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Ruling with the Army

Print edition : Dec 20, 2002 T+T-

The Khaleda Zia government in Bangladesh, which has called out the Army to tackle the unprecedented level of lawlessness, invites criticism from other governments and international bodies.

MARKING the completion of one year of her government in office on October 12, Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia categorically stated that the law and order situation in Bangladesh was well under control. Whatever "problems" existed, she added, were created by her political enemies, meaning the Opposition Awami League. But five days later, on October 17, she called out the Army to fight a `holy war' against terrorism an increase in the number of cases of murder, rape, kidnapping, illegal toll collection, forced grabbing of land and other properties, and so on. The unprecedented state of lawlessness that the country witnessed had reached such an extent that it led to the virtual collapse of civil authority. Donor countries, including the United States, had expressed `serious concern' about the sharp downslide in the administration's credibility. Understandably, Khaleda Zia and her Cabinet members were forced to take the extreme step.

The Army was first called out "in aid of the civil administration" two years after Bangladesh won Independence in 1971. In 1973-74, the then government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the nation, ordered the Army to recover arms that were yet to be surrendered by non-military persons, including youngsters, at the end of the civil resistance against the Pakistani occupation forces. But the decision turned out to be counter-productive. Rahman's political rivals, especially those who had participated in the war, directed the operation in such a way that it discredited the newly established political authority.

Whatever compulsions Khaleda Zia had, the decision to call out the Army was the admission of a virtual collapse of the civil administration. The people in general welcomed the `Operation Clean Heart' not because they liked the military's presence in civil affairs, but because they were desperately in need of security. Every section of society was feeling insecure. The Army crackdown on `terrorists' got a positive response. Even the arch rivals of the ruling BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami coalition, including Awami League chief Sheikh Hasina, extended their conditional support to the drive when they saw that the crime rate had started sliding and many branded criminals, including some of the `gang leaders' owing allegiance to the ruling BNP, had been arrested. However, the Opposition castigated the government's "total failure" to run the country and reminded the Army to respect basic human rights and not to defy constitutional rule.

Although the six week-long drive was initially conducted solely by the Army, in the face of growing criticism of giving it `magistracy powers', the Army was later joined by the police. `Operation Clean Heart' gained a new dimension when several top Awami League leaders, including former Minister and a current Member of Parliament Sheikh Fazlul Karim Selim, former Minister and Leader of the Opposition's political secretary Saber Hossain Chowdhury, and former State Minister Talukder Abdul Khaleque were arrested. There were no specific charges against them when they were detained and allegedly tortured. The Army also raided the office of the Centre for Research and Information (CRI), the research wing of the Awami League. It confiscated documents and sealed the office. While many district-level leaders, MPs and student wing leaders of the Awami League were "harassed, tortured and arrested", many leading party figures went underground.

So far 26 people have died, allegedly in the custody of the Army. While government spokespersons and Army sources initially claimed that they died of "heart failure", an official denied any such deaths in custody. The U.S. State Department and Amnesty International were also critical about such deaths and wanted inquiries to be conducted. U.S. State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher said the Bush administration was "concerned" about reports of abuses and custodial deaths and was "closely watching the situation". Amnesty International said: "The investigation (of custodial deaths) needs to be prompt, fair and carried out by an independent body."

The World Organisation Against Torture, known by its French acronym OMCT, expressed "grave concern" over reports of the deaths and political detentions. "Some 40,000 members of the armed forces are reportedly involved in this operation," it said, "Our sources state that the authorities have resorted to using excessive force during the arrest of many persons."

The European Parliament adopted a resolution on "serious human rights violation" in Bangladesh and criticised the operation. It expressed concern about the Army operation and remarked that the Army arrested people, some MPs and Opposition political leaders "without any judicial mandate". The resolution, passed unanimously, also expressed concern about the arbitrary arrests, detention, torture and killings carried out by the Army. It also feared that the crackdown was "used for politically partisan purposes".

Nonetheless, the drive got support from society at large. Interestingly, the Army and the joint forces have so far arrested mostly `criminals' directly or indirectly connected with the ruling BNP. Even the commissioners of various city corporations and municipalities elected on the BNP ticket, and many of them "listed criminals", were arrested. Mysterious though, the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami and other religious fanatic groups, which are constituents of the ruling alliance, have escaped the crackdown. While only a few `terrorists' or `killers' of the Jamaat were arrested, their much-publicised hideouts or "arms depots" have remained untouched.

Until November 22, the Army rounded up about 8,000 suspected criminals and recovered a few hundred illegal arms, including sophisticated AK-47 rifles and a huge cache of ammunition. Surprisingly, when the government turned down a request from the former Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition Shiekh Hasina to exempt her from surrendering her licensed arms on the grounds of personal security, records show that a significant portion of the 1,89,000 licensed arms were yet to be deposited even after an extension of the deadline. The government claimed that many terrorists had crossed the border to India and requested New Delhi to arrest and hand them over to Bangladeshi authorities. Recently, some of the `most wanted' criminals were arrested by the Kolkata police. Others are still at large, claims the government.

However, the question asked by political observers is why an elected government with a two-thirds majority in Parliament called the Army to maintain law and order and, more importantly, within one year of its five-year tenure. Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, has had a tradition of unconstitutional rule. However, the Bengali middle class and peasantry deserve to be called culturally different. Hence the military-political culture that has taken root in Pakistan met with stiff resistance in Bangladesh. Bengali Muslims, who have lived in harmony with Hindus, Buddhists and Christians for thousands of years, are opposed to authoritarian rule. Independent observers remarked that the allegations of government representatives, including the Prime Minister, that the deterioration of law and order was a result of the "machinations by the Opposition" was a case of over-simplified political explanation. The public impression and the subsequent arrests of criminals in the nationwide operation did not give credence to such a claim. Hence the causes of the worsened law and order situation have to be looked at from a different perspective. A social observer pointed out that it happened mainly owing to the "criminalisation of politics" where "money and muscle", not human values and political ideologies, play the pivotal role. The civil authority or the police have failed because of unbridled corruption and uncalled-for interference by the ruling group.

The present situation can be traced to the period of the non-party caretaker government led by former Chief Justice Latifur Rahman, who assumed office on July 15, 2001, for three months to conduct a credible election. In the country's unique constitutional system, the result of a mass movement against Khaleda Zia's first tenure (1991-96), elections are to be held under a completely neutral administration. But, Justice Rahman's tenure witnessed widespread persecution of religious minorities and leaders and workers of the Awami League. After the October 1, 2001 election and the formation of the government by the BNP and the Jamaat, the religious fundamentalist party that opposed Bangladesh's independence from Pakistan, the situation worsened. Every pillar of secular nationhood and the spirit of country's liberation from Pakistan were assaulted.

HOW long will the Army be in the field? What will happen when the `condemned police' are entrusted with the task of ensuring law and order once the Army is withdrawn? Questions are also asked whether the Army will continue to be in the field, and whether the ruling alliance will need any new mechanism to justify its presence as long as possible. The Khaleda Zia government has reportedly not abandoned the idea of setting up a `National Security Council'. A `Rapid Action Force' has been formed and hand-picked personnel are being trained by the Army. Agencies for counter intelligence and vigilance are also being planned in order to tackle any `worst-case scenario' once the Army is withdrawn. Moreover, the government has enacted a law to establish Speedy Trial Tribunals, which the Opposition has termed `mini martial law' courts.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister said in Parliament that the anti-terrorism drive was launched to uproot terrorism, which she claimed assumed crisis dimensions owing to the previous government's "state terrorism". Pointing out that the government did not spare any criminal, she thanked the members of the armed forces for discharging their duties efficiently. Speaking on the occasion of the Armed Forces Day on November 21, she vowed to modernise the armed forces.

Some observers think that the survival of the BNP-Jamaat government may now largely depend on how it manages the show after the withdrawal of the Army.

Although the repeated allegations from powerful foreign quarters about the resurgence of religious fundamentalism or the presence of "religious terrorists" in Bangladesh have been rebutted by the government, the country is not free of such danger. More important, parallels are drawn with the situation in Pakistan where the people reluctantly accepted Gen. Musharraf's coup, in the hope that the Army was serious about governance reforms. Three years on, it has become clear that military intervention is hardly an alternative to even the worst form of democracy.