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Is the BDR Mutiny a Conspiracy?

Smruti S. Pattanaik is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • March 05, 2009

    The mutiny by Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) soldiers which started on February 25, 2009 with the brutal killing of army officers has sent shock waves through Dhaka. Even though many in Bangladesh empathize with their demands and genuine grievances, none have been able to fathom the reason for the brutality with which Army officers were killed. The officers were shot, bayoneted and dumped in mass graves and sewerage. The massacre also included the killing of family members, ransacking their houses and in some cases looting valuables.

    The mutiny started on the morning of February 25, 2009. BDR personnel had submitted a list of five demands on February 24th to their Director General (DG), Major General Shakil Ahmed, and requested him to present these to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina who was scheduled to inaugurate a function that day marking the beginning of BDR Week. It appears that Major General Ahmed did not present these demands to the Prime Minister, upon which some BDR personnel tried to raise the issue with Sheikh Hasina. When DG, BDR called a meeting in the Durbar Hall on the morning of February 25th, there was simmering anger. A soldier got into a heated argument with the DG, which led to a scuffle and eventually to a few BDR jawans taking up arms to settle their long standing score with the Army. It needs to be noted here that the BDR, second in size to the Bangladesh Army, is headed by Army officers of the rank of Brigadier or above and that all BDR officers are drawn from the Army. Some of the demands of the BDR have been promotion from among the ranks to the officer cadre instead of depending on the Army, consideration for deployment in UN peace-keeping missions, obtaining a share of the bonus given to the Army for assisting in the dal-bhaat program, election duties, providing full ration to the soldiers, and a raise in pay.

    Following the blood bath, Prime Minister Hasina sent a four member cabinet team to negotiate with the mutineers and announced a general amnesty as demanded by the BDR soldiers as a pre-condition for laying down arms. Apparently this mutiny did not have a leader and the soldiers fought in small groups. In a few district headquarters BDR personnel took up arms after learning about the incident in Dhaka. However, it was immediately brought under control after the announcement by Shiekh Hasina that she would look into their grievances. While the mutiny was in progress youths from an NGO named ‘Help Bangladesh’ formed a human chain holding placards near the BDR gate requesting them to stop fighting for the sake of peace and many people joined them.

    The mutiny has ended after Shiekh Hasina announced tough action and army tanks and armoured personnel carriers of the Dhaka Nine division based in Savar and 46 brigade in Dhaka cantonment moved to the area in a show of strength. To bring the situation under control the government has appointed Lt. Gen. Moinul Hossain as the new BDR chief; in other headquarters the police have taken over. Many of the BDR jawans who killed Army officers have fled Dhaka. The Prime Minister has made it clear that the government intends to bring those who engaged in killing at the headquarters to trial and has set up a commission to look into the incidents that led to such mayhem and brutality. The government has initiated ‘operation rebel hunt’ to arrest the jawans involved in the killing and to recover arms. It is reported that around 1000 BDR men are absconding although some of the BDR jawans who fled are reporting for duty.

    There are several conspiracy theories about the mutiny – whether it was driven by internal actors or whether there was some external support. Both the Prime Minister and the Commerce Minister have spoken of a conspiracy to derail democracy. For their part, the media and analysts have put forward their own conspiracy theories, two of which are analysed here. First is the theory about destabilizing and weakening the government, and the second relates to stalling proceedings against the setting up of war crime tribunals. Before analyzing these postulates the fact that the demands of the BDR are of a long standing nature needs to be kept in mind.

    One conspiracy theory postulates that the BDR mutiny was initiated to destabilize the government of Sheikh Hasina. But the government formed in January 2009 had already announced that it would set up a Pay Commission to look into pay anomalies and revise pay scales taking into account the rise in the standard of living. Moreover, a government which has 262 seats in Parliament is difficult to topple or weaken given its land slide victory with a popular vote percentage of 49.02 per cent. The only force that can destabilize the government is the Bangladesh Army. There were some indications before the election that a section in the Army is supportive of the Army taking over the reins of power. To deal with this, Army Chief General Moeen U Ahmed transferred and reshuffled some officers. The successful election and peaceful transfer of power should put to rest any such speculation regarding the army’s motives for the foreseeable future. Further, targeting the army would not help the cause of anyone who wants to destabilize the government. Also, a conspiracy is preceded by long planning and motives. The BDR mutiny, as the media reports till date suggest, do not reveal anything that would indicate long term planning. In addition, there was no mutiny leader (rather a few ring leaders), which indicates the spontaneity of the act and also explains why the ten member delegation which visited the Prime minister and agreed to surrender arms in exchange for amnesty was unable to stop the fighting inside BDR Headquarters.

    The second theory is that the BDR mutiny was engineered to delay the war crimes tribunal. This does not hold ground as the process to try war criminals is yet to start. The government has made a formal request to the UN in this regard and has taken a decision to form a special tribunal but it is yet to finalise the modalities to initiate the trial process. Even if the government’s attention gets diverted from this issue for the time being, it still has five years to start. Therefore, it appears that it could be the initiative of a few BDR personnel who had deep seated personal and professional grudges against the Army that led them to undertake the massacre.

    The government’s decision to try those involved in the killing and severely punish them is bound to set the right precedent and would stand as a warning for any future mutineers. Now, the Hasina government faces the tough test of maintaining and ensuring amicable relations between the military and paramilitary forces. Better relations between the two forces can be ensured by looking into the grievances raised by the BDR jawans while at the same time taking stern action against the perpetrators of violence which saw more than 50 army officers killed.