Disciplining the army

Factors which lead to the 'politicisation' of the Bangladesh army

Three main factors were associated with the politicisation of the armed forces: the "aid to civil" phenomenon, differences on national policies and their implementation, deterioration of economic conditions post-independence.

First, the "aid to civil" phenomenon resulted in the army being called into action to provide necessary administrative and logistic aid to civil administration whenever the admin failed to tackle a crisis regardless of what it was. This occurred at regular intervals after 1949 in the then Pakistan. For example, during the communal riots of 1950, 1952, 1954, 1963 and 1970, during a devastating flood, periodic epidemics, or by food shortages and near-famines.

As in any culture of poverty dominated by the politics of scarcity, political and economic corruption became a part of daily administrative life. Exposed to such a state of affairs during their "aid to civil" operations, the highly nationalistic, indoctrinated armed personnel, particularly the junior officers and the rank and file, became disillusioned with politics and resentful of politicians. Over time, these experiences contributed to the growth of groups within the armed forces which did not trust any politicians. Ambitious officers with considerable daring and a little idealism have used these groups for usurping governmental power.

Zillur R. Khan

Second, differences on national policies and their modes of execution have been used as justification by the armed forces for drastic political actions resulting in coups d'etat. But after each military takeover, serious conflicts have often developed between different sections of the army officers over sectionalism, regionalism, and ethnocentrisim. These conflicts have remained unresolved owing to the failure of military leadership to utilise an ideology as a common politico-economic ground on which consensus and unity could develop.

In fact, the Bangladeshi military has been plagued by ideological conflicts since the beginning of the country's independence struggle. After independence, the sudden overthrow of the charismatic leadership followed by a quick succession of coups has made the ideological division within the military even more intense.

Zillur R. Khan

Third, the deterioration of economic conditions in the post -independence period in Pakistan and Bangladesh has increased the politicisation of their armies. Usually a section within the bureaucratic elite succeeds in putting the blame for such a state of affairs on the political leadership, pointing to its inability to make and implement hard decisions. Particularly in Bangladesh, the political leadership has been faulted for its lack of basic understanding of the politics of budgeting, especially in respect of the military. A group within the army that had fought valiantly in the war of independence contended that Bangladesh could not afford to maintain a large standing army and argued that a people's liberation army (PLA) following the Chinese model would be more appropriate for the country.

Instability in the military

The various coups of 1975 was a strong indication of the instability of the military, and goes a long way to explain the internal fights and desertions which followed from this period to Ziaur Rahman's death in 1981. All resolved around two major issues: the influence of revolutionary ideas on the troops (i.e. the 'politicisation' of the army referred to earlier) and the opposition between the muktijuddhas and repatriated. These two issues, and the factionalism they provoked, prevented the establishment of a stable government.

The different revolts that occurred in Bangladesh until 1981 are better understood as survival reflexes, designed to defend one’s own group against others. It was generally felt that if one of these groups dominates the state, then others would be threatened in their fundamental existence. This existential threat perception resulted from the officers’ diverging political trajectories, which implied very different roles for the army itself, and from Mujib’s effort to manipulate and divide the military establishment which prevented it from defining a clear mission for the institution. In brief, factionalism forbade the development of a corporatist interest, hence the possibility of a stable military dictatorship in Bangladesh. Herein lies the specificity of the Bangladeshi army.

Jérémie Codron, Journalist

In the mid 1970s, the Bangladeshi political arena was in complete turmoil. This was in part attributable to the army's intervention during that chaotic period. However, a large part is due to the demise of the multi-party system which began well before. Many of the undemocratic processes which were occurring during the latter years of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's governance - such as the introduction of one-party system, banning of newspapers and media, nepotism, reprieve of murderers, etc - had cultivated a hostile environment in the country which was still recovering from the mass devastation caused by the Swadhinata Juddho.

The Mujib government had already demonstrated its bent toward civil dictatorship by, among others policies, banning politico-religious parties, evicting the communists who rejected the Delhi-Moscow axis and, eventually, creating a one-party system. This system was based on a political organization which was no longer the AL, but a much more authoritarian core composed of Mujib’s relatives and close associates, the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (People's League of Bangladesh's Peasants and Workers - or BAKSAL for short).

Most of the civil society’s organizations, which had made the 1971 mobilization possible, were considerably weakened. This authoritarian drift yielded one serious consequence: the only genuine opposition to civil dictatorship came from the army.

Jérémie Codron

Zia's military reform: forces and budget increased for internal security

Ziaur Rahman immediately moved to restore law and order in the country and for the purpose strengthened the police force, practically doubling its size from 40,000 to 70,000 and strengthening the army by increasing it from less than 50,000 in 1974-75 to about 90,000 in 1976-77. The increased police strength included the combat-ready Special Police Force of 12,500 men, trained to counteract guerrilla raids. Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), chiefly used to patrol the borders, was also increased with some recruits drawn from the loyal tribes of Mymensingh and Chittagong Hill Tracts.

The government's drive to increase internal security was also reflected in the budget allocated for Defence and Internal Security Forces. The budget was increased from 750 million taka (13% of the total revenue budget) in 1974-75, under Sheikh Mujib-led government, to 2,062.7 million (32%) under the new government. In 1976-77 this was further increased to 2,194 million taka, representing 29% of the total budget for that year. The military budget continued to increase every year and from 1972 to 1981, military expenditures grew by 186%.

The government has been following a "stick and carrot" policy to control the disaffection of the tribal people. Security forces have been greatly strengthened in tribal areas of Mymensingh and in the whole of Chittagong Hill Tracts. The government has also undertaken a massive uplift program in the hitherto neglected tribal areas. As a result, by the end of the year none of the insurgent groups had been successful in establishing permanent shelters in the tribal areas. Because of the almost rabid anti-Indianism prevailing all over Bangladesh, Mujibites working within or infiltrating from India are getting little sympathy and no shelter from the people at large and are being caught easily by the government security forces.

Talukder Maniruzzaman (1976)

A full new army division, 9th Infantry Divison, was raised under the Command of Major General Mir Shawkat Ali who was appointed the GOC (General Officer Commanding). General Mir Shawkat, as he was popularly known, was the Sector 5 (Sylhet: Durgapur-Danki) Commander and former comrade of Ziaur Rahman in the early phase of the 1971 Muktijuddho. Both men were highly influential during the revolt of East Bengal Regiment in Chittagong a day before the war commenced and were close friends.

After the failed coup in October 1977, five new army divisions were raised and equally distributed all over the country. Each sector had a strength of 30,000 men and included the Ansars and the BDR. These 150,000 men had basic loyalty to the Zia regime and were expected to contain any clandestine revolutionary cells within the regular army started by the JSD and other such groups.

  • Mir Shawkat Ali (9 Dec 1936 - 20 Nov 2010) Bir Uttam. Sector 5 Commander (Sylhet: Durgapur-Danki) during 1971 Muktijuddho. Born at Nazira Bazar (Dhaka??). Joined 2nd EBR (East Bengal Regiment) in 1958 and switched allegiance to Bangladesh during Liberation War. Post independence, became Bangladesh's Ambassador to Austrialia and Germany and resigned in 1988 protesting dictatorship of then military ruler H. M. Ershad. Joined BNP party and served as minister during 1991 - 96. One of the pioneer of war crimes trial movement and founding member of Sector Commanders' Forum (SCF). Participated in countrywide campaign to force government to hold war trial. Died at his Gulshan residence, Dhaka, after suffering from lymphoma, a deadly form of cancer. Left behind wife and three daughters who had been living in London for about 15 years. Buried at Banani army graveyard, Dhaka.

His [Zia's] aim was to superpose a fresh apolitical recruitment to the ideological factions that had existed since 1971, so that the paternalistic relationship between commanders and their men would be hampered. This 'de-ideologization' of the army was also visible in his effort to emulate K. Menon’s plan for the Indian army and diffuse power among armed forces through a system of frequent transfers of highly ranked officers.

Jérémie Codron

However, despite the efforts of the government to maintain the loyalty of the mass of solidery, widespread corruption and injustice in the government could very well turn the otherwise loyal contingents into rebel units. The "aid to civil actions" coupled with the intense patriotism of the Bengali armed forces could make it extremely difficult for the Zia regime to prevent gradual dissatisfaction and the resulting frustration among ordinary soldiers. When presented with the choice in 1975, the soldiers rose against a section of the elite. It is quite possible that given the opportunity the armed forces would rise again against the officer class as a way of registering their protest against the elite's mishandling of the politico-economic situation.

But the future of class relations within the armed forces does not seem as grim as it once did. The younger officers, taking their lessons from the past, have established a rapport between themselves and the ordinary soldiers. Starting with the post-liberation recruits to the officers' class, from second lieutenants to newly promoted majors, and understanding seems to have developed between the officers and the rank and file.

Zillur R. Khan

Ziaur Rahman also launched several initiatives so as to modernize the army. The fresh inductees received a new type of academic training based on the principles of soldiers' responsibility vis-à-vis their institution and constitutionalism. The training also promoted a modified version of history stressing a continuity with Pakistan while India's role in Bangladesh's Liberation was sharply abridged. The 'batman system', that allowed officers to use privates as their servants, was also abolished in 1977. Both officers and soldiers' wages were increased at a faster pace than inflation, which attracted new volunteers. Re-evaluation of rents in the cantonment was beneficial to the privates. Eventually, Zia also offered facilities to retired officers so as to join lucrative jobs in the private sector or to start their own businesses after retirement.

There was a time when discipline was much more serious in the regiments. […] What used to happen under Zia? The officer gives you an order, you do it, you ask question later. If you do not do it, the President will kill you.

A retired officer, Tareq (pseudonym)

Zia raised the army to a standard. Ershad did the rest.

Officer Tareq (pseudonym) on Ziaur Rahman's pivotal role in shaping the Bangladesh army

Another of Ziaur Rahman's strategies was to make the elected assembly completely dependent upon the armed forces so that major government policies would require the open, or at least tacit, approval of the country's military institution.

In this regard, the Zia government went a step further than the Ayub regime with its basic democracy scheme. Zia's efforts to militarize the government were much more subtle and sophisticated than Ayub's. An instance in point is the composition of the elected National Assembly in which, allegedly, about 30% of the elected representatives are informers of the military regime. The net result is that whereas in the Mujib regime an effort was made to separate the political elements from the military, the Zia regime succeeded in wielding the two inseparably.

Zillur R. Khan

By implementing these innovative methods, General Zia was able to overcome to a large extent the serious problem of dissidence that was in the armed forces.

To sum up, during the year 1976 Bangladesh fought tenaciously against its dependence on an "expansionist" India. India seemed to be bent on creating a self-fulfilling prophecy; a potential hostile Bangladesh was becoming actively hostile as India was doing nothing to make it less hostile. Contrary to the early fears of many, the "Young General" Zia proved himself a capable administrator and a nation-builder. He put the powerful ideology of Bengali nationalism to immediate use in the service of the development effort. The nationalist ideology, thus, produced a concomitant "development ideology" whose major tenet was to develop or perish. For the first time, the Bengalis, rather notorious for their over-politicisation, have shown antipathy to oppositional politics and have applied their considerable energies to the constructive ends of development.

This depoliticisation of the Bengali masses would possibly help General Zia to maintain himself at the helm of affairs for some time. But ultimately, the ruling military elite will have to work out a political formula for the peaceful succession of power to create a really stable political system for Bangladesh.

Talukder Maniruzzaman

Though they eventually led to his own fall, the different measures taken by Zia to 'tame the tigers' are worth noting because they progressively professionalized and unified the army. They revitalized a certain type of authority in the military.

Jérémie Codron