On the anniversary of the 1975 mutiny, why political change in Bangladesh is now less likely to come from the barrel of a gun.

Guns of November Jyoti Rahman November 7, 2020

Front page of the Dainik Bangla newspaper on November 8th 1975.

In the 1995 submarine thriller Crimson Tide, the captain, Gene Hackman, and his number two, Denzel Washington) clash over the interpretation of an order that could launch a nuclear war between the United States and Russia. Washington mutinies and takes control of the submarine, to be confined by officers loyal to Hackman, before being freed by his men. Watching this on TV years ago, an elderly uncle-type commented: এইটাতো পুরাই বাংলাদেশ (this is just like Bangladesh), coup, countercoup, counter countercoup, as in November 1975!

In the blood-soaked history of Bangladesh, today marks the 45th anniversary of a particularly dark and grim episode. On this day in 1975, dozens of army officers were killed by mutinous jawans. The mutiny was orchestrated by Lieutenant Colonel Abu Taher, who was retired from services a few years earlier and at that time was a key leader of the radical Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD). The mutineers killed Brigadier Khaled Mosharraf, who had instigated a coup few days earlier against the regime of Khondaker Moshtaq Ahmed, in power since the bloody putsch of August 15th, when a group of majors killed President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and most of his family. Amid the confusion caused by Mosharraf’s manoeuvres against the “killer majors”, four senior Awami League leaders — including Tajuddin Ahmed, the country’s first prime minister who led the war effort in 1971 when Mujib was interned in Pakistan — were assassinated in the central jail, allegedly with the consent of President Moshtaq. The chaos and carnage of November 7th, coming on the heels of the August massacre and the jail killing, threatened to put the very existence of Bangladesh at risk.

“The country of Bengal is a land where, owing to the climate’s favouring the base, the dust of dissension is always rising”, said the Mughal court chronicler Abul Fazl in the 16th century (translation by Richard Eaton in The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier). Four centuries later, the People’s Republic of Bangladesh has been a country where the dust of dissension has repeatedly risen among the men armed to guard the republic.

Within a decade of the independence, much of the political and military leadership of its liberation war were either killed or politically delegitimised by successive coups. Of course, what actually happened in the 1970s, and beyond, should be subject to serious debate. History is not, after all, a mere recount of dates and facts. History should be about understanding what happened and why they happened.

And I contend that our history made us more coup-prone.

As with judicial decisions, so it is with transgressions where precedence matters a lot. If you have never smoked an illegal substance, or flirted in the absence of your spouse, it will be hard for you to even contemplate a cocaine addled orgy. But one is on a slippery slope when, well, a certain Rubicon is crossed.

That is how it has been with military interventions, from the time of the Romans (and earlier) all the way to our republic. If a general gets away with toppling a government and annulling the constitution, his successors are encouraged by the precedence. All of Bangladesh’s army chiefs until Lieutenant General Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury were commissioned in the Pakistan army, and thus had the precedence of General Ayub Khan’s dabbling in politics as far back as the early 1950s. Lieutenant General HM Ershad and Lieutenant General ASM Nasim chose to act on those precedents, thereby creating precedence of their own for Lieutenant General Moeen U Ahmed.

Of course, Bangladesh’s experience of military interventions date way before Ershad became the chief. In fact, none of the military coups — successful or otherwise — of the first decade were led by the highest ranking officers — Major General Shafiullah, Major General Khalilur Rahman and Major General Ziaur Rahman. It appears that there was more to the mayhem of the 1970s than the ghost of Ayub Khan.

And there was. Insidious precedences were created in the very foundational moments of the country. In March 1971, motivated by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s leadership, a number of officers of Pakistan army — trained to follow orders, ostensibly to defend Pakistan — rejected their allegiance to that country for “Bangla Desh”. After the crackdown in Dhaka on March 25th, they led their entire units into rebellion. Others joined them in individual capacity. Some even escaped from Pakistan to join the Mukti Bahini.

How do we know that they were motivated by some political ideology, and not personal reasons such as safety?

We know that not every Bengali in Pakistan army joined them. Major Abdul Mannan who helped the assault on Comilla and Chittagong. Lieutenant Colonel Qaiyum Chowdhury — brother of prominent intellectuals Munier (killed by the Al Badr on December 14th) and Kabir (national professor in liberated Bangladesh) — stayed on in Pakistan after 1971. Lieutenant Colonel HM Ershad served in the military court set up to try those who joined the Mukti Bahini.

Major Ziaur Rahman or Major Khaled Mosharraf, for example, could have easily stuck with the Pakistanis. Instead of leading a ragtag rebel force against a vastly better equipped army, they could have simply melted away in the crowd in the last week of March, and reported for duty once the Pakistanis captured Chittagong or Comilla. Their war actions were not just heroic, but crucially, entirely political.

Zia famously made a series of radio speeches, first in his own name, and then on behalf of the “Great National Leader, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman”. Our pathetic history wars focus on who got to the microphone first, and we lose the political relevance of Zia’s radio speeches. His messages were in English, telling the world that a new country was born and Pakistan was now an occupying power. He was announcing to the world that there was a government, led by Mujib who had won the people’s mandate in December 1970. He was affirming to the world that Bangladesh would abide by all international rules and obligations that befit a sovereign state. These were the stuff of politics.

Through Rehman Sobhan, Khaled implored the Awami League leaders to form a government as quickly as possible and commission the rebel commanders appropriately. Until this was done, the majors and their men were nothing more than mutineers and defectors. He was instrumental in organising a conference of Mukti Bahini commanders in Teliapara to coordinate the resistance strategy. He created the special guerrilla force to hit high profile targets in occupied Dhaka. He understood the old dictum — war is politics by other means.

Not just Zia and Khaled, but also Abu Taher, or MA Jalil, or Abul Manzur — they all understood very well that choosing Bangladesh over Pakistan was a political act. The thing is, once you have defied orders and rebelled for one political reason — no matter how justified the reason may be — you have also created the precedence for someone else to defy orders for some other political reason. Once Major Zia took control of a radio station and made one historic announcement, he created a precedence for a Major Dalim to make another, far more insidious, announcement.

Of course, there is nothing inevitable about history. Things happen because of specific actions by specific people at specific points in time reacting to specific incentives and exigencies. So coups were not inevitable in Bangladesh. They could have been avoided in the past, and they can certainly be avoided in the future. Zia’s actions in 1971 did not make Dalim’s actions in 1975 inevitable. And Ayub’s actions in the 1950s did not make Ershad’s in the 1980s inevitable. Just the way Zia and others created a precedence of mutiny, they also created the precedence of following political leadership. They fought the war under the command of General MAG Osmani, who was appointed by a government composed of civilian politicians like Tajuddin Ahmed.

But the point remains that our history was such that our country was born with a high risk of susceptibility to coups. To overcome that susceptibility, we needed judicious leadership. Something, regrettably, we did not get in our first years.

How do we break the curse of the majors?

Zia took one approach by transforming himself into a civilian politician, believing that his own military background, coupled with more resources for the army, would dissuade any potential coupmaker. It is self-evident that this approach was a failure when it comes to demilitarisation. Firstly, Zia was killed in a failed coup — not the first one attempted against his regime. More importantly, his very success as a politician has resulted in ambitious generals attempting to replicate his playbook once every decade.

The next military strongman-turned-politician, Ershad, faced no coup threat, and the only time the army disobeyed him was when he asked it to put down a student-led urban uprising. That uprising ended his regime. The army rank-and-file was drawn from the same socioeconomic class whence the university students came from. Any given captain in charge of firing on the demonstrations might well have had a cousin in his target. The army chose to accept civilian leadership than use large-scale violence against civilians. The need to avoid large-scale violence against civilians was used as a key motivation for Lieutenant General Moeen U Ahmed’s power grab in January 2007. Ultimately, the 1/11 experiment failed because Moeen and his backers were outplayed by Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia.

But then something seemed to have changed. In the winter of 2013-14, many in our political class expected a coup, but it did not eventuate.

Why?

One argument is that the army has been “funded to forget” about coups — as Victor Mallet put it in the Financial Times in April 2015:

“[Khaleda] Zia’s strategy is to bring in the army,” says one leading Bangladeshi analyst who asks not to be named for fear of reprisals. “You ratchet up the level of violence to the extent that the army feels compelled to restore order.

“Hasina, understanding that… is giving [the military], all sorts of toys — buying them MiGs or submarines and allocating cantonments [residential areas]. She is creating an appetite [within] the army that future governments will find very hard to feed. Nothing they are asking for is being denied.”

Bangladesh is buying subsidised weapons from China and Russia and its annual defence budget has doubled in the past six years to more than $2bn, although official defence spending remains a fairly modest 1.4 per cent of gross domestic product.

The government says the 260,000-strong army has no interest in staging a coup d’état and benefits from being the largest contributor to UN peacekeeping forces around the world. “This is something the army wouldn’t like to tarnish,” says HT Imam, a minister and one of Ms Hasina’s advisers.

[…]

Mahbubur Rahman, an opposition BNP leader and a former army chief, defends the army’s professionalism and says it would nowadays intervene in politics only out of patriotism and if national security was threatened.

But he also agrees that the Hasina government is providing financial and other inducements to keep the armed forces on its side, not least through a generous policy of promotions for senior officers. When he was army chief there was only one lieutenant-general — himself — whereas now there are six, he says.

“This government has really expanded the army, by manpower, firepower, and equipment. There are a lot of welfare projects for the army,” he says. “The pay is better.”

Like some of the BNP’s leaders, independent analysts have concluded that Ms Hasina has outwitted Ms Zia — at least for the time being — partly by co-opting every branch of the security forces from the main military intelligence agency to the Rapid Action Battalion, an elite anti-crime and anti-terror unit accused of atrocities against the opposition.

In addition to the largesse theory, the ideas of Naunihal Singh, the US political scientist, can shed some light about the present day Bangladesh. Singh’s book Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups is a major contribution to the literature on military coup. His thesis is summarised in a review of the book:

Coup attempts are best understood as coordination games, or “situations in which each individual has an incentive to do what others are doing, and therefore each individual’s choices are based on his or her beliefs about the likely actions of others.” Instead of thinking about coups as battles (e.g., the side with the greatest military power will win) or coups as elections (e.g., the side with the most public support will win), Singh pushes us to think of coup success as being driven by coup-makers’ ability to get others to believe that their coup attempt will be successful.

How do coup-makers convince others their coup attempt will be successful? They convince military actors that the success of the coup has the support of almost everybody in the military and that any possible resistance is minor.

According to Singh’s analysis, then, it’s not the largesse as such that has made a coup less likely. Rather, given the largesse, the crucial factor might be the inability of any would be coupmaker to convince anyone else in the army that collectively the forces would be better off with a coup.

Further, there is another factor that may be less well understood. With the advent of the Rapid Action Battalion, the army as such need not be at risk of being pitted against the civilian populace. For example, think about the events of Motijheel in May 2013. The army rank-and-file is drawn from the same socioeconomic class whence the Hefazot gatherers came. Any given captain in charge of firing on the gathering might well have had a cousin in his target. The thing is, the army was never called in to disperse the mob in Shapla Chattar.

Rather, it was a particular unit of RAB that was deployed.

The conjecture is that the routine RAB posting of majors and colonels act as a screening device for the government to determine which officers and their men can be trusted for such sensitive assignments. The whole army need never be involved in any political mess. Indeed, by toppling the current government, any would-be coupmaker would put the army squarely in the middle of a political mess.

How would any coupmaker then convince anyone else to support his power grab? That is, according to Singh’s analysis, a coup is less likely today because of the coup-makers’ inability to get others to believe that their coup attempt will be successful.

There are so many things depressing about today’s Bangladesh. At least one upside is that it appears political change in Bangladesh will have to come not from the barrel of a gun, but from popular will. May the guns of November remain silent.●

Jyoti Rahman is an applied macroeconomist and blogger.

🔗 Financial Times, Bangladesh army funded to forget its role as neutral referee.

🔗 Washington Post, Anyone planning a coup should read this first.