25 February 2023 marked the fourteenth anniversary of the mutiny carried out by the erstwhile Bangladesh Rifles (BDR). Despite multiple investigations, questions surrounding the motives of the mutineers, why they took such extreme actions, and if there was a conspiracy behind the carnage, all remain unanswered.
Popularly referred to as the BDR Mutiny, on the morning of 25 February 2009, several hundred disgruntled BDR soldiers took up arms against their commanding officers deputed from the army. At the end of the mutiny, 74 people had lost their lives including 57 army officers, 2 wives of army officers, a retired army officer, 9 BDR soldiers, 3 pedestrians, an army soldier and a police constable. The mutiny was one of the bloodiest military coups since Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan in 1971. To put the 57 deaths of the army officers in context, during the nine months Liberation War in 1971, Bangladeshi forces lost a total of 47 officers. The mutiny happened two months after the restoration of a democratically elected government that ended the two-year rule of a military backed caretaker government (CTG). It turned out to be an early test for Sheikh Hasina’s government. Not only did the mutiny threaten to destabilise the new government, it put the army and the BDR in a standoff. The event itself was so traumatic that it prompted the government to rename the BDR and constitute an entirely new force of Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB). In the aftermath, the army and the government launched separate investigations to uncover the causes and motives behind the mutiny, however, fourteen years later, what and who provoked the mutiny still remains a mystery at large.
Who are the BDR?
The BDR are a paramilitary force known as ‘The Vigilant Sentinels of the National Frontier’ who are tasked with safeguarding and protecting the 4,427 km international border against the movement of terrorists, armed ethnic groups, smuggling of narcotics and small arms as well as human trafficking. They are the oldest uniformed military institution in South Asia constituted by the East India Company as the Frontier Protection Force that later became the Ramgarh Local Battalion (1795-1861) which established its camp in Pilkhana area of Dhaka, where the headquarters remain to this day. In subsequent years the force took different names and uniforms in accordance with the demands of the time. The battalion was succeeded by the Frontier Guards (1861-1891). Following its reorganisation, the force became the Bengal Military Police (1891-1919). In undivided India the force was once again reorganised into the Eastern Frontier Rifles (1920-1947). The East Pakistan Rifles (EPR, 1947-1971) in undivided Pakistan was last in this series of changes after which in 1972, the force was renamed BDR in independent Bangladesh. During the Liberation War, 817 BDR soldiers were killed. Many of them were honoured posthumously with Bangladesh’s highest military awards for services to the Liberation War. Prior to its disbandment, the BDR had approximately 67,000 soldiers stationed at 42 camps throughout the country, including 40,000 on the borders.
On the surface the most logical explanation for the mutiny would be the genuine discontent of BDR soldiers. This would explain the numerous demands they put forward during negotiations. Key grievances included low pay, non-payment of promised daily allowances for extra duties rendered, less annual leave compared to the army, and a denial of lucrative UN peacekeeping services. Although a BDR platoon worked with the Bangladesh Police on a UN mission in 2006, future BDR collaboration with the UN was denied by the army, which caused resentment among BDR soldiers. Ration entitlement was another issue that further antagonised the BDR who received three months entitlement compared to twelve months of the army. What appeared to infuriate BDR soldiers the most was army control. The entire officer corps was on deputation from the army, whereas BDR recruitment was at the non-commissioned officer level in administrative posts. In 2007, the CTG launched ‘Operation Dal-Bhaat’ in an effort to curtail soaring food prices. As a result, the BDR sold essential food items to the public at reasonable prices and were allowed to keep the profits. Dal-Bhaat ran for about a year and a half before it was wrapped up in September 2008. By late 2008, the majority of BDR soldiers came to believe that their superiors had embezzled profits from Dal-Bhaat as well their share of monies from election duties. However, rationalising the mutiny over corruption and illegal practices in the Dal-Bhaat programme would be severely problematic to say the least.
Reconstructing the Episode
Exactly what happened at BDR headquarters on 25-26 February 2009 may never be known as accounts vary in sequence. These variations only add further complexity to already difficult circumstances. What is known is that the 33-hour-long mutiny started on the morning of 25 February at Darbar Hall inside Pilkhana barracks. A day before the mutiny, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited Pilkhana to inaugurate the three-day annual ‘Bangladesh Rifles Week 2009’. During her key note speech, PM Hasina reiterated her government’s desire to rid the BDR as well as the armed forces of corruption and urged the BDR to become “more disciplined and remain ready to guard the country’s frontiers”. After the speech a delegation of BDR rank and file approached Major General Shakil Ahmed, Director General BDR, for an audience with PM Hasina to raise their grievances, however, this was blocked by DG Ahmed and the meeting never took place. PM Hasina’s attendance on 24 February went ahead as scheduled despite earlier reports of three sub-machine guns having gone missing from the armoury as well as the discovery of subversive leaflets circulating inside Pilkhana. So why did PM Hasina go ahead with the scheduled visit if there were reports of agitation by BDR soldiers? Furthermore, PM Hasina cancelled her attendance for an evening meal scheduled for 26 February at Pilkahana, two days before the visit, which further added to the confusion. Post-mutiny, many army officers speculated that PM Hasina refused to attend on 26 February because she had some idea that a mutiny would take place. However, it is not clear if the cancellation was due to any prior intelligence warning of a specific imminent threat.
According to witness reports the mutiny stated at around 09:30 on the morning of 25 February 2009, as DG Ahmed was addressing BDR personnel in Darbar Hall. On this survivors agree, but from there on versions vary. Weapons are not allowed in the Darbar ceremony, but on the morning of the mutiny many BDR soldiers managed to enter the building heavily armed. After shots were fired in the Darbar Hall, a group of mutineers entered from outside. It is evident from all versions that the mutineers comprised of privates and non-commissioned officers who deliberately targeted their commanding officers. In the ensuing panic and confusion many soldiers inside Darbar Hall fled the scene. It is clear that not all BDR soldiers took part in the carnage. Many tried to save the army officers while others who did not initially participate willingly obtained weapons from the armoury and joined the mutineers. Some were forced to join in, while others hid and many absconded when the killing of officers started. By 09:40 the entire situation had completely got out of control. Quite a few witness accounts claimed that within ten minutes after the shooting had started in Darbar Hall, several officers from the top hierarchy of the BDR were gunned down and brutally killed. Some officers were tortured, hanged, mutilated and bayoneted before being shot. Of the 57 army officers, 52 were killed either inside Darbar Hall and its surrounding area while 5 others were killed elsewhere inside Pilkhana. On the evening of 26 February, a small number of mutineers that remained inside Pilkhana hoisted a white flag and surrendered. The crisis came to an end at 19:00 when the Dhaka Metropolitan Police Commissioner entered the barracks.
Identifying the Perpetrators
After consoling the families of dead BDR officers at Mirpur barracks, PM Hasina told reporters, “It seems a certain group staged the incident. It must also be inquired if any quarter provoked this incident. We must see whether there was any plan to use this incident for a different purpose”. With pressure from opposition parties, on 2 March 2009, the government formally filed charges of mutiny, killings, arson and looting of armouries against more than a thousand BDR soldiers. In the beginning, 236 BDR soldiers were arrested. Six were named, including the suspected ringleader, Deputy Assistant Director, Towhidul Islam. On the same day the government launched ‘Operation Rebel Hunt’ to capture fugitive BDR men and recover stolen weapons and ammunition, although the remit did not include the arrest of any civilians who might have colluded or aided the mutineers. Soon after a six-member probe committee was formed by the Home Minister to investigate the causes and motives behind the mutiny. Simultaneously the army initiated its own twenty-member probe into the killing of the officers, which demonstrated the lack of confidence on its part in the thoroughness of any government investigation. The army criticised the government for granting amnesty to the mutineers and went even further to accuse it and the army top brass of being corrupt and negligent. Limited in resources and expertise, the government requested the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and British Scotland Yard to assist in its investigation.
Foremost among the leading theories is the theory of destabilisation. Incorporated into this theory is the suggestion that elements opposed to PM Hasina’s government were the principal masterminds that incited the mutiny. The long-term aim of the masterminds was to create a civil war atmosphere between the army and the BDR in order to cripple Bangladesh’s defence capabilities and render the country unstable. Several statements made by government sources suspected the involvement of sinister elements. PM Hasina also subscribed to this view. During an Awami League (AL) meeting in Dhaka she stated, “The aim of the conspirators, who had staged the bloody incidents at BDR headquarters killing scores of brilliant army officers, was to trigger anarchy and push the country to the brink of a civil war … They (mutiny masterminds) still want to set off a civil war”. She went onto say that the mutiny was a ‘big conspiracy’ against her agenda to establish secular democracy in Muslim majority Bangladesh. She urged those present at the meeting to remain alert and steadfast against the perpetrators plot to destroy the country’s democracy, which was only restored after her party won a landmark general election following two years of emergency rule. Finally, she renewed her earlier promise to bring the ‘conspirators and killers’ to account even if it meant the enacting of new law.
A theory advocated by PM Hasina’s son and advisor, Sajeeb Wazed Joy was the alleged involvement of Islamic extremists. Joy and Carl Ciovacco authored a paper titled, ‘Stemming the Rise of Islamic Extremism in Bangladesh’, in the Harvard International Review prior to the general election in 2008. In it they affirmed Bangladesh was established on secular principles, however, Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) which politically represented Islamism was not only in direct opposition to Bangladeshi secularism, but also in conflict with it. According to Joy, “The alliance of antiliberationists, JEI, and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has also had direct and indirect involvement with Islamic fundamentalist groups that masterminded 500 coordinated bombings across Bangladesh in 2005”. Joy accused the Bangladesh Army and paramilitary forces of recruiting thousands of Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. “Islamic extremism is also on the rise in Bangladesh because of the growing numbers of Islamists in the military”. He further claimed that, “By 2006, at the end of the BNP’s reign, madrasas supplied nearly 35 percent of the Army recruits”. Allegedly, Islamic educational institutions were the breeding grounds of terrorism and Islamists were routinely infiltrating the security forces. To stop Bangladesh from becoming a terrorist haven, madrasa admissions and recruits from them going into the army had to be severely restricted. The hypothesis found acceptance with senior AL leaders and became the AL narrative before the national elections.
Finally, foreign involvement was suspected in the mutiny, in particular by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Pakistan government. This theory was primarily promoted by sections of the Indian media such as New Delhi based news agency CNN-IBN and Kolkata based Bangla daily Ananda Bazar Patrika. Indian media claimed that the ISI in collaboration with certain opposition political parties including the JEI were behind the mutiny. The main objective of the mutiny was to weaken the AL government and destroy the internal security and stability of Bangladesh. Nine days before the mutiny, Pakistan president Asif Ali Zardari sent Special Envoy Zia Ispahani to Dhaka to appeal to the Bangladesh government not to open war crimes cases. As expected the request did not find much favour. War crimes are a highly emotional issue in Bangladesh, hence, it was strange that the Pakistan government sent a Special Envoy to intercede in an internal matter of a sovereign nation. Examining the possibility that the mutiny was orchestrated by external actors, in particular the ISI has many arguments against it. If the mutiny was directed against PM Hasina, then it seems bizarre that it did not take place half a day earlier when she was at Pilkhana on a scheduled visit for the BDR parade. The obvious question to ask is why would the ISI plot to destabilise the Bangladesh government? According to Indian claims, the ISI exploited BDR grievances and exacerbated the conspiracy since it feared that many of its key assets in Bangladesh could be compromised if tried for war crimes committed in 1971.
After nearly 26 months, Bangladesh’s largest ever criminal trial came to an end. On 5 November 2013, a trial court delivered its verdict for 846 accused who were prosecuted for killing 74 people. 151 former BDR soldiers (of which 12 were on the run) and one civilian, Zakir Hossain were handed the death penalty for their role in the mutiny. Legal experts commented that the sentencing was unprecedented in the recent history of South Asia. “After the sepoy revolution in 1857, a few thousand sepoys were hanged for mutiny during the British period. Since then such sentencing has not been seen in this subcontinent”, said noted jurist Shahdeen Malik. A further 161 people including ex-BNP MP Nasiruddin Ahmed Pintu and ward-level AL leader Torab Ali were sentenced to life imprisonment for their involvement. The court acquitted the remaining 277 of the accused; however, none of them, except for one civilian was released from prison as they were also accused in another case filed under the Explosive Substances Act in connection with the mutiny. The number of accused in that case was 808. The High Court observations running into hundreds of pages stated that: “There was a plot both from internal and external sides behind the BDR carnage, to uproot [Prime Minister] Sheikh Hasina-led government which came into power in 2008.”
Bangladesh is a state party signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which contains a legal framework for all signatories to conduct fair trials. In addition, Article 15 of the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, requires countries to ensure that any evidence obtained under torture is inadmissible under international human rights law. Despite the legal frameworks, the nature of the trial and the outcome of the verdict in the BDR case have been criticised by the UN and human rights groups who have claimed the trial fell short of international human rights standards. Concerns were also raised by human rights groups over the custodial deaths of at least 78 BDR soldiers accused of mutiny. To date, nearly all of these deaths remain a mystery despite them being explained as either ‘heart attack’ or ‘suicide’. However, these explanations are not consistent with multiple physical injury marks on the bodies. Allegations have been rife that detained suspects were brutally tortured during interrogation. Some suspects were the victims of custodial killing that involved the army, Rapid Action Battalion and various government agency personnel. Torture is routinely used by security forces in Bangladesh as highlighted by the Human Rights Watch report Crossfire. In January 2020, the High Court released the text of its 29,059-page verdict which confirmed the death penalty for 139 accused and upheld the life sentences for 185 accused for their involvement in the killings.
The tragic events of 25-26 February 2009, sent shockwaves throughout Bangladesh and highlighted the state of affairs in the country’s armed forces. What started out as a mutiny ended in the indiscriminate looting and murder of 74 people. The aim of the carnage was to destroy the strength and cohesion of the BDR and weaken Bangladesh’s defence capabilities. Apart from diminishing the morale of the Bangladesh security forces, it was a major setback for the BDR as its command structure was completely destroyed. Replacing 57 highly trained officers that included a large number of senior officers was by no means an easy task. The position of the army was also weakened making it unlikely to intervene in civilian politics which it had done during emergency rule under the CTG, when it attempted to introduce political reforms. Furthermore, the image of the Bangladesh Army was significantly stained despite the positive role it plays in UN peacekeeping missions. A key early decision taken by the Bangladesh government was to disband the BDR and constitute the BGB, even though the latter included many soldiers from the BDR. Due to a lack of reliable information, the High Court verdict only pointed out a few causative factors, leaving a great deal to speculation. Whether the army report or the government led report yield credible results or findings remain to be seen as no inquiry report has been made public. It is essential that the government conducts a thorough public investigation to discover the real motives, and more importantly, find the real masterminds behind the carnage and bring them to book.
For the interests of justice, corruption allegations have to be thoroughly investigated and not be buried alongside the dead bodies of BDR officers. If there was systematic corruption, then it is the responsibility of the government to uproot it. In the same way, if the corruption allegations are found to be false then the names of the deceased have to be cleared. By merely sending the accused en masse to prison and some to the gallows hardly does justice to the victims. How the mutiny was handled remains controversial. One view is that it was dealt with in an indecisive manner. There was too much delay in reacting to the crisis which gave the perpetrators further opportunity to kill a significant number of officers. Criticism has also been directed at some of the government’s decisions such as the general amnesty offered to mutineers without confirming the fate of army officers and their families. Although it is easy to criticise the government’s actions in hindsight, at the time it was a catch-22 situation for them. In short, the truth of what happened in Pilkhana may never be known, similar to Bangladesh’s other unsolved mysteries such as, who ordered the killing of Sheikh Hasina’s father, former PM and AL leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on 15 August 1975, along with eighteen members of his family. Hasina’s nemesis, Khaleda Zia also lives with mystery and loss. It is not fully known who ordered the 1981 assassination of her husband, former military ruler Ziaur Rahman.
* This is a condensed version of the article, Massacre at Pilkahana: Mutiny of the Bangladesh Rifles