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Bangladesh Army History - Independence

Regular Bangladeshi armed forces were quickly established but, because of budgetary constraints, on an extremely limited scale. The organization of these armed forces reflected not only that of the colonial British Indian Army, especially as it had continued under the Pakistan Army, but also the experience of the Mukti Bahini in the 1971 war of independence. Most of the guerrilla fighters reverted to civilian status, although some were absorbed into the regular armed forces. Countrywide, vast but undetermined numbers of small arms and automatic weapons remained at large in the population, presaging trouble in the years ahead.

The bitter rift between military personnel who returned to Bangladesh after liberation and freedom fighters who had fought in the war was to have profound consequences for the new nation. The repatriates, who had languished in West Pakistani jails during the civil war, were absorbed into an army dominated by former guerrillas, some of whom were civilians inducted as a reward for their sacrifices. Repatriates, by and large, felt no personal loyalty to Mujib and viewed the freedom fighters as a undisciplined and politicized element. Repatriate officers bridled under Mujib's use of the army in disarming the civilian population and taming his political opponents. Moreover, repatriates were suspicious of the regime's pro-Indian sympathies, its rhetorical support for the Soviet Union, and its efforts to circumscribe the role of Islam in national affairs.

The rift between repatriates and freedom fighters worsened considerably when Mujib formed the Jatiyo Rakkhi Bahini (National Defense Force), an elite parallel army intended to insulate the regime against military coups and other armed challenges to its authority. By 1975 the Jatiyo Rakkhi Bahini had swelled to an estimated 30,000 troops. Repatriates complained that Mujib destroyed the army's integrity by disbanding the East Bengal Regiment, which was composed primarily of repatriates; funneling all new recruits to the Jatiyo Rakkhi Bahini; favoring freedom fighters in matters of pay and promotions; and slashing the army's budget in order to sustain the Jatiyo Rakkhi Bahini.

Radical factions within the army viewed the liberation movement as unfinished until the "petit bourgeois" Awami League government was swept aside and replaced by a "people's government" of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party modeled after the Chinese experiment. The central figure among these factions was Abu Taher, a former Pakistan Army colonel who had been trained in commando operations in the United States and was later cashiered by Mujib because of his radical views. Taher and an inner circle of radical freedom fighters belonged to the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (National Socialist Party) and its armed wing, the Biplabi Sainik Sangstha (Revolutionary Soldiers Organization). The Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal developed deep roots in the military and among radical students connected with the Chhatro Union (Students Union) of the Bangladesh Communist Party. The Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal tailored its appeal to lower level officers and jawans. By 1975 Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal sympathizers within the military and police were estimated to number 20,000.

Tensions within the military exploded on August 15, 1975, when thirty middle-ranking army officers, many of whom were repatriates, staged a coup. With the support of troops from the First Bengal Lancers and the Second Field Artillery Regiment, the mutineers assassinated Mujib and members of his family and called on Ziaur Rahman (Zia) to become army chief of staff. Osmany, the former Mukti Bahini chief, lent respectability to the emerging military- political order by agreeing to serve as defense adviser to the new figurehead president, Khondakar Mushtaque Ahmed.

Freedom-fighter elements within the army countered this so- called "majors' plot" by staging a coup of their own on November 3, 1975. Following the murder of prominent Awami League officials detained in Dhaka Central Jail, troops commanded by Brigadier Khaled Musharraf dismissed the government, placed Zia under arrest, created a vaguely defined revolutionary council, and exiled the ringleaders of the original coup to Libya. A total breakdown in discipline within the military occurred shortly after this second coup, as junior army officers and jawans took to the streets to defend themselves against anticipated assaults from rival army factions. Simultaneously, the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal called on jawans to kill their commanding officers. On November 7, Zia secured his release from house arrest, reportedly with Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal backing, and staged a third coup. Musharraff was killed, Zia and other senior officers restored a semblance of army unity, and the jawans returned to barracks.

As Zia attempted to consolidate power under his new title of chief martial law administrator, additional challenges to his authority occurred. In April 1976, conservative officers led by Air Vice Marshal M.G. Tawab attempted to overthrow Zia after recalling four of the "killer majors" from exile. The conspirators called for the creation of an Islamic state and demanded a share of political power. After officers of the two armored regiments, the First Bengal Cavalry and the First Bengal Lancers, refused to turn over the rebels, troops loyal to Zia descended on Bogra cantonment to put down the mutiny. In the aftermath of the failed coup, Tawab was exiled, the Twenty-second East Bengal Regiment was disbanded, Taher was hanged, and over 200 servicemen were tried in military courts on disciplinary charges.

An even more serious breach of discipline occurred on September 29, 1977, when Japanese Red Army terrorists landed a hijacked aircraft at Dhaka International Airport (present-day Zia International Airport). While Zia and his senior staff officers were busy negotiating with the hijackers, an entire army battalion mutinied in Bogra. As the hostage drama continued, the revolt spread to Dhaka cantonment and to air force units at the airport itself.

The uprising was the handiwork of the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal, which again exhorted jawans to kill their commanding officers. Their slogan was "All soldiers are brothers; blood of officers wanted; no ranks above [low-ranking] subedar." The mutineers' goal was to create a "classless army" that would act as a revolutionary vanguard in remaking Bangladeshi society in a Maoist mold.

Alarmed by the spreading disorder within the ranks, senior army officers rallied behind Zia's leadership. After several days of heavy fighting that killed an estimated 200 soldiers, loyal troops succeeded in suppressing the rebellion. Zia then moved swiftly to purge mutinous elements from the military. Within a span of 2 months, more than 1,100 had been executed for involvement in the uprising. According to a well-informed observer, "it was the most devastating punishment exercise in the history of Bangladesh, carried out with the utmost speed and with total disregard for justice and the legal process." As additional precautions, Zia reorganized the three service branches, disbanded mutinous units, shuffled his senior commanders, and banned the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal.

During his six-year tenure in office, Zia implemented a number of strategies to instill discipline in the armed forces and broaden the political base of his regime. Zia recognized that officers and jawans alike nursed serious grievances against their military and civilian superiors, such as low pay, lack of promotions, corruption and political machinations. He set out to professionalize the military by promoting repatriates, increasing military pay and benefits, and building up the defense budget. Zia also co-opted the officer corps by expanding the armed forces, appointing both active-duty and retired military cronies to lucrative positions in the civil bureaucracy, and exiling potential challengers to diplomatic posts abroad. Simultaneously, Zia militarized the national police system by firing thousands of police on charges of corruption and appointing army officers to oversee the system.

Despite his efforts to curb the army's appetite for power, Zia fell victim to assassination. On the night of May 30, 1981, Major General Muhammed Manzur Ahmed, commander of the Twenty-fourth Infantry Division and a hero of the war of independence, led troops to the government rest house in Chittagong where Zia was staying. After murdering the president and his bodyguards, Manzoor seized the local radio station and called on troops elsewhere in the country to support his coup.

Manzur announced the formation of a "revolutionary council," dismissed senior officers from their posts in Dhaka, dissolved Parliament, and abrogated the 1972 Treaty of Cooperation, Friendship, and Peace with India. Manzur apparently was convinced that freedom fighters--estimated at 20 percent of the army--would rally behind him, despite the fact that the leader he murdered was a venerated freedom fighter himself. Fearing that a successful coup might trigger another intramilitary bloodletting, senior commanders in Dhaka lined up behind Zia's aging and infirm constitutional successor, Supreme Court justice Abdus Sattar.

Loyal army units converged on Chittagong, and the coup attempt was crushed within forty-eight hours. According to a government white paper published after the episode, Manzur was apprehended after fleeing to the Indian border, and he was shot "while attempting to escape." Thirty-one officers were subsequently tried for mutiny, twelve of the thirty-one were hanged, and fifty-four senior officers were dismissed.

Zia's most impressive achievement -- the creation of a viable institutional framework for promoting political stability and economic growth -- did not survive long after his death. "One of Zia's strongest points," according to commentator Ashish Kumar Roy, "was the stability he symbolized in a state that seemed to have become a victim of chronic violence, both civilian and military. By assassinating him, the military itself destroyed all that Zia had sought to prove: that the army could be contained, and that genuine power could be handed back to civilians through a democratic process."

Sattar lacked Zia's charisma, and the country was soon subjected to mounting political and monetary crises. Although Sattar and his inherited Bangladesh Nationalist Party won an electoral mandate in November 1981, most political observers believed another army coup was only a matter of time. To compound matters, Sattar was extremely vulnerable because of the political debt he owed the army for quashing the coup and guaranteeing constitutional order. The generals, nevertheless, were reluctant to seize power immediately because of the fear that public opinion might turn against the military.

Army Chief of Staff Hussain Muhammad Ershad pressured Sattar to grant the military a formal, constitutional role in governing the state. During a press interview in November 1981, Ershad offered "some straight talk about a very grave and deep-seated politico- military problem." According to him, the military was an "efficient, well-disciplined and most honest body of a truly dedicated and organized national force. The potentials of such an excellent force in a poor country like ours can effectively be utilized for productive and nation-building purposes in addition to its role of national defense." Ershad denied any personal political ambitions but lamented the shabby treatment civilian politicians accorded the military. "Our rank-and-file do not want military adventurism in politics, nor do they want political adventurism in the military," he declared to his political opponents, thus setting the stage for the coup he was to engineer later.

To remedy the problems he saw, Ershad put forward a concept that "requires us to depart from conventional Western ideas of the role of the armed forces. It calls for combining the roles of nation building and national defense into one concept of total national defense." Ershad denied that "total national defense" amounted to military interference in the democratic process, but his contention was hotly disputed by civilian politicians.

Sattar responded to Ershad's challenge by trying to establish a National Security Council in January 1982, comprising the three service chiefs and seven civilians. Ershad rejected the plan. Sattar, hoping to forestall an army takeover, reorganized his crumbling cabinet the following month and reconstituted the National Security Council with the three service chiefs and only three civilians. Despite this concession, which was opposed by opposition politicians and by some members of Sattar's own party, Ershad staged a coup on March 24, 1982. Unlike previous coups, there was no bloodshed, senior military commanders acted in unison, and the population accepted the military takeover, albeit sullenly. Ershad cited the political and social evils that necessitated drastic action on the part of the "patriotic armed forces" and again denied any personal political ambitions.

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Page last modified: 23-05-2012 16:09:42 ZULU