The Emergence of the Military as the Ruling Elite

In a post-colonial state like Bangladesh the military tends to be dominant not only because these states have inherited an overdeveloped bureaucratic structure and its institutionalised practices, but also because of the nature of its institutional framework (Ahamed 1988:49-50). Organisation provides the armed forces with discipline and cohesion, hierarchy and centralised command; the institutional structure gives them power. It is no wonder therefore that the military became a dominant force in Bangladesh.

The armed forces of Bangladesh were not a well-knit establishment in the beginning, however, and could not emerge as a decisive factor in Bangladesh politics during the early years. This was due partly to the socio-political environment after independence and partly to internal schism and cleavages among the officer corps, which were effects of the bloody Independence War that continued from March to December 1971. The bureaucratic elite, both civil and military, was not held in high esteem in the society because of its association with military rule in Pakistan during the previous twelve years. Bureaucracy was in fact a much hated word in the political lexicon of Bangladesh. Sheikh Mujib often became livid with anger when he denounced bureaucracy. Moulana Bhasani, another prominent Bengali leader, did not complete a public speech without making a stinging attack on the bureaucracy.

Yet a large number of civil servants and military officers played a key role in the political struggle in the 1960s and in the Independence War. Many of them were aligned with the Awami League and personally remained on good terms with Sheikh Mujib during the Ayub era. Some of them supplied secret information to the Awami League leadership and provided data which helped Mujib to sharpen his case for regional autonomy. The Agartala Case,[18] which was believed to have been staged in 1968 mainly to defame Mujib, implicated a number of civil servants and military officers.

Civil servants and military officers willingly lent their full support to Mujib’s call for civil disobedience and non-cooperation, which paralysed the entire administration in East Pakistan in March 1971. When the Pakistan army launched its brutal attack on the night of 25 March, the Bengali military officer corps became one of the targets. During the Independence War military officers took responsibility for training the Mukti Bahini (Freedom Fighters) at various training centres both within and outside Bangladesh, and they themselves fought against the Pakistan army.

Despite this political role, the military could not consolidate its position after independence and did not emerge as a cohesive force for several reasons. In the first place, the size of the armed forces was quite small. In 1975 there were about 36 000 men in the defence services in Bangladesh, of whom 30 000 were in the army, 500 in the navy and 5500 in the air force. In addition, there were 30 000 men in the Bangladesh Rifles and 16 000 in the Jatiya Rakkhi Bahini (National Security Force), which were paramilitary forces. Of those 36 000 men, about 28 000 (including 1000 officers) were ‘repatriates’ from West Pakistan; the remainder belonged to the former East Bengal Regiment and the new group recruited from amongst the Mukti Bahini. Though the number of officers was above 1200 in 1975, the number of officers above the rank of major was not more than 250 (Ahamed 1980:141).

While the size of the armed forces was small, the level of internal rivalry and cleavage was high. Conflicts between the Bangladesh Rifles and regular defence forces (former East Bengal Regiment) had continued since independence, and it assumed alarming proportions in 1972. Even the regular forces became involved in internecine conflicts. Some of the repatriate officers were either unceremoniously retired, or were placed under officers who were junior to them in the Pakistan defence forces but had been promoted for participating in the Independence War. The officers who took part in the Independence War were offered two years’ seniority and treated preferentially. This differential treatment caused animosity among the freedom fighters and repatriates.

The repatriates regarded most of the freedom fighters as basically secularists, socialists and Pro-Indian, while the freedom fighters stereotyped the repatriates as opportunists and pro-Pakistanis. To the repatriates the War of Independence was fought with Indian resources and the victory was served by Indians to the Bengalis on a silver platter; to the freedom fighters, the repatriates basked in the Pakistani sun while the whole Bengali nation was locked in a life and death struggle. The freedom fighters, on the other hand, complained that repatriates were greedy enough to enjoy the fruits of independence without suffering for and contributing to it (Ahamed 1988:52-56).

The numerical superiority of the repatriates also made the freedom fighters feel insecure. The repatriates complained that they were not given full pay for the twenty-month period that they had to remain in the Pakistan concentration camp before being repatriated to Bangladesh in September 1973. This feeling of being discriminated against on the part of the repatriates, and consequent acrimony between the two groups, badly affected the morale of the military officers, accelerated the process of polarisation, and strained the command structure of the defence services. The armed forces in Bangladesh were also divided at the initial stage in terms of ideology. The repatriates retained much of the conservative outlook that characterised the armed forces in Pakistan, while the bulk of the freedom fighters were highly politicised and somewhat radical in their views. The two groups also held distinct views with regard to the institutional framework the armed forces should take in the future. One group favoured the retention of the conventional army on the pattern of British India or the Pakistan armed forces. The other group advocated that the armed forces be transformed into a kind of productive army on the pattern of the Chinese People’s Army. A few officers, advocating this view, joined the underground wing of a political party, the Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD) and organised cells of the Biplobi Shainik Sangstha (the Revolutionary Soldiers Association) on the model of the Soviet of Soldiers which developed in the Tsarist army before the Communist Revolution in 1917. The two best-known advocates of the concept of productive army were the two valiant freedom fighters, Colonel Abu Taher and Colonel Ziauddin. These factors suggest that the armed forces in Bangladesh could not emerge as a decisive factor in politics at the beginning because of internal rivalry, ideological conflicts and intra-group feuds (Lifschulz 1979:85-88).

While the armed forces could not take advantage of their organisational strength, they could clearly perceive that their corporate interests were not safe in the hands of Awami League regime. The military elite resented the fact that the government did not take quick and effective measures for the reconstruction of the training institutes and cantonments destroyed during the Independence War. Consequently the defence services remained poorly equipped. Expenditure on defence services was not only minimal but was gradually reduced. In the 1973-74 budget, expenditure on defence was little more than 16 per cent; in 1974-75 it was reduced to 15 per cent, and in 1975-76 it was less than 13 per cent.

The establishment of a new militia, the Jatiya Rakkhi Bahini (National Security Force), organised under the direction of the prime minister’s office and attached to the Awami League, introduced a parallel organisation to the regular armed forces. The government seemed to be more interested in the development of the militia than in the armed forces. It was planned that this militia would be increased annually so that by the end of 1980 its strength would be 20 000. It was also planned that one regiment of the Jatiya Rakkhi Bahini would be placed under the command of each district governor.

Most of the groups in the defence services in Bangladesh shared a common anti-Indian orientation. This was so for several reasons. First, most of the members of the armed forces who fought during the War of Independence strongly believed that the Indian Army just walked in when the war was nearly over at the end of 1971, thereby robbing the Bangladesh military of the glory of liberating their motherland. Second, many senior military officers believed that the government-in-exile at Mujibnagar signed a secret treaty with the Indian government, which was detrimental to the sovereignty of Bangladesh. They also believed that Sheikh Mujib became less interested in the development of the defence forces because of that treaty. Third, many senior army personnel felt that the Jatiya Rakkhi Bahini was planned and designed by the Indian Army for the safety of the Awami League regime. The poorly-equipped defence services were also bitter about the fact that the Indian Army took away all the sophisticated weapons left by the Pakistan Army. This anti-Indian feeling gradually developed into an anti-Mujib feeling because of Mujib’s pro-Indian foreign policy.

Despite their grievances against the Awami League regime, the defence services in Bangladesh remained practically immobilised because of the schism and cleavages that affected them during the early years. When they were asked by the prime minister to go to the aid of the civil authorities, and conducted a number of successful operations, they not only regained their sense of unity and cohesion but also came to believe that their services were indispensable. From July 1973 to July 1974 there was a number of combined military operations between the Rakkhi Bahini and the police, such as checking for smuggling at the border, handling ‘extremists’, and maintaining law and order. As internal threats mounted, and were successfully managed, the military officers began to believe that only the Bangladesh Army could save the country. Officers’ growing participation in the day-to-day affairs of the state made them not only sensitive to political power but also aware of the basic weaknesses of the regime, particularly the corrupt practices of some top ranking leaders, and of their unpopularity. Thus when a pre-dawn coup was staged on 15 August 1975 by a handful of junior officers (twenty to twenty-five majors and captains) with the help of two battalions of the armored corps and 1500 soldiers, it came as no great surprise.

The August 1975 coup paved the way for the emergence of the military as the ruling elite. The Zia regime (1975-1981) helped them, albeit unwittingly, to attain a new height of maturity; the Ershad regime turned out to be a period of consolidation. The August coup may be regarded as a pacesetter in that it was closely followed by a series of counter coups or coup attempts. The seeds of all those were sown in the August putsch.

The 3 November coup was essentially a pre-emptive bid to prevent the radical forces from taking over control of the armed forces. It, however, failed to take roots. Khaled Mosharraf and the other ringleaders were overwhelmed by the 7 November Soldiers’ Uprising, which in effect catapulted Major General Ziaur Rahman to political power.

General Zia, having assumed power by default rather than by design, was confronted by serious problems from his own constituency: the highly politicised army. Though before the 7 November uprising Zia was the recognised leader of the freedom fighters and as such was highly respected and loved by his comrades-in-arms, he had something of a falling out with them after the death of Colonel Taher (who was arrested, subjected to a prison trial and hanged on Zia’s orders), because Taher was mainly instrumental in organising what happened on 7 November. Then Zia turned to the repatriates and managed to strike a balance between the freedom fighters and repatriate officers of the defence services.

As a soldier, Zia’s loyalty to and reliance on the military was deep. Unlike his predecessor, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who kept political elements separate from the military, Zia pursued a policy of welding these together and tried to incorporate military personnel into different sectors of national life. The salary of both the jawans (privates) and officers was enhanced; the system of rent payment for accommodation was modified to their benefit; and Zia created openings for the assignment of retired military officers to lucrative jobs in other sectors.

On 1 March 1979, 25 of the 625 officers in the senior policy pool, responsible for policy-making in the secretariat, were military officers. Of 101 chairmen or managing directors of public corporations in June 1980, 42 were military officers or retired serviceman. In January 1981, 22 of the 40 district superintendents and additional superintendents of police were army officers. Moreover, 500 retired military officers were employed in industry, indenting business, foreign trade, and supply and contracts under the patronage of the government. Quite a few military officers were allotted residential plots in the developed areas of the city, and were even granted liberal loans for building houses by the House Building Finance Corporation. With all of these actions, Zia’s critics argued, he was consciously following the Indonesian model of partnership between the military and civilian sectors: civilians being the junior partners (Ahamed 1988:124-25).

General Zia laid the foundations of a number of civilian institutions such as the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and Gram Sarker (village government). He also initiated a number of participatory programs such as canal digging and eradicating illiteracy through literacy squads which were established in early 1979. He introduced a multi-party system in the country, and before the presidential elections in June 1978, when he was elected president of the country, Zia resigned from the post of the chief of army staff. During his time, general elections were held in February 1979 to form the Jatiya Sangsad. A process of civilianisation was launched by President Zia in late 1977. One can, however, argue that the civilianisation process culminated in the primacy of the military. One of the reasons why Zia was killed in the abortive coup of 30 May 1981, some scholars have argued, was his ‘over-democratising’ of the political system. The measures taken by Zia not only raised the expectations of the military, but gave them a stake in the polity. The military thus emerged in the 1980s as a powerful socio-economic group, much more confident than any other sector in Bangladesh society.

This political consciousness of the military began to take shape at two levels during the Ershad regime. Deeply entrenched at the centre of power, they could not afford to be indifferent to the forces shaping politico-economic decisions at the highest level, and thus became positively involved in a process which was expressly political. Second, from the early 1980s they began demanding a constitutionally-incorporated active role in the governance of the country (New York Times 14 November 1981).

The military, if it had wanted, could have seized political power in the wake of the Chittagong coup of 30 May; however it refrained from doing so for good reasons. The senseless and dastardly assassination of Zia by a section of the armed forces not only endeared Zia to the nation but also created a kind of abhorrence towards men-in-uniform. The repatriate generals under the leadership of General H.M. Ershad weighed this carefully, and by way of buying time lent support to the constitutional change of government. The generals also knew that the viability of the successor government during a period of uncertainty could be ensured largely through their support. Thus they extended liberal support to the Sattar government, ensuring continued military domination over the policy-making structure.

Justice Abdus Sattar, the 75-year old successor to Zia, in his campaign speeches for the November 1981 presidential elections, emphasised among other things his close association with the late president and as such his enjoyment of the trust and respect of the country’s armed forces (Ahamed 1988:132). The military elite thus threw their weight behind Justice Sattar’s candidature. Zia’s policy of fusing the upper echelons of the bureaucracy and the military into the bedrock of a stable political system was endorsed by the military. Moreover, the structural weaknesses of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), an outcome of Zia’s ‘open arms policy’ of welcoming divergent political elements ranging from the progressive left to the fundamentalist right, were also perceived by the military as advantageous to their corporate interests. The BNP, which had been held together mainly by Zia’s charismatic personality and political power, was likely to yield wider scope for bargaining to the military after the death of its leader.

Though the corporate interests of the military remained the crucial factor, internal dissension and factional cleavages within the ruling party provided the sought-after occasion for the generals. The BNP was developed rapidly by its leader, General Zia, mainly with a view to extending his power base beyond the cantonments. While he was alive, factional cleavages did not surface. His sad demise, however, seemed to have lifted the lid, leading to a sudden outburst of conflicting views and interests, and the proliferation of antagonism and dissidence within the BNP. Thus, within a year of Zia’s death, the Bangladesh polity verged on the brink of praetorianism (Perlmutter 1977:104-107). It was anybody’s guess whether the military, which emerged as a well-knit and self-confident force after the Chittagong incident, would assume political power at an opportune moment. The generals did not have to wait long; only four months after the landslide victory of Justice Sattar in the presidential elections of 1981, Bangladesh experienced a bloodless coup. The military, under General H.M. Ershad, wielded political power from then until 6 December 1990, when a violent popular uprising forced Ershad to resign.

[18] The Agartala Conspiracy Case, in which Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was charged along with thirty-four other Bengali politicians, civil servants and military officers with conspiring to bring about East Pakistan’s secession in collusion with India, was initiated by the Pakistan Home Ministry on 6 January 1968.