Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Bangladesh: Keeping the Army off Politics

[Now the big question that obviously crops up is: why then should a man of Kuldip Nayyar’s standing and repute attribute anything which Sheikh Hasina did not say at all, or twist/distort her remarks to suit anyone else’s evil purpose, especially her political opponents and adversaries in Bangladesh? In fact if it would have been some one else, even Mr. Gaffar Choudhury, who sometimes writes imaginary stories sitting in his cosy London apartment, I would have overlooked the entire matter straight away, but I can’t help getting confused when a man of Mr. Nayyar’s stature, with an unblemished career record of 40 plus years of journalism gets involved in the controversy and has so far failed to come out with any rejoinder or clarification himself]

Let us keep the armed forces aloof from politics
By A.K.Faezul Huq


I know, once again I am about to touch a rather sensitive chord, since I want to start with a somewhat unkind remark. Honesty and politics, I am afraid, do not go together harmoniously, especially in our part of the world. I am saying all this because we politicians, by and large are selfish no doubt and there is no extreme to which we really cannot go. The Indian Union Minister for Railways---Laloo Prasad Yadav---the maverick ‘Bihari’ politician rightly says that “there are no friends in politics; only opportunists and competitors.” But the people, especially the poor people, who vote for us regularly, expect something quite different. Apart from honesty and uprightness, which people expect from their elected representatives, it is also expected that they speak out the truth. Unfortunately, ‘truth’---in all its forms---is the rarest commodity today and only opportunism rules the arena where fails deals have no room for existence. The reason why I am saying all this is because, of late, a controversy has cropped up centering the text of a purported interview of Leader of the Opposition in the Parliament, Sheikh Hasina with the well known, senior Indian journalist Mr. Kuldip Nayyar, which was published in some of the leading dailies of Bangladesh, India and even Pakistan. While Mr. Nayyar’s resume of the interview that appeared as a regular column in most of the newspapers clearly says that Sheikh Hasina accused the Bangladesh army of being involved in the 8/21 Grenade blast; the rejoinder by her political secretary a few days later tells an entirely different story altogether and denies the entire part of the controversial text which has been claimed by Mr. Nayyar to be Sheikh Hasina’s expressed views. Mr. Kuldip Nayyar has further claimed that Sheikh Hasina had also said that the army [which obviously refers to the entire army] was against the liberation of Bangladesh.

First of all I am the last person to believe that Sheikh Hasina would say something so sweeping and wild as Mr. Nayyar has attributed to her. In his regular Sunday column which appeared in a local English daily, Mr. Kuldip Nayyar had written: “ Hasina, whom I met first, had no doubt that it was the job of the army which she alleged was against the liberation of Bangladesh.” The word ‘army’ has been later interpreted as the entire army by the top BNP leadership to serve their own purpose, followed by an scathing attack which has been launched to malign Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League[AL] in order to create a big rift between the AL leader and the armed forces as a whole. Saber Hussain Choudhury’s subsequent clarification which was quite prompt and crisp, is exactly what Sheikh Hasina had said and meant. She was in fact referring to that segment of the army which was directly involved in the gruesome killing of her parents, siblings and other family members, at the dawn of 15th August 1975 along with a handful of their supporters who fled the scene in a haste or were later purged from the army, or had themselves retired in due course of time. And how could she say that the entire army was against the liberation of Bangladesh when we all know that our army which is being referred to, spontaneously, voluntarily and successfully participated in our great war of Independence. There might have been a handful of deserters or those who did not support our cause wholeheartedly for reasons explained and unexplained, but to say that the Bangladesh army as a whole is or was against our war of Independence is nothing short of being a ridiculous, preposterous notion. We all know that quite a sizeable number of Bengali officers, including other ranks and jawans who were serving in the then West Pakistan were stranded at various cantonments and garrisons of Pakistan and were later brought from all over and put in one place [like a concentration camp], till they were finally repatriated over to free Bangladesh. A few could of course sneak out and cross the International borders and join our war at some stage, but the majority had to suffer a good deal of ordeal in the detention camps until they reached their motherland, safely. It was quite a traumatic experience no doubt amidst a nerve breaking tension which the Bengali army men had to bear with fortitude for quite sometime. May be circumstances did not permit them to be vocal in the detention camps and they failed to demonstrate their love for their country openly, but that does not mean in any way that they were less patriotic than anyone else who claims an edge over them.

Fortunately, I have also had the rare experience of meeting some of the then serving Bengali army officers who were even detained in occupied Bangladesh throughout those nine horrible months and were later [unfortunately] branded as Pakistani supporters for no fault of theirs’, by a section of people who have always considered themselves to be a much superior lot in all respects---a clear case of superiority complex no doubt---for the simple reason that they could cross over to the neighbouring country without being intercepted at any point and could take active part in the nine month’s war against the Pakistanis. But the hard fact remains that in absence of any apparatus or machine which could correctly measure the extent of patriotism; it is indeed difficult to say as to who was more patriotic and who was not. We have seen some senior army officers who fought bravely against the occupation forces in 1971, making a complete ‘about-turn’ later and getting fully involved in the brutal killings of 15th August. How could a man or woman who had taken up arms at the call of the Father of the Nation, venture to associate himself directly or indirectly with the tragic killings in an awful carnage? That person, let me forcefully assert, is even worst than a ‘Razakar’, who might not have been involved in any direct killing, so as to say.

Now the big question that obviously crops up is: why then should a man of Kuldip Nayyar’s standing and repute attribute anything which Sheikh Hasina did not say at all, or twist/distort her remarks to suit anyone else’s evil purpose, especially her political opponents and adversaries in Bangladesh? In fact if it would have been some one else, even Mr. Gaffar Choudhury, who sometimes writes imaginary stories sitting in his cosy London apartment, I would have overlooked the entire matter straight away, but I can’t help getting confused when a man of Mr. Nayyar’s stature, with an unblemished career record of 40 plus years of journalism gets involved in the controversy and has so far failed to come out with any rejoinder or clarification himself. However the Armed Forces’ Public Relations department [which is fortunately or unfortunately directly under the Prime Minister, who traditionally holds the Defence portfolio as well] has been quite prompt in issuing not only rejoinders but sermons also whose gist has been far from being courteous so far. It is nonetheless obviously understood at whose dictates they are issuing such strongly worded statements, whose sole intention as I have already mentioned above is to bring about a big rift between the armed forces and the AL leadership on the whole.

However, this is not the first time that attempts have been made by some interested, powerful quarters to create a permanent misunderstanding between Sheikh Hasina and the army which have surfaced from time to time, but have also been ignored ab-initio. Still it has been tried many a times in the past without any success. As a matter of fact, as a member of her cabinet since June 1996 till we resigned in the middle of July 2001, I have always found her to be exceptionally sympathetic to the cause of the armed forces; visiting different cantonments and garrisons where the traditional ‘darbars’ were held regularly; generously sanctioning funds for the overall development of the forces and agreeing to the various proposals for expansion and modernization of the entire armed forces---that included purchase of modern air-force jets and naval warships et al---for which the present government immediately after coming to power instituted a number of ‘cooked-up’ corruption cases against her and her colleagues including some top retired armed forces officers. Of course Sheikh Hasina had one plus point throughout her entire tenure as the head of the government. The army chief was all along her own man and she did not have to think at all on that count and unnecessarily go through the ordeals of sleepless nights! She was also on good terms with other senior armed forces officers who respected her genuinely and extended all out cooperation without any hesitation. During that period the army was particularly used extensively to assist the civil administration in various development works and especially to help mitigate the sufferings of the flood affected people in 1998. That arduous job, I must say, was performed most commendably and for which they earned immense praise from all quarters. Subsequently the army was also brought in to help the local traffic police in controlling the wayward Dhaka traffic and to streamline the chaotic system at the city’s innumerable bus terminals for which the BNP leadership bitterly criticized the then government of Sheikh Hasina---a contention which may be cross-checked by turning over the pages of old newspapers of that period.

Finally, we must agree, through a broad consensus of our political leaders, not to involve our patriotic armed forces in any political controversy whatsoever at any point of time. From my personal experience I can safely say that the overwhelming majority of the armed forces officers, other ranks and jawans have no ‘salt to grind’ against anyone in particular. They are down-to-earth professionals without any specific leanings or fascination for anyone.

It is a mystery therefore as to how the whole episode was drafted and enacted with so much of precision involving not only Sheikh Hasina but also one of the most notable and respected senior journalist of the sub-continent. Mr. Nayyar’s resume of the controversial interview might have been an innocuous piece of writing no doubt, but it has done enough damage to an eminent person of a sovereign country who had meant something quite different and was quoted in a distorted way.

Perhaps it would be in fitness of things if the writer of the article himself comes out with his own assertions and clarifies the entire position for the sake of removing all sorts of misunderstandings and misgivings. I still have reasons to believe that Sheikh Hasina was absolutely innocent when she spoke to Mr. Kuldip Nayyar.

New Nation 03/10/2004