Coup bid by fanatics foiled: Bangla army - Mastermind with anti-India history

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By ANANYA SENGUPTA AND ARCHIS MOHAN
  • Published 20.01.12
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Jan. 19: The Bangladesh army today said it had last month foiled a coup plot by serving and retired officers with fanatic religious beliefs, formally lifting the veil on the menacing undercurrents next door when relations with India have entered a critical phase.

Convening the first media conference to make such an announcement, the army said in Dhaka that the plot against the Shiekh Hasina government was hatched by 16 mid-level former and serving officers who were “fanatics... with extreme religious beliefs”.

The alleged mastermind has an anti-India background dating back to the liberation of Bangladesh.

Lt Gen. Moinul Islam, the army’s chief of general staff, Col Muhammed Sajjad Siddique, the acting judge advocate general, and a few other senior officers were present at the briefing by Brig. Muhammad Masud Razzak, the army spokesperson,

Razzak said the plotters “received help from non-resident Bangladeshis” ---- a reference that sources said was a veiled hint at Opposition leader Khaleda Zia’s two sons.

Tarique Rahman and Arafat Rahman Coco are both living abroad at a time arrest warrants against them are pending in Bangladesh courts.

Any destabilisation of the Hasina government will have far-reaching consequences in India, especially in neighbouring Bengal and the Northeast. The Hasina government has been extremely co-operative with India, unlike the erstwhile Khaleda Zia regime, although Delhi has kept contact alive with both sides.

But Hasina is also under intense pressure to counter Opposition charges that she had sold out to India. New Delhi has not been fully successful in helping her address domestic concerns, largely because of the mishandling of the Teesta treaty that has been stalled by Mamata Banerjee.

Besides, the Indian high commissioner’s post in Dhaka has been lying vacant since November. Sources said the Centre is considering a proposal to send Pankaj Saran, an IFS officer now posted as a joint secretary in the PMO, to Dhaka.

If Saran is picked, it will be a departure from the recent past during which New Delhi opted for Bengali-speaking diplomats to head its Dhaka mission. Other names being considered that of India’s ambassador to Syria V.P. Haran and envoy to Egypt R. Swaminathan.

In Dhaka, Brig. Razzaq said two retired officers, Lt Col Ehsan Yusuf and Maj. Zakir, had been arrested and had “bluntly admitted their role in the plot”, which was uncovered apparently when several of the conspirators approached other officers to join them.

He hinted at the involvement of the banned terror outfit, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, and the radical Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami.

Hasina’s government has been facing a storm of protests against the constitutional amendments of last year that retained Islam as the state religion but made the republic more secular. Sources said this issue could have sown the seeds of the coup plot.

Coup attempts are not uncommon in the region. Hasina’s father and then Prime Minister Mujibur Rahman was assassinated in a coup in 1975, and she herself faced a bloody mutiny by the country’s paramilitary border guards in February 2009, weeks after becoming Prime Minister. Even then, the army had stood by the government.

The brigadier said the plot was uncovered in December following the detention of mastermind Ghulam Azam, former Ameer of the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh. Azam, who opposed the independence of Bangladesh during and after the 1971 war, is alleged to have led the Razakar and Al-Badr formations that resisted the India-trained Mukti Bahini.

A slew of arrests had taken place silently in Bangladesh through December, prompting Khaleda Zia to allege that army officers were becoming victims of “sudden disappearance”.

First, the retired lieutenant colonel, Yusuf, was arrested after he allegedly approached a major on December 13 to persuade him to join the conspiracy. The major notified the army authorities.

Soon, another officer, Major Syed Md Ziaul Haq, is said to have confided in a fellow officer about the plot but this officer, too, alerted the authorities. The army immediately cancelled Ziaul’s leave, stopped his transfer and remanded him in custody on December 23.

However, Ziaul somehow managed to escape and is now in hiding. Major Zakir was arrested on December 31 on the allegation that he had instigated another officer to work against the government.

On December 28, a military court of inquiry was established to investigate the matter and punish those involved.

“Some unruly and derailed military officers have been actively engaged in the execution of the heinous conspiracy through maintaining contacts with the fugitive Major Ziaul by mobile phones and the Internet,” an army statement said.

It added that a post by Ziaul, titled “Mid-level officers of Bangladesh Army are bringing down changes”, on the Facebook group Soldiers Forum had instigated soldiers to work against the government.

Razzak said over a dozen officers were under vigil as investigations were under way on their suspected involvement.

Retired Major General Sayed Mohammad Ibrahim, a defence analyst, said the country and its democratic structures were reasonably immune to interference. “Today’s news about events in the army is worrying but will not cause any damage to democracy,” he said.

In New Delhi, sources pointed out that Saran has been with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s office since the days of UPA-I. If he is send to Dhaka, it will be seen as a reflection of the Prime Minister’s eagerness to focus on ties on the eastern front.

“Bangladesh and Myanmar are two bilateral relationships which South Block will look to focus upon in the remaining period of this government. These are two relationships with immense potential,” said a government source.

New Delhi acknowledges that the Hasina government has been co-operative, mainly on tackling anti-India insurgents operating from Bangladeshi territory.

“The Hasina government has done what it could. It is now New Delhi’s turn to help her negate Opposition leader Khaleda Zia’s allegations that she has sold out Bangladesh’s interests to India. This can only be achieved if the bilateral projects signed between the two countries start benefiting the common Bangladeshis before the next general election in Bangladesh,” the government source said.

The Teesta water sharing agreement, stalled because of Mamata’s opposition, is something that New Delhi will hope to deliver in the near future, provided it can turn the Bengal chief minister around.

The new envoy to Dhaka will have to have political skills to handle the delicate situation. The diplomat will also have to prepare for any eventuality if Hasina loses the next election.

“It isn’t a coincidence that an officer who has spent several years in the PMO may be our new envoy to Dhaka. He will obviously know the PM’s mind better than most officers who are in contention for the job,” said a retired diplomat.