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BANGLADESH ARMED FORCES AND ISLAMIC FUNDAMENTALISM

Paper 235                                       02.05.2001

 

by Dr. Subhash Kapila

Bangladesh emerged as a nation state in December 1971 after India intervened militarily to end the genocide being inflicted by the Pakistan Army on its eastern wing - the Bengali Muslim majority province of East Pakistan.  India thus played a major role in the liberation and emergence of Bangladesh.

The initial promise of Bangladesh emerging as a secular democracy soon gave way to rise of Islamist influences.  This should have been foreseen in a Muslim majority state of over 90 percent Muslims.  The process of characterising the will of the majority in communal or religious terms was begun by Bangladesh’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman towards the end of his rule. [1]

A combination of the natural political volatility of the average Bangladeshi, coupled with the religious zeal of Islam as the state religion has kept Bangladesh politics in a turbulent state during the last thirty years.  The problem is further intensified when added to this mix a very large population (over 120 million) subsisting on a poor economic base annually ravaged by floods and cyclones.  In Bangladesh, 75.6percent of the population lives in rural areas and of this population 86 percent live below the poverty line. [2]

Besides the above poverty factor, Bangladesh’s political life has been marked by confrontational politics due to two factors:

* Bangladeshi political, bureaucratic, military, student and professional elites became divided into pro-liberation forces and pro-Pakistan sympathisers and alleged collaborators.

* The centralisation of power in the hands of the executive, the weakness of political institutions and limited access have resulted in the frequent resort of direct action and violence. [3]

In such a milieu, it should be no wonder that the Bangladesh Armed Forces have played a rather disproportionate role in the nation’s political life and external relations. Successive post-Mujib regimes have depended heavily on the support of the Bangladesh Armed Forces for their survival.  The Bangladesh Armed Forces have staged military coups and counter-coups, imposed martial law and provided two military dictators- General Ziaur Rahman and Gen. Ershad.

In India’s South Asian gaze, Pakistan has retained a central focus.  Bangladesh and Bangladesh Armed Forces including its para- military component have not received adequate scrutiny until the recent border clashes between India’s Border Security Force and Bangladesh Rifles.  These clashes should provide a wake-up call for India’s border management.  It should also call for a closer look at the Bangladesh Armed Forces and influences that impact on them, more basically Islamic fundamentalism.

Bangladesh Armed Forces- Brief profile[4]

Bangladesh Army has a total strength of 120,000 personnel organised into seven infantry divisions, one armoured brigade, one artillery division, one air-defence brigade and an engineer brigade.  Combat equipment and military hardware are predominantly of Chinese origin.

Bangladesh Navy has a strength of 10,500 personnel manning four frigates and 45 patrol and coastal combatants.  Naval bases are located at Chittagong (HQ), Dhaka, Khulna and Kaptai.  All naval combatant crafts stand supplied by China (PRC).

Bangladesh Air Force has 65 combat aircraft (all Chinese fighters) manned by a strength of 6500.

Para-military forces comprise:

-Bangladesh Rifles (border security).  Has a strength of 30,000 organised in 41 battalions.

Ansars (security guards). Has a strength of 20,000 organised into battalions.  A further 180,000 are on the rolls as unembodied personnel.

In terms of border security commitments the above forces are required to defend- [5]

- India-Bangladesh border- 4023 km

- Myanmar-Bangladesh border- 283 km

- Bay of Bengal coastline- 580km.

The Bangladesh Army, like the Pakistan Army is totally dependant on Chinese military hardware.  Despite initial opposition to the creation of Bangladesh, the Chinese relented and soon converted Bangladesh into a Chinese military equipment client state.  India, in the Chinese context has to note that a very slender strip of 90km of Indian territory separates Bangladesh from Chinese controlled Tibet [6]

Bangladesh Armed Forces- Salient features

 

* Bangladesh Armed Forces including Bangladesh Rifles came into existence only after 1971.  They were not bequeathed by the British to the successor States of India and Pakistan.

* Initial manpower was found from the repatriated Bengali personnel of the Pakistan Army ( East Bengal Regiments) and freedom fighters of the Mukti Bahini.

* The top hierarchy of Bangladesh till recently could be said to be composed of officers who had served in the Pakistan Army during Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s regime.  Their formative years were conditioned by the imperatives and system of military rule in Pakistan.

* According to one estimate, most of the 400 officers of the rank of Major and above belong to repatriated cadres from the Pakistan Army and find military rule comfortable. [7]

* In terms of socio-economic composition the bulk of the rank and file seem to be drawn from the poor and economically backward rural areas. Therefore, they are susceptible to Islamic fundamentalist influences that hold sway in such areas.

* In terms of traditions and identity the Bangladesh Armed Forces can be said to follow the Pakistan Army i.e. in the absence of any other roots, to draw on the Islamic heritage and current day trends of Pan Islamism in the Muslim world.

* Like the Pakistan Army the Bangladesh Armed Forces share the following characteristics:

- Perceive itself as the only force holding Bangladesh together.

- Has a poor opinion of Bangladesh’s fractious polity and their competence for governance.

- In their perceived mission to hold the country together and putting an end to misgovernance, they have carried out military coups, counter coups and even assassination of military Presidents.

- Should have a say in the country’s foreign policy.

- See a constitutional role for themselves.

The attitude of Bangladesh Armed Forces towards external powers varies from country to country.

India: Bangladesh Armed Forces can be said to be predominantly anti-Indian, not only generated by India’s size and resources, but also for other factors too.  As one writer puts it: " The Bangladesh military has been incensed by the poor treatment it had received from the Indians during the civil war; it felt that the Indian Army deprived it of victory by intervening in the conflict; it resented the expropriation of captured Pakistani military equipment by the Indian Army and saw the JRB (Jatiya Rakkhi Bahini) as Indian inspired force to ensure Indian domination of the post liberation Bangladesh."[8]

Pakistan: Despite the genocide and rapine heaped by the Pakistan Army, public memory and the memory of the Bangladesh Armed Forces seem to be short.  Pakistan was back in favour due to the co-religionist and Pan-Islamic factors.  Shared inter-personal relationships by the senior cadres who had earlier been part of the Pakistan Army assisted in the process.

* China: China was opposed to dismemberment of Pakistan and refused to recognise Bangladesh for quite some time.  However, the India-factor in Chinese real-politik forced the Chinese to convert Bangladesh into a Chinese military equipment client state.  Bangladesh Armed Forces view China as a deterrent against any aggressive Indian designs against Bangladesh.

In terms of perspectives, Bangladesh Armed Forces should not be dismissed lightly as of no consequence, or that they can be by-passed in terms of any foreign policy formulations pertaining to Bangladesh.  It needs to be remembered that :" As the military profession has developed massive defence budgets, it has established greater autonomy and assumed a privileged position in society, especially where civil institutions are weak and dissipated.  In such situations, the military evolves its own doctrines of state and government which drive to seek to influence state formation." [9]

Influence of Fundamentalist Islam in Bangladesh

 

"Essentially the term fundamentalism suggests going back to the basic texts and reproducing as closely as possible the laws and institutions found then.  It has also come to imply a dogmatic adherence to traditions, orthodoxy, inflexibility and a rejection of modern society, intellectual innovation and attempts to create a ‘golden era’." [10]Islamic fundamentalists have exploited the dream of the 'golden era of Islam', in poverty stricken, economically backward Muslim countries through the local "mullahs".

Islamic fundamentalist influences are acquiring an increasing hold in Bangladesh, in common with the rest of the Muslim world.  When liberal Muslim countries of South East Asia are capitulating to Islamic fundamentalism, despite strong economies and resource- base, Bangladesh with its endemic poverty can hardly resist such an influence.

Historically, Islamism has had a long and strong base in what is today Bangladesh.  It has been observed that [11]:

* The fundamentalist Wahabi and Faraizi movements in the 19th century, brought about Islamic consciousness in the Muslim peasantry of Bengal. This laid the foundation of Muslim nationalism.

* Emphasis on Pan-Arabism, partition of Bengal (1905-1911), the Khilafat movement and the communal riots of 1920s, helped transform Islamic identity into political solidarity.

The establishment of the Muslim League in South Asia which spear-headed the partition of India took place in Dhaka in 1906, and that communal strife leading to partition was equally strong in Bengal.  One writer describes it as " The descendants of Islam Khan, the Mughal Subedar of Bengal, were not immune to religious prejudice.  And so Dacca (Dhaka) the birthplace of the Muslim League, witnessed severe communal strife in the days leading up to the partition. [12]

Skipping to contemporary Bangladesh, the point has already been made that Sheikh Mujib in his closing years changed to Islamic rhetoric in political discourse and speeches. In terms of Islamic fundamentalist pressures on his successors, constitutional changes were forced to favour Islam, more prominently:

8th Amendment: Secularism was dropped and Islam was made the State Religion.

Article 25 (Revised Constitution): Brought in during Gen. Ziaur Rahman’s tenure stressed- "The State shall endeavour to consolidate, preserve and strengthen federal relations among Muslim countries based on Islamic solidarity, warming of relations with Muslim countries and delimiting of relations with India."[13]

Lately, Pan Islamic fundamentalist organisations including those linked with global terrorism have established themselves in Bangladesh, where they have found ready adherents.  Some evidence indicative of this trend are

* The Jihad movement of Bangladesh under its emir Sheikh Abdul Salam Muhammad is linked to Osama bin Laden.  He jointly signed ‘fatwas’ in 1998 with Bin Laden calling for Islamic Jehad against USA, Israel and India. [14]

* Terrorist- operatives from Bangladesh are included in Bin Laden’s training of groups for chemical warfare.[15]

* Existence and open functioning of Pan Islamic fundamentalist (including terrorist associated organization) like the Lashkar-e-Toiba, International Islamic Federation of Students, front organisations of Osama bin Laden, Saudi organization like Rabita and various Jamaats [16]

* Plans to bomb the US Embassy in New Delhi and the US Consulates in Calcutta and Chennai were hatched, coordinated and facilitated by many of the above.  This outrage was aborted by the timely arrest of the chief Bangladeshi operative Abu Nasr by New Delhi Police. [17].

Bangladesh stands specifically targeted by Pan Islamic and global Islamic terrorist organisations as spring board for Islamic Jehad against India and Myanmar.  The fact that their existence and those of their training camps are being tolerated speaks of tacit complicity of government organs at some level.

Bangladesh dependant as it is on largesse from Islamic countries is susceptible to the policy stances of Islamic donors.  They in turn have also spawned a large number of fundamentalist political parties.

Influence of Islamic Fundamentalism on Bangladesh Armed Forces

 

The Bangladesh Armed Forces, unlike the Indian and Pakistan Armies emerged as a ‘politcal creature’ right from its inception, due to the circumstances that prevailed at the time of creation of the nation.  In todays’s context, Islamic fundamentalist influence would have permeated deeply into the rank and file of Bangladesh Armed Forces for the following reasons.

* The Bangladesh Army during its political-power tenures drew heavily on the support of Islamic fundamentalist parties to win over the masses.

* Islamic fundamentalist organizations have a sizeable presence in rural areas from where the soldiery is drawn.

* Urban areas from where the officer cadre is drawn are also the strongholds of Pan Islamic organizations.  Their special targets are students in universities.

* Thirty years of independence, majority of which were with an Islamic constitution has not brought economic relief to the masses.  The lure of the ‘golden era’ of Islam (battle cry of Islamic fundamentalists) is an ideology in which the Bangladesh Armed Forces can see themselves in the vanguard.

* Parallels on the above can be drawn with the Pakistan army to which senior hierarchy of the Bangladesh Armed Forces are psychologically aligned.

* Like in Pakistan, the Armed Forces are the special target for infiltration and winning them over by the Islamic fundamentalist organizations.  They know that they can only come to power on the shoulders of the Army.  The subversion of the rank and file of the Pakistan Army by Islamic fundamentalists is a pointer.  In case of Bangladesh, the task is made easier by the political proclivity of the soldiery.

Two other factors have also to be factored in this scenario:

* Armed forces of any nation cannot be insulated from the influences prevalent in society.  The growing Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh both due to external and internal factors will have an appreciable impact.

* India figures heavily as a threat perception in the Bangladesh Armed Forces.  Earlier, it counted on Pakistan and China as deterrers.  The change in political fixations of both have led Bangladesh Armed Forces to look elsewhere.  They strongly believe now that Pan Islamism would be a better insurance.  They also seem to be convinced by contemporary factors that Islamic fundamentalist terrorism is a better weapon to keep India’s might at bay.  It would also provide a deniability cover officially over the involvement of Bangladesh Armed Forces.

Conclusion

 

India’s policy planning apparatus both civil and military are invariably caught on the back foot.  Whether it is Kashmir, Kargil or China we do not anticipate events or trends in the making.  Islamic fundamentalist threats are no longer confined to sources from Pakistan and Afghanistan.  They have started emanating from Bangladesh as a base too as would be evident from the proliferation of Islamic fundamentalist organisations in Assam.

Bangladesh cannot be expected to be in perpetual gratitude to India for its military assistance for its liberation.  By and large Bangladesh Armed Forces are anti Indian. Islamic fundamentalist influence is growing and will have an impact on the Army.  It would be dangerous for India to under estimate the potential of the Bangladesh Armed Forces despite their limited size.  The recent border incidents should be a wake up call for India.

(Dr. Subhash Kapila is an international relations and strategic affairs analyst.  He can be reached by e-mail: esdecom@vsnl.com)

Notes:

1. Imitiaz Ahmed , ‘Maldevelopment, Environmental Insecurity and Militarism in South Asia’ in Prof D.D. Khanna, Ed, ‘Sustainable Development’, New Delhi, Macmillans(India) Ltd.1997.P182.  Also see Talukder Maniruzzama, ‘Bangladesh Politics: Secular and Islamic Trends’ in Rafiuddin Ahmed, Ed, ‘Religion, Nationalism and Politics in Bangladesh’, New Delhi, South Asian Publishers,1990.P73-74.

2. Ibid.P191

3. J.K. Chopra ‘Bangladesh as a New Nation’ Jaipur, Sublime Publications, 2000 P229.

4. Details of Bangladesh Armed Forces and para-military forces have been extracted from MILITARY BALANCE, 2000, P160-161.

5. Suchita Ghosh, ‘China-Bangladesh-India Tangle Today’, New Delhi.  Sterling Publishers,1995 P1. Also see ‘SPs Military Year Book 1998-99, New Delhi, Guide Publication,1999. P278.

6. Ibid. P1

7. J. K. Chopra (2000) P45 See note 3 above.

8. Ibid.P 46.

9. Shireen Mazari, ‘Militarism and Militarisation of Pakistan Civil Society 1977-1990' in Kumar Rupesinghe and Khawar Mumtaz, Eds. ‘Internal Conflicts in South Asia’, SAGE Publication for International Peace Research Institute, Oslo, Norway, 1996, P96.

10. Kumar Rupesinghe and Khawar Mumtaz, Eds, ‘International Conflicts in South Asia’, SAGE Publication for International Peace Research Institute. Oslo Norway 1996. See Chapter 4 ‘Pakistan: The Politics of Fundamentalism’ P56.

11. J.K.Chopra (2000) See Pages 4 and 21

12 Bomkesh Padulia Saha, ‘While Bengal Bled...’ OUTLOOK(Weekly news magazine), May 28,1997 P60.

13. Suchita Ghosh (1995) P91.

14. Yossef Bodansky, ‘Bin Laden: the Man Who Declared War on America’. Forum Prima Publishing, Rocklin, California, 1999.P 224-227

15. Ibid P 327

16. Ibid P 378-379.

17. Ibid

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