By Bhaskar Roy
While a possible coup by the Pakistani army was being foiled by the people and political leaders of Pakistan, another attempt to remove the elected government in Bangladesh by a group of retired and serving religious fanatic officers in the Bangladesh army was defused last December by the army itself.
A Bangladesh army spokesman, Brig. Gen. Masud Razzaq, revealed some details of this conspiracy on January 19 in Dhaka at a press conference. That it took nearly one month for the army to reveal this development suggests that there is a much wider conspiracy than meets the eye. The army must have ensured first that all suspects were identified and arrested.
According to Brig. Gen. Razzak, two retired officers, Lt. Col. Ehsan Yusuf and Maj. Zakir, have been arrested, and a serving Major Ziaul Haq, who was actively lobbying middle level army officers to revolt against the government, is on the run. He was in contact with an expatriate Bangladeshi, Ishraq Hossain, who appeared to be the kingpin of the coup plan from abroad. The Bangladeshi army feels that the roots of this conspiracy lay outside Bangladesh.
According to the army briefing, 14 to 16 other serving officers are under investigation. Corps Commander of Comilla Cantonment area, Maj. Gen. Kamruzzaman, and Brig. Tareq of 9 Corps, Savar Cantonment near Dhaka are also under house arrest. Further investigations are continuing and more arrests are expected.
According to information emanating from Dhaka, the aim was to topple the Awami League (AL) led government which they perceived was anti-Islam and pro-India. They also alleged that the Indian government was trying to convert Bangladesh into a Sikkim-like state. Their eventual plan was to establish an Islamic state in Bangladesh.
The coup was not really unexpected. The main opposition political combine, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI), and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) are being forced into a corner by ongoing cases in Bangladesh. Former Prime Minister and Chairperson of the BNP, Begum Khaleda Zia, was charged last week of defalcation of funds by setting up fa ake NGO, the Zia Orphanage, named after her late husband President Zia-ur-Rehman. This case is reported to be water-tight.
Khaleda’s two sons, Tareq Rehman and Arafat Rehman, are facing various charges including bribery and money laundering. Both are currently on bail on medical grounds. All top JEI leaders including former Amir, Prof. Golam Azam, are under arrest and facing charges of crimes against humanity during the 1971 war of liberation. All of them worked with the the Pakistani occupying army and are avowedly pro-Pakistani and Islamists. India remained their main enemy.
Cases against BNP and JEI leaders range from corruption to terrorism and political murders. One major case being tried in a Chittagong court is that of illegal import of ten truck loads arms in 2004 meant for the ULFA militants in Assam. It is on court records that Pakistan's notorious spy agency ISI was involved in it at the highest level and they used a Pakistani media company good offices for money transfer. From Bangladesh those involved included Tareq Rehman, then BNP Senior Joint General Secretary, JEI Chief Matiur Reheman Nizami, Industries Minister and top intelligence officers among others.
The BNP and the JEI were working closely with the ISI to destabilize India through terrorism and transfer of fake Indian currency. Unfortunately, the AL-led government has not yet been able to eradicate Islamic fundamentalist and terrorist groups who number more than 120, and their funding from abroad remains in existence.
Significantly, developments which appear ominous and potent now, has been discovered. The army has taken cognizance of the January 3 edition of the daily “Amar Desh”, a BNP mouthpiece, which carried a fabricated story from the fugitive Maj. Zia’s Facebook headlined “Middle Level of Bangladesh Army are bringing about changes soon”. It was clearly meant to create confusions among security forces.
On January 8, the banned Islamic terrorist organization, the Hizb-ut-Tehrir distributed leaflets based on posting’s in Zia’s Facebook. Most important was Khaleda Zia’s statement at a rally in Chittagong where she alleged that “army officers were disappearing”. This was a very loaded comment. She would have been aware that arrest had been made by the army relating to the attempted coup, her statement was pointedly to excite officers and ranks in the army.
The challenge before the Bangladesh army and the government is by no means over. The terrorist organizations and their political mentors are very well linked, and encouragement from abroad is not lacking either.
Sheikh Hasina is the main target. Being the daughter of the assassinated founder of Bangladesh in 1975, she is the main living symbol of the breakup of Pakistan, the country's liberation war, and establishing a democratic and secular Bangladesh. Two attempts were made on her life in 2001 and 2004, and the second attempt left her with a permanent injury. Within three months of her forming the government a section of the Bangladesh Rifles revolted, bringing the country on the brink of another turmoil.
In the present case, the intention may be to create confusion in the army, and then strike. The incident has not only cast a shadow of instability in Bangladesh, but India and other countries of South Asia cannot remain unconcerned. While on the one hand there is move to stop military coups permanently and fight to eradicate terrorism, the scourge is raising its head on the other.
Stakeholders in Bangladesh, be they South Asian countries and the West led by the US, must take action to ensure that something like this does not happen again. Efforts by the powerful stakeholders like the US to cut AL’s wings, promote the JEI as a tolerant Islamic fundamentalist party, and interfering in Bangladesh’s internal affairs including the due process of law is counter-productive.
(Bhaskar Roy is a Delhi-based analyst of international affairs with special emphasis on neighbouring countries. He can be reached at his e-mail email@example.com)