December 13, 2007

BANGLADESH: Searching for a Road

Source: SAAG

By Bhaskar Roy

As Bangladesh celebrates Victory Day on December 16 its people are thinking why the dream for a vibrant independent secular nation so soon turned into a nightmore.

Those who fought the war of liberation with guns in jungles and the countryside, and those who were forced to remain inside but contributed to the cause in their own ways, were baffled by the events of August 15, 1975 and after. A question that comes to mind frequently is- why were the muktijoddhas or freedom fighters standing by mutely when their dreams were being pulled down by a group of right wingsers. The answer is not easy.

The freedom fighters had disbanded. They were never a cohesive force like an army. Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman created small para military force called the Rakkhi Bahini a Guard Wing armed only with small arms. What really was shocking and numbing for the people was that the same people who fought together for liberation were killing each other. After all, Maj. Zia-ur-Rahman, who later became President of the country through manipulations and blood, was the one who declared independence on behalf of Sheikh Mukibar Rahman.

It took a long time before it was revealed that Zia-ur-Rahman was kept fully abreast of the plans to assassinate Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman and his family. The only survivors were the two daughters, Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehana, who were abroad.

The entire story of the great conspiracy is yet to be told. There are people still around, especially the army officers who were involved in the killing, who can do Bangladesh’s history a very important service. But it appears that no one in power in Bangladesh today who is inclined to open this can of worms. Even when Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League was in power from 1996-2001, she did not make a serious effort towards this end.

This is an enigma – Zia-ur-Rahman’s popularity has been cleverly built as the leader only next to Sheikh Mujibar Rahman a.k.a Bangabandhu. The school history books which had destroyed the history of Bangladesh under Zia, H. M. Ershad and Khalida Zia, has finally been corrected by the Caretaker Government. Trustfully, Zia retains his position, and there is no mention of India’s support to the liberation war. Perhaps, it is not yet time for either of the two subjects in the interest of political stability.

Sheikh Mujibar Rahman was a charismatic towering political leader who could mobilize a nation, and he did it. But like all great leaders he had his weaknesses. One, he believed that no Bangladeshi could have any ill intentions towards him. He was weak in administration and blindly believed in his personal charisma. He did not rein in his sons and nephews who became local warlords and earned the ire of the people.

Finally, his feet of clay. He cut the wings of his most able and loyal colleague, Tajuddin Ahmed, who ran the Mujibnagar government in exile as Prime Minister when Mujib was in jail in Pakistan.

Sheikh Mujib made other mistakes not with any aim, but inadvertently since he became his own admirer. These are harsh words for the father of the nation, but they are true and must be recorded for posterity. Why did he take Bangladesh to the organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) in 1973, without consulting his cabinet colleagues, especially after the first constitution of the country gazetted in 1972 declared Bangladesh as a secular country. The OIC move laid the foundation for an Islamic Republic ultimately. Zia completed this formality.

Banglabandhu also tried his hand of reconciliation with the Jamaat Brown shirts like the Razakars, Al Shams and Al Badr, who acted as the butchers of the Pakistani army in 1971.

He tried to please and win over everybody with his large heart. He did not understand that heart cannot win over devious minds.

It is not that there was no resistance to Sheikh Mujib’s assassination. Brig. Khaled Musharraf, a freedom fighter and brilliant military strategist tried to salvage the situation. He put Zia under house arrest and negotiated in Bangabhavan to oust Khondakar Mustaque Ahmed and Taheruddin Thakur, two right wing opportunists who master minded the coup against Bangabandhu.

Unfortunately, Khaled Musharraf did not have the guile to match that of Zia-ur-Rahman. Zia enlisted the support of Col (Retd.) Abu Taher to raise a propaganda in the Dhaka cantonment that Sheikh Mujib and his colleagues were selling the country to the Indo-Soviet axis. The anger raised was so high that when Khaled Musharraf and two other Mujib colleagues were killed in November 1975, their dead bodies were publicly desecrated.

Following Sheikh Mujib’s assassination the killer officers had incarcerated the top Awami League leaders in the Dhaka jail. They included Tajuddin Ahmed, Sayed Nazrul Islam, Mansur Ali and Qamruzzaman, the think tank and leaders of the Mujibnagar Government in exile.

On the night of November 3-4, 1975, the same officers who had assassinated Sheikh Mujib and his family, mowed down this eminent quartet in jail.

Just before surrendering to the Indian army in Dhaka, the Pakistani army executed a large number of Bangladeshi intellectuals who were held in Dhaka jail. The Pakistani army believed that these Bengali intellectuals who did no pick up guns, were the main source of moral and spiritual energy behind the liberation movement. They had to be eliminated as a revenge, hoping such intellectuals would not come up again. It was chopping off the brain of Bengali nationalism.

The killer officers led by Col. Huda proceeded to eliminate the brains of the Awami League to ensure the liberation party was debilitated. The plan was successful.

The central point was to create a Bangladesh which would stand against India. The Dhaka contentment anti-India slogan engineered by Col Taher could not have been a one man effort. But the insidious poison generated only grew.

There are many questions left unanswered. Col (Retd.) Abu Taher was not an Islamist. Why did he go virulently anti-India? Did the Indian policy in the initial stages with the parties like the Jatiyo Samajtankrik Dal (JSD) alienate people like Abu Taher?

Abu Taher brought Zia-ur-Rahman out of house arrest and established him as the Army Chief, which Zia used to take over the presidency. Why did Zia-ur-Rahman then arrest Abu Taher and, after a secret trial, execute him in July 1976?. Whatever went wrong between Zia and Abu Taher must come out in public to clarify a lot of issues. Bangladesh needs to bring out these facts if they want political stability.

Zia-ur-Rahman apparently ruled from revolts to revolts. Bangladesh media reports 19 coup attempts during Zia’s regime. He finally fell to a coup by Maj. Gen. M. A. Manzoor, GoC of 24 Inf. Division in Chittagong and Martial law administrator of Chittagong. Manzoor was executed without a trial.

According to a retired army officer of the 24 Inf. Division who was a witness to the coup against Zia, Mazoor had been promised back up from Dhaka. But that did not come. Instead, he came under attack. Mazoor was arrested from a tea garden while trying to free the country. He was brought to the cantonment, pushed into a bath tub, and shot in the temple. Nobody asked him any question. Lt. Gen. H. M. Ershad had taken over power in Dhaka. He is the only man alive who could unravel this mystery.

Ershad was brought down by a popular uprising in 1990. The Zia-ur-Rahman created BNP came to power with his widow Begum Khaleda Zia as the Chair person. She became the Prime Minister twice – 1991 to 1996 and 2001 – 2005. In between, the Awami League had its own tenure with Sheikh Hasina as the Prime Minister. This period from 1991 saw the gradual rise of Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) as a political party.

The JeI was wooed by both the major political parties, the Awami League and the BNP. In BNP’s second term, it became a ruling partner. Although with two ministers in the cabinet, the Jamaat concentrated on building its cadre base and influence.

According to an empirical study made by eminent economist Abul Bankat in 2005, the JEI’s earnings from its own business enterprises amounted to Taka 1200 crores per year. It is alleged that the JEI also received illegal funds from NGOs in Kuwait, UAE and Saudi Arabia who have known links to Osama bin Laden’s International Islamic Front (IIF). Funds were mainly channeled through the Islamic Bank of Bangladesh, controlled by the JEI.

These funds also found their way to the now banned Islamic terrorist organizations like Jamatul Muslim Bangladesh (JMB), the Ahle Hadit Bangladesh and the Harkat-ul-Jehad al-Islami (HUJI).

What concerned most were that the de facto power center in Bangladesh, Tareq Rahman Zia, Khaleda’s elder son and senior Joint Secretary General of the BNP and some the BNP ministers close to him, were involved with the JMB leaders and HUJI leaders. Till the countrywide bombing by the JMB on August 17, 2005, the BNP leaders including Prime Minister Khaleda denied the existence of the organization and its leader Sheikh Abdul Rahman and Siddique Islam @ Banglabhai. Begum Zia went as far as to declare publicly that JNB was a figment of imagination of journalists.

Two unhealthy trends developed rapidly in Bangladesh during the 2001-2005 period. First was unbridled corruption as if there was no tomorrow. Most of the money thus collected was parked abroad in banks and real estate investments, and lost to the country. The corruption brigade was led by Tareq Rahman and the Zia family. They were above law.

The other trend was state sponsored terrorism and radical Islamism. JHB terrosits like Sheikh Abdul Rahman and Banglabhai were given protection including Minister of state for Home Affairs, Lutfuzzaman Babar. Huge quantities of small arms were smuggled in which went to terrorists, BNP and JEI workers, and Indian insurgents like the ULFA and NSCN (CM).

The JEI also received significant support from western countries, especially the USA and UK. Both maintained that the JEI was a moderate Islamic political party despite certain evidence to the contrary. This was part of the US strategy to buy friendship with the Islamic world, something they tried with the so called “moderate” Taliban in Afghanistan.

The BNP also used terrorists for political assassination. Two serious efforts were made by Mufti Hannan, HUJI commander-in-chief on opposition leader Sheikh Hasina’s life. The first one was in 2001, and the second was on May 21, 2004 at a Awami League rally in Dhaka. In the second attempt twenty two people died including senior leader Ms. Iry Rahman. Sheikh Hasina was injured.

A one man commission appointed by the BNP to go into the May 21 attack concluded that a foreign “hand” was involved, namely India. Mufti Haman, now in custody under the Caretaker Government, has confessed his involvement in the attack. Based on his confessional statements, several other involved in the attack have also been picked up by the police.

The last BNP-JEI rule witnessed, perhaps, the worst period in Indo-Bangladesh history of the last 23 years. The Bangladesh ministers and officials did not spare any opportunity to pin-prick India. Even in some multilateral meetings when India and Pakistan took joint stand in the interest of South Asia, Dhaka took an opposite stand. Bangladesh intelligence agencies like the DGFI facilitated Pakistan’s ISI to launch terrorist and intelligence operations from Bangladesh’s soil in India. This will take a long time to correct, if at all.

The rivalry and animosity between the BNP led alliance and the opposition alliance led by the Awami League became so sharp, that if the army had not backed imposition of Emergency on January 11, 2007, the country would have plunged into a “civil war” in the words of Army Chief Gen. Moeen U. Ahmed.

There were periodic rumours that the army may impose Martial Law and take over the governance of the country. But this is unlikely to happen. The army has too much at stake. Every second man in the army has been on deputation to the UN on peace keeping jobs, earning enough for the rest of his life. They will lose this if they execute a coup. There, as Gen. Moeen said recently, if they take over the government the people will not accept it and the army would be the loser. The donors and external supporters also made it very clear they would not support an army takeover.

The army backed Caretaker Government headed by economist Fakruddin Ahmed deserves support and applause. They have done well under difficult conditions. The drive against the corrupt in high places, and terrorism have yielded some results. But they have a long way to go.

How is the caretaker government proceed from here on to stabilize the market and hold elections before December 2008? One thing they must remember, that it is one thing to arrest and change the high and mighty of corruption, but it is another thing to make the charges stick with credible evidence. If political goons like Tareq Rahman, Luftozzaman Babar manage to get free and regain power somehow, the country will have to pay a heavy price.

The political engineering being attempted by the Caretaker Government backed by the army is not going to be an easy job. They want to oust the two ladies, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, from politics permanently. Both are under arrest on corruption charges. But the charges have to stick.

The army, through its main intelligence arm Directorate of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) has succeeded in splitting the BNP to a certain extent. They are also working with some leaders of the Awami League, but this party is unlikely divide openly. Simultaneously, the DGFI is trying to form a new political party. The latest political party floated is the Bangladesh Welfare Party (BWP) headed by Maj. Gen. (Retd.) Ibrahim, a decorated freedom fighter. But such efforts lack viability and acceptability.

A thought to form a national government has some tentative support from some of the political leaders across party spectrum, with the army retaining a significant influence in governance. But sooner they drop this idea, the better. The Bengalis are too independent to accept such a system. The Awami League, the Grand Old Party (GOP) of Bangladesh still remains on solid foundation, viable and ideologically sound.

The army led Caretaker Government has finally created an atmosphere for the pro-liberation forces to come together and voice their aspirations. They are demanding trial few war criminals is mainly JEI leaders. Some Islamic leaders like Mufti Amin of Islamic Oikyo Jote (IOJ) have also joined their voices. The JEI is temporarily on the back foot. But to expect the JEI to be obliterated from the political scene is wishful. They have support from the Middle East countries like Saudi Arabia which Dhaka cannot ignore.

There has, however, been some noticeable improvement in Indo-Bangladesh relations. For the first time effective praise came from the mainstream Bangladesh media for India’s response to the cyclone and flood devastated country. The visits of EAM, Mr. Pranab Mukherjee to Dhaka with the aid package both in kind and a pledge was the clinching diplomacy.

But this is just a beginning. There are major issues to be resolved between the two countries, and there are enough powerful detractors in Bangladesh who can throw the spanner in the works.

(The author is an eminent analyst with many years of experience. The views expressed by the author are his own. He can be reached at

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