The landmark verdict on the “Pilkhana tragedy” saw death sentences given to 139 army personnel for carrying out an infamous mutiny in 2009 that left 74 people dead. The High Court ruling brought an end to Bangladesh’s biggest-ever criminal trial – yet it failed to clarify why the carnage took place.
Bangladesh lost more army officers in the span of two bloody days than it did during the nine-month-long liberation war in 1971. The mutiny by Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) personnel started on February 25 and by the time it ended, late the following day, 57 soldiers had been killed.
After a lengthy trial, the High Court agreed on November 27 last year that 139 mutineers should face capital punishment and 146 others be jailed for life for their roles in what the three-member bench called “the most heinous, brutal and barbaric carnage” in the country’s history.
When indignant members of the BDR started their revolt, it initially appeared to be a few disgruntled jawans (privates) taking up arms against officers in high positions amid demands for better pay and working conditions. But it turned out to be a calculated massacre.
The mutineers stole thousands of weapons from the armory at BDR headquarters in Pilkhana and embarked on a killing spree at Darbar Hall in Dhaka, the national capital. They also murdered the then BDR chief Major General Shakil Ahmed and his wife.
The remains of those they butchered, were dumped in sewers or shallow graves and had to be retrieved later.
The date of the revolt was carefully chosen. February 25 was the day set in BDR week for the paramilitary unit’s yearly Darbar (assembly). The drama saw the force declared defunct and led to it being re-christened as the Border Guard of Bangladesh (BGB).
The nature and real motive of the mutiny were widely debated as events started to unfold on February 26, after the mutineers surrendered. But even after the High Court verdict, the real reasons behind the mutiny have not surfaced.
‘Vested interests’ keen to topple Hasina govt
The most prominent argument suggested the involvement of “outside forces”. Even a high-level committee probing the rebellion hinted at the possibility of foreign influence after conducting initial inquiries.
The High Court bench, which delivered 1,000 pages of observations, said “there was a plot both from internal and external sides behind the BDR carnage to uproot the Sheikh Hasina-led government, which came into power in 2008.”
Asia Times asked Lt General Mainul Islam — the first director-general of the BGB after the mutiny (now retired) — if he had found evidence of outside forces being involved after he took charge. Mainul said he had not found proof, but had heard reports about what went on.
Massive discontent among soldiers
Mainul said motives behind the mutiny were not to oust a newly elected government or create turmoil in the country, as some have speculated. The underlying factor, he said, was “prevailing discrimination between army officials running the BDR and the BDR jawans [low-level troops],” which he believed had created serious discontent among the jawans over time.
On top of this, BDR programs such as “Dal-Bhaat Karmashuchi” (Pulses and Rice Operation) aggravated members of the force. The program was launched in 2007 to let the force control soaring food prices in Bangladesh and sell essential commodities to people.
The High Court verdict said: “By late 2008, most border guards started to believe that their bosses had deprived them of their right share of the profit. This resentment intensified their age-old discontent about being led by army officers appointed over them.”
The pulses and rice program had created a scope for “internal financial maleficence” and upset many BDR recruits, Mainul said. “I think the armed forces shouldn’t get involved in a commercial program like this because it also creates scope for security breaches.”
Failure of the BDR’s intelligence unit
Many have asked why the intelligence unit failed to get a sense of the imminent crisis that started on the morning of February 25, as there were several suspicious activities that could have rung alarm bells.
Days before the bloodshed erupted, rebel jawans had distributed leaflets raising demands both in and outside the BDR headquarters. They also held several meetings and came up with a plan to loot the armories.
The High Court bench, in one of its recommendations, called for an inquiry into “the failure of the [BDR] intelligence unit in the purview of the Pilkhana carnage.”
Security expert Maj Gen (retd) Abdur Rashid told Asia Times members of the Rifle Security Unit — the BDR’s intelligence unit — were later found to be associated with the mutiny. “That explains the intelligence failure to some extent,” he said.
The Rifle Security Unit was not a strong outfit, Rashid said. It didn’t have a proper working relationship with the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence — the armed forces’ larger and stronger intelligence organization.
Strengthening of intelligence units and the BGB
Rashid said the Border Guard force now has a stronger “three-layer intelligence”— a Border Security Bureau at HQ level, a Region Intelligence Bureau at regional HQ and a local bureau at the battalion level at various border points.
Current BGB chief Abul Hossain said “the whole BGB” has been strengthened over the years and it now has “increased capacity” in protecting borders than the defunct BDR.
After the massacre, the government implemented various measures to totally reform the unit, Hossain said. The Border Guard Bangladesh Act 2010 was enacted and the BGB command decentralized by setting up four new sectors and four regional headquarters under new structure to make the force more efficient and dynamic.