Reminiscences of mutiny in Bangladesh on 25th February 2009
By Brig Asif Haroon Raja
25th February brings back the memories of gory incident of mutiny in Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) two years ago. On that day at 11 am over 1000 NCOs and Sepoys of BDR staged a mutiny at its HQs in Dhaka in Pilkhana compound where about 9000 troops were present. It happened on the second day of the ‘Annual BDR Week’ being celebrated at a time when Director General Maj Gen Shafiq Ahmed was addressing a durbar in an auditorium. 150 officers including entire top brass of BDR and the lower ranks of BDR were in attendance. On the first day the Prime Minister Hasina Wajid had inaugurated the ceremony. During the address several unruly Sepoys stood up and started expressing their grievances offensively and spoke ill of officers. They demanded removal of Army officers from BDR and equal rights for BDR soldiers. They were applauded by other soldiers and soon after the DG and senior officers were taken hostages. Later on, all were brutally killed. The entry gate was closed and an artillery gun was positioned to resist outside interference.
At 12 pm, the PM sent her two junior ministers at the place of occurrence for parleys with the mutineers who took along their representatives to PM’s House where they handed her hand-written list of their 22-point demands. These included increase in pay scale, greater benefits, more holidays, opportunity to serve in UN missions, ration scale at par with Army, discontinuation of system of deputation of army officers to BDR and instead original members of BDR to be promoted from ranks. They wanted equitable sharing of profits from illicit activities between officers and men. The PM promised to meet the demands and announced amnesty for the rebels except for those involved in murders and other crimes.
While parleys were going on between the two ministers and rebels, the latter continued with their killing spree. Maj Gen Shakil and dozens of other officers were killed by the rebels on the first day of the revolt. They also attacked officers’ residences and looted and killed families of officers. DG’s wife was among the killed and after looting valuables the residence was torched. All told 58 officers were killed. The Bangladesh Army (BDA) was somehow not given orders to move out of the barracks and proceed against the mutineers. There were circulating rumors that the rebels had been assured that the Army would be kept at bay and the rebels allowed ample time to either surrender voluntarily or to flee. Had the Army been called in straightaway the massacre of Army officers if not completely averted could be minimized.
On the following day some of the rebels in Dhaka were persuaded to give up their guns, BDR soldiers revolted in 12 other outposts in different towns and cities. Fighting broke out in Chittagong and Feni on eastern border with India, in Rajasthan in northwest and Sylhet in north. BDR set ups in Jessore, Satkhera, Dinajpur, Naogaon and Netrokona were taken over by the Sepoys. Besides, 46 additional outposts of BDR showed signs of agitation. At this stage BDA was asked to move out but remain 3 km away from the BDR HQ in Pilkhana and not to enter or storm it even though firing was continuing. The sheer presence of the Army in close proximity increased the number of rebels surrendering their arms. The police took control of BDR HQ.
On 27th about 200 mutineers were arrested while they were trying to escape from the HQ in civvies. When the Army carried out flag march with tanks in Dhaka and also entered Pilkhana, it hastened the process of surrender. The government disbanded BDR. The mutiny was Army officers specific but pretext was something else. Frustration and hatred against officers on 2-3 years deputation to BDR among the lower ranks was brewing up for quite sometime. Corruption and opulent lifestyle of officers were the chief reasons of their aversion. Surprisingly neither the chain of command nor the intelligence agencies detected it. Likewise, grievances were neither attended to nor satisfactory explanations given.
It may be recalled that suchlike horrendous massacre of Army officers on deputation and families had taking place in erstwhile East Pakistan Rifles (EPR) after Gen Yahya Khan unwisely postponed the inaugural session of Constituent Assembly in Dhaka scheduled on 3rd March 1971 without giving a fresh date under pressure from ZA Bhutto. Intelligence agencies had failed to assess the level of Bengali nationalism as was witnessed from 3 March onwards. In EPR, the victims were West Pakistani Army officers and families and the killers were Bengali soldiers. Hair raising atrocities were inflicted not because of materialistic grievances but because of ethnic hatred seeped into the minds of each Bengali by Indian psychological operators, Bengali Hindu teachers and professors. Ethnic cleansing of non-Bengalis continued for weeks in the whole province while Pak Army was confined to the barracks on the express wish of Mujibur Rahman. He had to be appeased at whatever human cost. The bloodbath came to an end when a military operation was launched in Dhaka on 25 March as a consequence to Mujib’s uncompromising stance. No solution within the concept of united Pakistan was acceptable to him. All the lost towns and cities were regained and in less than two months normalcy was restored.
This time the Bengali BDR soldiers instigated by India massacred Bengali officers at a time when a democratic government of Hasina led Awami League (AL) very friendly to India had recently taken over in December 2008. If one goes down the memory lane one may remember that during the early 1970s, in line with Indian policy Mujib and his ruling party AL had cold shouldered Bangladesh Army and given greater preference to militia which had taken part in the civil war. The unconstitutional militia in style of Rakhi Bahini (RB) had been provided extraordinary assistance and was brought up under exclusive care of Indian Army intelligence officer Gen Owan. RB was provided far better weapons and equipment than the regular army which naturally gave rise to resentment within the Army and bad blood between the two organizations.
1975 revolution in Bangladesh abolished RB and absorbed it within the Army, which caused serious heartburns to India. Gen Ziaur Rahman during his long rule improved the economics of the country and also developed the Army into a strong and effective fighting machine capable of fighting external aggression. Gen Irshad carried forward the good work done by his predecessor. BDR was also strengthened and trained by the Army to undertake border duties effectively. Under the command of Maj Gen Fazlur Rahman the BDR fought a decisively winning border battle with the Indian BSF in the 1990s. In all border clashes the BDR always had an upper edge over BSF which got overawed and defensive. BDR’s anti-India stance and domineering posture along the 4096 km long border with India became a cause of serious concern for India. This was evident from B Raman’s article appearing in ‘Outlook’ magazine dated 27 February 2009.
Apart from BDR which infuriated Indian political leaders and BSF, India has also remained wary of growth of Bangladesh military power and its rapidly growing cooperation with Pak Army. It had broken the eastern wing of Pakistan in 1971 so as to enfeeble Pakistan’s military capability and to have a subservient Bangladesh antagonistic to Pakistan. Conversely, the two Muslim armies have not only made substantial all round progress, the two do not carry any grudge about the unfortunate dismemberment. Overwhelming majority of Bengalis is convinced that the division occurred due to Indian machinations. The thought of Pakistan and Bangladesh forming a joint front against India send shivers down the spine of Indians. It is these fears which compel India to weaken the armed forces of the two countries through covert operations.
Smarting under these disturbing thoughts, India was on the lookout to deliver a deadly blow to the BDR, create serious rift between the Army and BDR and also to tarnish the image of the Army and to bring its officers to disrepute. It took its revenge on 25 February 2009 in the form of bloody mutiny in BDR directed against Army officers. The scale of the mutiny and brutality of its perpetrators were too vicious when seen in the backdrop of seeking petty economic gains. Killers had with them a hit list of Army officers whom they searched out and slaughtered them. They went a step ahead by mutilating dead bodies of officers and burying them in mass graves or throwing them in sewerage lines, burning dead bodies, burying alive some of them, raping, torturing and killing their wives and children. It didn’t stand to reason that such grisly acts could be undertaken for unfulfilled petty demands. It strongly suggested that forces behind the upheaval had their eyes on bigger objectives.
Dispassionate appraisal of the sad incident leads to a firm conclusion that only India was the net gainer while all others in Bangladesh were losers. 67000 strong BDR that had become a powerful entity was shattered and chain of command completely smashed. The Army lost some of its finest officers which impacted the morale of officer cadre. It took a considerable length of time to rebuild BDR and to restore morale of the Army and to diminish antagonism between the two organizations. It was an attempt to create misgivings between the government and the Army. Had the Army tanks rolled into Pilkhana and BDR HQ on 25th, it would certainly have resulted in bloodbath thereby creating permanent cleavage between the Army and the BDR.
As a follow up, the battalions of BDR might have escaped to India thereby giving yet another chance to BSF and Indian Army to open up rebel camps and create Mukti Bahini force. India had created Shanti Bahni out of Chakmas in mid 1970s in Hills of Chittagong and clandestinely supported them for many years against the country it had mothered. Indian media and leaders have been propagating against BDA that it harbors and supports anti-India terrorists. It alleges that some elements within the security forces have links with insurgent terrorists like ULFA, HUJI and al-Qaeda. It also alleges that Bangladesh military intelligence in cooperation with ISI is fomenting trouble in eastern states of India. Allegations of similar nature are hurled against Pakistan.
The hand of India in the BDR mutiny became known when it was learnt that during the mutiny BDR soldiers received sms messages from BSF assuring them of full assistance. To put Bangladesh authorities off track, Indian media was quick to blame Islamic militants in Bangladesh wanting to destabilize pro-India government. Indian Army and air force were alerted to be ready to assist Hasina’s regime. Indian hand had become so obvious that Hasina was compelled to seek assistance of USA, Britain, UN and Scotland Yard to not only investigate the matter but also help in restructuring armed forces and paramilitary forces. When India desired creation of Joint Task Force in place of BDR and to accept its demand for transit route facilities and to be involved in restructuring of BDR, hue and cry was raised that the mutiny was stage-managed to give an excuse to the ruling regime to purge religious extremist elements particularly anti-Indian officers from the armed forces and paramilitary forces and to let Hasina tighten her grip over armed forces and to convert the military into a counter terrorism force.
India had planned to weaken and possibly destroy BDR and in the process defame BDA but the mutiny has helped Bangladesh to rename BDR as Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) and to further refurbish and expand the new force by creating 46 battalions and 12 sector HQs each under a Brig. BGB has recovered its operational capabilities and is going for modernization and expansion.
Brig Asif Haroon Raja, a Member Board of Advisors Opinion Maker is Staff College and Armed Forces War Coursequalified, holds MSc war studies degree; a second generation officer, he fought epic battle of Hilli in northwest East Bengal during 1971 war, in which Maj M. Akram received Nishan-e-Haider posthumously. He served as Directing Staff Command & Staff College, Defence Attaché Egypt and Sudan and Dean of Corps of Military Attaches in Cairo. He commanded the heaviest brigade in Kashmir. He is lingual and speaks English, Pashto and Punjabi fluently. He is author of books titled ‘Battle of Hilli’, ‘1948, 1965 & 1971 Kashmir Battles and Freedom Struggle’, ‘Muhammad bin Qasim to Gen Musharraf’, Roots of 1971 Tragedy’; has written number of motivational pamphlets. Draft of his next book ‘Tangled Knot of Kashmir’ is ready. He is a defence analyst and columnist and writes articles on security, defence and political matters for numerous international/national newspapers/websites.