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Consequences of the BDR Mutiny

Dr. Arvind Gupta was Director General at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • March 09, 2009

    The mutiny by the troops of Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) on 26 February 26 was extraordinarily brutal. The mutiny toll was about 81 with 72 still missing. Many of these were officers of the Bangladesh army. Three mass graves were discovered. Many bodies were thrown into the sewer pipelines. Many of those killed were stripped, mutilated, bayoneted and shot. The Director General of the BDR, Major General Shakil Ahmed was killed in cold blood. Even his wife was not spared. Her dead body was discovered in one of the mass graves. The whole nation has been numbed by the sheer scale of brutality of the mutiny which has been condemned internationally.

    How could the mutineers indulge in such senseless killing over matters of pay and allowances and conditions of service? In brutality, the present mutiny compares with the 1975 murder of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman by some army officers.

    The mutiny which was totally unexpected came at a time when the newly elected government, enjoying overwhelming majority in the parliament, was getting ready for the task of governance. Was the mutiny aimed at destabilising the government? Could the fundamentalist elements have been behind the rebellion?

    The Prime Minister herself hinted at the possibility of a conspiracy. Several op-ed pieces in Bangladeshi media also spoke in a similar vein. There was nothing spontaneous about the mutiny. A spontaneous shoot-out would not kill so many people in so brutal a manner. A few of the suspected mutineers have been arrested. Only a thorough investigation would reveal the truth but there is growing suspicion that the incident may have been well planned and coordinated. If so, who were the perpetrators? What was their motive? Who was behind them? Was there an intelligence failure? Was DG, BDR the real target or someone else? Who were the real targets? These are some of the troubling questions for which answers will have to be found to set speculation to rest.

    What will be the consequences of this tragic event?

    Firstly, the BDR may have to be restructured; the broken chain of command will have to be restored. The government has appointed Brig Gen Moinul Hossain as the new chief of BDR. His job will be to restore the confidence of the troops. This will be a tough task. The task at hand goes beyond redressing the grievances over pay and the conditions of service. If the anti-army sentiment in the BDR is deep and widespread, its disbanding may not be too extreme a step to contemplate.

    Secondly, the relations between BDR and the Bangladesh army will be strained. The army has acted with great restraint and responsibility. It has lost a number of officers and soldiers at the hands of the mutineers. The trust that has been lost cannot be rebuilt overnight. Indeed it may never be restored. This is a dangerous precedent which will have long term implications for the country.

    Thirdly, the government’s attention will necessarily be focussed on attending to the urgent matter of restructuring the BDR. This will detract its attention from the pressing problems of socio-economic development at a time when the global economic slowdown is having a negative impact on all countries including Bangladesh. The army has come out in support of the government’s handling of the situation. But one cannot ignore the fact that the army in Bangladesh has in the past been politicised. This time the army has suffered at the hands of the misguided soldiers of a sister force. The army’s response has been mature but the incident has introduced an element of uncertainty in civil-military relations in the country.

    Fourthly, BDR was doing the important task of guarding the borders. It had close interaction with the Indian Border Security Force (BSF). Many units of BDR on the India-Bangladesh border were headed by the officers on deputation from the Bangladesh army. Some of these officers, according to reports, fled as the news of mutiny spread. India has reacted with restraint, describing the situation as Bangladesh’s “internal affair”. Nevertheless, the BSF would be hoping for an early return to normalcy as far as BDR is concerned so that the border guarding resumes on both sides. This will be in the interest of both countries.

    Fortunately, Sheikh Hasina has overwhelming support in the country. This should help her deal with the problem in a confident manner. She will require the continuous support of the army. She has been praised for the “mature” handling of the situation but her decision to grant amnesty to the mutineers was controversial. The government had to clarify that those who committed murder will not be spared despite the amnesty. The long term effect of the amnesty on the morale and the functioning of the security forces may not be entirely positive. The situation in the country is fragile and can take an unexpected turn. South Asia is seeing signs of instability.