Bangladesh: Soldiers’ Mutiny in Dhaka

Faced with mutiny at the Bangladesh Rifles Pilkhana barracks, and its spreading to many other areas, the government of Bangladesh, terrified at the consequences of such a sudden eruption of anger of the troops, initially offered to accept their demands, confirming its own weakness. Now the manhunt for the rebels is on, but the open challenge to their superior officers revealed by the ranks is an indication of how weak the state is and underlines the enormous revolutionary potential within society.

After about 33 hours of storming and seizure by the rebel soldiers of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) of their headquarters, in Pilkhana, Dhaka, the soldiers ended the seizure after all of their demands had been formally agreed to by the government, including a general amnesty to the mutineers.

As the BBC News reported early on during the mutiny, “Bangladesh's prime minister has offered a general amnesty to border guards to try to end the mutiny at their HQ in the capital, Dhaka. Representatives who met Sheikh Hasina at her office have reportedly agreed the mutineers will lay down their arms. They have returned to the barracks with the PM's offer.”

It was however reported that in the meantime the mutiny among the BDR soldiers had quickly spread to many other areas encompassing the whole of Bangladesh and the government would find it more difficult to buy peace in these areas.

Perplexed at the unexpected rebellion, the government made a failed attempt to resort to force to quell the mutiny. Photo by Muzib Mehdy.
Perplexed at the unexpected rebellion, the government made a failed attempt to resort to force to quell the mutiny. Photo by Muzib Mehdy.

In fact since the initial attempt to broker a deal, the whole situation spiralled out of control. Now the news is about a manhunt launched by the Bangladesh army to arrest the border guards who had mutinied, killing, according to latest reports, 140 army officers. So big did the mutiny become that now the government has issued arrest warrants for "1,000 guardsmen and accomplices".

The rebellion of the troops was directed primarily against the corruption of their officers, appalling levels of pay and work conditions inside the force and the discrimination being meted out to the troops in this force as against their counterparts in the army.

One of the hostages, Major Zaed, who was released later, told the media that more than 100 officers of the force, who were taken hostage, had been eliminated by the rebels. However, the State Minister for Law, was putting the number at 55. What is certain is that on the morning of 27 February, the death of 77 people, 67 among them officers of the armed forces, had been confirmed. Since then the situation escalated. Those dead include almost the entire top brass of the Bangladesh Rifles, reported to have been wiped out at the hands of the mutineers, including its Chief Maj. Gen. Shakil Ahmed. More bodies of the officers are being recovered from the drains inside the barracks in Pilkhana.

A number of vehicles inside the headquarters compound were torched, while massive smoke billowed out of the compound. Unceasing gunfire was heard for about first four hours of the seizure.

The Bangladesh Rifles, a 67,000-strong paramilitary force, is deployed to secure the 4,427 kilometre frontiers of Bangladesh with India and Myanmar. This is in accordance with the Indo-Bangladesh Treaty which bars both countries from deploying army units to man the borders and provides for surveillance through paramilitary forces.

The origins of the Bangladesh Rifles can be traced back to 1795, when it was organized by the British Colonialists, as the “Ramgarh Local Battalion”. In 1971, the Bangladesh Rifles had pioneered the revolt against the control of Pakistani officers over its troops. It had played a major role in fighting for the independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan. But the structures of this force, like most of the other armed forces in the countries of South Asia, continued to be colonial.

Revolt against appalling conditions

Long-standing grievances and demands of the troops, which continued to be ignored by the officers and those in power, prepared the storm that broke out in the form of last week’s mutiny. These demands included an end to corruption, a pay hike on a par with that of army troops, opportunities for promotion, the withdrawal of overseeing officers from army, better food supplies, stoppage of diversion of food supplies and funds.

In fact, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina had visited the barracks on February24. The troops were pressurising their officers to put their demands before the Prime Minister, on her visit to the barracks. The officers, however, refused to do so.

The mutiny then started at 8.30am on 25 February, local time, when about 300 troops in the Pilkhana Barracks housing the headquarters of the Bangladesh Rifles, left the barracks to enter the conference hall, where among the annual celebrations of the Force, a meeting of top officials of the force was going on. The 300 troops laid siege to the conference hall and took hostage all the officers present there. It is significant that the Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) supported the mutiny against the officer corps.

The troops later eliminated most of their officers selectively, while sparing a few. Those officers who had earned fame for their notoriety in amassing wealth by swindling rations meant for poor troops and oppression of their subordinate troops, were executed. According to rough estimates, about 14 were shot on the spot. For example, one Colonel Muzibur Haq, the third highest ranking officer in the force, who was individually responsible for stealing food funds and supplies and had made millions of dollars out of this lucrative activity, suffered the wrath of the anger of the troops. Similarly, the Director General of the Force, Major General Shakeel Ahmad, killed by the troops, was famous for his lavish and corrupt lifestyle and for taking severe and repressive measures against the troops.

In anticipation of a fatal probability of fraternization among the troops of BDR and the army, the government was terrified of allowing a face-to-face confrontation between the two. Photo by Muzib Mehdy.
In anticipation of a fatal probability of fraternization among the troops of BDR and the army, the government was terrified of allowing a face-to-face confrontation between the two. Photo by Muzib Mehdy.

There had been long standing allegations of extreme corruption by the officers deputed from the army on short service of 2 to 4 years. The food funds and supplies meant for poor troops in the force, were being diverted in bulk by these officers to the open market, out of which millions were being made.

While the officer class siphoned off the food and funds, the average soldier in the Force received a meagre monthly wage of around $70. The appeals against the appalling conditions of the troops were not even heard by the officers, never mind addressing them.

These elite officers imposed upon the force from the army, had remained totally insensitive towards the woes of ordinary soldiers. Instead of addressing the problems of the rank and file in the force, they had focused on filling their coffers with booty generated from swindling of funds and food.

While the troops in the force originate from toiling layers within society, the officers deputed from the army essentially come from the upper layers and in most of the cases they have links with the ruling elite of Bangladesh. Army officers are deputed into the force apparently to maintain bureaucratic control upon the Force through the army. This composition of the force, resting upon the bayonets of troops, constituted a self-contradiction in itself, which ultimately has manifested itself in a rebellion of troops.

Government was being forced to capitulate

The elite Government was in a fix as to what to do and what not to do. Perplexed at the unexpected rebellion, first, it attempted to resort to force. It mobilized the army and Air Force against the mutineers. It failed in the face of the mood of rebel troops, who threatened that they would destroy everything in and around Pilkhana, should the army attack them. The next moment, the Government was bending under the pressure of the situation. Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister had to meet the 14 representatives of the mutineer troops at her official residence. Terrified at how things were developing, she immediately agreed to accept all of the demands of the troops and vowed to take no action against those who had taken part in the mutiny. It had taken hardly 4 hours before the government had been forced to its knees before the rebel soldiery.

However, desperate to settle accounts with the rebels, the elite officers in the army and the bourgeois politicians, wanted to play a game of intrigue with the mutineers. While the government promised to be lenient, the army continued to surround the barracks. The mutineers demanded that the army should be sent to its garrisons first and only then would the mutineers leave the barracks.

The mutiny spreads in support of the 50-demand charter

As the army continued to surround the barracks in Pilkhana, the troops of the Bangladesh Rifles started to mutiny in other places including Dinajpur, Chittagong, Naugaon, etc. The rebellion was reported to have spread to at least 16 other places in Bangladesh. This widespread uprising ended the isolation of the troops at Pilkhana and prevented the government from concentrating its forces at the Headquarters at Pilkhana.

Emboldened by the support lent by their brothers in other towns, the mutineers extended their demands and raised a comprehensive charter of 50 demands, which called for complete democratisation of the armed forces in Bangladesh. This charter of demands was virtually a manifesto against the bureaucratic control of the armed forces by the elite of Bangladesh.

While the mutiny at the headquarters at Pilkhana continued, the Government of Bangladesh, seeking to take advantage of the lower political consciousness among the army troops, pushed these to confront the rebel BDR, using the intriguing perception that the BDR had eliminated the officers that were on deputation from the army. However, in anticipation of a fatal probability of fraternization among the troops of BDR and the army, the government was terrified of allowing a face-to-face confrontation between the two.

The Prime Minister, called an emergency meeting of the Cabinet at her residence to chalk out a strategy on February 26. The grim situation did not permit the cabinet to take any decision. The Prime Minister only issued the usual warning that if the mutineers would not surrender, harsh measures would be taken against them, while repeating the offer of a general amnesty. The rebel soldiers, however, rejected the proposal pressing for their 50 demands to be met in full, together with withdrawal of the army from the headquarters of the BDR.

The Government, terrified by the fact that the mutiny was spreading to other areas in the country, was initially forced to accede to the demand of the rebel soldiers. “Normalcy” could be restored at headquarters in Pilkhana, only after the Home Minister Sahara Khatun and Finance Minister AMA Muhith, themselves arrived at the headquarters to observe the laying down of arms by the rebels. Since then, of course, all talk of amnesty has been dropped as the manhunt proceeds for rebel BDR troops.

Bangladesh’s “failed state”

With a total population of about 150 million, Bangladesh falls under the category of a so-called “failed State”, where living conditions for the mass of population are unbearable and among the worst in Asia. Poverty, unemployment, backwardness, illiteracy mark the social life of the country. Two Presidents have been killed in military takeovers of power since 1971, while 19 big and small failed coup attempts have taken place, since the independence of Bangladesh in 1971. As recent general elections have shown, the ruling classes, as a whole, have taken a sharp turn towards fundamentalism and conservatism.

The ruling elite in Bangladesh has become weaker than ever and the present abortive uprising of troops of the BDR will surely contribute to their further disintegration. While the political turmoil in Bangladesh requires a resolute action on the part of revolutionary forces, especially the working class in this country, the Stalinist left in Bangladesh continues to be in a state of inertia, unable to play any role in the rapidly changing circumstances. The absence of a revolutionary leadership of the working class inside Bangladesh, thus seems to be the only missing link in the chain of revolution.

What distinguishes the present action of the soldiers from previous ones is that this time it was the rank and file that had fought for the issues which pertain to its own conditions of life and which are fundamental to political life in the country and its toiling masses. Corruption of the elite is one such fundamental issue.

This time, the soldiers’ mutiny took place at a time when the elite governments, including that of Bangladesh, are engulfed in economic crisis. The mutiny, which itself is an offshoot of this crisis, because of worsening economic conditions of the soldiers, is the first shot of the peoples’ unrest in Bangladesh.

While the structures of the armed forces of countries in South Asia remain colonial as a whole, their composition has continued to change. The devastation and proletarianisation of the peasantry is reflected in the changing composition and mood of the rank and file of these armed forces. As we know, the regimes of the elite classes, of the capitalists and landlords, today rest upon the might of the repressive apparatus of these armed forces, more than ever. The repression of troops, who come from working masses of the people, at the hands of officers, who emanate from the upper classes, is the prior condition for the preservation of this repressive apparatus over and above the people and against them. “Discipline” is the cover for this barbaric repression. The elite regimes, like that of Bangladesh, and in the whole of South Asia for that matter, already alienated from the people, have become completely degenerate.

The mutiny has sent shock waves throughout the ruling elite of the world, especially that of the neighbouring countries of Bangladesh. The Home Minister of India Pranab Mukherjee, immediately picked up the hotline to contact the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, to express “concern” over the situation.

This mutiny shows clearly that these regimes will not be able to count on the blind strength of their armed forces for long, when faced with a revolutionary upsurge of the masses. We are not far from the time when the poor and oppressed inside and outside the armed forces will come to the aid and support of each other and will rise in unison against their common enemy: the elite, the capitalists and landlords.

This mutiny also demonstrates that developments in underdeveloped countries will be sudden, unexpected and abrupt, as Leon Trotsky pointed out long ago. The mutiny also contradicts the preaching of Maoist leaders, who falsely claim that the underdeveloped countries will tread the path of “protracted” struggles. After innumerable opportunities have already been missed in the past because of the mistaken policies of the Stalinist and Maoist leaders, in this period of crisis more and more opportunities are being presenting for the revolutionary forces, and many more will present themselves in the future. The only factor that continues to be lacking is that of a genuine revolutionary leadership, capable of harnessing all the pent up anger of the oppressed masses, such that the periodic revolts can lead to conscious revolutionary overturns.

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