Analysing the Attempted Military Coup in Bangladesh
Neha Mehta

The civil-military relations in Bangladesh have always been unstable, in a country that has been marred by numerous military coups in the past. The Bangladeshi army has been known for factionalism and politicization of its forces. The recent revelations made by the Bangladesh army, about the attempted coup in late December 2011 by a set of 14-16 mid ranking army officers and their retired colleagues, termed as a band of ‘religious fanatics’ who wanted to establish Islamic law in the country, has again brought to the fore the internal dissentions in the army underscored by extremism within its ranks. The immediate provocation to the coup can be traced to the policy agenda set by the Awami League government when it came to power in January 2009, with the aim of restoring the secular credentials in the country, begin the trial of the War Crimes of 1971 as well as to improve relations with India.

Historically, since its independence in 1971, Bangladesh has been marked by frequent attempts at military takeovers from the civilian government. This political instability can be attributed to the composition of its army that was reorganised, after Bangladesh attained independence. Therefore, in addition to the Mukti Bahini that was the part of the Indian-backed armed secessionist forces they included the Bengali rank-and-file that were in the Pakistani army at the time of the war for independence in 1971. This union of two different factions was never complete leading to divisions within the army which resulted in a very tumultuous time in Bangladesh, with both the factions wanting to dominate the political domain resulting in numerous military coups. The first military coup in Bangladesh was in August 1975 in which Sheikh Mujib ur Rahman, the father of Shaikh Hasina and the founding leader of Bangladesh was assassinated, along with his entire family (except for Sheikh Hasina and her sister Sheikh Rehana who were in Germany at that time). The same year witnessed two more coups in November. Ultimately Major General Ziaur Rahman, the husband of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, usurped power in the third and final coup that year. He ruled the country from 1975 till 1981. During his entire regime there were about 20 coup attempts in order to grab power. He was finally killed in 1981 in the 21st coup. Meanwhile the officers who assassinated him were killed and a civilian government took over for a short time. Thereafter General Hussain Mohammad Ershad took over in March 1982 and overthrew President Sattar in a bloodless coup. In 1990, the last military ruler of Bangladesh, General Ershad was ousted through a pro-democracy movement jointly led by Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia.

This particular failed military coup was the second time such an attempt was made during the tenure of the present Awami League government. The first being a bloody mutiny by the paramilitary border guards just two months after Sheikh Hasina was sworn in as the Prime Minister in 2009 that left around 57 army officers and many civilians dead. The Bangladesh Army for the first time convened a press conference to declare the coup attempt, which goes to show that although there are extremist elements in the army, on the whole its loyalties remain with the present government. In connection to the coup, the army arrested two retired army officers and accused a serving officer considered to be the mastermind, Major Mohammad Ziaul Haq who has turned fugitive. These officers are said to have links with the banned terrorist organisation Hizb-ut-Tahrir, whose role in the entire conspiracy was also highlighted. The aim of the conspirators according to the army was to ‘disrupt democracy by creating anarchy in the army, cashing in on the fanaticism of the others’. Bangladeshi nationals residing outside the country were also involved, with speculation being rife about the involvement of the sons of the Khaleda Zia.

The army identified the activities of Amar Desh, Hizb ut Tahrir and the BNP as being involved in spreading false and misleading propaganda against the army, in order to create confusion about the security force within the army as well as in the public sphere. The newspaper Amar Desh was accused of publishing a fabricated story based on the Major Zia’s facebook write up on “ Mid Level officers bringing down changes soon”. Provocative leaflets were spread by Hizb ut Tahrir based on the same write up by Major Zia. The BNP was also blamed for spreading “fabricated, misleading and instigating reports” alleging the disappearance of army officers. This highlights the vast network of extremist elements in Bangladesh that can get together to overthrow the government through undemocratic means.

Islamic fundamentalists have been a threat to the secular forces in Bangladesh, opposing secular policies vehemently and who consider Sheikh Hasina’s government as an impediment to convert Bangladesh into an Islamic state. The recent steps taken by the Sheikh Hasina government against the fundamentalists irked them who found themselves cornered and isolated. The government was prompt in keeping with its election promises and amended its constitution to make it more secular although it retained Islam as the state religion. Additionally, the latest war crimes trial against the atrocities committed by the leaders of JEI and BNP during the Liberation War in 1971, in which they sided with the occupying Pakistani forces, has been a sore point with the opposition which led to the arrest of some leaders of the JEI including Ghulam Azam and BNP. Therefore the coup can be seen as an attempt to thwart the war crimes trial with the aim of changing the government.

It also underlines the hand of anti India forces. Since the change of government in Bangladesh in 2009 there has been an earnest effort from both the sides to address each other’s concerns intended to improve its relationship. Bangladesh addressed India's security concerns and took a firm stand against its northeast insurgents as well as not letting Bangladeshi soil be used for any anti India activities. The recent warming up of relations between India and Bangladesh has been perceived as a threat by the political opponents of the Awami League government as well as the fundamentalists who favour closer relations with Pakistan and not India.

In the context of India’s economic, political and security concerns, an India-friendly government in Bangladesh is extremely important as it secures its interests in the area of trade, connectivity with the North East, and most importantly its security concerns. Although in relation to India, the policies of Sheikh Hasina government have been positive but her popularity ratings in Bangladesh have gone down. According to the opinion Survey of the Daily Star that brought out the Governments three year performance ratings in 2011 in comparison to the previous year the popularity ratings of Sheikh Hasina plummeted, with only 39.4 percent saying they were satisfied with her performance in comparison to 53 percent ratings in 2010. According to the opinion poll the reason for the dip point towards certain policies pursued by the government that does not have the full support of the public especially in the caretaker issue.

The Awami League government also drew severe criticism from the opposition parties and other Islamists during Prime Minister Manmohan Singhs visit to Dhaka that it had sold out to India especially as the much anticipated Teesta Agreement did not come through due to the mishandling on the part of the Indian government. Although a number of agreements including the demarcation of land boundary and the issue of enclaves were signed, the view that Bangladesh gave more concessions to India than it received led to increased discontentment and disillusionment in the general public which has been used to its advantage by the opposition parties having an anti India stance. This is reflective in the opinion poll which shows that 44.7 percent people in Bangladesh, think Bangladesh cannot trust India because of the non-signing of the Teesta treaty. Again, 53 percent feel that it was a breach of trust by India to go ahead with the Tipai Mukh dam. Hence efforts to overcome such obstacles should be made to develop better relations with Bangladesh, so that fundamentalists cannot use such issues to form a negative image of India amongst the Bangladeshi people and use it to their advantage.

The relations between the two countries are at a crucial stage, thus stability in Bangladesh becomes extremely important. A democratic and secular Awami League government in Bangladesh is in India’s interests as it would address India’s concern and work in its favour. The rise of extremists would be neither in the interest of India nor Bangladesh, which would be turned into a Islamist state if they came to power. Therefore there’s an urgent need for the Awami League government to keep a close watch on the religious fundamentalists in the country and curb their influence in army as well as in the public sphere.

Published Date : 10th February 2012

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