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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Force of destruction

It was quarter to nine in the morning of February 25,2009. As Dhaka roused itself,the noise of repeated gunfire did not bother anyone much.

Written by Ali Sanwar | Published: March 2, 2009 12:04:34 am

When Dhaka woke up to gunshots on February 25,people thought the BDR was celebrating its annual event. But soon,Bangladesh watched in horror as the nation’s most brutal mutiny played out. Ali Sanwar brings you the inside story from Dhaka

It was quarter to nine in the morning of February 25,2009. As Dhaka roused itself,the noise of repeated gunfire did not bother anyone much. After all,the crack of bullets was coming from Pilkhana,the headquarters of the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) — the border force of the country — which had been celebrating its annual BDR Week since February 24.

But by 9.30 am,panic had replaced nonchalance. The firing had continued unabated and by the time a few BDR jawans along with their non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and junior commissioned officers (JCOs) took position beyond their boundaries at nearby New Market and Dhaka College,everybody knew that a mutiny had broken out.

Immediately,the police and the elite crime-busting force,the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB),were sent to cordon off the area and contingents from the Bangladesh Army were sent as back up. All water,electricity,gas and telephone lines running into the area were cut off.

Soon after,Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced a general amnesty and called upon the mutineers to come to the negotiating table. She promised a personal hearing. However,when Air Force helicopters went to distribute leaflets in the area at noon,they were greeted with a volley of gunfire from the ground.

Initially,the mutineers refused to talk to the media,but when a couple of bodies — later identified as senior BDR officers Lt-Colonels Anis and Gulzar — were found washed up at Kamrangir Char,a kilometre away from Pilkhana,the rebels changed their minds,using the opportunity to express their views and marshal public opinion. The BDR men said that they had revolted to break the Army’s stranglehold over them,and listed out a litany of complaints: their rations were less subsidised than those of Army personnel; they were not sent to UN Peacekeeping missions abroad; and that the officers had minted a lot of money through last year’s ‘Operation Dal-Bhat’,which was undertaken by the interim caretaker government to ensure the supply of essentials to the common person at subsidised rates.

A BDR jawan alleged,“All officers are corrupt. They have made money by stockpiling food during the Dal-Bhat programme and forced consumers to buy rice at high prices. It was only when prices rose that they started selling the supplies.”

Another complained: “We do not have any officers of our own. All officers are from the (Bangladesh) Army. They do not look after our interests or address our grievances. We want the BDR to have its own officer corps. If necessary,they can be recruited through the Public Service Commission (PSC).”

Meanwhile,several small processions were taken out by civilians outside the BDR compound by alleged supporters of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) that recently lost to the Awami League in the elections of December 29,2008,getting only 29 seats out of 300 contested.

The day before

On the day before the revolt,the Prime Minister had inaugurated the BDR Week celebrations with a march-past by the troops. But there were already signs of unease. The Prime Minister even received a leaflet that demanded a separate officer corps for the BDR,options to join UN Peacekeeping missions abroad,an increase in subsidies for rations and an investigation into the corruption of officers,particularly those involved in Operation Dal-Bhat. The PM then promised to look into all their grievances. However,the durbar (general meeting) with the PM was cancelled due to “security reasons”,signaling to the soldiers that their complaints would never be addressed. The next day,when BDR Director General (DG) Major General Shakil Ahmed,sat at the durbar,the 3,000 soldiers who came there left the venue in unison. Very soon,others joined in.

The peace offensive

At 1 pm on February 25,two Government emissaries — the state Minister for Local Government and Rural Development Jahangir Kabir Nanak and (Treasury Bench) whip Mirza Azam — entered the BDR headquarters to open talks with the mutineers. After 40 minutes of discussion,they emerged with 14 representatives of the rebelling personnel and headed for Jamuna,the official residence of the Prime Minister.

Following a two-hour meeting with Sheikh Hasina,at a joint press

conference,Nanak and the mutineers’ leader announced that a peace accord between the Government and the BDR had been reached and that the revolt would be terminated immediately. The centrepiece of the agreement was that the PM had promised to meet all their demands,phase by phase.

But as soon as the reps reached Pilkhana,they called back saying that many of the mutineers were not ready to go along with the agreement.

Nevertheless,the Government decided to continue with its strategy. Home Minister Sahara Khatun along with Minister of State for Law Kamrul Islam and Inspector General of Police (IGP) Nur Mohammad went to accept the arms surrendered by the rebels. Throughout the intervening night of February 25-26,soldiers turned in their weapons. After the partial surrender,the delegation visited the officers’ quarters and rescued some of the families trapped there. It was 5 am when the delegation left the site.

Yet,many of the dissidents had not surrendered and the delegation was not allowed to visit many crucial spots inside the headquarters,including the Durbar Hall,which is where the revolt reportedly erupted. They were not allowed to visit the BDR hospital either. Nevertheless,the emissaries’ midnight endeavour was hailed across the nation as an

act of bravery.

On February 26,Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina made one last attempt for a final resolution to the revolt. She appealed to the rebelling BDR men to lay down their arms,threatening “tough action” against those who did not. To demonstrate she meant business,the 9th Division of the Bangladesh Army in Savar,20 km from the city,was brought in and took position outside the BDR gates. Tanks,armoured personnel carriers and field guns were deployed at two of the five gates of the BDR headquarters.

The Prime Minster’s tough stance unnerved the mutineers and they finally announced that they would surrender by 3 pm. As the deadline approached,they asked for an extension till 4.30 pm. But at 4 pm,as the negotiations continued at a nearby restaurant,they again wanted to change the deadline to 6 pm.

The bone of contention was the BDR’s unwillingness to surrender to the Army or the police. Finally,it was decided that they would surrender to the Armed Battalion of the police and that the Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) would take charge of Pilkhana. The keys of the ordnance depot would be handed over to the Home Minster.

End of the mutiny

By 6 pm on February 26,the mutiny collapsed,but many of the renegades had fled the scene. When the DMP,RAB and the Army moved in there were only 300 BDR men there,when there should have been many more.

When the remaining hostages — including Lt-Col Kamruzzaman and Major Monir — were released,they had a shocking tale to recount. Though the rebels tried to portray the mutiny as a spontaneous uprising,the released officers’ accounts made it clear that the entire ‘operation’ was well-planned and coordinated. The killings were done to create a point-of-no-return and pit the BDR against the Army,irreconcilably.

The officers alleged nothing was said at the Durbar Hall where the durbar was held and the soldiers left,together,soon after the five-minute speech of the DG. Very soon,some other soldiers started firing shots at the officers. The soldiers then told the officers to form a single file. As soon as the officers did so,with the DG as the natural head,he was shot. When the other officers tried to come to his rescue,they too were shot. Zaman escaped miraculously with a bullet injury that grazed his belly. Later,he was sent to quarter-guard,the BDR prison.

As the detective branch of the DMP,the Fire Brigade and the Army scourged the Pilkhana Headquarters for stray arms,ammunition,explosives and the missing officers,a mass grave containing 39 corpses of Army officers including that of the DG was found near the BDR Hospital mortuary,10 other corpses were found in the sewerage line. On February 28,10 more corpses,including that of the DG’s wife along with two of her friends were found in another mass grave inside the compound.

Now,the Government has appointed a new DG,Brigadier General Mainul Hossain,who has been given the responsibility of rebuilding the splintered BDR.

The writer is a senior journalist at Bangladesh’s oldest daily,,The Bangladesh Observer.

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