Bangladesh is happy that its armed forces foiled an attempt to destabilise the elected government. But the extremist, religious ideologies which reportedly influenced the plot are a cause for serious concern.

The year 2012 began with a new promise for Bangladesh's secular democracy: the Army on January 19 said it had foiled a coup attempt to topple the democratic government by a group of serving and retired army officers. Making the announcement, its spokesman, Brig. Gen. Muhammad Mashud Razzak, flanked by senior army officers, said 14-16 mid-level army officers might have been involved in the bid.

This was the first time such an announcement was made by the Army, even though the country had seen many abortive and successful coups in the past. The spokesman said retired officers Lt. Col. Ehsan Yusuf and Major Zakir had been arrested. A Major General was now under investigation.

Involvement of various forces

Brig. Gen. Razzak said interrogations revealed specific information on the conspiracy to topple the democratically elected government. The officers involved held extreme religious views, he said. Some ‘unruly' officers, including Major Zia (Syed Mohammad Ziaul Huq), now absconding, had been actively engaged in the execution of the conspiracy through mobile phones and the Internet. The spokesman disclosed that a non-resident Bangladeshi, Ishraq Ahmed, reportedly staying in Hong Kong, along with some serving as well as retired officers had tried to create the disorder by exploiting religious sentiments. The involvement of foreign forces was also not dismissed.

How the conspiracy was detected

On December 23, 2011, Major Ziaul Huq, who was on leave, was asked to report to the Log Area. Absconding, the Major carried out subversive acts against the army. Another Major was arrested on December 31. On December 26, after a partial leak of the plot and arrest of a few more, Major Zia sent an email to people familiar with him and uploaded on Facebook an imaginary story of his arrest and torture. Later, he circulated e-mail messages with the title “Mid-level officers of Bangladesh Army are Bringing Down Changes Soon.” On January 8, 2012, the banned Hijbut Tahrir circulated leaflets based on Major Zia's email messages. On January 9, the main Opposition, BNP, made a statement that incidents of kidnapping were taking place in the army.

As reports suggest, the chain of command prevailed and the intelligence agencies worked meticulously and the army authorities identified 11 senior and mid-level officers, including a Major General, a Brigadier General, two Lt Colonels, and a number of Majors, and began a serious investigation to unravel the plot.

Bangladesh is no stranger to military interference in state affairs. It has endured many coups and mutinies in its 40 years of existence, as well as long spells of military rule. Ambitious generals have used the army to implement their designs. As it was part of Pakistan for 24 years, Bangladesh also has the passed-on legacy of the military meddling in politics.

In the first such intrusion, the founding father of the country, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, along with most of his family members, was assassinated in August 1975. The tragedy reverted the nation's normal course from secular democracy, which was the guiding force of the 1971 War of Liberation. The coups and counter-coups following the 1975 bloody changeover for two decades were instrumental in the destruction of democratic institutions and the rehabilitation of the fundamentalist elements that were defeated in the historic national war.

2009 mutiny

While the latest, failed coup against Sheikh Hasina's three-year-old government does not turn the page back to a grimmer chapter, it ought to raise concern. Just a month after the secular, pro-liberation Grand Alliance led by Sheikh Hasina came to power in January 2009, a mutiny by the Bangladesh Rifles, the border guards, led to the brutal killing of 57 military officers in Dhaka's Pilkhana headquarters. The unprecedented revolt was an enormous challenge the government had to overcome and, thanks to the new Premier's bold decisions, it averted an impending catastrophe. Hundreds of former BDR rebels, (the BDR was later renamed BGB — Border Guard Bangladesh) still face trial for their involvement in the mutiny.

While the wide belief was that it was the work of the forces defeated in the 2008 election or their mentors, the BDR mutiny also led to the spreading of the rumour that India might have played a role. There were also reports of “discontentment” in the cantonment. Reports said the lawbreakers were identified and punished.

During Ms Hasina's three-year rule, the bickering and enmity between the government and its traditional rivals, including the Islamist-friendly BNP, second largest party, and the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami, have grown to a new height.

Three policy decisions

Three fundamental policy decisions are responsible for the heightened animosity: first, the Hasina government, with a three-fourths majority in Parliament, was determined to return the nation to its secular pro-liberation spirit; second, it took bold steps to improve relations with the neighbour which supported Bangladesh's historic Liberation War, and concluded progressive accords, addressing India's security concerns by taking a firm stand against its northeast insurgents; and thirdly, the government took the bold step of trying the perpetrators of the worst atrocities against humanity who collaborated with the marauding Pakistani army in the 1971 war. The landmark trial, now in progress, has already raised concern in the Khaleda Zia-led camp which wants to frustrate the trial.

Secular, democratic Bangladesh is happy that its armed forces foiled an attempt to destabilise the elected government. But the extremist, religious ideologies, which reportedly aided the plot, cannot be erased so easily. The inroads made by the right-wing, fundamentalist elements in the army, are undoubtedly a worrying factor. Reports have pointed to the involvement of the jihadi group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, banned nearly 15 month ago, in the plot.

Army statement

The following statement issued by Bangladesh Army on January 19 is laudable: “In the past, different evil forces banked on [the] Bangladesh Army which grew out of victory in the Liberation War to create disorder and gain political advantage. Sometimes, they succeeded and, on some occasions, they failed. Even so, as an organisation, the Bangladesh Army has been carrying the burden of the disrepute such forces have earned in the past. The professionally efficient and well disciplined members of [the] Bangladesh Army would like to say, ‘We do not want to bear this liability on the shoulders of our organization'.”

The elements of hidden extremism have to be ferreted out from the army and other sensitive organs of the government in a bold but practical manner. Investigations have revealed that some, including those already indoctrinated, have tried to misinterpret Islam to spread extremism. With its roots in the Liberation War, the Bangladesh army must project itself as a well disciplined professional force. Thanks to the high command, it has already earned the reputation of being the number one international Peacekeeper under the United Nations.

(The author, a Bangladesh liberation war veteran, is senior journalist and author. E-mail hh1971@gmal.com)

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