Was India Behind 2009 Border Guards Massacre in Bangladesh?
- Public speculation by many, including the prime minister herself, termed the tragedy as an external conspiracy.
- One explanation for the mutiny was that the rebel soldiers opened fire on their officers when they dismissed appeals for better pay.
- The viciousness of the mutiny convinced many Bangladeshis that something more than work-related grievances was behind the rebellion.
- The crisis had exposed fault lines between the civilian government and junior-and-mid-rank army officers.
Two months after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina returned to power for the second time, her government faced a rebellion by the country’s paramilitary border guards. The mutiny, which took place in the Bangladesh Rifles headquarters in Dhaka on 25 February 2009, left as many as 74 dead, including several ranking army officers, who had been assigned to command the force.
Public speculation by many, including the prime minister herself, termed it as an external conspiracy. Investigations found no evidence of outside interference. However, one thing became clear: the army was aware of the unrest days before it occurred.
The revolt was staged by a section of the border guards, who took over the headquarters and killed their boss, Major General Shakil Ahmed, along with 56 other army officers and 17 civilians. By the second day, the unrest had spread to 12 other towns and cities.
One explanation for the mutiny was that the rebel soldiers opened fire on their officers when they dismissed appeals for better pay and refused the troopers lucrative UN peacekeeping jobs. A day before the event, the disgruntled soldiers met General Ahmed and some of his commanders and had urged them to raise their grievances with the prime minister.
The mutiny started on the second day of the annual “BDR Week,” which was earlier inaugurated by Hasina. As the session began at the BDR auditorium, several soldiers spoke against higher-ranked army officials, as Ahmed was making a speech. They demanded the removal of the army officers from the BDR command and equal rights for the BDR soldiers. Soon they took the general and other senior officials hostage inside the auditorium and later fired on them.
152 REBELS PUT TO DEATH
About 6,000 soldiers were convicted by courts in mass trials and sentenced to various terms of imprisonment, from four months to seven years. On 5 November 2013, the Dhaka Metropolitan Sessions Court sentenced 152 people to death and 161 to life imprisonment.
Leading figures in Bangladesh second-guessed the prime minister’s actions in the early hours of the mutiny. Former President H.M. Ershad, a retired army chief, argued that if Hasina had called in the army shortly after the mutiny started, the mutineers would have dropped their arms and far fewer people would have died. Ershad, who led Bangladesh’s third largest political organization, the Jatiya Party, until he passed away in 2019, believed the mere presence of the army in the crucial early hours of the mutiny would have been enough to defuse the situation.
Ershad knew the army was aware of the unrest within the BDR days before the mutiny. He had received a text message from his nephew, an army colonel serving as a BDR sector commander in Dinajpur in northwestern Bangladesh. His nephew perished in the mutiny. Ershad’s nephew sent the text message to four battalion commanders in his sector almost a week before the mutiny.
In his message, Ershad’s nephew urged the battalion commanders to be vigilant as subversive activities were taking place in the force that could result in trouble during the BDR Week, when almost all BDR commanding officers were gathered in Dhaka.
The former president avoided pointing the finger of blame at any external forces. Ershad had strongly implied earlier that India had somehow been behind the mutiny. Later, he specifically acknowledged that it would not make sense for India to have instigated the mutiny.
He was extremely plugged-in with the serving military. His backing away from his earlier suggestions that India was behind the mutiny reflected a growing recognition among some officers that perhaps there was no external hand behind the mutiny.
HASINA-ZIA DUEL ON MUTINY
Meanwhile, the acrimonious war of words between the ruling Awami League and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party continued. In its latest iteration, the prime minister challenged former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia to “share evidence” of a conspiracy. Zia responded with a public statement denying she held any evidence.
As investigations and verbal sparring continued, so too did changes in assignment of government officials. Tanjim Ahmed Sohel Taj, the state minister for Home Affairs, which supervised the force, was sharply criticized by the prime minister for remaining abroad as the mutiny unfolded. And, speculation continued over whether the prime minister would replace the Home Minister Sahara Khathun herself over the latter’s poor handling of the mutiny.
The prime minister was gripped with grief and disbelief at the savagery of the mutiny. Her priority throughout the two-day ordeal was to pacify the mutineers and convince them to lay down their arms and surrender with as little bloodshed as possible. It was not until after the mutineers surrendered that Hasina and her advisers learned of the extent of the violence the jawans had inflicted on most of their officers.
She vehemently disputed claims the bloodshed could have been avoided if only she had sent in the army early enough. Zia and Ershad claimed the army could have been in place in less than an hour, thereby saving many lives. Hasina strongly doubted the army could have been in place that quickly with the required weapons, including tanks and armored personnel carriers.
All indications were that the victims died within the first two hours of the mutiny. Many BDR soldiers had experienced exchanges of fire across Bangladesh’s border with India. Given that, Hasina questioned whether the appearance of the army when tensions were so high would have immediately resulted in the mutineers laying down their arms in fear, as some critics claimed.
The prime minister was convinced that such a savage incident could only be the result of a “deep-seated conspiracy” to destabilize her government and cause a civil war. There was no proof of this. Hasina blasted both Zia and Ershad for criticizing rather than supporting her during this national crisis. She charged that the two politicians were using this tragedy to strengthen themselves and weaken her.
Hasina was shaken by the mutiny. U.S. Ambassador James Moriarty told her that no evidence of an outside conspiracy had come to light. She sought U.S. assistance to help Bangladesh strengthen civil-military relations. She asked the ambassador to share any concrete suggestions America had for establishing a civil-military dialogue that could identify the proper role and vision for the military in Bangladesh.
She was clearly fearful about her ability to maintain her government. There was still no evidence to support the conspiracy theory. But there was no question that the mutiny had weakened her authority and the democratic institutions re-established by 2008 December’s elections.
Conspiracy theories are nothing new in Bangladesh. Whenever something goes terribly wrong — from terrorism to massive power blackouts — the two parties routinely blamed each other; sometimes they seemed to believe it, other times it was obvious posturing.
In Bangladesh, politicians typically imply India or Pakistan whenever they talk about a foreign hand in any incident. Sometimes, they throw the United States in the mix. The Awami League generally points finger at Pakistan, while the BNP blames India.
PROBE FOUND NO CONSPIRACY
A government probe found no evidence of outside conspirators, mirroring the reported findings of an army investigation. Instead, the report cited long-standing grievances against poor treatment by, and corruption among, the officers as the spark that set off the insurrection.
The rebellion led to criticism of Bangladesh’s intelligence gathering and crisis response capabilities, prompting the authors of the government report to suggest creating a national crisis management team and a central intelligence coordination panel.
An army inquiry into the mutiny had not been released publicly. But media reports claimed it too found no solid links to outside forces, such as Islamist militants or foreign governments. FBI agents, who visited Dhaka to provide technical assistance to the police criminal investigation, saw no evidence of outside involvement.
The viciousness of the mutiny convinced many Bangladeshis that something more than work-related grievances was behind the rebellion. Among those rumored to be conspirators prodding the BDR soldiers into action were senior lawmakers of the opposition BNP, Islamic militants, Awami League lawmakers, and India. The government probe refused to close the door on the conspiracy theories by saying further investigation was needed to determine the “genuine reason” for the uprising.
PARLIAMENT DEBATES REBELLION
On 1 March 2009, parliament debated the mutiny. During a heated and lengthy session, opposition members blasted the government’s handling of the situation, including its decision not to use the military to put down the mutiny. The prime minister vigorously defended her government’s performance.
She characterized the mutiny as “completely preplanned,” without providing further detail as to who might have been responsible for the planning. During the same session, Zia called for cooperation with the government to resolve the crisis. But she complained that the government had failed to reach out to the opposition during the incident.
Both government and opposition MPs opined during remarks in parliament that the mutiny had all the elements of a conspiracy, and widespread speculation on that theme continued. Local media picked up reporting from Indian media claiming involvement of Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, a Zia adviser. He was a well-known shipping magnate who was reportedly very close to the Pakistan military-intelligence complex.
Meanwhile, representatives of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s largest Islamic party, asserted that Indian intelligence had masterminded the conspiracy. After creating instability, Jamaat argued, India could then offer to help to control the situation in fulfillment of India’s long-held desire to make Bangladesh a subservient client state.
A senior elite RAB commander characterized the mutiny as “very well-planned and organized.” Editorials in Dhaka’s two leading English-language publications also fed into the conspiracy theory. There was “very little doubt that there is a deep-rooted plan to destabilize the country and exploit the situation,” said the Daily Star. The New Age asserted: “We cannot rule out the hand of outside quarters, both within and beyond the borders of the country, as instigators.”
HASINA ENTERS TIGER’S CAGE
Due to the nature of the attack, the government believed there was prior planning but had no evidence about who had been involved. Hasina had decided to address the army officers 1 March despite opposition from her cabinet colleagues. The prime minister wanted to show solidarity with the armed forces.
Hasina’s primary concern during the mutiny was limiting the number of casualties. The border guards’ headquarters were in a densely populated area and any military action would have affected hundreds of thousands of people and certainly resulted in a great number of casualties. For this reason, the government had decided to exercise great caution. All of the killings had taken place immediately after the incident began. Military action would have led to thousands of additional deaths.
Like many others in the country, the Awami League leaders were clueless about who were behind the mutiny. Dipu Moni, for example, speculated the nature of the killing showed it could hardly have been the result of spontaneous anger and could only have taken place with a great deal of preparation. She cited the number of officers killed, the efforts to dispose off the bodies and the planning to allow conspirators to flee as evidence of prior preparation.
The United States had no information that an outside group was behind the rebellion. Bangladesh has a violent past, including past mutinies and coups. More than 600 officers and soldiers had been killed in a coup attempt in 1977 when the country was under a military ruler, General Ziaur Rahman.
In the aftermath of the insurrection in 2009, Hasina took a bold step and decided to go to the cantonment. She had told the cabinet she was not only the head of government and defense minister, but also “daughter of the father of the nation,” and as such had a duty to know the grievances of her people.
On the contrary, Zia showed poor judgment in abstaining from parliament during the crisis. Zia, however, deserved praise for showing “admirable restraint and solidarity,” and for her offer to help the government “in every way possible.”
DISSATISFACTION WITHIN ARMY
Zia suggested there might be a link between elements of the ruling coalition and the conspiracy. She noted that extreme left parties had infiltrated the army in the early 1970s. This had culminated in November 1975 during the “sepoy rebellion” led by Abu Taher. Then-Army Chief Ziaur Rahman had crushed the rebellion and the leaders had been executed.
Zia’s adviser retired Major General Fazle Elahi Akbar said the authors of the revolt wanted to remove the army from the BDR to weaken Bangladesh’s defenses. Every Bangladesh war plan relied upon the BDR to supplement the army. Without the presence of the army officers the BDR would not be combat worthy.
The crisis had exposed fault lines between the civilian government and junior-and-mid-rank army officers. Zia said it was not too late for the opposition and the government to find a way to work together, but admitted she was pessimistic about the prospects for cooperation. Zia said the government was mean-spirited, not even allowing her to lay a wreath during the funeral for the slain army officers.
In the initial stage of the crisis, there was hope that this tragic event would provide an opportunity for the political parties to put aside their differences and unite on the issue of vital interest. As time passed, it was clear that this opportunity was being squandered. Both sides were to blame for the return to politics as usual.
ARMY CHIEF AND THE MUTINY
After the elected Awami League government took over in January 2009, army chief Moeen showed commitment to the concept of civilian control over the military. During the mutiny, the chief followed Hasina’s orders. Though many in the Bangladesh Army were urging immediate use of force to put down the mutiny, the prime minister first tried to negotiate with the mutineers in an effort to avoid a military operation that would have resulted in casualties not only among the mutineers and army, but also among Dhaka residents living near the site of the mutiny.
The rebellion ended after Hasina in a nationally televised speech threatened to use force if they did not surrender. She reiterated her offer of a general amnesty and her promise to address concerns raised by the rank-and-file over pay, benefits and allegations of corruption among the Bangladesh Rifles leaders.
In the mutiny’s aftermath, many in the military criticized army chief General Moeen Ahmed for following the prime minister’s orders. In a volatile March meeting between the prime minister and a large gathering of army officers, mid-level and senior army officers verbally attacked the prime minister. They shouted at her and tore off insignia on their uniforms in protest of her handling of the mutiny and in anguish over the loss of their comrades. They were later disciplined by the military.
The government committee investigating the mutiny found no links to militancy or foreign forces to the massacre. Mirroring the findings of other probes, it also blamed long-running grievances over pay and perks as well as BDR men’s negative attitude toward the army officials for the mutiny. The review found that the men were angry because they were harshly treated by the army officers who led a luxurious life, while the border guards they supervised lacked basic necessities of life.
The rebels also faulted the army officers for the lack of transparency in running BDR fair-price-rice shops during a food crisis in 2008. When his attention was drawn to a comment by Commerce Minister Faurq Khan suggesting links of militants and foreign elements to the insurrection, panel chief Anis-uz Zaman dismissed it as “his own.”
Khan’s view reflected a widely circulated rumor in Bangladesh where a section of people always find a foreign hand whenever an unfortunate event strikes the nation. “Really, we did not find any link of militancy and overseas states to the incident,” Anis-uz-Zaman said. “We’ve prepared the report.
[This article is based on U.S.-based journalist B.Z. Khasru’s upcoming book, “One Eleven, Minus Two: Prime Minister Hasina’s War on Yunus and America.”]