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Bangladesh survives yet another Military coup attempt

Rajeev Sharma is a New Delhi-based journalist-author and commentator on foreign policy, international relations, terrorism and security issues. He has authored five books on these subjects, the last being “Global Jihad: Current Patterns and Future Trends”. He can be reached at
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  • January 23, 2012

    An important development has taken place in Bangladesh which will obviously worry the Indian strategic and diplomatic establishments no end. On January 19, 2012, the Bangladesh army announced that it had thwarted a coup attempt against the government conceived and nearly executed by some mid-ranking army officials. A lieutenant colonel and two Majors have already been arrested in this connection, while a top army officer is under the scanner for his suspected involvement in the plot.

    Announcing this development at a press conference at the Army Officers’ Club in Dhaka, Brig. Gen. Muhammad Masud Razzaq said: “Instigated by some non-resident Bangladeshis, a band of fanatic retired and serving officers had led a failed attempt to thwart the democratic system of Bangladesh by creating anarchy in the army banking on others’ religious zeal.”

    Ever since the India-friendly government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina came into office after sweeping the general elections in December 2008, her arch-rival Begum Khaleda Zia and elements of Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishments have been plotting the ouster of the Awami League government through undemocratic means. Hasina’s overly friendly gestures to India and her government’s all-round cooperation with India in such diverse fields as security, counter-terrorism, trade, infrastructural linkages and, above all, her diplomatic outreach to India have worried her political opponents in Bangladesh and critics in the Pakistani strategic establishment. Hasina’s biggest “provocation”, as seen from the viewpoint of her detractors, came recently when Bangladesh embarked upon the war crimes trial to punish those army officers who committed excesses during the 1971 Liberation War.

    The simmering disquiet in Bangladesh and the increasing nervousness of opponents of Sheikh Hasina has not come overnight. There is a historical perspective behind it. Bangladesh emerged in 1971 on the abnegation of ‘Two Nation Theory’ that had earlier paved the way for the Partition of India. Bangladesh’s liberation war marked a spectacular victory of secular Bengali nationalism and it was also a pronounced as a vindication of the indivisibility of Bengali language and culture. But, within four years, the assassination of Bangladesh’s founder President Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman by a group of pro-Pakistan army officers in collusion with Islamist groups resulted in the retreat of the secular nationalist forces and the resultant void came to be occupied by the pro-Pakistan Islamist forces who were earlier defeated in the liberation war. The assassination of the Bangabandhu completely reversed the direction of politics and society in the country and derailed the process of institutionalizing the spirit of Bengali language based nationalism.

    Ever since its formation in 1949, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League (AL) has remained the most credible vanguard of secular-linguistic politics in Bangladesh. The party, despite all its inadequacies and shortcomings, has contributed to making Bangladesh a relatively liberal Muslim majority State with reasonably acceptable democratic credentials. The party still commands the widest popular support base in the country, even though in the major power structures of the State, like the armed forces, as well as in media and business, its penetration has so far remained limited. The legacy of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman confers a unique symbolic identity to the party, which is credited with the very creation of Bangladesh and laying the foundation of Bengali nationalism. However, for the most part of the country’s independent history, the AL has faced violent challenges from the so-called Islamic nationalist and pro-Pakistan forces which do not believe in the concept of democracy and which wish to capture state power in the name of religion. Certain sections of the armed forces, some mercenary elements and sections of pro-Pak political entities have often come together to subvert the institutions of democracy and hijack State power to use it for their own selfish ends. These groups have always found religion as a convenient tool and hence they advocate a strong Islamic nationalist identity for the country and paint India in a negative light to generate a sense of psychological insecurity among the masses. The last BNP-JEI rule (2001-06) was a clear demonstration of the fact that Islamic nationalism had only been used as a garb to capture power and hold on to it. Rising Islamist militancy marked by a country-wide synchronised terrorist bombing and the advent of suicide bombers that shook the country in 2005 was covertly patronised by the JEI, which was a constituent of the BNP-led alliance that ruled the country.

    Bangladeshi mujahideen sent by JEI and other radical Islamic groups including Harkat- ul-Jehad-al-Islami (HUJI) and Bangladesh Khelafat Majlish to participate in the Afghanistan war came close to the Taliban and al Qaeda leadership who expressed the view that Bangladeshi Muslims were not practicing Islam in the true spirit and they needed to discard their love for the Bengali language and Bengali culture if they are to become true Muslims. Earlier, in the 1960s, when the founder President of Pakistan Mohammad Ali Jinnah visited East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), he rejected demands for the inclusion of the Bengali language as one of the national languages of Pakistan saying that Bengali language was not compatible with Islam.

    The militant Islamic groups led by JEI that had opposed the Liberation War of 1971 and collaborated with the occupying Pakistani forces, have been making all out efforts to turn Bangladesh into a ‘Dar-ul-Islam’ (land of Islam) from ‘Dar-ul-Harb’ (land of non- believers) to bring it closer to the tenets of orthodox Islam.

    Bangladesh has recently witnessed a mushrooming of madrassas of various sects and persuasions and also International Islamic Universities funded by generous contributions from international Islamic NGOs and so-called charity organisations based in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Pakistan. The Qaumi Madrassas in Bangladesh play an important role in promoting Islamic militancy. These madrassas adhere to orthodox Islamic teachings mainly focusing on Arabic, Hadis and Tafsir-e-Quran and do not teach subjects like Maths, Science, English and Bengali; nor do they allow the recitation of the National Anthem or the hoisting of National Flag on national days. Even Independence Day or Victory Day are not allowed to be celebrated. Foreign nationals having links with the al Qaeda and Taliban have been found imparting motivational and arms training to the students at regular intervals.

    A new trend in the expansion of an Islamic music industry which aims to upstage secular Bengali music and culture has also come to notice. The cultural wings of JEI, HUJI and other radical groups are in the forefront of spreading music that propagates Jehad and eulogises Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mulla Omar. The Islamic Universities and madrassas funded by Saudi Arabia and the popularisation of jehadi music are contributing to a growing Wahhabization of the Muslim community in Bangladesh.

    Given all this, Sheikh Hasina needs to keep a hawkish vigil on dubious elements within her military establishment in particular. She must exploit the failed coup to the fullest extent, take the top military brass into confidence and purge radical elements within the Bangladesh military. For its part, India should reach out to Bangladesh in this hour of crisis and share what intelligence is available to it about the black sheep within Bangladesh’s military. India also needs to be more diplomatically proactive with Bangladesh, more so because India’s north-east is Bangladesh-locked. In this regard, India must first send an able High Commissioner to Dhaka, preferably a Bangla-speaking career diplomat (India does not have a High Commissioner in Dhaka for the past four months).

    The writer is a New Delhi-based strategic analyst and journalist-author. He can be reached at