Islamic Right plotted mutiny
Sunanda K Datta-Ray
March 13, 2009
In those agonising weeks of Bangladesh’s bloody birth, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto observed that if ‘Muslim Bangla’ was seceding because of language, it should logically merge with West Bengal. But if it felt more Muslim than Bangla, it should remain in Pakistan.
Many Bangladeshi Muslims (nearly 90 per cent of the 154 million population) have not been able to resolve that dilemma in 38 years of sovereign existence.
It is a continuation of the complex that prompted Mian Mumtaz Daultana, a Muslim League politician of aristocratic Rajput descent who became Chief Minister of Pakistani Punjab in 1951, to confess that a Muslim in pre-independence India “did not really quite know whether he was basically a Muslim or an Indian”.
Problems of identity, underlying explosions like the Bangladesh Rifles’ February 25 rampage, transform law and order problems into a major political challenge to everything that Prime Minister Hasina Wajed and her Awami League represent. New Delhi was being strictly formal when it described the turmoil as “an exclusively internal matter”. But almost everything that happens in Bangladesh has an external dimension, as confirmed by Dhaka Press reports accusing India’s Border Security Force of exploiting the crisis.
Mr Pranab Mukherjee’s guarded utterances, confirming the complexity of India-Bangladesh relations, justified India not joining Scotland Yard and the FBI in probing the mutiny.In a seminal address to the Dhaka (then still Dacca) Rotary Club nearly 30 years ago, India’s then High Commissioner, Mr Muchkund Dubey, hit the nail on the head. “To a very great extent, our problems are psychological,” he said. “This psychology is derived from our common past. At times it is also due to what one can call small neighbour-big neighbour syndrome.” He might have added that the Bangladeshi elite’s perception of West Bengal and Kolkata compounds the complex.
Mr IK Gujral had the same ambivalence in mind when he advised Sheikh Hasina Wajed in her previous incarnation as Prime Minister to sell gas to India through an American consortium. Its commission would be a small price for freedom from ‘political pressures’, like some Indians wanted the Kolkata-Dhaka-Kolkata Moitree Express discontinued because the Harkat-ul-Jihad-ul-Islam, suspected of being behind the Hyderabad bombing, was believed to operate from Bangladesh.Geography reinforces psychology. Being surrounded by Indian territory on three sides induces a siege mentality and gives half-a-dozen Indian States a stake in Bangladesh’s stability.
The 4,400-km land border also encourages hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants — mainly Muslim economic refugees — who are responsible for demographic change in West Bengal’s sensitive border districts, as well as in Assam and other North-Eastern States.Ideally, strong cultural links, economic inter-dependence, shared inland water resources and overlapping maritime claims should make for close cooperation and even an open or soft border. That was the lost hope of liberation under Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
A friendly Bangladesh can still activate river, road and rail traffic to facilitate communication with North-Eastern States that are politically, economically and strategically vital for India.An unfriendly Bangladesh can compound India’s problems there with armed secessionists, as Mr Hafizur Rahman’s confession about the clandestine arms consignment seized in Chittagong in April 2004 proved. Bangladesh can also abort India’s search for energy in Burma. At the same time, Bangladesh cannot interact with landlocked Nepal and Bhutan except through Indian territory.Closer ties with India are precisely what Bangladeshis who are uncertain of their identity fear most.
They opposed liberation, plotted Mujib’s elimination and are now afraid of Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s call for a South Asian anti-terror task force and her election promise to punish the 1971 ‘war criminals’ which the Jatiyo Sansad has unanimously ratified.
The Jamaat-e-Islami, which was a coalition partner of Begum Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh National Party and is suspected of being close to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, is understandably concerned.That also explains Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari sending a special envoy, Mirza Zia Ispahani, scion of a prominent Calcutta political family that migrated to Pakistan, to Dhaka on a five-day visit just before the mutiny to persuade Sheikh Hasina Wajed to abandon the move.
While Ministers, MPs and the Sansad Speaker objected to his intervention, the most vehement criticism was by the Workers Party MP, Mr Rashed Khan Menon, a member of a leading Pakistani-Bangladeshi family. He is anathema to the Islamic Right which resents his leftist politics as much as his aversion to beef, and predictably identifies him with Hindus and India.
True, the mutiny’s immediate and more specific reasons had nothing to do with India.
The BDR men complain of pay and perquisites and resent the Army monopolising United Nations peace-keeping assignments carrying monthly wages of $ 1,100 or 75,680 Bangladeshi takas. But these alone may not have precipitated a coordinated massacre in Dhaka’s Pilkhana barracks with simultaneous revolts in Rajshahi, Satkhira and Teknaf without a powerful emotional motivation. Sheikh Hasina Wajed speaks of “a wider conspiracy” and blames a “plot by a section of conspirators”.
Her Local Government Minister, Mr Jehangir Kabir Nanak, says “millions of takas” were spent on fomenting the revolt. Bombed bridges and road ambushes bear out the Government’s charge that it was “pre-planned”. There is evidence of truckloads of armed strangers in BDR uniform in Pilkhana.The mutineers cannot have expected to achieve better employment terms by slaughtering their officers, including the commandant, Maj-Gen Shakil Ahmed, and his wife.
Perhaps, agents provocateur hoped to provoke the 67,000 BDR men and the 250,000-strong Army into massacring each other in a repetition of the horrors of 1971. Perhaps they convinced the mutineers that sections of the Army would join their revolt. Either way, but for Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s swift and decisive actions, the Government would have been swept away in an anarchic torrent leaving the field open for other forces to seize control.That might explain not only the mystery surrounding the mutiny but also reports that the Jamaat indoctrinated many new Army and BDR recruits.
The Islamic Right cannot have been pleased when Gen Shakil succeeded in healing the anger the Indian authorities had nursed ever since the BDR killed 16 BSF jawans at Boraibari in Assam in 2001. Nor when Gen Moeen U Ahmed, the Army chief, buried another hatchet with a well-publicised visit to India.
A period of harmonious partnership seemed to lie ahead. That was — and is — intolerable for those Bangladeshis for whom ‘Muslim’ will always take precedence over ‘Bangla’. -- firstname.lastname@example.org