Bangladesh Coup Plotters Wanted to Derail War Crime Trials, Ties with India

Bangladesh may have foiled a coup by army officers aligned with the fundamentalist outfit Hizb ut Tahrir, but is worried about the entrenched presence of men and officers with radical religious views in armed forces.

NEW DELHI: Bangladesh may have foiled a coup by army officers aligned with the fundamentalist outfit Hizb ut Tahrir, but is worried about the entrenched presence of men and officers with radical religious views in armed forces.

The coup, plotted to derail the trial of "war criminals" (those who had sided with Pakistani Army in the 1971 liberation war) and put a spanner in Sheikh Hasina-led government's efforts to strengthen ties with India, has alerted the authorities to a festering danger in its cantonments.

Bangladesh High Commissioner to India Tariq Karim told TOI that "Between 2001 and 2006, the Jamaat-e-Islami (as part of the BNP government) made considerable inroads into our civil and military institutions. Fundamentalist outfits like the Hizb ut Tahrir are believed to have infiltrated these institutions and even colleges and universities."

At least 16 serving and retired army officers plotted the coup to overthrow PM Sheikh Hasina. On January 19, Army spokesperson Brigadier General Muhammad Masud Razzaq had said "A band of fanatic officers tried to oust the politically established government."

The Bangladesh Army is investigating its officers' antecedents. Karim confirmed the coup conspirators have links with the Hizb ut Tahrir, banned in Bangladesh in 2009 for indulging in ``subversive activities". He, however, said that he didn't know if India provided information about the coup attempt.

Hizb ut Tahrir includes a network of educated people and retired military officers based abroad largely in the UK. "They have a well-knit and well-motivated network. They are believed to be funded by sources in Bangladesh and abroad, and are committed to transform Bangladesh into an Islamic Caliphate," Karim said.

After Hasina swept to power in 2009, a tribunal was set up to try war criminals of the 1971 liberation war. On January 11, top Jamaat-e-Islami leader Ghulam Azam was arrested for masterminding war crimes, including genocide, rape and religious persecution by collaborating with Pakistan in 1971. "Those who now find themselves on the wrong side would want to derail the trial," he said.

Hasina's government amended the Constitution in 2011 to restore its secular principles. "Fundamentalists and militant Islamists look upon a secular state as an existential threat," said Karim.

Hasina's detractors allege her government has allowed Bangladesh to become a vassal state of India. They say she has conceded much to India which has not been reciprocated as generously like the falling through of the Teesta water-sharing deal. "India is perceived by many as having a history of not keeping its commitment. The scuttling of the Teesta agreement strengthened that perception," Karim said.

Last year, India signed a tripartite agreement to build Tipaimukh dam in Manipur without keeping Bangladesh in the loop. It fuelled a groundswell of protests in Bangladesh as the dam could deprive the country's north-eastern districts of water and hit agriculture.

There are reports that exchange of enclaves between the two countries has hit a roadblock after West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee objected to it.

"Such acts feed the anti-India forces and had been carefully cultivated by elements inimical to the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent, secular and democratic state," Karim said.

He explained, "As Bangladesh moves closer to election, the possibility of agent-provocateurs deliberately triggering incidents along the border cannot be ruled out."

Hasina's pro-India stance has dented her popularity at home. "Imagine if the present dispensation is replaced by a non-secular Islamist regime. Our borders are porous ...figure out the risks involved," said Karim.

India needs to address the growing trust deficit in Bangladesh. "Given the tortuous history of the India- Bangladesh relations since 1975, symbolic elements often outweigh substance," he added.

India can also help by sharing information which Bangladesh can corroborate and check, said Karim. "There is good cooperation in information sharing on security after Hasina came to power and I acted as a catalyst," he said. Dhaka enabled India to nab Ulfa militants holed up in Bangladesh. "We also have asked India for more that a dozen criminals wanted in Bangladesh. India promised to hand them over to us," said Karim.

He stressed that the coordinated border management plan agreed upon by the two countries be operationalized soon. Home ministers of both countries will meet shortly to review the mechanism.