Monday, March 2, 2009

The tragedy of mutinies in Bangladesh


Since the independence of the country in 1971, many mutinies by the Army, Airforce, BDR and Ansar have taken place resulting in huge losses of lives, including those of two presidents - Bangabandhu and General Zia ur Rahman. A tally of how many mutinies have taken place and how many lives have been lost in those mutinies have never been kept but without doubt some of best, the bravest, the brightest and most worthy sons of the soil met their untimely deaths in these mutinies and in their aftermaths.

I have spent 25 years in the Army and have lived with revolutions, revolts and mutinies half of that time. That does not in any way make me an expert on the subject but it does give me an insight or two into mutinies/revolts, as it equally does to soldiers of my and earlier generations.

Of revolutions, revolts and mutinies
Revolutions change histories of peoples, societies and nations as we have seen by the birth of Bangladesh but mutinies/revolts merely destroy. Once the destruction is done, individually and collectively, mutinies/revolts lose their steam unless suffused with overriding political or ideological intent, in which case mutinies/revolts are part of the greater social and political upheavals called revolutions. Sometimes revolutions degenerate into the aberrations of mutinies/revolts as we have seen in 1975-76.

The BDR mutiny of 25 and 26 February was perhaps the most destructive of its kind being solely moored on material aspects and entirely devoid of any greater social or political underpinnings. No wonder it was so destructive to human lives and property, in the 33 hours that it raged on. Final tallies are not in but apprehensions of the death of atleast 140 Army officers and their families are there alongwith injuries to many others; this is besides the "collateral damage" to civilian lives and property. The human tragedy of this mutiny in particular is incalculable and in many respects inconceivable.

The tragedy of the mutineers
Mutinies are by nature conspiratorial and by definition unlawful under the prevailing laws of the land and so, mutineers, by choice are out on a limb, desperate and brutal. Torn asunder from a life-time of psychological and physical conditioning, institutional, structural and environmental bindings, mutineers are devoid of most "human" feelings as we understand them.

Mutiny, is foremost of the mind, the body follows later. To mutineers, every institution, every structure (even physical ones) and every representation of authority is a symbol of perceived oppression, whether real or not and the sole urge is therefore, to destroy through murder, rape, looting and burning. The moment the mutiny is conceived, mutineers are outcasts - dead or alive - outside the pale of their families, friends, society, law and the Nation whose honour, dignity and independence they had sworn to defend but all of which they have defiled not by the act of mutiny/revolt but by the attendant acts of murder, rape, looting and arson - this is the tragedy of the mutineers but the greater tragedy is that of the victims.

The tragedy of the victims
The greatest tragedy of the victims is that they do not know why they are dying. Sworn to a life-time of absolute obedience, service and sacrifice, soldiers voluntarily choose a way of life whose very justification is extreme violence, organized by the State, for the State and of the State. It is therefore, only and only within the parameters of the "State" that violence is unleashed calling for the sacrifice of life. When lives are sacrificed or lost outside the parameters of the State, they become meaningless.

Whether in peace or in war, in life, soldiers are just cogs in the vast machinery of the State, often ignored, often reviled; it is only in death that soldiers are heroes. In mutinies/revolts, soldiers "outside the pale" target those other soldiers who represent the status quo, who are symbols of authority, initiating a chain of action-reaction which is predatory, brutal and merciless. The parameters of the State within which violence is supposed to be organized, do not hold good anymore and so the deaths become meaningless - that is the tragedy of the victims of mutinies/revolts.

Of institutions and structures
As has been mentioned above, mutinies occur because institutions and structures fail, in one way or the other, to fulfill the "perceived" psychological and physical needs of some, or atleast the most aware people who work and live, perhaps spending their entire lives within those institutions and structures.

The BDR mutiny has not only destroyed lives, it has also destroyed the institution and structure of the BDR. While lives are irreplaceable, institutions and structures are not. So, an entire new structure of BDR has to be made and new institution-building started, if recurrences of such gruesome and tragic incidents are to be prevented. Mere change or "reform" as the latest buzzword is, is not going to workout - that would be like pouring new wine in old bottles; the wine would ferment and burst asunder the bottles. That is something the AL government has to understand not just with the BDR but with all institutions and structures which are commonly referred to as "the armed forces".

Of investigations into mutinies
A high level investigation committee, headed by the Home Minister, has already been formed to investigate into the 25-26 February BDR mutiny. No doubt the investigation committee will go through the motions but whether they would actually be able to penetrate the fog of conspiracy which led to the mutiny, is quite another matter because uptill now, no investigation could ever get to the depth of the matter in the dozens of mutinies that took place in Bangladesh since 1975.

True, many Army officers directly involved with some of those mutinies were prosecuted and some hanged but many of those mutinies still remained unresolved including the murder of Bongobondhu and the November 75 jail killings. Also, the investigation reports of past mutinies were never made public and so the "public" never really knew what happened although they were as much affected by those mutinies as anyone else.

So, one doesn't hope for much from this investigation committee either.If this investigation committee means business, it ought to concentrate on a number of issues. The first of these issues is: how did the government react during and after the mutiny? The second issue is why and how did all the intelligence agencies miss out on the early warnings, the so-called "battle indicators" of this mutiny. The third issue is the action and reaction of Army forces and other law-enforcing agencies. The last but equally important issue is the handling of the media and information out-flow to the public. (The investigation issue has been covered in detail in the editorial of 01 March of The Bangladesh Today).

There is no last word or conclusion to this commentary, just as there is no last word to the tragedy of mutinies/revolts.

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