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The coup that copped it

Author: Manash Ghosh
Publication: The Statesman
Date: January 24, 2012
URL: http://www.thestatesman.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=397938&catid=39

Manash Ghosh relates how Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina pre-empted rival Begum Khaleda Zia’s disruptive ambitions with timely action

WITH Major Ziaul Haq, the “front man” of the attempted Bangladesh coup still in hiding, it would be naive to expect that those Islamic radicals within and outside Bangladesh’s military, who recently tried to overthrow Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, would keep quiet after a spectacular failure. This is because all those factors responsible for inducing Islamic radicals to take to such a reckless and bloody path would remain unchanged until such time the war crimes tribunals are either forced to wind up or pronounce sentences against all the four prominent Jamat-I-Islami leaders convicted of crimes against humanity during the 1971 Liberation War. Also, there is no possibility of Sheikh Hasina going back on her 2008 election pledge that her government would prosecute all those responsible for committing history’s worst possible genocide and other atrocities during 1971.

Actually, the coup that failed was aimed at not only scuttling the war crimes trial of four most senior Jamat leaders ~ Gholam Azam, Matiur Rahman Nizami, Ali Ahsan Mujahid and Delwar Hossain Saidi ~ but also at eliminating Sheikh Hasina and her younger sister Rehana. The assassinations would have ensured the total liquidation of Sheikh Mujib’s family, a goal pro-Pakistan Islamists have been trying to achieve ever since Bangabandhu and most of his family were annihilated 36 years ago. The coup was meant to “finish the unfinished job” and was part of an international conspiracy, the masterminds of which are mostly Bangladeshis who live in, besides Dhaka, in places as distant and disparate as Hongkong, Islamabad, Jeddah, Dubai, London and Ottawa.
Some, like Major Dalim and Captain Noor, who masterminded and were the main actors in Bangabandhu’s assassination and have sought asylum in Pakistan and Canada, are also part of the conspiracy to overthrow Sheikh Hasina. Major Dalim happens to be “a very close friend” of those army officers who have been rounded up for the attempted coup. Of late, he has been frequently visiting Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Africa, where he met some of the alleged plotters, including Begum Khaleda Zia’s son, Mr Tareq Zia. In recent months, the London-based
Tareq has been visiting Dubai, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to hold talks with senior ISI officials and other foreign operatives who provide huge funds for radical and militant Islamic outfits such as the Hijbut Tahrir, one of the outfits gunning for Sheikh Hasina. He is also close to leaders of the Pakistani Jamat and the Muslim League.
Like the Pakistan-based Major Dalim, the indigenous masterminds in Dhaka also believe that Sheikh Hasina and Rehana’s elimination would ensure the instant organisational and political collapse and death of the Awami League and mark the end of pro-India tilt in Bangladeshi politics and governance. They want removed from Bangladesh’s constitution all ideals of the Liberation War, especially secularism, to turn the country into an Islamic republic with a distinct Islamic flag and a “truly Islamic” national anthem. Adopting such an Islamic outlook, according to these masterminds, would automatically rid Bangladesh of all religious and ethnic minorities who, out of insecurity, would seek refuge in neighbouring India. Interest-ingly, all these “Islamic goals” that they sought to achieve by eliminating Sheikh Hasina were also relevant following Sheikh Mujib’s assassination in 1975, but Indian and Western pressure threw a spanner in their works. This time, the Indo-American strategic partnership upset their plans. As soon as it got wind of the conspiracy, Sheikh Hasina was tipped off to round up the “rogue elements” in Bangladesh’s army.

The other major objective for attempting a coup was to shield the BNP leadership, especially party chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia, son Tareq (no. 2 in the party), and former ministers in her Cabinet named as the principal accused in a number of cases related to corruption and arms smuggling. Tareq and Begum Zia’s younger son Coco face money laundering charges in Bangladesh, Malaysia and US courts. The money laundered by them runs into hundreds of crores of takas. Recently, FBI agents visited Dhaka to confirm before Bangladeshi courts the “deep involvement” of Begum Zia’s sons in this “nefarious activity”.

A successful coup would have stalled the ongoing trial in two of Bangladesh’s most sensational criminal cases involving Tareq and former ministers in Begum Zia’s Cabinet. One concerns the August 2004 grenade attack on Sheikh Hasina in which 32 Awami League leaders and workers were killed and the other relates to smuggling of arms from China for Bangladesh and India-based Ulfa insurgents to cause widespread destruction and mayhem in India’s Brahmaputra Valley. Sheikh Hasina’s demise would have also meant instant withdrawal of all court cases pending against BNP and Jamat leaders, whose conviction and death sentences are a given. In both cases, evidence is heavily loaded against BNP and Jamat leaders. Bangladesh’s Opposition fears that the judgment in both cases would expose Begum Zia’s ministers and her elder son’s direct and grisly involvement in the 2004 grenade attack on Sheikh Hasina and also in the shipment of smuggled Chinese arms for Ulfa insurgents.

“Friendly” China’s involvement in this arms smuggling was also what the coup planners were wanting to hide, because strong judicial indictment would again land the two Opposition parties in the dumps and help the Awami League win the 2014 parliamentary poll. Fortunately, for the BNP and the Jamat, the trial in both cases has been very slow. It will be quite some time before judgments are delivered. Already, depositions against the BNP and Jamat leaders before the war crimes tribunals for their pro-Pak and anti-Bangladesh role during 1971 have played havoc with their image among first and second-time voters who constitute almost 40 per cent of an 80 million-strong electorate. So, the desperate conspirators chose to strike before it was too late.

Also, the revelations at the war crimes hearings caused immense unease among the entire Pakistani establishment. In fact, Pakistani leaders and their Saudi mentors sought to pressure Sheikh Hasina into abandoning the war crimes trial. The Saudis even threatened to send back home hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi workers if the trial was not abandoned.

The timing of the failed coup is very significant. It was to coincide with Sheikh Hasina’s planned visit to Tripura on 11 and 12 January, 2012. Also, it was supposed to come at a time when the Indian High Commission in Dhaka is practically “headless and rudderless”. Dhaka has no Indian High Commissioner since Mr Rajit Mitter left two months ago. It may be recalled that the plotters of the 1975 coup had also chosen to eliminate Sheikh Mujib’s family when then Indian High Commissioner, Samar Sen, was away in India on a long leave. There is no knowing how long Delhi will take to name its man in Dhaka. Pakistan, on the other hand, was quick to replace its High Commissioner with a new appointee, who, ironically, called on Sheikh Hasina twice ahead of the attempted coup to “pledge Islamabad’s cordiality towards Dhaka”. Significantly, he also called on Begum Zia after the coup failed.

Sheikh Hasina did not make the mistake that her father had when she got wind of the conspiracy. Having survived six attempts on her life, she did not laugh it off or gloss over it when she first learnt about it well ahead of her Tripura visit. She instantly got the entire military establishment to track down the conspirators at cantonments. On 11 January, 2012, the day she arrived in Agartala late in the afternoon, she remained wide awake at Ganabhavan, her official residence in Dhaka till four in the morning overseeing mopping up operations, both at and outside cantonments. She admitted as much to Tripura chief minister Mr Manik Sarkar soon after her arrival in Agartala. Mr Sarkar was amazed by her composure. In fact, Sheikh Hasina’s ministers have told the writer that she handled the coup attempt with much more calm, composure and courage than she had during the Bangladesh Rifles revolt of February 2009. Some of them had counselled her against going to Agartala, only to be told: “I have lost almost my entire family to conspirators, another assassination plot won’t deter me.”

Significantly, the coup was plotted in the backdrop of a well-orchestrated and well-coordinated hate campaign jointly unleashed by Begum Zia and the Jamat against Sheikh Hasina and India. The failure to reach an agreement on Teesta water-sharing during Mr Manmohan Singh’s Dhaka visit in September, 2011 resulted in the BNP and Jamat’s instant resurrection from the wilderness they have found themselves in after being trounced in the 2008 parliamentary polls. Begum Zia, along with Jamat leaders, staged roadshows across Bangladesh with the express objective of denigrating Sheikh Hasina and India. The tenor and rhetoric of the roadshows betrayed the conspiracy to a large extent: “I won’t rest till I have ousted the Indian stooge ~ Sheikh Hasina ~ from power. Her ouster has to be accomplished before the year is out.” India’s proposal for a transit route to Tripura through Chittagong was also singled out for virulent attacks. This route, Begum Zia said, would undermine Bangladesh’s sovereignty as India would use it for troops and armament movement.

More ominous were her provocative speeches that openly called for the military to revolt against Sheikh Hasina’s government. Two days before Sheikh Hasina’s departure for Tripura, Begum Zia, on a 9 January, 2012 speech in Chittagong, called on the country’s army “to revolt as the Indian stooge is persecuting our army officers and men, many of whom have been cashiered and the whereabouts of many more are unknown”. This call was given when she realised, much to her chagrin, that the front man of the attempted coup, Major Ziaul Haq, was on the run and his accomplices in the military’s rank and file were being rounded up. It was also around that time that the banned Islamic outfit, Hijbut Tahrir, wholly funded by radical and militant elements among Saudis, plastered Dhaka’s walls with expensive posters calling on the country’s army to take up arms to overthrow Sheikh Hasina’s government. This radical outfit, during six years of Khaleda Zia’s rule, had managed to have a large number of its cadres infiltrate the army. After Sheikh Hasina came to power, these cadres formed sleeper cells in the cantonments. The plotters were planning to activate these cells for the coup when Sheikh Hasina struck back.
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