Sunday, May 20, 2001

Patriotism 2001: Old Khakis in New Civvies!

The weeks following Pyrdiwah and Roumari, caught the Bangladesh media sorely on its wrong foot. As matters concerned complex issues of National Defense, strategies, warfare and no known or 'reliable intellectuals' in the field, it rested pretty much on the knowledge and experience of the charismatic Major General (rtd) Mohammad Ibrahim to stage the initial 'press counter attack'. It was he that suggested to the tabloid Manabzamin that 'none of you journalist are pointing to the fact that fifteen Indian Border Security Forces (BSF) soldiers were killed inside Bangladesh territory - which is clear proof of aggression'. Sure enough our inexperienced 'war journalist' took the queue and everybody had more or less a 'fix' on how to 'counter attack' the Indian propaganda thanks to the General's diligence. Learning on the job - not too bad!

Over the weeks the retired General and his 'think tank' Centre for Strategic and Peace Studies (CSPS) have taken on the role of exofficio spokesperson or the press corps for the Bangladesh Armed Forces that has never been known to be transparent. The role is laudable and correct, and I had therefore called the General on his cell phone on the 12th of May, ostensibly to congratulate him for his 'straight talk' in the article 'RAW's raw invention' by Saiful Huda, and posted by Sohail Ahmed in Darthmouth, Massachsuetts, for NFB and Shetubondhon on the 11th of May instant, when he extended me a very cordial invitation to a conference the next day, i.e. 13th of May 2001.

This piece is however not to report specifically on the proceedings of the conference, but a cultural overview of the khaki civvie relationship over the years in Bangladesh, that has been anything but 'pleasant' as we settle in to figure out our priorities after the recent hostilities with India.

To start out, our men in khakis have been known to be a secretive lot and rarely can civilians figure the workings of their minds. The popular, albeit unfair notion that all of that excessive LEFT RIGHT marching makes their brain move somewhere close to the knees completes their 'alien' status in society! They are not known to socialize with civilians while in service, neither does one get to know them on a one on one basis - unless they happen to be your relative. They are known to be patriotic - but exactly how patriotic has also been cause for debates.

For instance the khaki foray into state power in Bangladesh's history more than a dozen time in successful or unsuccessful coup detat and rebellions, have earned them a notorious reputation among civilians as being a brutal, conniving, and conspiring lot. The last of those 'uprisings' was in 1996. Led by the former Chief of Staff, General (rtd) Mohammad Nasim, it is believed by many till this day to have been orchestrated by the Indian intelligence agency RAW, to dislodge the BNP installed President Rahman Biswas. That episode from infamy ironically saw General Ibrahim forced to retire and pack up his very checkered carrier that started with his gallantry award the Bir Pratik in the Liberation War of 1971. His 'patriotic position' in recent days - seems to be however in no doubt at these critical times.

Old khakis in 'older' times - Lest we forget:

If anything positive needs to be articulated about khakis in Bangladesh is: they are an institution, perhaps the only institution that believes and lives by discipline. That in a bid to enforce their version of discipline on unwilling civilians, they have all to often resorted to 'fear as the key' - is yet another matter. The bare truth is : khakis are more feared than respected in Bangladesh - yet in these troubled times the 'old khakis' have received some kind of grudging approval specially in the fall out and soul searching to the border clashes. It is heartening to note that they are being HEARD.

Civilians on the other hand, over the years have had to contend with appreciating and understanding popular jargons like 'military leaders', meaning obscure men in uniform, who illegally seized state power, to earn their high public profiles. The other 'military leaders' were those that too often than not played second fiddle to larger than life 'heroes' like Zia or Ershad - to earn their now respectable credentials. Ofcourse the majority constituted men in khakis that did their jobs quietly as 'professional soldiers' and retired with dignity.

The real tragedy about our khakis in thirty years is there has hardly been any attempt by them to shed their secretive mask's even when bigoted 'intellectuals' have debated openly in newspapers and other public forums, whether Bangladesh needs a Defense force at all! There has never been any counter argument coming from the khakis or old khakis in civvies in such deliberations. Retired officers have been busy with their profitable businesses or writing knowledgeable and eloquent pieces on military strategies in Dhaka dailies, from Rwanda to Israel to Bosnia Herzgovina or any other colorfully obscure places in conflict or wars - never Bangladesh!

The Pro-Bangladesh factor: When the Going gets tough the tough hide!

As I have predicted in one of my earlier pieces - things in Bangladesh are changing perhaps far too fast for many to comprehend. It may seem very odd but true, even with our knowledge, experience and 'lessons' from history, that we have to reluctantly rely on old khakis to create sort of an 'elite vanguard' to lead part of that change - to bring in a breath of fresh air, an air of openness in our thinking and understanding process. Now that we have them in new civvies on a media blitzkrieg, their transformation as 'civil role models' to emulate in recent days is indeed unique, yet grudgingly and necessarily SUSPECT.

However we wish to play it, and whether we trust them, or can trust them is what TIME will decide for us; as we do not have any easier options available to us at these times of crisis. After all, who else can teach civilians complex issues like National Defense in public in a nation held hostage by traitors? How many civilians are around, who can rephrase or reconnoiter our long 'suspect patriotism' in public with 'open doses' of anti-India or anti-Pakistan and propagate a 'pro-Bangladesh' agenda, and get away with it - other than old khakis?

Readers will recall that when I articulated the 'pro-Bangladesh' factor on the NFB last month there was a reaction from one Mr.Mohhamad Newaz Khan in his piece 'An Elegant Conspiracy theory', where he brutalized me by stating 'Mr.Mac has the audacity to even hint that Bangladesh in the eyes of pro 1971 activists is nothing more than a "province" (he might have meant state) of India. Also, he is telling us that his voice is echoing the sentiment of common Bangladeshis. That sentiment he calls it "Pro Bangladeshi factor." I am wondering now who has appointed Mr. Mac to be the champion of common Bangladeshi people?'

The truth about the Pro Bangladesh factor is now out in the open ladies and gentleman, in all our newspaper, in all our journals and let me be so arrogant as to say that when the going gets touch - our toughs get going, and will get going - and not hide behind mirages of lies - that has been our destiny for over thirty years.

It was heartening to note that almost all present in the conference echoed my long held (hot headed) patriotic position - and at best it was a pleasant dejavu. One does not necessarily need anybody's 'appointment' to echo sentiments of the 'common Bangladesh people'. If one is part of an 'overwhelming flow', and not a 'stubborn trickle' - the long view out to the sea, no matter how hazy, how stormy will be revealed in due course - is what history teaches us. The difference ofcourse is one living a life of an ostrich with head buried under the sand during a storm, and living it preferably in the comfort of a foreign land, away from harsh ground realities of his native Bangladesh.

Our old khakis on the other hand are men, who have seen it all, done it all, heard it all and LIVED IT ALL in the heat of battle, in the skirmishes of our times, and in the wantonly vulgar polarization's that too often have found them and the rest of our citizenry dangling in the spectre of doubting whether we are citizens of Bangladesh or India. The most important question is - are our old khakis our safest bet?

Maybe!

Maybe - because how else do we explain that atleast one old khaki (General Ibrahim) and his phalanx of retired warriors are being HEARD without reprimand or fear - by the people at large, by the Government in general and a media in a 'learning process' that has readily 'shimmied in' to promote this a new brand of 'patriotism' that was considered 'unpatriotic' even a few weeks ago?

A sample of new jargons that was restricted to sites like NFB etc in the past, and now thankfully 'mainstream' in the Bangladesh media for readers delight:

'We are grateful to India for their help in our Liberation war. But they should also be grateful to us for the help we extended to them in dismembering Pakistan. We provided them with logistics and information, vital to warfare. They helped us and we helped them and that is it .' Brigadier (rtd) Miran, former Mukti Bahini guerilla.


'Non of this ISI or RAW nonsense please, we have got to focus on being pro-Bangladesh.' General (rtd) Ibrahim.
'
No country is small enough to defend itself' Advocate Mainul Hossain, Editor of Ittefaq


'Fidel Castro said it would take fifty years and one hour for America to retake Cuba. One hour to invade it and fifty years to fight on' Ishtiaq Kazi Ulfat, former member of the crack platoon of the Mukti Bahini urban guerillas.

'We need to bring in change in our political leadership' Major(rtd) Hafizudding, MP, BNP


'Bangladesh deserves respect even as India's biggest market' Mahfuz Anam, Editor The Daily Star


Are these ominous signals that in our 'war games' with India, the first casualty could well be our treacherous politicians, and our long displaced sense of patriotism? Is this start of a new political schism in Bangladesh, i.e. old khakis in a rear guard deployment, ready to act as morale guardians for civilians in the event of war or related hostilities with India? Or is this a veiled warning emanating out of the defense forces that civilians need to shape up or get shipped out?

Let's find out….

The CSPS Conference: Retired Khakis and tired Civilains Closing Ranks?

Weaving in an hour late through Dhaka's traffic on a working day, the CIRDAP auditorium was jam packed with standing room space when I arrived. As I got hold of the drift, I told myself - had this been held in more 'peaceful' times i.e. prior to 15th of April 2001 - I am more than certain the Government would have clamped down hard on it as an attempt by 'notorious elements out to disrupt the friendly relations between Bangladesh and India', or it could have easily been termed an 'assembly of anti-liberation' elements' or 'attempt by old khakis for state power'!

Titled 'Recent Border Disputes/Clashes between Bangladesh and India', it was a veritable assembly of who-WAS-who in our past civil, political, diplomatic and military bureaucracy. With the media and a large scale intelligence agency presence, there were many lucky students from the International Relations Department of Dhaka University, having a first hand orientation on 'patriotism', as also participation by very 'common people', the commonest 'denominator' being that of Mr.Saiful Islam (Lal Miah), one of the unsung heroes and native of Roumari, who set a shining example of citizens defense and patriotism during the attack - completed the august assembly.
Notwithstanding there was a huge presence of past Mukti joddhas or freedom fighters - predominantly those that later joined the armed forces, some who turned politicians - and others who maintained a civilian existence over the last thirty years. This was ofcourse a 'democratic forum' of pro and anti Government activist - and whilst we had sing song written presentation read out by demure ladies in coiffures, there were many who made a mockery of the microphone - they did not need one! There were lots of table and ground thumping approval, counter approvals and emotionally charged speeches - and applause. Most of the deliberations - especially from the old khakis were in articulate English, which was welcome and stimulating. One could however easily notice the earnestness of the organizers of the conference, to keep this an academic exercise, and who came down heavily - commando style - on any attempts at politicking!

Roumari - Defense the Best Offense?

On a lighter note here is an anecdote that I could not help but share with readers:

Allegation of 'insubordination of authority' was brought against the StationMaster in a remote jungle Railway Station. He had made it a habit on far too many occasions' to act on his own without consulting 'superiors' in Head Office. This was his last chance, and he knew the consequences would be severe. Hence he promised never to act without instruction from Head Office who were greatly relieved to have tightened its noose around the renegade StationMaster - until it received a telegram from him that stated in curt, crisp English: TIGER IN PLATFORM EATING UP GUARD - PLEASE WIRE INSTRUCTIONS!

In the days following 15th of April 2001, the potent areas of controversy in the Net as elsewhere was whether or not, the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) had any authority to 'retake Pyrdiwah' and importantly take defensive action against the aggression of the Indian Border Security Forces (BSF) in Roumari. Hyperbole's were being played about, and the Hasina governments stoic silence and blackout of the media, created more fodder for rounds of 'upmanship' amongst scribes on both sides of the fence. The common notion played around by the pro-India 'intellectual' column writers in Dhaka, would have much preferred the role of the BDR to the quixotic example of the Station Master that I have stated above!

However for the first time things were proved wrong. It now appears that the BDR can act on its own and this was confirmed by Brigadier (rtd) Sakhawat Hussain who while speaking from experience during his tenure in the BDR stated 'the Bangladesh Rifles have arms and ammunition, and rations to sustain for up to twenty-four hours any attack on any Border Outpost, to protect the Bangladesh flag - our sign of sovereignty. They do not need any order from anyone to fire back - once fired upon. They can act on their own'

The action of our BDR personnel's in defending Roumari, was therefore justified and patriotic. Against huge odds, their performance was exemplary and unbeknownst to many, it now seems and as confirmed by Major (rtd) Farook Khan, the Awami League MP from Gopalgunj during the conference, the Hasina Government - had 'very quietly' moved behind scenes to 'congratulate the BDR men even while they were under fire', provided them with reinforcements and munitions, helicopters sorties to bring in wounded men and all support (including flying in camera persons) required in such 'war-like' situation. Why the State run BTV or Betar were blacked out was never explained, and there was hardly any time left to debate this. One possible answer could have been 'security is never discussed in public' - is what the honorable MP was hinting when he complained that 'things were blown out of proportions- by India ' - why, anybody's guess!

Dead bodies and Mutilated Ego's:

It became apparent to all that the unwritten rule of engagement for our forces pretty much depends on men in the forward area and while partisan line of 'not being allowed to fire back by past regimes' also came up - there were not many willing to buy that argument. What did come up as new and subjective was the role of the civilians of Roumari that played a significant part in the resistance, and rightly so, because they have lived and paid a price all these years in the border skirmishes with continuing atrocities of the BSF that never made headlines. There was however none to raise the embarrassing allegation that often come up in our press of residents of border areas indulging in smuggling for sustenance, with the BDR and BSF as willing players, although there was a rather business like presentation with an over head slide projector on smuggling.

Nonetheless, Lal Miahs knowledge of firearms that helped him take up the weapons of a dead BDR and open up on the BSF received a round of rapturous applause from all present. Together with the dead and surviving members of the BDR, those present at the conference recommended him for a gallantry award. I was reminded that it was this same action on part of Lal Miah that received a sharp criticism by a pro-India scribe - a portion of his piece in a local daily was also read out. After listening to emotional description of battle from Lal Miah and his bitter experience - the only thought that crossed my mind is why do we not demand the trial for high treason - these handful of 'intellectual' elements in the employ of India, here in Bangladesh when their 'patriotism' has been openly exposed in their black and white columns in newspapers?

While there was a lot of criticism of the media, what came as a total surprise to me was the length of time taken to discuss the photograph of the dead Indian BSF soldier hanging on a stave like an animal. The photograph was apparently the cause of 'negative publicity' for Bangladesh (especially when front-paged by INDIA TODAY!) during the crisis as some old khakis lamented. I wonder why photographs of civilians carrying a dead soldier in the most 'convenient mean' possible given the exigencies of the situation could be cause for such controversy. After all there is no such thing as a 'humane war' and since Bangladesh did not have a propaganda counter offensive - a regret for bodies denied dignity of their death - seemed almost like co-opting to India's demand.

The reports of mutilation and the discussion gave more importance to India's point of view. Nobody in the conference raised the specific fact that the Bangladesh authorities also carried out an autopsy of the dead at the Mymensingh Medical College. The least that could have been done, was for the media to ask for the Bangladesh post-mortem reports, make it public - and importantly STICK TO IT, rather than hypothesizing that fox, jackals, insect and large scale decomposition was the cause for mutilation.

Pyrdiwah: Offense the Best Defense or state of seige!

As the smoke around the border clashes continues to clear out, it seems that there are quite a few clarifications that needs to be made. In Pyrdiwah it has now been established that the BDR laid siege or encircled the BSF outpost and created conditions that forced their withdrawal - without any shots being fired. No physical control on the BSF outpost was ever taken. Peaceful as this may sound, and while emphasis is being made on 'no shot being fired' - I wonder what the situation would have looked like - had the Indians opened up and had both the parties suffered casualties. Any guesses - any 'what if' hypothesis?

The relative 'ease' by which the BDR carried out its operation leads to the more simplistic hypothesis being played out in Dhaka by some quarters that this was a planned game by Sheikh Hasina and Vajpayee to create war like situations in the border for respective political exigencies. What was not bargained for in this tit for tat, was that civilians would confront openly and that the BSF would have to pay so heavily.

However on the matter, if BDR could acts on its own in 'reclaiming' its own territory - which also means preparing or engaging in war like situations - without approval from the 'political leadership' - or the highest aouthority, the conference was told in no uncertain terms by Major General (rtd) Golam Dastagir, 'no action is taken by the BDR without the connivance and clearance of the Government. As a former BDR chief, I know how military decisions are cleared by the political leadership'

General Fazlour Rahman off the hook at last:

Much time was taken by old khakis to stand up for their beleaguered college Major General Fazlour Rahman. While undoubtedly a hero for the moment, the Sheikh Hasina Government belated acknowledgement of 'the BDR as part of the Bangladesh Government' has perhaps turned the table around the propaganda war for the moment, although her repeated 'sorry' to Vajpayee was not forgiven.

While there was speculation and rumors from the Indian propaganda of the General Rahman's ' ISI link and Pakistani connections', what came as a total surprise to many civilians in the conference was the remark made by Brigadier (rtd) Miran, 'Fazlur Rahman had only one training in a foreign country in his life - and that was in India', which made me whisper to friends around one hushed word: LTTE!

How the days ahead will shape up for General Fazlour Rahman is what we will be closely watching. Whether he has political ambitions or not, the huge public profile that he has earned over the days will keep Indians on their toes, and Bangladeshis monitoring his every move. His friends out in their new civvies will do the same no doubt.

As I close this piece, I would have really wished that the old khakis in their new yet essential liaison with civilians had come up with a third - more acceptable front for the people of Bangladesh to rescue them from the political quagmire - the bone of all our contentions. Politically if they chose to rely on the 'strength' of the 120 million people of Bangladesh whose compulsory military training over the age of eighteen was suggested during the conference, this could well have created unique dimensions and importantly HOPE.

Bangladesh is in dire need of political directions - and people with military experience at the forefront would be welcome. On the run up to the elections, it would have been splendid to see the old khakis team up to form a new alliance with the 'people' against the political villians of Awami League, BNP, Jatiyo Party or the Jamaat-e-Islami - non of whom owe their political survival more than their 'pro-India' agenda - period.The old khaki experience can be invaluable as we take stock after Roumari, to teach us to shape up- and we can only pray that they remain steadfast in their dealings with civilians in their new civvies.

Irrespective of whether they die in khakis or civvies - the old adage that 'old soldiers never die, they simply fade away' will be savored only with a pinch of suspect salt in the days ahead - if they do not live up to their 'new commitments' in public. If they fail as civilians - which is a more onerous responsibility than having to spend half portion of life on public money, as members of a SECRET SOCIETY called the forces, Bangladesh will not forgive them. It might have forgiven in the past - their many flirtations with our people's destiny, which was propelled by ambitious autocrats they preferred to salute - in deference to the FLAG they were pledged bound to uphold, with their hands on holy books of whatever faith they subscribed to, are 'lessons from the past' that civilians will not easily forget.

Footnote:

The old khakis have gone public about their plans to hold a rally of freedom fighters in the 'pro-Bangladesh' side of the political vacuum on the 27th May 2001 at the Paltan Maidan. I would have hoped that this was a great 'pro-people' move, only that as I conclude this piece I am disappointed. The chief guest of the rally as readers may have guessed is non other than Begum Khaleda Zia.

Phul phutibar agai jhoriya poreelo!

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