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Bangladesh: Sitting on History's Knife Edge

The history of Bangladesh’s liberation would have been lost had the “January 11” military backed emergency not been imposed. Army Chief Moeen U. Ahmed and the Commander of the critical 9 Div. Maj. Gen. Masududdin Ahmed pre-empted a BNP-JEI conspired coup in which President Fakhruddin Ahmed was complicit. In the BNP, the Kingpins were Prime Minsiter Khaleda Zia, her elder son Tareque Rehman and his coterie, and militant groups promoted, nurtured and protected by them. The JEI worked from the background with its Amir Matiur Rehman Nizami involved in various illegal arms import like the 2004 Chittagong arms haul, and Dilwar Hossain Saydee managing the Jamatul Mujahidin Bangladesh (JMB) Islamic terrorists.

It may not be a widely known fact that in July 2006, Saydee told Prime Minister Khaleda Zia not to succumb to US and other western pressures to execute the top six leader of the JMB including its Chief Shaik Abdur Rehman. He explained that the JMB would be very important during the upcoming general elections. Khaleda Zia took his advice. These six dreaded terrorists were executed by the army backed caretaker government (CG) at the insistence of Gen. Moeen and his commanders. They also chased the militants into retreat, including the HUJI.

Evidence presented during the on-going Chittagong arms haul case exposed a nightmare of conspiracies involving the Bangladeshi intelligence agencies the National Security Intelligence (NSI) and the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), JEI Amir Nizami, Indian insurgent group the ULFA, Pakistan’s ISI and their front organization the ARY group, and international criminal residing in Pakistan, Dawood Ibrahim. When Dawood gets involved, he usually has a long term vision of establishing his company. That is what is coming out now. The serpents head rested in the Zia family.

It is true that the army backed caretaker government made mistakes. There was corruption, politicking, the ‘minus two’ (without Khaleda Zia and Sk. Hasina) Bangladesh political structure, reformism in the two major political parties, the Awami League and the BNP, and Gen. Moeen’s vision of a new Bangladesh. There were rumours that Moeen had the ambition to become a benevolent dictator, President among other things. At the end, the army officer stepped aside with dignity and grace.

Moeen proved everybody wrong. He was thought to be pro-BNP because he superseded a number of other officers to become the Army Chief during the BNP-JEI government. But he was also the chief architect of the notorious BNP-JEI combine’s downfall. He was not pro-Pakistan or pro-any country. He proved to be more nationalist than many others.

Holding this brief for Gen. Moeen U. Ahmed has a very pertinent reason. Nobody in Bangladesh or any other country for that matter is ‘Caesar’s wife’. The new clamour to bring Moeen to trial at this time will send a very wrong message to the Bangladesh army. The army under Moeen moved away from a coup for whatever reason, including some stern UN advice. If he is tried for corruption or something else, it will tell the armed forces of the country to review their role in a future crisis. If the Awami League led government has to go forward with their honourable objectives, a review of the Moeen politics would be in order.

During the CG government there were Advisors (equivalent to Cabinet Minister) who did more harm than good including attempts to raise communal hatred. Maj. Gen. (Retd.) M.A. Matin’s book distorting the history of independence of the sub-continent and trying to generate a hatred of India and Hindus is a case in point. Matin’s book, to say the least, was subversive.

Any kind of dictatorship or army rule is not acceptable to the genetically freedom loving people of Bangladesh. Otherwise, the 1971 liberation war would not have happened with self-less sacrifices. But after the assassination of the liberator of the nation, Sk. Majibur Rahman in 1975, most of the time it has been army rule or army backed rule. Hence, the ambience of the army has always been there, and continues to be. It will take a while for the Bangladesh armed forces to retreat to the barracks, and that will depend on the political leaders of the country.

This writer remembers the words of late Maj.Gen. Abdul Mannan, GOC, 24 Inf. Div. Chittagong, as well as Governor of Chittagong. It was during Gen. H.M.Ershad’s rule. He said the army’s place is in the barracks and protection of the country’s sovereignty. Governance is for political leaders, he added. Obviously, he did not climb up the military ladder. He preferred to shed his uniform and become an ambassador. Bangladesh has not reached that position yet, but could very soon, if issues are handled with vision and sagacity.

For the first time after 1975, the general elections in December 2008 were acclaimed by the international community as the most free, fair and credible elections of Bangladesh. It cannot be denied that the army ensured its own neutrality and that of the polling. The Awami League won a landslide victory, with the BNP and its ally, the JEI, reduced to marginal players in Parliament (Jatiyo Sangshad).

This was a cathartic change. In the 2001 elections the army and the security forces acted unashamedly with the BNP-JEI alliance. This is well documented in the Bangladesh media.

Prime Minister Sk. Hasina stands today with the huge responsibility on her shoulders to turn Bangladesh to what her father, Sk. Mujibur Rahman had envisioned. He was about to be executed in Pakistan or West Pakistan in 1971, but finally succumbed to an army conspiracy in 1975. Sk. Hasina has survived at least three serious attempts on her life. Members of the BNP-JEI government were complicit in these attacks, employing the terrorist organization supported by Pakistan, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI). But Sk. Hasina is her father’s daughter, indomitable and tireless.

For Bangladesh to come to its own, a conclusion of the various aspects of the 1971 war of liberation is a must, and brooks no delay. The poison goes back to the immediate period of bitterness of partition in 1947. The question was what was to be the position of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in the overall sovereign Pakistan. The issues were both economic and linguistic. But language (Bhasa Andolan) took the centre stage. The divide started in 1948 and the 1952 language movement in East Pakistan sowed the seeds of separation. West Pakistan (Pakistan now) dealt with 1952 language issue with bullets and created martyrs. The die was cast. It was the Punjabi domination that is even now creating serious repercussions in Pakistan.

The year 1971 witnessed a very serious confrontation in East Pakistan or Bangladesh. It was between those who pledged their alliance to an alien domination based on religion, and those who opted for language, culture and pride to rule themselves.

The first group dominated Bangladesh following August 15, 1975 for a long time. But one can cut the leaves and branches, but the roots always provide succour to the tree. Sk. Hasina has to draw strength from these roots, and end permanently the source of the 1971 collaborators.

A concurrent issue is the assassination of Sk. Mujibur Rahman and most of his family, and the jail killings of most of his cabinet colleagues in November, that year. Before surrendering on December 16, 1971, the Pakistani army and the Razakars had killed as many Bengali intellectuals as possible.

There is a definite link between the three incidents of killings. The result of the 1971 trials, 1975 conspiracy investigations, and the Abu Taher case will determine where Bangladesh will go. They together remain a cancer in the country’s body politics.

Added to this is the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) mutiny of February 25-26, 2009 in Dhaka which took the lives of 59 Bangladesh army officers and their families, including the BDR Chief. Maj. Gen. Shakil. BNP and JEI leaders unleashed a propaganda that the mutiny was India’s handiwork aided by Awami League government to weaken the Bangladesh army. A preposterous as the charge may be, the BNP and JEI continue to clutch this straw.

On August 17, this year, the new BDR Chief Maj. Gen. Moinul Islam, put the munity in the following perspective. He said foreign forces benefitted from this “most heinous crime”, “external enemies still exist”, and added “it reminds us of the liberation war of 1971”. Maj. Gen. Islam need not have been more explicit. He obviously spoke based on the findings of investigations, and pointed the finger squarely at the BNP, JEI and Pakistan.

Sk. Hasina is faced with strong opposition both internal and external in the 1971 war crimes trial. Internal forces can be overcome. But when they are backed by strong external forces, it becomes difficult.

Saudi Arabia holds a strong economic clout to exterminate the fountain heads of Bangladeshi nationalism. In 1978, Major, then Lt. Gen. and finally President of Bangladesh Zia-ur-Rahman gave a new political life to the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI), the main collaborators of Pakistan’s occupying army in 1971.

Therefore, the role and character of Zia-ur-Rahman, the founder of the BNP, life giver to the JEI, and late husband of Begum Khaleda Zia comes to question.

Zia, as a Major in the Pakistani army, fought for Bangladesh as a sector commander in 1971. He wrote an article how he hated Pakistanis and bloodied a Pakistani opponent in a boxing ring. This was soon after liberation. The BNP then went on to project Zia as the declarer of Bangladesh’s independence, and not Sk. Muiblur Rahman.

Very little is known whether Zia had any role in Sk. Mujib’s assassination, or even his real intent in the liberation war. Then there is the mystery of why Zia had Col. Abu Taher tried and executed immediately, in Dhaka central jail behind closed doors especially, after Col. Taher had helped him to regain power after 1975. Did Col. Taher come to know something about Zia and his connections that others did not? The rest of Zia’s career as President till he was assassinated in a military coup in 1981 suggested he was against the liberation forces.

Saudi Arabia exercises strong influence over Bangladesh given that Bangladeshi workers in Saudi Arabia are a major economic stay for Dhaka. It has promoted Wahabi Islam in Bangladesh, and some Saudi based NGOs have funded Bangladeshi extremist organizations. Pakistan wants Dhaka to drop 1971 war crime cases and forget the liberation war as several Pakistani army officers are listed in the war crimes. Riyadh also backs Pakistan.

The US has also been circumspect, given at least, real time information on Sk. Mujib’s assassination. The US and other western interest have indicated assistance for the trials, but do not want it to be made political. This is a very critical question. Every war crime trial and assassination of state leaders in a mutiny has political repercussions and roots. The west can be satisfied if the trials do not include foreign participants in both cases. But references to them are bound to come up during the course of the trials.

The 1975 incident was to try and obviate 1971. It almost succeeded. But the trials could open up a lot of old cans of worms. Even China would be indirectly complicit in support, since Beijing recognized Bangladesh only after Pakistan did after Sk. Muiib’s assassination.

To take the country’s attention away from the 1971 and 1975 trials, the BNP and the JEI have raised a number of India centric issues, like the Tipaimukh dam, the Asian Highway, maritime boundary, access to Chittagong port, the 1997 Chittagong Hill Tracts treaty being the major ones. The BNP-JEI combine has succeeded in raising especially the Tipaimukh issue to a significant extent arguing that the dam will dry up Bangladesh. But their arguments have been merely rabble rousing bereft of facts, and misinformation by the JEI organs like the Naya Diganta and Sangram among others.

Sk. Hasina has held her grounds till now. She will be coming soon to India on an official visit, the first in her new tenure as Prime Minister. It will be prudent for the Indian side to make critical questions, especially on technicalities, abundantly clear before her visit on Tipaimukh.

Sk. Hasina needs to conserve her and her party’s energy and concentrate on the existential issue of the relevance of Bangladesh as an independent and sovereign country, and justify the blood given by the people of Bangladesh. From 1948 to 1952 and then to 1968-69 and 1971, Bangladeshis irrespective of Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Buddhists fought on one side. The question on Gen. Moeen was brought in this article in this context. Energy and focus must not be dissipated at this critical juncture.

For Bangabandhu’s elder daughter, one of the two who escaped the annihilation of the family, destiny beckons for the last time. Do not forget old friends or those who helped to this point. Remember, Bangladesh is on history’s knife edge.

(The writer, Mr.Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent analyst based in New Delhi).

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