According to one view, the new year’s blasts in a Dhaka park and the killings of paramilitary along the Indo-Bangla border were part of a design to destabilise an allegedly pro-India government of Sheikh Hasina Wajed before the upcoming elections.
Ominous intelligence reports about developments that seem to be linked to the recent border conflicts between the paramilitary forces of Bangladesh and India do not augur well for politics in this part of the Subcontinent. Western and Indian intelligence claim to have unearthed a plot by former Bangla military officers—involved in the coup of 1975—to assassinate Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed. They maintain that these officers have the backing of powerful allies in Bangladesh’s army and paramilitary and have slowly edged Sheikh Hasina towards a trap. The developments along the Indo-Bangla border, which culminated in the killing of more than a dozen Indian Border Security Force (BSF) soldiers, are seen to be part of this elaborate snare to bring an end to Hasina’s political career.
On 7 March this year, retired colonel Khondakar Abdur Rashid, seven of his comrades-in-arms in the 1975 coup as well as a Pakistani intelligence officer, reportedly met at Breda, 60 miles from Amsterdam. The venue was a restaurant owned by A.K.Mohiuddin, an absconding accused in the Sheikh Mujibur Rahman assassination case. The would-be assassins have apparently been quite dogged in the pursuit of their objective, as the following list of their various efforts testifies. Two years ago, they tried to hijack a Bangladesh Biman aircraft from Kolkata. When that attempt was foiled, they tried to hire a LTTE suicide squad to assassinate Sheikh Hasina, Mujib’s surviving daughter. Sources in Bangladesh National Security and Intelligence (NSI) reveal that the deal with the LTTE fell through when Rashid failed to transfer the promised 10 million USD to a LITE front in time. Thereafter, a bombing attempt against Sheikh Hasina at Kotalipara in her Gopalganj constituency was planned, but failed when police discovered 76 kg of explosives barely 300 yards from the podium where the prime minister was to address a rally.
It is believed that the Breda meeting was intended to revive the plot. A colonel of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, Shoiab Nasir, who attended this meeting reported back to his boss, Brigadier Riaz, Deputy Director General (Operations) and their telephone conversation was intercepted by Dutch intelligence. The Israeli Mossad and the Indian Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) have major operations in Holland Report to monitor the activities of West Asian and Kashmiri as well as North-east Indian rebel groups, which come to attend the meetings of Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation (UNPO) based there. Both agencies picked up the details of the Dutch intercept and the Indians passed the information on to Bangladesh. According to sources, both agencies are convinced that the IS1 is targeting Sheikh Hasina in close collaboration with the Mujib-killers, who have been on the run ever since a Dhaka court awarded death and life sentences to a number of them. The explosion at Dhaka’s Ramna Maidan on the Bengali New Year’s Day a few weeks ago, which killed seven innocent celebrants is seen by Mossad and RAW sources as a “dry run” to test the security alertness of Bangladesh agencies.
Plot, politics and border
Western and Indian diplomatic sources in Dhaka, meanwhile, also link the Ramna Maidan blast to the capture of Pyrdiwah (Padua in Bangladesh) by the Bangladesh Rifles. They believe that the blast is part of the same agenda that culminated in the border incident, one to destabilise the secular nationalist politics of Bangladesh. The border incident, in particular, has helped generate extreme tension with India, which is according to the plans of the conspirators. “This suits those elements in the Bangladesh military establishment who are said to be in league with the Mujib killers. Suddenly Sheikh Hasina is in a military trap she cannot break off,” says an Indian diplomat. This view is also shared by some in Dhaka. According to a senior leader of Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League: “The Prime Minister, who was totally unaware of the Padua adventure, is angry with Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) chief Major General Fazlur Rehman but cannot take him to task because he has achieved great popularity and the backing of the military establishment and opposition parties. The pro-Pakistani elements are trying to use Rehman to box Hasina into a corner.”
According to one theory, a coterie of Pakistan-trained officers in Dhaka are using the ambitious Gen. Rehman, a former liberation fighter, to create tensions with India. Bangladesh’s chief of general staff, chief of military intelligence, chief of the civilian NSI, and four general officers commanding—of Mymensingh region, Chittagong, Rangpur and Jessore—are all known for their pronounced anti-Awami League and anti-Indian views. They prefer Begum Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and believe her return to power is necessary to restore the influence of the army in Bangladesh’s decision-making process. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Hasina is in a bind, unable to take the army head-on. According to a senior Indian intelligence official who knows well the civilian-military interface in Dhaka, “if she tries to control the military establishment sternly, she runs the risk of a coup”.
One lobby within the army, quite decidedly ‘anti-India’ in its sensibility, has reasons to be unhappy. Sheikh Hasina, in her five-year tenure, has twice snubbed Pakistan’s military strongman Pervez Musharaff by refusing a dialogue with him. In December 2000, her government expelled the Pakistani deputy high commissioner, Irfan Raja, for making adverse comments about the 1971 liberation war. Meanwhile, her initiatives to strengthen relations with India has led to some success in dealing with the Ganga water sharing problem and the insurrection in the hills above Chittagong.
So as the elections approach, most likely in October 2001, and Sheikh Hasina appears confident of returning to power, these elements in the Bangladesh army and the political opposition outside it, so the theory goes, are trying to use other means to deny her a second term. The border skirmishes with India and the explosion at Ramna Maidan both were significantly dislocating events for Bangladesh, and signal the possible presence of a master plan that could yet destabilize the country completely.
Asamiya slogans, Bangla slogans
It is clear that the Bangladesh government was not aware of the Bangladesh Rifles’ (BDR) move to take Pyrdiwah, a territory that Bangladesh claims was taken by India thirty years ago. After the BDR was forced to retreat, following Prime Minister’s Sheikh Hasina’s pressure on the BDR chief, the BSF infiltrated at Boroibari to avenge the incursion at Pyrdiwah. The BSF sent an assault group inside Bangladesh but ended up with heavy losses. The toll: 16 BSF soldiers and three BDR jawans.
It is clear that the Pyrdiwah and its Boraibari fallout were part of a plan to cripple the Awami League government, and most importantly loosen Sheikh Hasina’s personal hold on power. In the aftermath of the incidents, groupings on both sides of the border are seeking now to opportunistically extract maximum political mileage. Opposition parties like the BNP and the Jamaite- Islami have described the BDR withdrawal from Pyrdiwah village a “sellout” to India. Meanwhile, north of the border, Assam’s ruling Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and its ally the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) too are looking to gain electoral dividends from the massacre of the 16 BSF members. The spectre of demographic invasion that is raked up before every election in Assam has returned with a vengeance to haunt the polity.
On each side of the border, respectively, the “big brother” and the “ugly Bangladeshi” are back on stage as villains. In Bangladesh, where the “India factor” is resurrected by the anti-Awami League parties before every Jatiyo Sangsad (Parliament) election, the border skirmishes have become a handy weapon. The Bangladesh Rifles goes in to “liberate” Padua (Pyrdiwah) but pulls back under pressure. The opposition parties ask, “What better evidence of Hasina as an Indian stooge?”
The BNP and Jamait-e-Islami have already plastered the walls of Bangladesh’s major cities with slogans such as: Bharater dalal Hasina, Bharater dalal Awami League, aar noy, aar noy (Indian stooge Hasina and Awami League, enough of you); Hasina re Hasina, Tor kathay nachina, for abbar kathay naiche, desh gecche bhaisye (Hasina , we will not dance to your tune, the country sank by dancing to your father’s tune); and, Padua jite charle keno, jabab chai, jabab deop (Answer, why leave Padua after winning it?). In Assam, the situation is not very different. “If Bangladeshis, or sections of them, are paranoid about Indian machinations, people in the Northeast are paranoid about Bangladeshis,” explains Samir Das, a scholar who has worked on the Assamese separatist movements. And at no time is it more evident than before elections. The new slogan on Guwahati walls is Aamar BSFer hathyar prothisodh obopsyei lage (Avenge the massacre of our BSF).
The media in Assam was not particularly restrained in reporting the so-called BDR brutalities. Indeed, on the border incidents, Indian media generally went on an immediate offensive without waiting to collect the facts. It has jumped to easy conclusions which put the onus on Bangladesh alone.
A dot com correspondent went as far as to claim that the BSF deputy commandant B.R Mondal had been tortured and executed in the presence of a senior Bangladeshi district official and parliamentarian. Like others, this reporting ignored some obvious discrepancies. As one former Indian military officer said, if the BSF intelligence machinery did not even have an idea of the BDR buildup at the border, it surely could not have ferreted out graphic details of the circumstances in which Deputy Commandant Mondal died 30 kilometres inside Bangladesh.
While the attention of the ‘national’ media in both countries have been focussed on bilateral Indo-Bangla matters, the border incidents have had their own incendiary effect on the politics of an Assam going in for Vidhan Sabha (state legislature) polls on 10 May. Already, the atmosphere is heated, and the skirmishes along the border play straight into the hands of the Asom Gana Parishad and the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The BSF’s wounded pride has led to fabrications, which the press has lapped up and which is now being used extensively by the BJPAGP alliance in their joint campaign in Assam. The BJP’s West Bengal.Vice President P D Chitlangia asserted that two crore Bangladeshi Muslims have entered West Bengal and another 50 lakh had gone over into Assam. He also said that if returned to power, the BJP would scrap the controversial Illegal Migrants Determination by Tribunals (IMDT) Act of 1983, a law which seeks to protect Asamiya Muslims in particular from wrongful identification as aliens from Bangladesh. The AGP supports this stance of the BJP as does the powerful All Assam Students Union.
“Assam has often witnessed ethnic polarisation, but on this occasion, the electorate is heading for religious polarisation. For the moment, Bangladesh is the whipping boy. But within a week, the guns will turn on the Bengali-speaking Muslims as the archetypal ‘badboy’ of Assam politics,” says Samir Das. The ‘Mia’ is fast taking the place of the ‘Bangal’ as the political punching bag of Assam’s political class, and the border fighting will only give fillip to this trend, says Das.
The BJP-AGP alliance for the 10 May elections seems to be aimed at ensuring religious polarisation of the electorate in Assam. The BJP will pull in the Bengali Hindu votes, almost wholly second or third generation refugees from Bangladesh, and the AGP will pull in the caste Hindu Asamiya votes. As the BJP’s former North-east coordinator Bansilal Sonee claims, “Only a growth in Hindu consciousness can save Assam.” And indeed Sonee is right: only a consolidation of the Asamiya and Bengali caste Hindu vote bank can upset the Congress applecart, which is based on the “Ali-Coolie” (Muslims and tea garden labourer) support.
Meanwhile, the AGP’s honeymoon with the Left is over and Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta’s party is back to its true moorings. “The AGP and BJP make natural allies but their problem is that both are targeting the same votebank. It is like having two suns in one sky,” says Jibakanta Barua, a researcher on electoral politics in Assam.
The answer to that problem is to have an imaginary dividing line to split the sky and vary the shine to suit the political storm that is in the making. If the AGP-BJP alliance comes to power and scraps the IMDT Act, which the minorities of Assam see as their only safeguard against arbitrary deportation, Assam is headed for a confrontation along purely religious lines for the first time since independence.
On the other side of the border, if Sheikh Hasina loses the elections, the opposition may undo the legislation (in spirit if not in letter) by which she has put an end to the humiliating Vested Properties Act that deprived Hindus of legitimate property for more than 35 years. For those who want India and Bangladesh to thrive in peace, it is time to see through the games.
Games that are played over dead bodies.