Saturday, February 28, 2009

Bangladesh : A War Refought

The mutineers have surrendered arms in Dhaka, but they have been granted a general amnesty by the government. The true horrors of the mutiny is now coming to the fore - not what happened on the street, but what happened inside the barracks. The tortured, mutilated bodies of the officers are now being taken out, and one can see that not only the officers, but their families too, have been brutally murdered.

However, while the troubles have subsided in Dhaka, there is a battle going on in the border camps throughout the country. The army is advancing on the BDR to take over these camps, but, according to the reports, BDR men are resisting, and cutting down the roads and blowing up the bridges, just like in an war. These men, who are now killing their officers and fighting against their own country's army, and jeopardizing the lives of their citizens, are presumably covered by the amnesty. The question remains, however, what would be done with them, after the dust settles.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, there is a sub-plot in this rebellion, that of the dissent against the army from the time the army ruled the country [till end of 2008]. But, as things come to light, an even more sinister design is coming out - that this mutiny may have an islamist angle, and is connected somewhat with the government's decision to prosecute war criminals from the liberation war days of 1971.

This always remained an issue in Bangladesh, indeed. A section of country's population, mostly made of landowners, mullahs and government officers and their sundry underlings, cooperated in the brutal suppression in (then) East Pakistan by the Pakistani Army in 1971. Accordingly, when the Pakistani Army was defeated in December 1971 and the independent state of Bangladesh was formed, these people were to be prosecuted for the crimes they have committed against the country's population. As in other countries [there are a number of Latin American countries attempting to do the same], Bangladesh Government found it extraordinarily difficult to carry this mandate out, as many of these war criminals were actually very prominent men and women in the society.

Despite suggestions made by a number of international observers, a national reconciliation was never attempted, or was never feasible. There was no Bishop Desmond Tutu, to start with. Besides, there was a general resentment as the people who fought in the Liberation Struggle continued to remain poor and disadvantaged in the new republic, and the collaborators continued to enjoy the privileges even under the new government. Further, there is always a prominent place of Revenge in the politics of South Asia, somewhat following the Mughal tradition - and this revenge was never played out in Bangladesh. And, most importantly, a reconciliation effort needed to start with an acceptance of 'truth' [as in Bishop Tutu's efforts], and truth was never welcome in post-liberation Bangladesh, as the dividing lines were never straightforward and many of the rich and the famous had skeletons in their cupboard.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the first Bangladeshi administration under Sheik Mujib failed to carry out the task - either of revenge or of reconciliation - as they quibbled about the privileges in the new country. Finally, Mujib was then brutally assassinated, along with most of his family, when he showed some intent to move forward with this agenda. After a quick succession of military led governments, General Zia-ur-Rehman, a military man and prominent hero of the liberation struggle, came to power. General Zia was backed by a coalition of military men, most of whom served in the Pakistani military and may have fought against their own countrymen in 1971. Not surprisingly, this time, General Zia went a step further and granted an amnesty, and tried to put a lid on the issue of war crimes.

This is indeed the amnesty that Sheikh Hasina is trying to overturn now. There is a general feeling that this amnesty was unfair and immoral. Bangladeshi politics, since Mujib's day, have been dominated by this chasm between the feudal elite who prospered under the Pakistanis and the post-liberation elites, who took over the businesses and properties after the Pakistani rulers ran away. These two sections alternated in power, pulling the country to two different directions, and each time they won electoral victories, they assumed the final victory and promoted their agenda as if there was no tomorrow. Roughly, Sheikh Hasina represented the post-liberation elites, whereas Begum Zia, and sundry islamists, represented the feudal remnants of the Pakistani past, though both of them made compromises along the way.

These fissures are again plain to see, as the bodies of officers, and more importantly, their wives and children, are being pulled out of BDR barracks. One would suspect that the government's announcement of amnesty was done without much thought, without a proper assessment of the nature of the insurgency and its consequences. The battle, fought in BDR barracks and now in border posts, as fundamental as the basic tensions of Bangladesh, and the key reason why what could have been the richest and most prosperous nation of South Asia remains backward, corrupt and despondent. The amnesty showed the propensity of Bangladeshi governments, a long succession of them, of flight, whenever the difficulties surface. And, again, an issue remained unresolved.

It will be interesting to see what happens now. By every rationale, BDR must be disbanded now. A new force must be raised and deployed. The government must go forward, and fast, with what it wants to do with war criminals. They must be sincere in bringing out the truth of the freedom struggle, a difficult task, as this will show a number of ruling coalition members in an unflattering light. But, if this is not done, Bangladesh will continue on the slippery slope of history. The BDR rebellion will sooner or later inspire a section of the army, where such interests remain entrenched through legacy and generational loyalties, to a more sinister coup. The democracy will continue to flounder, and the people will continue to be betrayed.

Parliamentary democracy has the propensity to mix up governance with politics. But, in today's Bangladesh, one must remember that governance isn't politics, and those in government must be ready to make difficult decisions, regardless of its consequences.

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