Monday, March 16, 2009

Pilkhana massacre: an anatomy by an Indian analyst


Although the mutiny by the Bangladesh Rifles has now come to an end, yet Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, was right while expressing doubts about the limited time-span of the rebellion to convey her anxiety that some more serious strikes might be in the offing in future. Available indications point out that in spite of the Awami League’s landslide victory in the last parliamentary elections, Bangladesh’s dissociation from the network of terror in the sub-continent is still far away.

There are too many serious sidelights in the entire episode. Is it a coincidence that Colonel Guljaruddin Ahmed and Colonel Zahid of the Bangladesh Army, who were responsible for the arrests of Siddiqul Islam alias Banglabhai and Shaikh Abdur Rahman, the two supreme leaders of the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, Bangladesh, were among the first to be murdered by the BDR? Again, can it be denied that the procession, on the eve of the mutiny, in front of the BDR headquarters baying for the blood of Army officers was led by leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islam?

Responsible sources point to the fact that two very senior level ISI officers are now operating from Dhaka and they maintain close connections with one particular battalion of the BDR. One of them is known as A.K. Khan and he was reported to be hyper-active in the days before the mutiny. It is now clear that the aim of the mutineers and conspirators was to murder these Army officers who had taken actions to break the nexus between Jamaat and other terrorist organisations during the time of the last caretaker government, loot arms and ammunitions and hand them over to the Islamic fundamentalists.

Hasina’s anxiety over the probable regrouping of militants has solid foundations. Her government is little more than two months old, too tender an age to grapple with the tentacles Islamic funda-mentalism had spread in Bangladesh during the prime ministership of Khaleda Zia. Several attempts were made on her life and on one occasion the conspiracy and entire planning was hatched at the residence of a Minister of the Khaleda Zia Government.
In the wake of the BDR mutiny Hasina has been repeatedly talking about the role of ‘outsiders’ behind it.

The unfolding story seems to be highly interesting and the turn of events confirms that the Bangladesh Prime Minister, after her assumption of office, has advanced on the right path so far the most important policy pronouncement from her government being the passing of a bill in the Jatiya Sansad (parliament) for the trial of war crimes during the liberation war of 1971, the blackest chapter in the history of Bangladesh. The move is significant because the prominent ones in the list of the wartime criminals, mostly leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islam, are exactly those persons who first gave birth to and then nurtured Islamic fundamen-talism in Bangladesh. But the forces of fundamen-talism are still strong and there should be no reason to believe that the massive election victory of the Awami League has made the task of fighting radical Islam absolutely easy for Hasina Wajed.
The political history of Bangladesh is replete with stories of blunders that began with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declaring a general amnesty for the liberation war-time criminals and then partici-pating in an Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) meet although Bangladesh’s bloody birth came into being on a sentiment of Bengali nationalism which was free from any religious overtone. After the assassination of Mujibur Rahman, Ziaur Rahman, the next President, desecularised the country’s Constitution and facilitated the return of Golam Azam, the Emir of Jamaat-e-Islam and a proclaimed wartime offender who had fled to Pakistan. President Ershad made Islam the state religion. Khaleda Zia threw away all decorum and made Jamaat and the Islamic Oikya Jote, an umbrella organisation of various fundamentalist parties, her alliance partners.

But one should not lose sight of the fact that Hasina Wajed too had compromised on this issue when during the 1996 elections she had taken help from the Jamaat in ousting Khaleda from power. It is only to be hoped that she would not commit the mistake again as radical Islam has struck such deep roots within the Bangladeshi society that the present government has accepted the probability of some Bangladeshi hand behind the 26/11 terrorist attack in Mumbai.

Although the Army was at the receiving end during the BDR mutiny, yet reports indicate that radical Islam had penetrated the Army too during the Khaleda Zia regime. Outwardly the Army did play a creditable role at the time of the caretaker government although there is another explanation that it hoped for a fractured mandate which would have given it a lot of leverage to manoeuvre.

In the wake of the admission from the Bangladesh Government of a Bangladeshi hand in relation to the 26/11 attack in India, Hasina’s concept of a South Asian Task Force becomes more relevant because the Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islam (HuJI), a pan-subcontinental Islamic terrorist organisation, is very much active. The HuJI was formed out of the 5000-strong Islamic militants of Bangladesh who had taken part in the war against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Mufti Hannan (now in jail), who is alleged to have masterminded grenade attacks on Hasina in Kotalipara, is believed to be enjoying close connection with the HuJI. It will be interesting to note that Maulana Tajuddin, the commander of the HuJI in Bangladesh, is the brother of a Minister of the previous government of Khaleda Zia. In the past this organisation was alleged to have carried out bomb attacks on Bengali New Year’s Day cele-brations and on the programmes of Udichi, a cultural organisation disseminating secular values.

Another dreaded organisation possessing enough firepower is the Shahadat-al-Hikma, comprising of cadres of the Freedom Party whose top leaders had assassinated Mujibur Rahman. The Al-Hikma enjoys wide connections in various Islamic countries, including Saudi Arabia and Libya. Recent requests to Hasina from Asif Ali Zardari and various heads of states from the Middle East and West Asia so as not to press hard for trials of liberation-time crimes, may not be totally unconnected to the international clout that the Al-Hikma enjoys. Apart from the HuJI and Shahadat-al-Hikma, Bangladesh had witnessed sprouting of numerous fundamentalist organi-sations during the time of Khaleda. Indian policy-makers should keep in mind that senior members of the Jamaat-e-Islam were on the advisory council of the HuJI.

India has great stakes in the success or failure of Hasina Wajed in combating Islamic terrorism. Not only are there indications that several secessionist outfits of North-Eastern India, like the ULFA of Assam and NLFT and ATTF of Tripura, are trying to shift their camps out of Bangladesh, but several ATTF cadres have also crossed the border at Tripura and surrendered to the Indian law-enforcing authorities. But secessionism in North-Eastern India is so much connected with Islamic militancy in Bangladesh, with the HuJI in charge of coordination, that a lot more ground has to be covered before the ultras can be pushed to the wall.

The previous caretaker government had certainly made a good start in this direction when it hanged Siddiqul Islam and Shaikh Abdur Rahman of the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, Bangladesh (JMB). But the JMB too has wide international connections and that the elimination of the two aforesaid leaders has not been able to cripple its striking power was demonstrated recently when quite a few JMB cadres were arrested with huge ammunitions and they exploded grenades inside the office of a Superitendent of Police. Similarly Shahadat-al-Hikma has alleged connections with the ISI. It is rumoured that when the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had started chasing the hitmen of Dawoob Ibrahim, the Al-Hikma was born in Bangladesh with ISI patronage in order to provide sanctuaries to some of Dawood’s associates. But the Al-Hikma is known to operate in a low-key manner and is active mostly in the northern districts of Bangladesh.
Hasina Wajed has started well and India has reasons to feel upbeat. The Bangladesh Prime Minister has declared that she would not allow the soil of her country to be used for anti-Indian activities. This is likely to help New Delhi greatly in its fight against international terrorism as Bangladesh had, of late, become a very important junction in the terror networks. Her other actions also arouse hope. She had already prepared, during the days of her internment under the previous caretaker government, a list of Cabinet Ministers in the event of her party’s victory at the hustings discarding most of the discredited faces of Bangladesh politics although many of them were heroes of the liberation war.

Her selection of Matia Chowdhury as the Agriculture Minister, Dipu Moni as the Foreign Minister and Sahara Khatun as the Home Minister is extremely laudable. Matia Chowdhury, a survivor from the previous Awami League Government, had given an outstanding performance as a Minister during her past term. Both Dipu Moni and Sahara Khatun have distin-guished themselves in various social and political movements of Bangladesh in recent times and, like Matia, are known for their probity in public life.

But how has India reacted to the BDR mutiny, a development of grave importance having connec-tion with at least one great conspirator of the subcontinent? That the Indian Foreign Minister is hopelessly unequal to his official duty became amply clear when he, during his visit to Bangladesh a few days before the BDR mutiny, declined to entertain Hasina’s proposal for a South Asian Task Force to combat terrorism on the superfluous argument that such mechanisms do already exist and that sincerity is the key word. But he did not clarify what these existing mechanisms are or whether they have really served any purpose so far.

Now there are indications that the mandarins in the South Block are loathe to accept the possibility of any conspiracy behind the BDR mutiny. Apart from the facts mentioned above, several other worrying developments had also taken place. The Bangladesh Government as well as the Army are now convinced that the intelligence wing of the BDR had played a mysterious role and that, according to video footages of close circuit electronic devices, outsiders were there inside the BDR headquarters donning the uniforms of the paramilitary force. Moreover eyewitnesses had found a grey coloured unauthorised weapon carrier inside the BDR Headquarters a little before the rebellion broke out.

What was the ultimate aim of the conspirators? Any serious political observer would know that except two elections—those of 1970 and those just concluded last year—the political history of Bangladesh has always taken sudden turns due to conspiracies. Mujibur Rahman died of an inter-national conspiracy. The death of Ziaur Rahman was also the result of a conspiracy by a section of the Army. Even when Ershad fell in 1990, the Army had gone against him although the denouement was reached through a democratic election. This time, did the BDR rebels try to bring about a change of regime by eliminating Hasina and other important members of her Cabinet? If the Bangladesh Prime Minister’s recent actions against Islamic funda-mentalists are taken into account, then this possibility cannot be discounted.

This latest development in Bangladesh is serious enough for New Delhi to take note of the forces that organised the near-coup. Their motive is understandable. But how could they muster so much courage and wherewithal even after the people of Bangladesh gave the Awami League such an overwhelming mandate? Perhaps thereby hangs another tale.

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