By Rahnuma Ahmed:
‘UNEASY lies the head that wears a crown,’ wrote Shakespeare. She is still haunted by memories of ‘grenades and bullets’, said Sheikh Hasina recently (New York Times, March 13, 2009). It was an obvious reference to the attempt on her life outside the Awami League central office during the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led four-party alliance government. An attack that left two dozen dead. In early February, before the BDR rebellion occurred, the prime minister had to move from her Dhanmondi residence to Jamuna, the state guesthouse, far more secure. According to newspaper reports, international intelligence sources (US, UAE, Pakistan) had informed the government that Sheikh Hasina’s life was at risk from global terrorist organisations working in league with local militant groups.
Uneasy too, it seems, lies the head that has lost a crown. Ex-prime minister Khaleda Zia also has reasons to fear for her life. Ministers and lawmakers belonging to her government, Ruhul Kuddus Talukdar Dulu, Nadim Mustofa, Mizanur Rahman Minu, Alamgir Kabir, had reportedly extended patronage to JMB militants . Its top-ranking leaders had been arrested during her reign. Although the executions had taken place during the caretaker government period, rumours say, JMB militants view it as a betrayal. One that they have not forgiven. (They had wanted to speak to the media, but it was a wish that remained unfulfilled. Who knows what beans they would have spilled?). Rumours say JMB militants are biding their time.
Leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, too, must be losing sleep as legal procedures for holding war crimes trials are increasingly worked out by the government. As a sidenote I cannot help but wonder about the US administration’s offer of help. Surely, it does not extend to extraditing Henry Kissinger, the-then US secretary of state, who had supported the Pakistan army’s campaign of genocide in 1971?
Regarding the BDR uprising, widespread public apprehension still remains: will we ever get to know the truth? Will we ever learn why, what happened, did happen? The commerce minister, Lt Col (retd) Faruk Khan, coordinator of three ongoing investigations, has since retreated on his earlier comments of JMB’s links to the Pilkhana carnage. These, we were informed, were based not on probe findings, but on ‘personal observations’. This was soon followed by a bit of wrangling with CID officials over whether video footage, containing evidence of the rebellion, had been recovered or not. Now that that is more or less settled, photographs have surfaced of the Durbar Hall meeting, in, of all places, Facebook. A selection has been printed in some of the leading dailies. How did they get there? The ISPR (Inter-Services Public Relations) surprisingly said they are ‘not aware of such pictures.’ More discerning minds, besides commenting that they ‘raise more questions than they answer,’ have pointed out that there is a central story line to the photos and the captions: that the BDR officers had not fired the first shot.
The Durbar Hall photographs seem to have distracted public attention away from the deaths of several BDR soldiers. According to Amnesty International there are credible reasons to think that four of these deaths were caused by torture. Surely, the timing of the release of these photographs, like the surfacing of many other events and innuendoes, is a mere coincidence?
Civil-military relations: replacing history with naiveté
SOON after the Pilkhana carnage, I happened to watch a talk-show on a private TV channel. The discussant was a senior retired army officer, also a freedom fighter. In the light of the carnage, he said, three things should no longer be mentioned: command failure, intelligence failure, and corruption (in the army). I add to this list, ‘accumulated grievances’, one that I have come across elsewhere.
They hardly are.
But the more I think about it, the more evident it becomes that he was advocating an erasure of history. The history of our army’s intervention in politics, including the two years of army-backed Fakhruddin rule. It is difficult to follow his advice, especially as I listen to audio-tapes (the ban on YouTube having been lifted) of the March 1 encounter between angry army officers and the prime minister at Senakunja. Apologists have pointed out that the rudeness on display is understandable. Grief-stricken at having lost so many of the best and brightest, the emotional outburst of the officers was only to be expected.
But, of course. Particularly since bereavement in Bangladesh is neither individuated, nor is it a private affair, as is the norm in western societies. Launch and ferry disasters occur regularly, and one often sees bereaved family members crying out at the injustice: at Allah, for not having been merciful; at launch owners, for having been criminally negligent; at district officials, for their laxity in conducting rescue operations. But their aggrieved tone beseeches. It implores. It is that of a supplicant unlike that of the army officers at Senakunja.
Although the BDR rebellion was, in an objective sense, a fratricidal conflict (to quote from the prime minister’s moving address to the nation, ‘brother against brother’), it quickly took on the overtones of a civil-military conflict since the government had opted for a political (negotiations), instead of a military resolution to the rebellion (storm Pilkhana and ‘crush’ the rebels).
Emotions, too, are embedded in larger structures of power, and powerlessness. And although the voices of our respectable army officers refer to a senior-junior division within the officer ranks, to a division between power-hungry army elders vs juniors who are mere pawns in their power games, in the final analysis, this division gets over-ridden. What emerges is a collective voice, a voice that does not take cognisance of the fact that the person whom they address is no other than the one overwhelmingly voted to power by the nation’s electorate, to lead the nation. To embody and represent the collective will of the people. And this ability to not take cognisance is deeply embedded in a particular history of power. It is a history that cannot be denied or wished away, however much one may wish to do so. It is the history of the army as a contestant of state power. As a usurper of state power. As a wielder of state power. One that is, after all is said and done, based on its monopoly of coercive force. One of the questions raised, rather plaintively, amra ki emon shujog-shubidha pai? (After all, what benefits and facilities do we get?), speaks of a detachment from the social and material realities of Bangladesh. To civilian ears, it cannot sound anything but naive. And it is the entrenchment of these vocal officers (since only three splices of the Senajunja meeting have been made publicly-available) in a history-less space, one that is not materially grounded in the structures of either society or state, that in a sense, reinforces civilian perceptions of the army as an exclusive and isolationist group.
It has served to not only deepen the civilian-military divide but paradoxically enough (or, maybe not) to garner support for civilian power and authority.
A blurring of the civil-military divide in India and the US
IT IS generally assumed that military rule occurs only in third world countries, it is caused by weak political institutions, competition between political and military elites for power. But things are not as simple as that. Let’s take a closer look at two of the largest democracies in the world, India and the United States.
There is evidence of growing militarisation in neighbouring India, but this has been caused not by the weakening of political institutions, nor because of changes in civilian-military relations at the formal, institutional level. Sunil Dasgupta argues that two trends, the growing internal security role of the military, and the growing ‘militarisation’ of political, technical and administrative leadership, have resulted in a blurring of the civilian-military divide.
And, in the case of the United States, although state power rests with civilians, it is an acknowledged fact that the nation is ruled by the military industrial complex, interestingly enough, a term popularised by president Eisenhower, the general turned politician. Eugene Jarecki, author (The American Way of War), filmmaker (Why We Fight) and public policy thinker, in a recent interview says once upon a time Clemeceau had said that war should not be left to the generals. But in the last eight years, it was civilians (Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice) who brought the world to one of the most dangerous points witnessed in our human history. It was civilians who told the generals to shut up.
Eisenhower had said in his farewell address – and Jarecki adds, think about this in the 9/11 context – in meeting crises whether foreign or domestic, whether great or small, there is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular or costly action could prove the miraculous solution to all difficulties. But the real answer to crises is to seek a balance in, and among, national programmes. There is no such thing as perfect security. It has never existed, it never will. In opting for spectacular or costly actions, we can destroy from within what we are trying to protect from without.
The nation’s subalterns. Lessons to be learnt
THE majority in this nation are subalterns: peasants, garment factory workers, jute mill workers, indigenous peoples protesting against coal mines that will uproot and destroy means of livelihood and ways of life, people lacking basic healthcare, schools, women wanting to be free of sexual harassment, and many, many others. We have lessons to learn from the Pilkhana tragedy. The real answer, as Eisenhower had reminded us, lies in seeking a balance in, and among, national programmes. Not in chasing after a mirage of perfect security.Show