Coup in Cuckoo’s Nest

Written by Saleem Samad  •  Cover Stories  •  March 2012 PDF Print E-mail


Despite foiling a coup to overthrow the present government, Bangladeshi armed forces and the state apparatus remain threatened by the active terrorist outfit, Hizb-ul-Tahrir. Only fifteen months after Bangladesh banned the dreaded Islamic terrorist outfit, Hizb-ul-Tahrir, the country saw yet another botched conspiracy to topple the elected government of Sheikh Hasina in December 2011.

Anti-terror and security agencies repeatedly claimed success in containing the alleged plot after law-enforcement agencies detained key figures of the outfit.

Subsequently, 500 members of the radical, but secret, Hizb-ul-Tahrir were arrested. The militants, mostly youth, were detained for distributing leaflets and sticking posters on walls. Most detained militants for the past two years were released on bail and again joined the outfit, said Lt. Col. Zia-ul-Ahsan, Director of the Intelligence Wing of the elite anti-crime Rapid Action Battalion (RAB).
Military officer, Ahsan lamented that it was tough to stifle the activities of the Islamist organisation, as the families of the detained activists received financial dole as compensation. Thus, they cared less about their arrests.

Additionally, officials of RAB and the Detective Branch of Police did not hesitate to express their inability to combat the secret outfit’s activities.

Hizb-ul-Tahrir, founded in 1953 in Jerusalem, means Party of Liberation in Arabic and is an international Sunni pan-Islamic political organisation. The outfit advocates an Islamic Caliphate ruled by Shari’ah law. Today, the organization is active in over 40 countries with an estimated following of one million.

Last December, Bangladesh security agencies unearthed a conspiracy to overthrow the anti-Islamist government of Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina. In an organised but rare press conference on January 19, the Bangladesh Army’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), said that they had not ruled out the possibility of international links or foreign involvement in the abortive coup. A statement read by Brig. Gen. Muhammad Masud Razzaq claimed that fourteen to sixteen former and active mid-level radical Muslim officers fuelled the conspiracy to topple the government and install an Islamist regime.

Two retired officers, Lt Col. Ehsan Yousuf and Major Zakir were arrested on charges of conspiracy to overthrow the government and “admitted their role in the plot.” Major General Mohammad Kamruzzaman, Area Commander, Comilla 33rd Infantry Division and Brigadier Tariqul Alam, Commander, 71 Brigade of 9th Division are also under the scanner of security agencies. The two senior commanders, including 11 officers from other cantonments, have been confined to the Dhaka cantonment for now. A court martial has been formed in six cantonments and the alleged conspirators have provided testimonies as well. However, the alleged mastermind of the coup, Major Syed Mohammad Zia-ul-Huq (alias Major Zia), remains a fugitive. The officer and others have links to Hizb-ul-Tahrir, a military spokesman claimed.

A post by Zia on the Facebook group, Soldiers Forum, had instigated soldiers to work against the government. He regularly updated the social networking website to inform followers that officers were abducted and interrogated by dreaded anti-terrorism agents including the Indian intelligence agency, RAW. His messages were found in blogs and circulated emails. A pro-opposition daily newspaper, Amar Desh, picked up the postings from the social media, which became public only recently.

A slew of arrests were made silently through December, prompting opposition leader Khaleda Zia to allege that army officers were becoming victims of “sudden disappearances.” The ISPR reacted promptly and warned Zia to refrain from making any statements.

The conspiracy surfaced in late December, after Delhi sent an alarming message of the planned coup to Bangladesh. For several weeks, intelligence wires tapped scores of phone conversations, mobile phone SMSs and email exchanges.

The Bangladesh spy agency, Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) and other security agencies kept the suspected coup plotters under surveillance and found that Major Zia maintained contacts with other disgruntled army officers by mobile phone, emails and Facebook.

From January 10 to 11, Major Zia contacted the would-be mutineers through mobile phones. The renegades demanded to know details of the execution of the coup d’état and the suspected mastermind repeatedly urged them to execute the plan on the deadline. It was too late, however. The coup was botched when several officers were restricted in army headquarters.

Within a week of the unearthed coup plot, Bangladesh Army Chief of General Staff, Lt .Gen. Mohammad Moin-ul-Islam told academics at a seminar in Dhaka that some religious bigots had planned to indoctrinate pious officers. They targeted the deeply religious officers as a way of carrying out their conspiracy to overthrow the democratically-elected government. General Islam reiterated the wisdom of the pro-secular government’s policy, “We all are pious, and the meaning of our secularism is that each and everyone will follow his or her own religion but no one will interfere in other religions.”

The statement of the Army Chief of General Staff demonstrates that Bangladesh Army’s chain of command is still undeterred despite the dent caused by Islamic zealots in the military. It can also be understood that the army has stood behind the pro-secular government of Sheikh Hasina.

Hasina, 65, a widow, has an obvious fear of coups and assassinations. She narrowly escaped death at a rally in Dhaka on August 21, 2004 when 22 of her senior party colleagues were killed and hundreds were maimed. Hasina, twice elected as prime minister, and her sister Sheikh Rehana, are the only two surviving members of the family of founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was assassinated in a military putsch in August 1975. During the military raid of Mujib’s private residence, Hasina’s entire family was murdered.

Like Pakistan, impoverished Bangladesh also has a history of coups, mutinies and military revolts. In fact, Bangladesh surpassed Pakistan in a blood-soaked transfer of power during 1975-2006. The military in Bangladesh has killed two elected presidents and coerced threats on three other presidents to comply with their wishes. Last year the Bangladesh High Court declared the 1975 military coup that killed the country’s first President Mujibur Rahman as “illegal” and “void.”

Immediately, the pro-rightist main opposition party, Bangladesh Nationalists Party, issued guarded and soft comments. The BNP’s acting secretary general, Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said his party was thankful to Almighty Allah as no bloodshed occurred and constitutional rule continued. He also scoffed at allegations of the BNP having any relationship with the outlawed Hizb-ul-Tahrir.

Some society elite and professionals within the government, as well as men in uniform, have joined the secret Islamic extremist organization. From academics of public and private universities to progeny of elite democratic and socialist politicians; from media outlets to executives of donor agencies, the Hizb-ul-Tahrir has recruited a diverse class of people, claimed Professor Kalimullah, a political scientist with Dhaka University.

According to sources from the prime minister’s office, as soon as the paramilitary mutiny surfaced, India placed its special forces, 50 Parachute Independent Brigade, on standby to engage in case a coup was attempted in Bangladesh. The same parachute brigade was deployed during the bloody war of 1971, to capture a vital bridge on the Jamuna River that would cut off the 93rd Brigade of the Pakistani army.

The coup attempt in Bangladesh has invited serious concerns from liberal and democratic circles as it indicates the ingress that Islamic extremism is making into the armed forces of Bangladesh. The occurrence is also being attributed to social unrest in society as well as political polarisation that has created space for other forces to make their way into politics. However, the political scene in Bangladesh has been tumultuous ever since the country came into being and this effort to topple  

Saleem Samad is a journalist, elected Ashoka Fellow for Journalism and recipient of Hellman-Hammet Award.
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