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|Volume 11 |Issue 13| March 30, 2012 ||
The ISI Bomb
Former Pakistan Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto allegedly established the Inter-Services Intelligence's (ISI) political cell in 1975 for his vested personnel interests. He might have not known his blunder then, but time proved him wrong when the then chief of army staff General Zia-ul-Haq on July 5, 1976 overthrew Bhutto and grabbed the state power in a bloodless military coup. General Zia, who was appointed by chief of army staff by the then PM Bhutto in 1976, took the advantage of a widespread civil disorder in Pakistan at that time and imposed martial law. Bhutto was sentenced to death for the murder of a political opponent following a controversial trial and he was hanged in 1979.
Before hanging Bhutto, Gen Zia assumed the office of president of Pakistan in 1978 and continued till his death in 1988. During Gen Zia's regime, the ISI was expanded. It was made responsible for the collection of intelligence about the Pakistan Communist Party and various political parties such as the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) founded by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
After withdrawal of martial law, Benazir Bhutto, daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, returned home from exile in 1986 to take on the leadership of the PPP. Her charismatic leadership boosted the PPP, which worried the ISI. So, before the general elections held in 1988, ISI had made a sinister plan to defeat PPP under Benzir's leadership.
The ISI had brought together various conservative and religious parties and groups under the banner of Islami Jhamhoori Ittehad (IJI) to collectively face the PPP. The military spy outfit had provided Rs140 million to create IJI to prevent PPP from winning the polls. It effectively checked the Benzir tide in the 1988 polls denying her absolute majority in the polls. However, the then Pakistani president at one stage was compelled to invite Benzir to form the government, which was dismissed by the president in 1990.
By that time, the ISI's interference in Pakistani politics had become a much talked about issue, and there were strong voices against such undue interference. In 1996, Air Martial (Retd) Asghar Khan filed a petition with the Pakistan Supreme Court against the ISI's alleged role in distributing money amongst politicians. After a long interval, the Supreme Court recently resumed the hearing of the petition.
It was reported that General Mirza Aslam Beg, then army chief, and Lt General Assad Durrani, then ISI chief, confessed to the allegations against them in Asghar Khan's petition, in their affidavits submitted to the court.
It was very usual that resuming the hearing of Asghar Khan's case would trigger a storm in the political arena in Pakistan. But the storm unexpectedly crossed the border and entered Bangladesh following the publication of a "false" and "fabricated" news report in the Dubai-based daily, The Khaleej Times.
A Pakistani journalist, Afzal Khan wrote the report from Islamabad, recalling the events that took place before the 1988 parliamentary polls in Pakistan and the role played by ISI. The report was not more than 867 words. And only 28 words of the report triggered the storm in the political arena in Bangladesh. In the report the sensitive words were—"Another Rs 50 million was allegedly paid to Bangladesh's Khalida [sic] Zia to help her in polls against Hasina Wajid's [sic]Awami League, generally perceived by Pakistan's security establishment as pro-India."
The Indian edition of the British Daily Mail Online on March 15 also reported the same news. In Bangladesh, several national dailies ran the reports based on The Khaleej Times and Daily Mail Online about the admission by Pakistani military officials in the court that ISI paid money to BNP chief Khaleda Zia for the general election in 1991.
The news came as a bombshell for the main opposition BNP, providing Awami League with a very sophisticated political weapon to use against it.
The AL could not easily accept its defeat in the 1991 polls. The results of the election were completely unexpected to the AL high commands who even took preparation for the formation of the cabinet even before the polls, as they were overconfident about the win. In face of growing criticism after the election debacle, Sheikh Hasina resigned as the chief of the AL, although she retreated later from her decision under pressure of party leaders and activists. Hasina and other AL leaders alleged that the polls were rigged in favour of BNP. However, they were not able to provide proof in favour of their allegation.
So, it is almost obvious that the ruling AL would leave no stone unturned to verbally attack the BNP by using the ISI funding issue to frustrate the opposition parties' present movement against the government to restore the caretaker government system. The Prime Minister and many of her colleagues tried to use the ISI funding issue to outplay BNP by leveling the opposition's movement "only for protecting the war criminals" who are facing trial.
Citing The Khaleej Times' report, PM Hasina said, “To those who resorted to genocide and who had been defeated, you [Khaleda] sold the country [interest] by taking money from those defeated forces in 1971. The people of Bangladesh won't forgive you. Why did you take money from the defeated forces? People want to know. One day you have to answer to the people.”
From the same rally AL General Secretary Syed Ashraful Islam, also the LGRD minister, accused Khaleda Zia of being a paid agent and broker of ISI.
From another rally on March 13 in the capital, Hasina blasted Khaleda for allegedly taking money from ISI and advised her counterpart to immigrate to the country. “Go to Pakistan, if you have so much sympathy for it. Don't pollute the soil of Bangladesh.”
From the very beginning, BNP's senior leaders brushed aside the allegation. Some leaders also launched a counter attack on AL. Citing an article The Economist ran in early August of last year, they also alleged it was the AL that won the 2008 general election by dint of "bags of cash" from India.
The Economist in the article on Bangladesh-India relations titled "Embraceable You" said "Ever since 2008, when the Awami League, helped by bags of Indian cash and advice, triumphed in general elections in Bangladesh, relations with India have blossomed". But there was no other supporting evidence in dfence of the bombshell comment. So, the issue could not get much attention and generate much heat in the political arena.
But the recent allegation had pushed the BNP to a backward position. The party that is now struggling to build a positive image had faced a severe blow. The party got a sigh of relief only when it heard Pakistan foreign ministry's denial of the alleged ISI funding of BNP in 1991.
"It was really very much embarrassing for us. We are already in a backward position for our electoral alliance with anti-liberation force Jamaat-e-Isalmi. The ISI funding issue was more damaging for us," a senior BNP leader told this correspondent two weeks ago.
Lt Gen Asad Durrani, former chief of the ISI, has provided with more relief for the BNP. In an exclusive interview with BBC Bangla Service on March 24, the former ISI chief has outright denied funding BNP before the 1991 polls and termed the allegation totally baseless and fabricated.
Durrani also told the BBC that he never spoke about ISI's providing money to BNP in his statement to the Pakistan Supreme Court. “To my knowledge there was no reference to Bangladesh during the Supreme Court hearing and whatever I had said before the court is available there,” he said.
The same day [on March 24] Foreign Minister Dipu Moni at a press conference reiterated that her ministry was waiting for a transcript of the testimony of former ISI chief Asad Durrani in Pakistan Supreme Court. “We have sought the transcript. After getting the transcript, we will be able to speak about it,” she said.
But Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina did not stop to lambaste her rival Khaleda on the issue. On March 24 at a public rally in Sylhet, Hasina blasted Khaleda for the allegation of taking ISI money. "Those who can take money from the defeated forces of the Liberation War cannot believe in the country's independence and sovereignty," continued Hasina.
From last Friday, the BNP leaders have been threatening to take legal action against the prime minister if she does not apologise to the people for making “false and baseless” remarks.
Despite the statement of former ISI chief or BNP's threat, the ruling AL-led alliance seems to have chosen to keep accusing Khaleda Zia of taking money from the ISI. In return, the BNP will of course try to encounter the ruling camp by raising other allegations. And if they do so, it may give the ruling alliance some political benefits over the opposition camp. But it will cause much damage, as it will further deteriorate the political atmosphere, and contribute to increasing the existing animosity between the two rival camps. If the situation continues to develop this way, some crucial political issues which deserve urgent priority may not get proper attention.
The Supreme Court in Pakistan will decide the fate of the political cell of ISI. Another petition was filed with the apex court seeking an end to the cell. The Supreme Court's ruling may have an impact on domestic politics in many countries particularly in South Asian nations where the army plays a significant, but undue, role in politics.
The ISI funding issue has brought one crucial thing before the media in Bangladesh. In light of the lesson learnt from the ISI funding issue, it should evaluate its position and also be more careful of using other international media outlets as sources of information, particularly regarding to a sensitive issue like allegation of ISI funding for BNP.
The writer is Senior Reporter, The Daily Star.
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