Synonymous with independent political power, supremacy, self-determination and control; the core meaning of Sovereignty is supreme authority within a territory. The state is the political institution in which sovereignty is embodied. A great nineteenth century American theorist, Josiah Warren affirmed, “Liberty is the sovereignty of the individual, and never shall man know liberty until each and every individual is acknowledged to be the only legitimate sovereign of his or her person, time, and property, each living and acting at his own cost.”
As defined by West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, Sovereignty is the claim to be the ultimate political authority, subject to no higher power as regards the making and enforcing of political decisions. In the international system, sovereignty is the claim by the state to full self-government, and the mutual recognition of claims to sovereignty is the basis of international society.
Our Republic’s Constitution unequivocally confirms, “The State shall base its international relations on the principles of respect for national sovereignty and equality, non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, peaceful settlement of international disputes, and respect for international law and the principles enunciated in the United Nations Charter, and on the basis of those principle shall(a) Strive for the renunciation of the use of force in international relations and for general and complete disarmament; (b) uphold the right of every people freely to determine and build up its own social, economic and political system by ways and means of its own free choice; and support oppressed peoples throughout the world waging a just struggle against imperialism, colonialism or racialism.”
National security is the obligation or compulsion or requirement to preserve and maintain the survival of the state through the use of economic, power projection and political power and the exercise of diplomacy. With the aim of possessing national security, a nation needs to have economic security, energy security, environmental security, and so on.
Security of a country or state is easier to define and easier to ensure compared to the security of a nation. A country or state consists of a given well-defined territory, a given population and visible assets. A nation’s assets consist in history, traditions, legacy, culture, faith and practices, emotions and inhibitions. The assets of a nation are partly tangible and partly intangible or indescribable or beyond description.
Bangladesh as a country has borders and a geographical territory which has to be secured. A little more than 90 per cent of our land border is with the neighbouring India; the rest being with the only other neighbouring country of Myanmar, previously called Burma.
Our land boundary was demarcated according to the decisions of the Boundary Award Commission of Sir Cyril Redcliff in August 1947. Confusion remained in some parts of the land boundary about its exact path. Therefore, both India and Bangladesh had to jointly work for accurate demarcation. The job is about to be over.
The land boundary runs over plain land and habitations in most of the area. In some parts the land boundary runs along the midstream of rivers and water channels. Yet in some parts the boundary runs through hills and dense forests. It is a difficult task to guard the border in difficult terrain.
The geographical security of a country is guaranteed by security forces. Security forces are also called defence forces or military forces. Bangladesh as well as the neighbours of Bangladesh have defence forces to suit their requirement. After becoming independent in the year 1971, Bangladesh has inherited the territory of erstwhile East Pakistan. The security needs or defence needs of East Pakistan were planned and catered for by the then central government of Pakistan with its capital in Islamabad.
Security needs were ignored
According to most military experts or defence experts, the government of Pakistan had never given adequate thought to the defence requirements of East Pakistan. Till 1969 the highest ranking military officer in East Pakistan used to be a Major General (who would be the General Officer Commanding of 14 Infantry Division with headquarters in Dhaka cantonment). Brigades of this Division were spread to Rangpur-Syedpur in north-west Bangladesh, to Jessore in south-west Bangladesh and to Comilla-Chittagong in south-east Bangladesh. There used to be a very small Naval flotilla in the costal city of Chittagong and a very small detachment of Air force in Dhaka. Over the 20 months or so preceding the declaration of independence of Bangladesh, the quantum of forces and level of command was raised. By December 1971, while Bangladesh was liberated, Bangladesh inherited the military infrastructure of the defeated Pakistan military. Indeed, the infrastructure was firstly rudimentary and secondly damaged.
During the wars between India and Pakistan fought in the year 1948 and again fought in 1965, most battles had taken place in the border between India and West Pakistan. East Pakistan was then open to any intervention from India. India, however, did not make major interventions, because of its own military limitations or strategic calculations.
Era of Sheikh Mujib
A very important question came up in the years 1972 to 1975 to be answered by the political rulers and leaders of Bangladesh. India had assisted in the liberation of Bangladesh, but would India ever be a military enemy of Bangladesh? It was impossible to give an accurate answer. The government of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman decided that, Bangladesh needed military forces for more than one reason. One of the reasons was, to assists the government of Bangladesh in various duties which become difficult for the civil administration alone, while the second reason was to take part in internal security duties.
Another reason was, to be able to defend the territorial integrity of Bangladesh from any foreign aggression (whatever remote the chances may be). Fourth and the final reason was to maintain defence forces symbolising the sovereign status of the country. It was a very difficult decision to be taken by the government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as to what should be the size or strength of the military forces or defence forces of Bangladesh. An economically poor country and busy in reconstruction of Bangladesh could hardly afford large sums for the military forces. On the other hand a large number of Bangalee officers and men of the Pakistan Army, Navy and Air Force who were stranded in Pakistan were returning to Bangladesh and had to be accommodate somewhere in some manner. The obvious conclusion is that, a number of factors guided the government of Bangladesh in the years 1972 to 1975 in deciding the size and strength of the military forces.
I was born in the village of Burishchar, in Hathajari thana in the district of Chittagong on 4th October 1949. Between July 1962 and June 1968 I was in the famous institution called Faujdahrat Cadet College. Leaving studies in the University of Dhaka incomplete, I joined the Pakistan Military Academy Kakul with 24th War Course. I was commissioned in the Second Battalion of the East Bengal Regiment (Infantry) of the Pakistan Army on 6th September 1970.
Our War of Liberation
I was able to take part in the War of Liberation of Bangladesh with my battalion for the entire nine months. All officers and men who had taken part in the War of Liberation were given the benefit of 2 years of ante-dated seniority. I became a Lieutenant in mid-September 1971, became a Captain in mid-September 1972, became a Major in mid-October 1973 and became a Lieutenant Colonel in mid-September 1979. Meritorious or inquisitive I may have been, yet I consider myself to have been too young to have understood the defence policy of my country or the structure of the military forces of my country in those days. Whatever I write nowadays, is with the benefit of hindsight or the experience of my life in the military or outside.
It was necessary to keep the size of the army small, possibly for two important reasons. First reason was, not to attract speculative and aggressive attention of the neighbours. Second reason was that, the military should not feel itself strong and influential within the country, as was the case with Pakistan army.
On the other hand the number of freedom fighters had to be absorbed into one or the other profession under the government. Whatever small in size the military may have been, it was still necessary to have a counter-force. Therefore, the government of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman created a para-military force (or semi-military force) with very sharp teeth called the Jatiyo Rakkhi Bahini (in short JRB). The officers of the force were trained initially in India, by Indian officers and later on in Bangladesh also by Indian officers. The men of the JRB were trained in Bangladesh. Only few selected army officers were allowed to serve in the JRB. This force owed total political loyalty to Bangabandhu through very able military and political lieutenants of Bangabandhu. The government offered disproportionately more support for the JRB compared to the then army. The government also created a number of JRB cantonments across the country. Few examples of such cantonments are Jahanabad cantonment (former name Gilatala) 3 km north of Khulna city in south-west Bangladesh, Savar cantonment 20km north-west of Dhaka city and Bhatiari cantonment 15km north of Chittagong city centre where the Bangladesh Military Academy is located.
The government of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib attempted to ‘cut the wings’ of the Bangladesh army officers in another manner also. In the days of Pakistan the para-military force looking after border security in East Pakistan used to be called East Pakistan Rifles (EPR). The men of the EPR would come from all languages and regions of Pakistan, Bangalee being in slight majority. Officers of Pakistan army of all languages would be sent on deputation to EPR to command the force. The primary task of the EPR was border security and anti-smuggling duties while the secondary task was to be the first-line of defence (although surely thin) in case of any foreign aggression violating the land border of the country.
In independent Bangladesh the system continued while the name of the force was changed to Bangladesh Rifles (BDR). In 1973-74 the government of Bangladesh circulated a policy and wanted to execute the said policy whereby, there would be a separate cadre of officers for BDR to be selected by the civil government. Not written in the policy, not expressed in loud words was the ulterior motive in this step which to have total political control or obtain total political loyalty of the force.
The senior leadership of the Bangladesh military at that time courteously but staunchly fought it out with the political government of the day and ensured the continuation of the policy. The policy is continuing till today, that is, BDR is commanded by officers of Bangladesh army.
A conspiracy was created (by whoever) and a mutiny was instigated (by whoever) in the BDR in February 2009. One of the publicly stated demands of the mutineers in February 2009 was that army officers should not be allowed to serve or command BDR. The motive behind such sinister demands is obvious, but I refrain from elaborating.
The sad and tragic day in the political history of the country was 15th August 1975. Change in political and military leadership of the country came soon. The changes were not liked by our neighbours. Insurgency began in Chittagong Hill Tracts. Command and maintenance of the Jatiyo Rokkhi Bahini became vulnerable; one or the other decision had to be taken. The government decided to absorb the entire force or organization called JRB into the Bangladesh army. The officers of JRB were given commensurate or equivalent commissioned officer ranks in the army, the leaders of the JRB were given commensurate or equivalent junior commissioned officer-ranks in the army. The remaining men were given respectable equivalence. All property of the JRB including cantonments and installations were absorbed into the Bangladesh army. In one go, in September-October 1975, Bangladesh army gave a jump in size and capacity. The JRB before being absorbed had more than 10 battalions.
The military’s faults
The lengthy narrative above can be a fountain of information for the inquisitive youth of today, while it can also be an aberration to those who would prefer to keep the information buried in history not to be uncovered.
Over the last few years the Bangladesh military seems to have come under politically motivated propaganda attack. The Bangladesh military partly earned the attack by its own faults. Obviously I am referring to the period of two years (2007-2008) commonly called the one-eleven period. Formally speaking it was the caretaker government which administered the country; informally speaking the military stood behind the civil government either as a patron, or as a guardian or as a warden or as a guide or everything in part. The caretaker government aided by the military did some good jobs, but these are rarely mentioned. They have done a bad job of disturbing the political status-quo or the political equations.
Surprisingly, the military’s bad job is mentioned equally even by those who benefited from them and those who feel to have been victimised. The burden or liability squarely lies with the top military leadership of the day who are mostly out of the public eye now in 2011.
The motivated political assault on the Bangladesh military does not necessarily always come from identifiable political faces. More often these come from camouflaged proxies. And the assaults are also directed to various aspects of the military or organs of the military. Over a period of time, in Bangladeshi literary circle, intellectual circle, business circle and of course political circle, there has grown a coterie who hate the Bangladesh military, who dislike the Bangladesh military and as a result who would love to see the Bangladesh military become feeble or even perish. Such elites are unforgiving enough to snatch every opportunity to castigate the Bangladesh military. One such occasion or excuse is floating in the ‘discussion platforms of Bangladesh. It relates to the route of the metro-rail in an around the old airport and the beautiful building of the Parliament of Bangladesh—-the Sangsad Bhaban. When the planning for the route was being done, why was not an opportunity created for the Air force to ventilate its limitations? I am not contesting the opinion of the planners or of the Air Force, I am only asking the question as to why the opportunity have been created to criticise the military? As if the military does not want the traffic problem of the Dhaka city to be solved or eased.
At least for 16 years now, on and often, someone or the other, would on some or the other excuse, cry out for taking the Dhaka cantonment away from where it is now. Very recently, the cry is to close down the old airport at Tejgaon. Crying is easy; but consoling the one who cries is difficult. Crying is easy and welcome, but subduing the urge to cry or suffocate the feelings is dangerous. I mention this to remind that while a quarter or a section is crying for dislocation or relocation of the cantonment or the old airport, another quarter or section is definitely suffocating the urge of crying.
Have many of us not visited New Delhi or Islamabad or Washington DC or Singapore or Kolkata? What we call cantonment, some countries call them garrison, yet some countries call them barrack, and some name them as fort. In reality, they are all military establishments.
Part of the Delhi cantonment is very much in the main Delhi city; Fort William is very much in the heart of Kolkata city; at least two military establishments are within the city of Washington DC. Therefore, the location or existence of the Dhaka cantonment is not surprising or an outlandish idea.
When the cantonment was first envisaged early in 1948, who on earth had imagined that there will be so many people in the city of Dhaka that they will extract and drink away or waste away five to six meters of underground water level every fifteen years. When Dhanmondi residential area was planned, who on earth had imagined that it will be crowded with so many schools and hospitals? So many land developers are developing (or assassinating virgin water-land) areas and so many real estate developer companies are developing residential areas and giving them beautiful names—-but why is no real estate businessman ever attempting to develop an office-township?
So the fault is not with the cantonment and where it was established, the fault is with our inability to plan for a better living. It is time enough for Bangladeshis to give a fresh thought about its own security and defence. More importantly, the community of one hundred and sixty million people called Bangladeshi nation needs to give fresh thought about the security of the nation. Which way are we going? How much of our faith are we abandoning? How much of our tradition and ethics are we discarding? How much are we borrowing and from what sources? It may be advisable to study the relationship between USA and Mexico, USA and Canada, Malyasia and Singapore, India and Sri-Lanka and then give a thought about the relations between India and Bangladesh. It may be advisable to study the last 90 years of history of Turkey, Soviet Russia and the 40 years of history of Afghanistan. There is no dearth of educated, learned and wise people in the country who will look at the country’s security issues impartially and objectively.
BY : Major General (Retd) Syed Muhammad Ibrahim, Bir Protik