by Taj Hashmi 18 July 2020
Bangladesh since its birth has gone through too many intra-military and intra-civilian conflicts to mention in one breath. As on 14th July, Bangladeshi Lt General (ret) Chowdhury Hasan Sarwardy revealed in a bold and candid video interview from Dhaka with Kanak Sarwar, a Bangladeshi American journalist in New York (who fled the country of his birth and now lives in the US), it’s no longer a matter of speculations (often trashed as conspiracy theories) if something very ominous is brewing up in the country. Sarwardy has provided some obvious and some not-so-obvious evidence in support of the main premise of his interview that General Aziz Ahmed, the pro-Indian Army Chief of Bangladesh, and not Prime minister Sheikh Hasina, is calling the shots. Hasina, her ministers, parliament members, and the entire civil administration are at the mercy of the armed forces, which have surreptitiously taken over the country without making it so obvious.
So much so, that even the Prime Minister’s and her International Affairs’ Adviser Gowher Rizvi’s telephones are being tapped and SMS messages interrupted by the DGFI (military intelligence of Bangladesh). These developments don’t bode well for the country, because not only the well-entrenched Deep State is running the show, but also because the adherence – if not loyalty – of the ruling party, opposition, armed forces, law-enforcers, lawmakers, bureaucrats, intellectuals, and analysts is divided between the Chinese and Indian camps. The country, in short, is fast becoming a battlefield of the Sino-Indian Cold War.
This is what happens to regimes who over-rely and depend on law-enforcers as death squads à la the Frankenstein’s Monster story. The armed forces, the RAB (Rapid Action Battalion, virtually a death-squad since 2004), and police are in-charge of Bangladesh today. In this backdrop, one may surmise, anything – virtually anything –might happen to Hasina herself, her government, and to the country at large! However, what the general hasn’t made very obvious is that Hasina’s civil and military administration is sharply polarized between cronies and planted agents of New Delhi and China. Who wins at the end of the day is the question! Most importantly, will the coming US Administration (most likely under Joe Biden) go with the anti-Chinese, pro-Indian faction? This could spell disaster for the Hasina Regime! To put it in other words, intra-party cleavages within the ruling party, and more ominously, within the armed forces and law-enforcers are widening, signaling possible intra-party and intra-military conflicts, maybe in coming days!
As the erstwhile powerful retired general reveals in his interview, while the present Army Chief, General Aziz Ahmad is very loyal to New Delhi, seemingly all serving and retired armed forces officers do not toe his line in regard to India. Interestingly, Kanak Sarwar, the interviewer has privately informed this writer that while General (ret) Sarwardy a few weeks earlier had been too scared to talk about anything on Bangladesh politics and security issues (he had apprehended his consequential abduction and even murder at the hands of General Aziz Ahmed’s men), it was him who contacted his would-be interviewer the day before the interview, telling him he was ready for an interview! One wonders, what developments had taken place in the country in the last few weeks that emboldened Sarwardy to talk so boldly against the civil-military administration in the country. As of this morning (18th July), General Sarwardy and his family are hiding at some unknown place in Bangladesh. Meanwhile, it appears that while Hasina and some of her close associates are toeing the Beijing line, General Aziz and some top brasses in the armed forces have been loyally serving New Delhi.
Now, let’s look at the main points raised by the General, and what one may decipher from his bold, passionate assertion by further elucidating his points in the light of known and some not-so-known facts and figures about the new Great Game China and India are playing in Bangladesh!
General Sarwardy starts with an anecdote. He went shopping at a plaza near Dhaka Cantonment, but he couldn’t enter the complex as some VIPs were inside. On query, he discovered that the “VIP” was none else but Joseph (Tofael Ahmed), the Army Chief General Aziz’s younger brother, a notorious murderer who was on death row but released through the clemency of President Abdul Hamid (a ruling party leader) during Hasina’s last term. Then he mentions the Regent Hospital Scandal, an unlicensed hospital in Dhaka, owned by a ruling party leader Mohammad Shahed, which sold thousands of fake COVID-19 test reports at $45 each during the past few months (widely reported in national and international media, including the New York Times).
Sarwardy mentions the prevalent reign of terror, tyranny, abduction, and killing of dissidents and suspects by Hasina’s law-enforcers and party activists. What is quite revealing in the interview is that not only intellectuals but military officers are also regularly get abducted and many disappear under this regime. He sounds very pessimistic about holding any free and fair elections in the country. Thus, he believes, no change of government is ever possible through elections in the country, under the “prevalent arrangement”. As many as 147 business firms, industries, and financial institutions are run by the armed forces, and greed and corruption among military officers are pervasive, he affirms. What the General spells out with no ambiguity is that on the one hand, the Hasina Regime terrorises potential dissidents, arrests, tortures, and kills dissidents, and on the other, it rewards cronies, military, police, and bureaucracy.
The main thrust of the interview is on the growing paranoia of the Indian Lobby in Bangladesh, within and beyond the Hasina Administration, among sections of the ruling party and those who don’t believe in Bangladesh as an independent, sovereign entity. The excesses of the Indian Lobby in the country reflect pro-Indian elements’ nervousness. General Sarwardy believes that in 2015, the Hasina government arrested Mahmudur Rahman Manna, a leader of an opposition party, JSD, for his alleged incitement to stage a military coup against the government, in league with the General himself and some top army brasses. And that it was an Indian conspiracy to implicate him in the alleged conspiracy, but he was fortunate enough to serve the Army until his retirement in 2018. The General believes that all-important appointments in the Bangladesh armed forces and bureaucracy, including the top positions in the foreign and defence ministries, are made in accordance with the RAW, which is an Indian intelligence agency. He also believes that the present Army Chief, General Aziz Ahmed, was chosen by “only one player, India”! He thinks pro-Indian Bangladeshi military top brasses conspire against anti-Indian/anti-Awami League officers, who are regularly relieved of their jobs with no apparent reason. Last but not least, Sarwardy singles out India and Hasina (who had been avowedly pro-Indian up to the farcical elections of 2018) for the mysterious murder of 57 army officers, including a major general and several colonels, in February 2009 at the BDR (Bangladesh Rifles – the erstwhile border security guards) Headquarters in Dhaka. He blames Hasina and the then pro-Indian Army Chief General Moyeen U. Ahmed, and some ruling Awami League party leaders for orchestrating the BDR Massacre (as the killing is known popularly).
In sum, what is unbelievable but seemingly true, is that the pro-Indian Army Chief is so influential that, as General Sarwardy asserts, his personal SMS to Prime Minister Hasina (which was a complaint against General Aziz Ahmed for withholding his pension and retirement benefits) was intercepted by the Army Chief, who later sarcastically told Sarwardy: “You can’t gain anything by sending SMS to the Prime Minister”. What is even more surprising that on General Sarwardy’s mentioning this (as a complaint) to Gowher Rizvi (Prime Minister’s International Affairs Adviser) the latter told him that General Aziz tapped his telephone calls and messages too and that even the Prime Minister’s telephone calls and messages were not immune to regularly tapping and an interception. Sarwardy’s conclusive remarks are very ominous, which translates into no peaceful transfer of power in on the cards; and there is no alternative to fighting the armed forces to restore democracy and freedom from Indian hegemony!
China has never been a superpower to have overtly promoted pro-Chinese elements, at least, not in Bangladesh. However, China seems to have covertly turned many Bangladeshis – even in the Hasina Administration – into “China-friendly”, if not “pro-Chinese”, per se. While the bulk of the anti-Indian Bangladeshis are pro-Chinese by default, influential people in the Hasina Administration, including the Prime Minister, are keen on Chinese multi-billion-dollar investments in the country for its badly needed infrastructure development. Interestingly, while the Hasina Regime is keen on taking full advantage of taking Bangladesh into the Chinese economic orbit, sold as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), without annoying or alienating India, which had played the decisive role in installing the Regime in the first place, in 2008; and then again re-install it in 2014, with subtle rigging and overt manipulation of the so-called elections.
Interestingly, in December 2018, China managed to outbid India in re-installing the Hasina Regime for the third consecutive term with its full financial and technical support by grossly manipulating the national elections in the country, which broke all previous records of farcical polls and rigging in the history of Bangladesh. It is widely believed within and beyond Bangladesh that the so-called elections were manipulated the night before the polls were scheduled on 30th December 2018. Officially, the voter turnout was around 96 percent, and the ruling Awami League party is said to have received more than 90 percent of the cast votes. We know both the figures are utterly absurd and unheard of in any democracy but only in autocracies in Africa, the Middle East, and North Korea.
As evident from the General’s revealing interview, India is leaving no stone unturned to counter the overwhelming Chinese influence in Bangladesh. It’s also trying hard to keep the Hasina Regime under control by controlling the armed forces, police, and bureaucracy of Bangladesh; and by exposing Hasina’s close associates’ corrupt practices. One isn’t sure if India would succeed at the end of the day! It’s likely to lose the not-so-subtle tug of war with China over Bangladesh. Seemingly, Chinese financial investments in the country are likely to play a much more important role than India’s controlling some top brasses of the armed forces and law-enforcers in Bangladesh in winning the hearts and minds of Bangladeshis, including their leaders. The way, “even Hasina” and sections of the Awami League are leaning toward Beijing is disheartening for New Delhi. All bets are off now with regard to Hasina’s love and loyalty toward India, as there’s no eternal friendship or animosity in international politics.
India got its first rude shock from Hasina when after winning India’s grossly manipulated elections in January 2014, even without paying a courtesy visit to India, she rushed to Beijing and agreed to allow China to build several mega infrastructure development projects in Bangladesh, including the Sonadia deep-sea port. Interestingly, thanks to Modi’s severe arm twisting, Hasina revoked the joint infrastructure development pact with China. However, what India had gained temporarily in Bangladesh in 2014, lost it totally to China in 2018. And, we know the latter helped Hasina rig and win the 2018 elections, with an overwhelming majority. China simply outperformed India in what it had done to make Hasina win in 2009 and 2014. As one retired Bangladeshi diplomat has put it – to the discomfiture of India – Hasina has virtually brought Chinese crocodiles into the Bay of Bengal! And, the game has just begun! We know China has promised at least $24 billion to Bangladesh for infrastructure development and has promised much more to come in the future.
Now, what General Sarwardy has revealed is just the tip of the ice-berg. He has just hinted at India’s growing influence in the armed forces and law-enforcers in Bangladesh. What he hasn’t spelled out is much more significant than what he has. As mentioned above, only two months back he had refused to say anything publicly on Bangladesh politics – fear for his life being the main concern – what prompted him to change his mind and give the “earth-shattering” interview!
Who or what had precipitated the interview – as he is likely to have an adequate guarantee for his protection from some quarter – is the most important part of this jigsaw puzzle! Was it China or some pro-Chinese elements in the Bangladesh armed forces who have guaranteed Sarwardy of his and his immediate family’s security?
In the above backdrop, one can’t fully rule out the prospect of an Indian-sponsored military takeover of the country, which could jeopardise both the Hasina regime and torpedo the BRI project altogether. Since Hasina is no longer a safe-bet for Modi, and she and her regime are at the bottom of their popularity, Bangladeshis might welcome some “champion of freedom” in uniform or civil attire, heaving a sigh of relief at the ouster of Hasina. Although some Bangladeshi analysts believe India might go for holding a snap-poll to elect a caretaker government to hold fresh general elections in a few months, maybe after the end of the Covid-19 generated lockdown! This writer doesn’t believe India would unnecessarily gamble and press Hasina to hold free and fair elections under some sort of neutral caretaker government. India should rather be happy what it has already got from Bangladesh –which Hasina publicly asserted several times: “India should be very happy for what Bangladesh has given her in the last twelve years”! Elections or no elections, if things go the “Suhrawardy way” – this writer assumes he has been promised some retaliatory action against the Indian coterie in the armed forces of Bangladesh – maybe it won’t be India but China who would play the interim game of changing players – from a military-backed caretaker government to a duly elected civilian government, which anti-Awami League forces – presumably the BNP – are most likely to win.
At this moment, nothing can be ruled out, and again, there’s no guarantee of Hasina leaving. China might keep her in power – albeit for some time – by purging the rabidly pro-Indian elements in the armed forces, law-enforcers, and bureaucracy. A change might be lurking at the end of the tunnel, which is too early to figure out if it would be a protégé of the US-World Bank-UN triumvirate or China and pro-Chinese elements in Bangladesh. Hasina and her party has almost lost Indian patronage, and the discredited generals, RAB, and police officers who were the main agents of rigging the polls (paradoxically with Chinese help) in 2018 are least likely to get any substantial support to manipulate things again to their advantage.
The writer holds a Ph.D. in Modern South Asian History, a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society, author of several books, including Global Jihad and America (SAGE 2014), and Retired Professor of Security Studies at the APCSS, Honolulu.