A coup foiled

Print edition : February 24, 2012

A debate rages after the Bangladesh Army's disclosure that it thwarted an attempt for a coup by pro-Islamist forces.

in Dhaka

BRIGADIER GENERAL MOHAMMAD Masud Razzak briefing the media about the foiled coup, in Dhaka on January 19. Lt. Col. Sajjad Siddique is on his left.-ZIA ISLAM/AP

THE Bangladesh Army's disclosure on January 19 about defeating a coup attempt against the Sheikh Hasina government is unprecedented, as it is for the first time that the people of Bangladesh heard about what really happened inside their armed forces. The big picture will emerge only after a court of inquiry constituted on December 28, 2011, to unearth the plot reaches its conclusions. Its findings will be of utmost importance to the Army, as a disciplined institution, and to the country's democracy and constitutional polity.

Going by the Army spokesperson's statement on January 19, a fanatical outfit called Hizb ut-Tahrir chose the military to implement its political agenda. The organisation, which had been banned on October 22, 2010, circulated provocative leaflets based on fugitive Major Syed Ziaul Haq's Internet message throughout the country. Major Zia had apparently contacted a few serving and retired officers to instigate them to engage in activities subversive of the state and democracy.

So far the authorities have reportedly identified 11 senior and middle-level officers to be involved in the plot. However, there has been no independent confirmation of such reports.

The banned outfit also circulated a provocative leaflet in both Bengali and English in December 2011 asking to remove Sheikh Hasina from power and establish Khilafat. Other groups with extremist religious philosophy that have made inroads into the Army and other institutions, as reported by the media, are also now under the scanner.

Hizb ut-Tahrir, an international Islamist party, was founded in Jerusalem in 1953. It first emerged in Bangladesh in 2000. The organisation came into the limelight a few years ago when it was realised that its cadre consisted of well-to-do and educated youth who were indoctrinated in Islamist ideas. Despite a ban imposed on it for anti-state activities in 2010, it held processions and rallies, even in the presence of the police, in and outside Dhaka and advertised its publications. A number of its activists have been arrested.

PRIME MINISTER SHEIKH Hasina in front of a poster of herself and her late father, President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in Dhaka on June 23, 2003.-SHAWKAT KHAN/AFP

Top officers of the elite anti-crime Rapid Action Battalion and the police said they had launched a crackdown on the outfit but it was tough to suppress its activities as the arrested cadre got the support of the organisation. Families of the detained activists, mostly from affluent and educated sections of society, also got them substantial financial and legal support to face the law. Knowing full well that they would be bailed out soon, they bothered little about arrest, the officers said.

After the ban was imposed, roughly 500 Hizb ut-Tahrir operatives, including some of its top leaders and patrons, were arrested. But most of them are now out on bail. According to legal and counter-terrorism officials, it will be difficult to find a solution unless a tribunal under a special law is set up to fight the newly emerged militancy.

In the recent past, Bangladesh has been taking a hard line against growing Islamist militancy. Some of the kingpins of the Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) were hanged. But more often, the extremists changed their names and mode of operation in view of a crackdown or a ban.

Hizb ut-Tahrir gets strong financial support like that received by the JMB, the Harkat ul-Jehad-al-Islami (HuJI), the Hizb-ut-Tawhid, and the Allah'r Dal. Law enforcers have identified a number of teachers in universities, English-medium schools and madrassas, doctors, engineers and businessmen as the new leaders of the Hizb ut-Tahrir.

The Army and politics

In Bangladesh, where overambitious generals have played the religious card to rise to political prominence, the recent developments have triggered a debate. The ruling Grand Alliance led by the Bangladesh Awami League has found reasons to point figures at the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), whose political birth and growth is seen as army-centric and religion-centric. Founded by General Ziaur Rahman, the military dictator who was killed in 1981 by a group of army men in Chittagong, the BNP has been accused of rehabilitating Islamists in politics. It is also said that the general's widow, Khaleda Zia, twice Premier, has been no exception in serving the cause of fundamentalist elements.

Therefore, not just the Awami League but almost all secular, pro-liberation political forces have directly or indirectly accused the BNP of having a hand in the aborted conspiracy. One name that crops up in the raging debate is that of Khaleda Zia's son Tareque Rahman, who is facing corruption and other charges. He has been in exile for several years.

The BNP's reactions to the Army's announcement on January 19 have not been consistent. While rejecting the accusations, its leaders say they do not believe in a change of power through unconstitutional means. The party claims that the government brought the issue up to divert public attention from pressing issues at hand. Khaleda Zia also made a public allegation of disappearance from the Army.

ISHRAK AHMED, WHO is said to have had a telephonic conversation about the plot to oust the Hasina government with Major Syed Ziaul Huq (right), the alleged mastermind of the coup.-AFP

Awami League general secretary Syed Ashraful Islam, however, has maintained that the BNP has followed a pattern of indulging in conspiratorial politics ridden with killings and coups. These have tarnished the image of the armed forces, he has alleged.

Bangladesh is no stranger to military meddling in politics, having endured several coups and numerous mutinies in its 40 years of independence.

There have been long spells of military rule too. But this is the first time that, as reports suggest, the chain of command prevailed and intelligence agencies worked meticulously.

The assassination of the founding father of the country, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and most of his family members in August 1975 had affected the nation's journey along the road of secular democracy. The coups and counter-coups following the bloody changeover saw the destruction of democratic institutions and the rehabilitation of fundamentalist elements in the polity.

However, the latest news of the failed coup against Sheikh Hasina's three-year-old government should be judged from a different perspective. Just a month after the secular, pro-liberation Grand Alliance came to power in January 2009, a mutiny by the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) resulted in the death of 57 military officers in Dhaka. The government, however, overcame the challenge that it posed.

While the popular perception was that the forces defeated in the election or their mentors were behind the destabilisation attempt, the BDR mutiny led to rumour-mongering that India might have played a role in it. It was apparently spread particularly by those who would have been happy to see the new government dysfunctional at its very infancy. There were also reports of discontentment in the cantonments, with some officers breaking the military institution's code of discipline. The lawbreakers were reportedly identified and punished.

The enmity between the government and its traditional rivals, including the Islamist-friendly BNP and the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami and other Islamist groups, has only grown in the past three years. The completion of the trial of the killers of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had already frustrated the inheritors of the communal spirit of 1947, who wanted to rejuvenate the infamous two-nation theory.

BEGUM KHALEDA ZIA. She has a history of facilitating the entry of Islamist elements in politics.-RAFIQUR RAHMAN/REUTERS

Three fundamental policy decisions of the government have frustrated them particularly: the determined bid to revive the nation's secular, pro-liberation spirit; the steps taken by it to improve relations with India by concluding a set of progressive accords, including taking a firm stand against insurgents from north-eastern India; and the bold decision to bring the war criminals of 1971 to trial.

The war-crimes trial, now in progress under a domestic law framed in 1974, has raised further concern in the Khaleda Zia-led rightist-fundamentalist alliance, which has engaged itself vigorously, at home and abroad, to see the trial defeated. Many people believe that it would be justified to say that the government was passing through a crucial phase as its critics were too desperate to jeopardise the new beginning.

The good news is that the Bangladesh Army is restoring its image as a well-disciplined and professional force. It has already earned praise for its contribution to the peacekeeping missions of the United Nations. There are many who consider it imperative to challenge religious extremism, which has made inroads into various segments of society.

Following the failed coup, Chief of General Staff Lieutenant General Mainul Islam said that there should be no room for religious fanaticism in the Army. He disclosed that some religious bigots had tried to indoctrinate pious officers in a planned manner. They were so clever that they targeted the deeply religious officers as a way of carrying out their coup plot, he said, cautioning that these kinds of schemes must not be allowed to succeed.

The Army's statement on January 19 says: In the past, different evil forces banked on 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 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 Bangladesh Army would like to say, We do not want to bear this liability on the shoulders of our organisation.

President Zillur Rahman thanked the Army for foiling the plot but at the same time warned everyone to remain vigilant against any such attempt in future. But his warning may just not be enough. There is a growing feeling among the people that the need of the hour is to identify the perpetrators of the attempted coup, who are punishable according to the Constitution and in the wake of the Supreme Court's landmark judgment on the Fifth Amendment. They feel that it was indeed a heinous conspiracy nipped in the bud, but there can be no room for complacency.

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