Tanim Ahmed*, NewAge, March 5, 2009
The armed forces are deployed for one purpose only. And that is to protect the sovereignty of the country. In doing so, every officer and soldier is expected to lay down their lives at a moment’s notice to protect their motherland… Such circumstances demand that one soldier’s life depends on the one next to him. It requires unwavering faith and loyalty in each other… The military personnel are trained and oriented to do that. The kind of bondage that they form with each other facing harsh situations is often stronger than those brothers have between them.
WHAT does one do when one hand harms the other? What does one do when one limb threatens the body itself? It becomes all the more complicated when one symbol of sovereignty defiles another. Vigilant sentinels of our national frontier, as their motto goes, the Bangladesh Rifles is indeed the country’s first line of defence. That they are has been proven beyond doubt on many occasions in the past. They fought with valour and honour and repelled foreign forces even when they were highly outnumbered. It is not just the sacrifice of rifles men for the sake of their country but also their dedication towards protecting the country’s frontiers that has earned them respect.
Some of these dedicated soldiers of the Bangladesh Rifles rebelled against their officers on February 25. The rebellion broke out during an open meeting, durbar, of the BDR director general, Major General Shakil Ahmed. The occasion was scheduled as part of the BDR Week observance at the border guards’ headquarters at Pilkhana in the heart of Dhaka. As it has transpired from testimonies of surviving officers, the rebellion began with execution of army officers attending the meeting. During their siege of Pilkhana, 71 people, including 56 army officers, were killed. The mayhem that went on for about those 33 hours left the entire nation in shock.
There are no two ways to describe the incidents that occurred at Pilkhana for those two days. They were horrifying. It was not just a group of soldiers that rebelled against their officers and ended up killing them in random shooting. The acts that followed were even more horrendous. Groups of BDR soldiers were reported to have entered officers’ family quarters within several hours of the initial shootout. Soldiers reportedly plundered at will — and these are not necessarily the same group of soldiers that carried out the killings. Valuables were looted, children killed and internal reports had it that women were also raped. The death toll of officers kept increasing and by late afternoon reports from the Field Security Unit indicated that between 30 and 60 officers might have been killed. The acts that went on behind those walls of Pilkhana, in the vast compound of the BDR headquarters, right in the heart of Dhaka, left the nation stunned.
One of the keepers of this country’s sovereignty had turned against another and turned against its own. That this is a grave situation is an understatement. That this is a national crisis is but obvious. Perhaps more importantly, the events of those two days have left the entire country in a vulnerable position that it has seldom been in. The army officers, still stationed with BDR units, were naturally told to fall back to their nearest cantonments or station headquarters. As other sector headquarters of the border guards rose in rebellion along with a number of units stationed across the country, Bangladesh’s border security was severely compromised and remained so for an uncomfortably long time. One only hopes that the border outposts have become effectively functional within the week.
It is possible that this was the result of a deep-rooted conspiracy. It is possible that this was the act of outside forces. Till such time that ulterior motives are established and hypotheses of outside instigation are proven, one does not have much to go on other than the points that the rebels raised as their demands. A 50-point list of demands and complaints was given out to the press on the evening of February 25. This list was apparently submitted to the BDR chief to be handed over to the prime minister the previous day when Sheikh Hasina addressed the soldiers.
The demands and complaints of the list, if they are genuine, suggest that there is sufficient reason for grievances and discontent among the soldiers. Besides the allegation of corruption by senior officers, the complaints of their treatment at the hands of officers and the discrimination they face as a paramilitary force compared to the military personnel in other forces evidently provide for genuine grounds to complain. These also need to be investigated and there must be some sort of parity among the benefits and salary of soldiers of same ranks in all forces. It may have been that some officers were responsible for further fuelling the soldiers’ discontent. It is possible that this discontent, pent up for long, finally burst out. But the manner in which this discontent found expression is absolutely deplorable. There were surely several other means to express their dissatisfaction and raise their demands than through brutal violence that the soldiers had adopted. Also, the institutional discrimination, lower wages, fewer resources, poorer logistics and facilities were not entirely a matter of the officers’ discretion.
Subsequent governments, elected, dictatorial, military or quasi-military, have all maintained the discriminatory status quo and are thus also to blame. Past and present governments are almost equally to blame for not investing enough on BDR infrastructure and facilities, for failing to bring parity in salary, benefits and resources between the border guards and other forces. It was also these governments that allowed the open ended ad hoc system of deputing army offices to the Bangladesh Rifles without taking visible initiatives to institute a system for direct officer recruitment into the border guards and build up their own officer cadre. There might have been strong objections to such ideas floated quietly within the military establishment to eventually turn the Bangladesh Rifles into a fully independent unit. But one must also agree that there was never a strong political will towards that end either.
This is certainly not the first time that there has been a rebellion within the armed forces. There have many such incidents before. But this rebellion was far different—both in context and goal. This has caused an irreparable loss to Bangladesh as well as to the people, not to mention the families of the victims. The country’s forces have become divided and it will be very difficult to reverse this. The rift between border guards and the army will perhaps remain like an old scar for many years.
Aside from the institutional rift and the security crisis, there is the loss of lives to grapple with. It was not just army officers, but pedestrians and children who were killed. Mothers lost sons, children their fathers, officers their brothers. They will find it very difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile with their loss. But, perhaps, it is the last part—officers losing their brothers—that needs to be elaborated upon. The armed forces are deployed for one purpose only. And that is to protect the sovereignty of the country. In doing so, every officer and soldier is expected to lay down their lives at a moment’s notice to protect their motherland. They are deployed to face the enemies of the country and made to live in extraordinary circumstances that the ordinary citizens of the country do not experience. Such circumstances demand that one soldier’s life depends on the one next to him. It requires unwavering faith and loyalty in each other. They know among themselves that when facing the enemy, they stand united without any equivocations. The military personnel are trained and oriented to do that. The kind of bondage that they form with each other facing harsh situations is often stronger than those brothers have between them. When military personnel enter into their service knowing full well that their call of duty is nothing similar to the thousands of ordinary citizens, they also expect that the country would look after them with due respect and in a befitting manner. Their burden of responsibility that comes with the knowledge of how they provide their people with the blanket of security is for them alone to bear. Ordinary citizens no matter how well versed in military matters, no matter how intellectually superior to every officer, will hardly ever have the same empathy for fellow colleagues. It was perhaps this sentiment that was hurt. While the Awami League government’s handling of the matter, particularly its decision to traverse a political path, is commendable, its stance could perhaps have been more tempered towards the sensitivities of the officers of the Bangladesh Army. The army for its part also showed commendable restraint. They patiently awaited their orders from above, as troops were at standby through day and night. In the end, the government handled the matter on its own with police forces. But it should be noted that the army personnel, especially the officers, despite the knowledge of their fellows in peril stood firm at their positions. They did not break the chain of command, which is an indispensable thread in the moral fabric of military psyche. In the armed forces there is no space for mutiny or rebellion. And the BDR soldiers broke that chain of command that is held sacred. They disrupted that fabric and in doing so made a cardinal sin. This brings up the matter of investigation. There must be investigations to do justice to the victims and their families as much as to find out the group that led this rebellion. Justice must be ensured in each and every instance of crime. The grievances of the BDR soldiers should also be investigated, impartially and in all fairness. The government must, thereafter, in consultation with stakeholders, initiate appropriate measures that would prevent the recurrence of such tragic incidents. Furthermore, it must be mentioned that when it comes to the matter of protecting Bangladesh’s security and sovereignty, which the armed forces are entrusted with, there must not be any indulgence whatsoever for those who have broken the chain of command. Any lenience towards mutiny in the armed forces would be an even graver injustice to the people of Bangladesh.
*Tanim Ahmed writes for NewAge, a leading newspaper in Bangladesh.