The militarization of Bangladeshi politics
Syed Badrul Ahsan traces the baleful influence of the
military on our political tradition, and how it continues to cast a shadow over the democratic process
In the 1970s, General Ziaur Rahman solicited, and obtained, the services of Shafiul Azam and Kazi Anwarul Huq as he tried to establish his writ all over Bangladesh. Zia was in office as Bangladesh's first military ruler, and it was therefore appropriate that he go looking for men who had had some experience in serving earlier military dictators.
Azam and Huq had both been associated with the Pakistani regime of Ayub Khan in the 1960s. Both men now relished the thought of making good use of their experience in the Zia regime. It was history coming full circle, even here in a people's republic that had prised itself loose from a state that had been taken over, and ruined, by the military.
But, again, the militarization of politics in secular Bangladesh was initiated on August 15, 1975 with the murder of the nation's founder, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and his family in a coup that also saw his government collapse. The fact that it was Commerce Minister Khondokar Moshtaque Ahmed who took Mujib's place in the new scheme of things was unimportant. What truly mattered was that the majors and colonels who had murdered Mujib were in control, and were fully prepared to push Bangladesh down the road that Pakistan had already taken in the 1950s.
Moshtaque and his murderer-soldiers adopted the old, weather-beaten idea that the one way in which the military could assert its dominance in the post-August conditions was through bringing Islam into play. This they did through invoking such slogans as "Nara-e-Takbeer" and "Allah-o-Akbar."
And then they moved swiftly towards pushing the fundamentally Bengali wartime slogan of "Joi Bangla" aside and replacing it with "Bangladesh Zindabad," a throwback to the old, jettisoned "Pakistan Zindabad." A few days later, soldiers at Farmgate in Dhaka spotted a young, obviously modern, Bengali woman with her midriff exposed.
The midriff was daubed with black paint. Moral policing was on. That was how militarization crept into Bangladesh's politics. It would creep on, leaving all norms of secular behaviour rolling in the mud.
In early November 1975, an essentially military struggle for power was launched in the country. General Khaled Musharraf's coup of November 3, while being an ostensible move to restore the chain of command in the military, was in the main an effort at continuing the presence of the army in politics, albeit at a level where senior military officers would run the show. But that was not all. Colonel Abu Taher, even as he mulled over the formation of a people's army through a change in the structure of the armed forces, was focused on the role the military would play in national life.
And then, of course, along came Zia to formalize the entire program of militarization of national politics. The first move he made, clearly to keep his grip on power firm and unchallenged, was to send the killers of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman out of the country on diplomatic assignments. Worse was to follow.
If Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan in Pakistan had stormed to power through abrogating the constitution and decreeing martial law, Zia, in Bangladesh, did it his own way even if he took lessons from the old masters of military intrigue. He cast the long, sinister shadow of martial law across Bangladesh. No, he did not do away with the constitution. But he did abuse his authority to undermine it by striking at two of the four principles of state enshrined in it. He quashed secularism and brought Allah into the constitution. And he dug the knife into socialism, crippling the idea fatally.
Since a very prominent aspect of militarized politics happens to be an increasing role for the civil bureaucracy, Zia saw to it that the nation's civil servants, in association with the military top brass, inaugurated an administrative system based on a sharing of the spoils by everyone engaged in the system. It would soon become a situation of you-scratch-my-back-and-I-scratch-yours. That was the beginning, a process that would soon have army officers find their way into the jail administration as inspectors general of police. With Major General Majedul Haque in charge of the ministry of establishment, lateral entry into such preserves of civilian administration as the Foreign Service was made a political enterprise. The system has remained intact to this day.
In the Ershad years it took on a more sophisticated and sinister form, to a point where senior officers of the armed services were conveniently retired or pushed aside before being appointed as Bangladesh's ambassadors and high commissioners abroad. K M Shafiullah was already away, having been sent out of the country by the man who took charge of the army from him in August 1975. In the Ershad era, he moved from country to country as a top diplomat. General Abdur Rahman, falling foul of General Ershad, was packed off to Paris where his death in mysterious circumstances has never been adequately explained.
The militarization of Bangladesh's politics has, of course, not been confined to the placing of armed forces officers in important civilian preserves. But what has happened over the years has been a direct off-shoot of Zia's and Ershad's, and thereby the military's, role in a systematic undermining of the constitution. The fifth and seventh amendments to the constitution, both unabashed attempts at legitimizing the process of an illegal army take-over of the state, turned out to be powerful instruments in the militarization of not just the political system but the state as well. Between the adoption of these amendments by a parliament clearly in awe of dictatorship, certain intermediate moves saw increased strangulation of the democratic process in the country.
General Zia's assassination in May 1981 should have speedily led to an assertion of authority by Vice-President Abdus Sattar in the normal scheme of things. It did not quite happen that way. The government dithered, indeed cowered in fear, following General Manzoor's action in Chittagong. It then remained for General Ershad, then chief of army staff, to ask (or permit?) an ailing Sattar, then under medical treatment at the Combined Military Hospital in Dhaka, to take charge as acting president of Bangladesh.
The army chief was shrewdly demonstrating his growing importance in power politics, a position he would soon advance through his demand for the formation of a national security council comprising the chiefs of the three armed services. It was an instance of gross abuse of authority, a clear stepping out of bounds for an army chief who, constitutionally, should have been accountable to the president of the republic. President Sattar proved ineffectual in putting Ershad in his place. The result was a disaster for his government. The army chief of staff simply marched into Bangabhaban with his soldiers and forced the president out at gunpoint.
The process of militarization, which had begun under Moshtaque, and had then gone several steps further with Zia in control, was refined in the Ershad period. Military officers spotted what was verily a golden opportunity to do business, and thus did a wholesale indenting empire spread its tentacles across the country. The regime, besides appointing senior military officers as ambassadors and high commissioners to the nation's diplomatic missions abroad, also placed men from the army in such sections of the missions as the consular wings. The practice persists to this day, with little sign of change.
Considered within the overall ambit of the situation as it developed after August 1975, though, it was only natural that militarization would dig deeper roots in national politics. Zia saw to it that the killers of Bangabandhu and the four national leaders at the hands of elements in the army were never brought before the law through the expedient method of incorporating the Indemnity Ordinance, issued by the Moshtaque regime, into the fifth amendment to the constitution.
At the same time, as a strategy towards garnering political support for his regime and thus countering any possible challenge to his rule by the secular political establishment, Zia reopened the doors, slammed shut in December 1971, to communal politics. All manner of defeated, pro-Pakistan elements thus stumbled, to their glee, upon a profound reason to be grateful to Zia. Militarization struck at the secular principles of the 1971 War of Liberation and made it possible, through "Bangladeshi nationalism," for the country to slide back into the old communal mould.
In his time, General Ershad utilized the process of militarization for a further inflicting of blows on the nation's body politic. He broke up the High Court into seven pieces (which act was later ruled illegal by the Supreme Court). The idea of the military in politics was then utilized to widen the influence and reach of communal forces. Ershad decreed Islam as the religion of the state, and that one blow destroyed whatever little had remained of secularism as practiced by the state since the tragedy of 1975.
An interesting point that ought not to be overlooked here is that the militarization which characterized Zia's and Ershad's foray into politics produced , for them, some very loyal bands of opportunists, time-servers, hangers-on, and toadies, whose unashamed support for military dictatorship kept pushing Bengali nationalist forces nearly to the precipice. Pakistan's Ayub Khan, of course, had shown the Bengali dictators the way. But while Ayub saw little need to form a political party of his own, because eager Muslim Leaguers were falling over one another to demonstrate their obeisance to him, Zia and Ershad decided to have their own outfits as a way of legitimizing their stranglehold on politics. There were the old, rejected, and ineffectual politicians ready and willing to support them, for these men suddenly saw a fresh opportunity for themselves to step into the centre of the action. Many of these men have been those who, having assisted Zia in the formation of a military-influenced Bangladesh Nationalist Party, felt no qualms in doing the same where Ershad's Jatiyo Party was concerned.
There may not have been an actual replication of Indonesia's Golkar system here in Bangladesh, but there was a point when certain elements, such as the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal's ASM Abdur Rab, who in defence of their arguments for a professionally stocked parliament, suggested seats for the armed forces in the Jatiyo Sangsad. Nothing came of the suggestion, sure, but the very fact that these ideas were going around was pretty disconcerting.
Today, sixteen years after the restoration, as some would say, of parliamentary government in the country, the ramifications of militarized politics continue to be felt acutely. The two major political parties have made it a point to draw as many retired military officers as they can into their fold. General Mahbubur Rahman is a pivotal figure in the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. In the Awami League, General Subid Ali Bhuiyan happens to be a common fixture. There are others in both organizations, which speaks of the eagerness with which politicians today stand ready to welcome soldiers, even though they may be superannuated, into their ranks.
In recent years, military officers have served as heads of organizations in such areas as sports and business. A brigadier general heads the Bangladesh Export Processing Zones Authority. The Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS) has regularly been headed by an army officer. At the head of the Rapid Action Battalion is an army man. And similar is the condition with the police. In civil aviation, officers have been drawn from the air force to serve as managing directors of Bangladesh Biman. Retired major-generals have served as chiefs of the Red Crescent, with little to show as results.
Dealing with the military has, by and large, been considered a matter of deep sensitivity, though no explanations have been offered for such sentiments. In the more than three decades and a half that have gone by since the country gained freedom, no civilian politician has been appointed to serve as minister for defence. The position has been held by whoever was head of government at the time. And militarized politics gets a new sheen through the existence and operation of the armed forces division, under the direct control and supervision of the prime minister, in a manner parallel to the functioning of the ministry of defence.
Democratic politics has remained stymied by an absence of debate on defence-related issues in the Jatiyo Sangsad. A clear lack of transparency has effectively prevented open deliberations on allocations for defence in the annual national budget, thus promoting what is, to all intents and purposes, a holy cow culture in the country.
Public debate on the nature of the military presence in such areas of the country as the Chittagong Hill Tracts has never been initiated, not by the right-wing BNP, or by the left-of-centre Awami League. Last but not least, the references that are currently being made to the chances of a third party intervention in politics, in the event of the on-going political crisis remaining unresolved, are a broad hint of how militarization has significantly coloured the contours of Bangladesh's politics over the years.
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman fashioned dreams of Bangladesh one day being the Switzerland of the East. He and his Bengalis did not, of course, have any way of knowing that in this country, born of war, military intervention in politics would leave democracy, with all its fundamentals, tattered beyond recognition. The endless mutilation and mauling of the constitution at the hands of military rulers and their political descendants tells the whole sordid tale.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Executive Editor, Dhaka Courier.