, understandably by a section of BDR soldiers against their officers, had turned out to be nothing less than a massacre. The sheer number and nature of fatalities added to the commoners’ belief that whatever be the grievances behind the mutinous actions, the murderous means could not be justified.
Unparalleled in history
The killing of so many military officers by mutinous soldiers is unparalleled in the history of the country though it has seen many brutalities since its independence from Pakistan. This includes the assassination of the nation’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and his family members and other army rebellions in which many officers and former President Gen. Ziaur Rahman were killed.
Right from day one, the Prime Minister opted for a negotiated settlement of the crisis, and to avoid further bloodshed, sent political emissaries for talks with the rebels. As the emotionally charged army cordoned off the BDR headquarters and waited for orders, the government emissaries organised a crucial meeting of the Prime Minister with a 14-member team of the rebel leaders at her official residence on February 25. The mutineers demanded general amnesty for themselves and placed a charter of demands, which the Prime Minister and her Cabinet agreed to resolve in phases on condition that the rebels surrender their arms and go to their barracks first. The extent of the massacre inside the BDR headquarters was still unknown then.
The rebels ignored the government’s verbal amnesty, refused to surrender arms to the army and continued firing, deepening the crisis, until the Prime Minister addressed the nation over radio and television the next day. In her short address, Sheikh Hasina appealed to the rebels emotionally while warning them of stern action. “Don’t force me to take tough actions, which I don’t want to,” she said, while urging them to lay down arms immediately. She repeated her word of amnesty, saying, “We don’t want to add to the tragedy through reprisals.”
That worked. The mutiny ended within hours of the Prime Minister’s speech, and an armed police battalion took control of the BDR headquarters, with Home Minister Sahara Khatoon keeping the keys of the armoury.
As peace was restored at the BDR headquarters, the paramilitary troops in the districts who had sided with their “comrades” in Dhaka also began to heed Sheikh Hasina’s warning, bringing calm across the country. But emotions ran high among the public and the defence personnel in particular as news and pictures of the brutal killings emerged. Chief of the Army Staff Gen. Moeen U Ahmed and the chiefs of the navy and the air force were in close contact with the Prime Minister in order to defuse the mounting tension. Amid rising sentiments, the Prime Minister said on February 27 that those who had committed the ghastly killings would not come under the declared amnesty. “They will be tried under the law and punished,” she said. Sheikh Hasina, who visited the survivors in two cantonments, said that “we must also see whether there was any plan to use this incident for a different purpose”.
The government declared a three-day national mourning in honour of the dead officers and announced that they would be buried with state honours. She also constituted a six-member high-powered committee headed by the Home Minister to investigate the massacre.
At the height of the tension in the cantonments, the Principal Staff Officer of the Armed Forces Division, Lt. Gen. Mohammad Abdul Mobin, told the nation that the government would form a special tribunal to ensure quick trial of the mutineers. “The general amnesty announced by the Prime Minister does not mean those who took part in the killing, rebellion and arson and other monster activities will be spared,” he said. “The government will also ensure proper representation of the army in the probe committee.”
He urged the members of the armed forces to play a “responsible role” by maintaining restraint for the sake of the nation. “For national security and peace, it is our moral duty to remain united at this critical juncture,” he said.
Meanwhile, the government appointed Brigadier General Moinul Hussain the new Director-General of the BDR to restore the chain of command of the border force, which had been shattered. Reports said hundreds of BDR jawans had fled their headquarters in disguise as the police began arresting many others and handing them over to the army units.
The Sheikh Hasina government, which has vowed to fight Islamist terrorism and build a secular democracy, has many potential foes, including “war criminals” who are likely to face trial after 38 years of Bangladesh’s war of independence from Pakistan.
The resounding victory of her grand alliance in the December 29, 2008, general elections had alarmed all of them.
During the nerve-wracking mutiny, Sheikh Hasina played a remarkable role as the head of a democratic government, managing both the mutineers and the army and stopping further bloodshed.
Many feel that if the option of force had been applied, the casualties would have been enormous.
Though the mutiny had killed dozens of army personnel, the army as a whole, controlled its emotions in a remarkable manner.
“This is a brutal killing, so it is natural that there will be pent-up anger among us. But, we can control our emotion as we are a disciplined force,” said Director of Military Intelligence Brig. Gen. Mahmud Hossain at a press briefing at the Army Headquarters in Dhaka Cantonment on February 28.
Significantly, despite mounting tension, the army respected the chain of command and followed the decisions of the civilian leadership. General Moeen U Ahmed reiterated the army’s loyalty to democracy by saying the armed forces were always “subservient to the government”. “Rumours are swirling ... [but] the army belongs to you,” the army chief said after meeting the Prime Minister and senior Cabinet members.
“What happened in Pilkhana was a catastrophe that caused irreparable loss to not only the army but also the country,”’ Moeen Ahmed said, in his first public comment after the rebellion. “We will have to overcome it.”
Now that normalcy has returned, the government has a much bigger task: to find out the reason for the rebellion and the masterminds behind it, and also reasonable remedies to avert such situations in future. The incident has already had a devastating effect on the country’s future.