Guest post by ANWAR DAYAL
Bangladesh has seen more coups than Pakistan. It probably came close to one recently, by alleged Islamists in the army. I say probably because when it comes to military intervention in Bangladesh, who-what-why-when have often been unclear. For example, a few majors seized the country’s tanks and killed the founding president and his family in August 1975. Was it a few disgruntled officers with personal disputes, as was claimed by the contemporaneous foreign media? Or was it part of the complicated and brutal Cold War geopolitics, with the involvement of senior officers and politicians, as many believe? Even though the perpetrators of the massacre have been convicted, and a few hanged, Bangladeshis still debate these questions.
It’s been like that for all military interventions over the years. What may have happened in recent weeks is unlikely to be the exception. As such, one should not necessarily conclude that Saleem Samad’s officially sanctioned account in India Today is the full story.
Samad’s narrative goes something like this.
– A group of officers, ranking from major to major general, were plotting a coup. These officers had links with Hizbut Tahrir — a global organisation, banned in Bangladesh, whose aim is to create a Khilafat across the Muslim world.
– Alerted by the Indian intelligence, the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) – the Bangladeshi spy agency – uncovered the plot and arrested most of the alleged conspirators in late December and early January.
– One person evading arrest was Major Syed Mohammad Ziaul Haq, who used Facebook to ‘break the story’. Hizbut Tahrir distributed posters and leaflets supporting him.
– On 19 January, the Army formally announced that a coup attempt by Hizbut Tahrir linked retired and serving army officers have been thwarted.
– Indian special forces were apparently on stand by to come to evacuate Hasina in the event of the coup.
This reads like a great spy thriller that could rival the best of Frederick Forsyth. And it could even be true. Then again, one would be foolish to accept any version of events in Bangladeshi politics at face value.
Instead of trying to tell the reader ‘this is what really happened’, I give below various links that tell the story as it appeared in the public domain, leaving the reader to judge for themselves.
I’ve limited the links to English media. Much more has been written in Bangla media in both Bangladesh and India. For example, Samad’s account is echoed in Ananda Bazaar Patrika of Kolkata, and Kaler Kantha of Dhaka. Similarly, much of the contrarian stories appear in Dhaka’s Amar Desh.
I’ve also kept it limited to links directly related to the army. There are undoubtedly other aspects to the story, covering foreign policy or electoral politics or the role of Islam in the public sphere. And of course, this story is still developing. This post, thus, should be viewed as a first look at the event, not the final account.
DGFI abducted me
This message, allegedly by Major Ziaul Haq, surfaced in Bangladeshi cyberspace – Facebook, blogs, discussion groups – in the last week of December. Key points:
– The major was abducted by DGFI and interrogated by RAW. He isn’t part of any conspiracy. Rather, the RAW-linked plotters are abducting ‘patriotic officers’ like himself.
– The plot involves a repeat of ‘1/11’ – the 2007 coup that installed a technocratic caretaker government while the generals tried to rid Bangladesh of ‘corrupt politicians’. According to the major, the plotters would go after both Prime Minister and her rival Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh National Party.
The plot is revealed
On 19 January, the Army formally revealed that there was a plot:
Here is the formal written statement.
Interestingly, the Army’s relationship with the civilian media is usually handled by Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR). The Brigadier General in the video, however, is more likely to be a director in DGFI. While the formal Army statement tallies well with Samad’s account, there is one major omission in the journalist’s tale. Samad doesn’t mention a key character in this thriller – one Ishraq Hossain (or Ahmed).
The ‘nationalist’ man of mystery
On 28 January, the Economist ran a report on Bangladesh where one Ishraq Ahmed is quoted. Mr Ahmed is apparently a Mukti Bahini veteran and a retired senior officer. Further, he is ‘from a liberal family’. And like most liberal Bangladeshis, he isn’t averse to alcohol – the Economist mentions ‘cellar of wines, Armagnacs and malt whiskies’: not exactly the stuff jihadi dreams are made of.
David Bergman of Bangladeshi daily New Age has followed up on the mysterious Mr Ishraq. Turns out that the British comedian Michael Palin described him as ‘a short, canny man with a trim beard and an immense list of contacts’. That’s from Palin’s 2004 BBC televised trip to the Himalayas. Palin also notes: ‘sadly, this being a Muslim country, there is no bar on board, but Ishraq ever ingenious, has access to supplies of his own’.
In another story, Bergman writes that Ishraq used to be a good friend of Syed Ashraful Islam, a senior minister in the Hasina government, while at least two of the accused officers, including a major general, received retrospective or accelerated promotions under the current government.
Ishraq Ahmed might not be averse to alcohol, but he doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to Hasina and her India policy. To quote the Economist:
Now he and other nationalists are merely trying to oppose what they see as a coup-by-stealth by Sheikh Hasina, who is letting Bangladesh be “turned into a Bantustan” run by India.
He makes many claims. Among the more plausible and specific is that spies from India’s Research Analysis Wing (RAW) operate in the country. He claims, too, that for two years RAW has had an office within the headquarters of Bangladeshi Intelligence in Dhaka and a “direct submarine cable for communications” back to India. He claims that Indians conduct electronic surveillance in the country and kidnap suspects from Bangladeshi cities.
On 5 February, the Daily Star reported that two retired army officers confessed to a civilian court on 9 January (that is, 10 days before the army statement) about Ishraq’s plan. Highlights:
…the prime minister was to be taken to a safe place; many army officials from 34 Bengal regiment would take positions at army headquarters; and the president would dissolve the government and announce a new one; and the head of that brigade would be made the new army chief.
A brigadier general was to be made the chief of general staff and businessman Ishraq was to be the country’s new ruler … the reason behind making Ishraq the ruler was that he used to be a freedom fighter.
A major general was to be given authority over the home ministry, he added.
They also discussed Ishraq’s position in the new government; the war crimes trial; reinstating Bismillah and faith in Allah in the constitution; repealing women’s rights laws; decreeing the hijab; Islami banking; enforcing Sharia law; creating zakaat funds; stopping indecency on TV and films; appointing a Dhaka University teacher as education minister; and forming a high-powered committee for the National University.
To put the plot into perspective, a brigadier general in Bangladesh commands around 5,000 soldiers. The Ganabhaban (People’s Residence, where the PM lives) and the Bangabhaban (Bengal Residence — the presidential mansion) are guarded by two to three times as many troops of the Special Security Force and the Presidential Guard Regiment. Further, Dhaka Cantonment is the size of roughly about twenty blocks of any city.
The links provided above are in public domain. One suspects there is a lot not publicly known. There is a lot more to Bangladesh than meets the eye. One hopes that what is unseen and unheard remains that way. Whatever the truth is, the fact is that military coups have not helped Bangladesh in the past.
(Anwar Dayal is a Bangladeshi political activist.)