Politicisation of the Armed Forces

A high level of politicisation of the armed forces is evident in Bangladesh. The 15 August 1975 coup, by a handful of junior officers with the help of two battalions of armoured corps, was the first indication of the armed forces’ overt intention to play a political role. It was followed by a series of coups and counter-coups until 30 May 1981 when General Zia was brutally killed by a group of about twenty mid-level officers at Chittagong in another abortive coup. Bangladesh was placed under martial law for the second time under Lieutenant General H.M. Ershad from March 1982 to November 1986. The military-dominated civilian regime remained in power until December 1990.

The military ruled Bangladesh for more than nine of the twenty years of its independent existence; another four years were under the shadow of martial law, with men-in-uniform in the background. What is more significant is that the military not only assumed a political role, but claimed that they had a right to do so. Before the assumption of power in March 1982, Major General Ershad demanded that the military be accorded a constitutional role to ensure the protection of the political system (Ershad 1981:12; New York Times 14 November 1981).

The process of politicisation of the armed forces in the post-colonial state of Bangladesh is linked with the organisational framework of the military in British India and the orientation of its officer corps. In Western countries the concept of the military as a more or less politically neutral body has emerged mainly because democratic institutions have evolved over a longer period of time with little involvement of the military. Moreover, as an apparatus of the state, military organisations were designed mainly to handle external defence. The British Indian Army, which was the predecessor of the armed forces of all the South Asian states, was by contrast trained from its very inception to be ‘the custodian of law and order’ with a view to promoting imperial interests. It was thus essentially in opposition to the national interest and demands, and its organisation was always subject to political considerations. The roots of politicisation of the armed forces can therefore be traced to this peculiar conception of its role.

For the supreme purpose of securing and perpetuating colonial interests in India, the British army’s policy had been to capitalise on existing religious antagonisms between the minorities through a policy of ‘divide and rule’. The British Indian military’s deployment strategy was based on the dictum: ‘Keep your Sikh regiments in the Punjab, and they will be ready to act against the Hindoos; keep your Hindoos out of the Punjab and they will be ready to act against the Sikhs’ (Philip 1962: 508).

With the nationalist movement gaining ground increasingly in India from the latter part of the 19th century, an intense effort was made by the colonial government to indoctrinate Indian troops in general and the officer corps in particular with an anti-political and anti-democratic orientation. They were taught that politicians were no more than ‘rabble rousers’ and ‘disruptionists’, and that their activities merely undermined the social order and systemic solidarity. Thus the British Indian military officers in the course of time were not only thoroughly anglicised but also rendered anti-national, anti-political and anti-democratic.

Analysing this aspect of the British Indian military, many scholars came to believe that among military officers assimilation displayed itself not merely in ‘the exquisitely tailored lounge suits of officers in mufti, in a penchant for understatement, for beautiful silver, and for cavalry moustaches’, but also in their belief that politicians were no more than ‘scallywags’ (Rudolph and Rudolph 1964).

After independence, the organisation of the armed forces in India, and their systems of training and recruitment, underwent profound changes; but the armed forces in Pakistan continued to be organised and trained on basically the same lines as in British India (Khan 1963:220-235). A general headquarters (GHQ) was set up as the central agency responsible for the administrative affairs of the various defence services. Training institutions such as the Pakistan Military Academy or Air Force Academy were established on the same lines as at Sandhurst in Britain and Dehradun in India. The new military leaders continued to be recruited from the same bases; the armed services personnel continued to remain in the cantonments, which were physically and culturally distanced from the civilian sectors, having a sense of being a part and yet apart from the society in which they lived (Alavi 1966). This duality in attitudes of the soldiers towards their society and their professional expertise created an ambivalence in their attitude towards the political institutions in Pakistan. The root causes of the martial law clamp-down in Pakistan in 1958 can be traced to the dynamics which were generated in the Pakistan Army because of training, organisation and the orientation of its officer corps.

After the conclusion of the Mutual Defence Assistance Agreement with the US in 1954, the Pakistan Army acquired sophisticated American military technology. Acquisition of new technology enhanced not only the Pakistan military’s striking power but also its bargaining strength. Soon after, it began to penetrate the civilian government of Pakistan. Thus, ultimately by staging a coup and assuming dictatorial powers in 1958, General Ayub Khan established the supremacy of the men-in-uniform in Pakistan.

Most of the Bengali military officers, who played crucial roles in seizing political power in Bangladesh in the 1970s, were recruited during this period and were trained and socialised under the shadow of Ayub Khan’s martial law regime. The proclamation of martial law in 1958 had far-reaching effects on the Bengali military officers in many ways. Officers became conscious of the role the military could play in the political system; they also became sensitive to political power. They became conscious of the regional imbalance in the armed forces, too, and they began to realise that the Bengali officers in the Pakistan Army were not accorded equal treatment. Bengali officers also felt that a policy of discrimination was practised against them in matters of pay, promotion and other perquisites. These discriminatory policies made the Bengali officers not only resentful, but also vociferous in their complaints against the West Pakistani ruling elite. In the 1960s their complaints became louder when by default Bengali bureaucrats, both civil and military, became the chief spokesmen for Bengali interests in the absence of free political processes. This role politicised them further. The Agartala conspiracy case bears ample testimony (Ahmed 1991:91-110).

The most important factor in the intense politicisation of the Bangladesh armed forces was the War of Independence of 1971. The fact that a large number of officers and jawans, throwing aside their professional norms and indignantly breaking the canons of military discipline and chain of command, rose against the establishment and joined the war, was itself a revolutionary step. Under normal circumstances, all of them would have been court-martialed, but after independence they became war heroes and were greeted with warm-hearted glee and pride by the nation. Moreover, the new strategy of guerrilla warfare, devised in a conference of sector commanders at Teliapara in July 1971, had the double effect of further politicising the armed forces and radicalising them to a great extent (Ahamed 1988 :43-45).

In sum, the Bangladesh Army, which was the lineal descendant of the British Indian and Pakistan Army, inherited not only the institutional framework of its predecessors but also their orientation against civilian rule and their sensitivity to political power. The War of Independence removed the distance between the civilians and armed forces personnel, and made them aware of the nature of weak political leadership and fragile political institutions.