In late December last year, a secret letter went from New Delhi to Dhaka. It was delivered directly to Sheikh Hasina, 65, the prime minister of Bangladesh. It warned her that Islamist radicals embedded within the Bangladesh Army were planning a coup. Hasina had reason to fear coups. On the night of August 15, 1975, her father, Bangladesh's first president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, her mother and three brothers were massacred by officers of the Bangladesh Army. Hasina and her sister would have been dead as well, but were abroad on a tour of Europe.
Along with the letter, India had worked out a contingency plan to evacuate the prime minister, her cabinet and key figures of her Awami League party in the event of a coup. There was a military plan as well. Indian helicopter gunships would be launched from two airbases in West Bengal and Tripura into Dhaka to provide air cover for the operation. Landing zones and evacuation sites were identified in and around the capital for the air corridor.
All through December, Bangladesh's spy agency, the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), which reports directly to Hasina, quietly went to work. It was headed by Major General Sheikh Mamun Khaled, whom Hasina had personally chosen. They tapped phone communications, smss and emails of suspects in the conspiracy. Social networking sites were monitored. A series of arrests was made from December-end to January.
Opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), who is anti-India by conviction and hates Hasina with a rare passion, alleged at a public rally in Chittagong that army officers were becoming victims of "sudden disappearance". The army's media wing, the Inter-Services Public Relations Directorate (ISPR), warned Khaleda to refrain from making any statements. The army was worried that public discourse might soon include details of the impending coup.
The coup attempt began innocuously. Posts on a Facebook group, 'Soldiers Forum', instigated soldiers to work against the government. Major Syed Mohammad Ziaul Haq, a graduate of the military academy who was training at the Military Institute of Science and Technology, Dhaka, was identified as the mastermind. He used a mobile phone with a UK number to share details of the conspiracy with 11 other army officers. On his Facebook account, he bragged that "mid-level officers of Bangladesh Army are bringing changes soon". On January 8, the banned fanatical organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation) distributed provocative leaflets based on his post.
Major Zia regularly updated his Facebook account with "information" on arrests of army officers by "anti-terrorism agents", including those of India's external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW). His messages spread to blogs and were even picked up by a pro-BNP newspaper, Amar Desh. The DGFI and other security agencies kept the suspected plotters under surveillance. They discovered that the likely date of the coup was January 10 or 11. One by one, the plotters were picked up and are now detained in military headquarters, Dhaka.
On January 19, the army unveiled the plot. In its first ever press conference, held at the Army Officers' Club in Dhaka, ISPR spokesperson Brigadier General Muhammad Masud Razzaq took questions, didn't reveal specifics, but talked about the threat to Hasina's "pro-secular and democratically elected government". Brigadier Razzaq claimed between 14 and 16 former and active mid-level radical Muslim officers were behind 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 they "admitted their role in the plot". Major General Mohammad Kamruzzaman, commander of the Comilla-based 33rd Infantry Division, was removed from his command and detained in Dhaka. Another brigadier, Tariqul Alam, commander of 71st Brigade of 9th Division, and Major General Shabbir Ahmad, commander of the Rangpur-based 66 Division, are under surveillance. Eleven other officers from Dhaka and other cantonments across the country have been confined in the capital.
Bangladesh Army chief General Mohammad Mainul Islam says the major general and some religious bigots had planned to indoctrinate pious officers. "They had targeted the deeply religious officers, who they felt would be amenable because they were pious, to execute their conspiracy to overthrow the democratically elected government," he says.
On January 21, Hasina said, "I would like to thank the Bangladesh Army. Had they not unearthed the conspiracy in time, a great disaster could have taken place. The army saved the patriotic forces and the country as well by throttling the conspiracy to topple the democratic government." She accused arch-rival Khaleda of plotting to overthrow her government. The BNP dismissed this as well as allegations that self-exiled BNP leader Tarique Rahman, Khaleda's son, was involved in the aborted coup attempt.
The Bangladesh Army says Major Zia, the alleged coup mastermind, evaded arrest. His whereabouts are unknown. Yet, it was the resurfacing of an underground Islamist organisation that caused concern. The Bangladesh Army linked the conspirators to the Hizb ut-Tahrir. The Tahrir, an international Sunni pan-Islamist political organisation, advocates an Islamic Caliphate governed by Shariah law. Founded in 1953 in Jerusalem, it has spread to more than 40 countries, and is also active in Pakistan.
The Hasina government had banned the Tahrir in October 2009. Agencies such as the Rapid Action Battalion, National Security Intelligence and Detective Branch repeatedly claimed they had succeeded in containing them. They based these claims on the detention of key figures such as Towfiq Elahi, a teacher of a prominent private university, and Dr Golam Haider Rasul, 45, who practises at Dhaka's United Hospital, besides hundreds of others. Tahrir leader Maulana Mamunur Rashid, principal of a Dhaka madrassa, remains a fugitive.
Nearly 500 Tahrir members were detained mostly for organising rallies and distributing leaflets. Police officers now admit their inability to curb the well-funded organisation merely through arrests. "It's tough because families of the detained activists get money from their global network," says Lt Col Ziaul Ahsan, director of the Intelligence Wing of the elite anti-crime Rapid Action Battalion. Most of the detained militants released on bail rejoin the outfit. The outfit has resurfaced more aggressively after its ban.
Besides the men in uniform, the Hizb ut-Tahrir has spread its invisible tentacles among the social elite, government professionals, academics and politicians. "They have a new approach to radicalism, the cuckoo's eggs in the crow's nest (trying to covertly embed themselves in society)," says Nazmul Ahsan Kalimullah, a political scientist in Dhaka University.
Since their 1975 putsch that killed Mujib, the Father of the Nation, the military in Bangladesh has overthrown the civilian government four times. The army has killed two elected presidents and coerced three other presidents into declaring military-backed emergency. The last coup was in January 2007 and since then, attempts have been made to keep the military in the barracks.
The Supreme Court has been a key force. A landmark judgment by a full bench headed by former chief justice Mohammad Tafazzul Islam on July 28, 2010, declared three military regimes between August 15, 1975, and February 1979 as illegal. The new constitution, adopted by Parliament in November 2011, has restored equality of religions. But as UK-based terror analyst Chris Blackburn says, "The recent coup plot shows that extremism in South Asia has many forms. There has always been a trend within the ranks of the military to push the importance of religion in binding a country together. There are certainly officers who see themselves as guardians of both state and religion. But I still think it is too early right now to speculate on Hizb ut-Tahrir's role in the attempted coup. They are an extremist group."
Hasina has been under threat since she swept to power in early 2009. More than 1,000 paramilitary border guards of Bangladesh Rifles, now renamed Border Guards Bangladesh, revolted against the military's hegemony over their institution. It was symptomatic of the unrest in the armed forces. India helped even then. Sources in the prime minister's office said that as soon as the mutiny broke out, India kept its special forces 50 Parachute Independent Brigade on standby to fly into Dhaka in case of an emergency. New Delhi's support for Hasina is clear. In her third stint as prime minister, Bangladesh has ceased to become a safe haven for militant groups operating in India.
The military has moved in swiftly to initiate a court of inquiry against the rogue officers. The military brass, meanwhile, reassured the president of its secular credentials and their support. "There is no room for religious zealots in the Bangladesh Army," army chief General Islam told a seminar in Dhaka a week after the botched coup. The civilian government can only hope that it is true.
First published in India Today, New Delhi, January 28, 2012
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