Published in the Guardian on 13 March 2009.
After the border guards’ mutiny, Bangladeshi politicians have to ensure disgruntled sections of society feel they have a voice.
It has been two weeks since the ghastly Pilkhana massacre in Bangladesh, and the brutality of the incident has been so traumatising that Bangladeshis are still searching for answers and closure. Inside the headquarter of the border security guards (BDR) of Bangladesh, soldiers revolted against their superior officers. The subsequent discovery of execution-style murders, torture and rape has put the idea that this revolt was merely about pay into serious doubt.
Even though the political control showed by the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, averted mass bloodshed across the country, the decision to hold off a commando rescue mission at the early part of the stand-off is haunting the army top brass – especially after the discovery of the dead bodies of their colleagues, the stories of brutality and, worse, the news that the perpetrators may have mostly fled through an unprotected boundary wall.
The nature of the torture of the officers and rape of some of their family members in spite of the ongoing negotiations on the day of the revolt highlighted that there was a psychological element to this warfare. The perpetrators wanted to maximise the provocation of the army. If the army had been allowed to crush the mutiny by force, the battle would have also destroyed the border force, causing a large-scale security break down. India, battered with its own terrorism problems, also benefits from having a strong security on both sides of the border to prevent separatists and extremists smuggling in arms. A security breakdown in the border only helps those who stand to gain the most from a destabilised Bangladesh – the religious extremists.
There have been reports on the possible infiltration of the BDR by the Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) extremists over the last two or three years, and chances are they fueled the grievances of the BDR men. Districts where JMB operatives are most active are among the most poverty stricken areas near the border. The suspicion of their involvement grew a couple of days ago after the body of Cornell Gulzar was identified. Gulzar, whose body was mutilated almost beyond recognition, was head of a division in the paramilitary wing, RAB, that was responsible for identifying and capturing the extremists. The Daily Star quoted witnesses who saw his dead body and described marks of brutal torture. Torture has been the hallmark of the JMB head, Bangla Bhai, who was captured by Gulzar’s team and was later executed under the military-controlled caretaker government last year.
Although, the plans of those who masterminded this incident may not have materialised fully, the effect of the massacre may have been exactly what they wanted. Deep mistrust between the army and the politicians, a severely weakened democratic government, unprotected borders and a demoralised military will all have long-term implications for Bangladesh. As a society, the temptation would be to quickly identify a culprit and deliver quick justice.
Instead, Bangladeshis will have to ask themselves why a segment of the society, even if they are a small minority, is so enraged as to commit such unspeakable brutality towards their fellow countrymen. Two months ago we took the first step by ensuring the democratic right of people to choose their own leaders through elections. But this move needs to be enhanced by further steps that ensure a sense of fairness and justice. As Bangladeshis around the world mourn the victims through candlelight vigils, ensuring punishment for the perpetrators of this heinous incident is only the first step. The political society and military leaders must also understand that they now have to work extra hard to make the disgruntled segments of this resource-hungry country realise that to be heard, there are other means beyond violence.