An eyewitness account of the two-day uprising staged by the Bangladesh Rifles.
It is 11:00 am on 25 February. Halfway down Road 2 in the posh Dhanmondi area of Dhaka, all traffic has been restricted. Police officers are busy emptying the area, themselves clueless as to why they are not allowing vehicles to pass. With my press card, I am allowed to walk into the area that would hold the attention of the entire Bangladeshi nation for days to come.
Twenty steps inside the vacated area, towards Pilkhana, where the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) are headquartered, I rush off to the nearest shelter as gunshots sound only yards away. From the corner, I have a good view of a silver Toyota Corolla GT, the lone car stuck in the middle of the street smack in front of the Pilkhana gate. Its driver had been wounded in the early rounds of firing and was rushed to hospital by civilians on the street. After every few minutes of firing, a silence prevailed in the entire vicinity. Inside the Rifles Square market, visitors were being held hostages Ujjal, a university student, was using the gym at Thunderbolt when a bullet broke in through one of the windows. He was among one of ten panic-stricken hostages released together from the market an hour after I arrived.
Amidst the chaos and fear, all that was known was that the BDR jawans, nursing a range of grudges and grievances, began a mutiny against their officers. The mutineers inside the Pilkhana are estimated to have numbered between 5000 and 9000. It was the perfect occasion for such an incident. As it was BDR Week, all sector commanders and high-ranking BDR officers were present inside the Pilkhana all week long. But as the blasts and round after round of gunfire were heard emanating from inside the compound gates, it was clear that the firings were not a part of a parade or drill. It was a bloody conspiracy, the full extent of which is only now becoming clear. Two weeks after the fat, it is now known that 56 army officers and some of their family members were killed; five officers are still missing at the time of writing, as are four civilians and six police officers.
To get a closer look in the compound, some hours later I walked up to my friend’s six-story apartment, right at the edge of the BDR Lake. Shortly afterwards, I realised the trouble I had gotten myself into when the jawans inside the BDR premises began shooting at me and three other photographers on the terrace. Perhaps four armed jawans appeared to be patrolling the area. And by opening fire at civilians – literally, anyone they spotted – the infuriated jawans clearly were looking to send a strong message to the government: namely, our demands must be met immediately and unconditionally. By that point, at least four army helicopters were already patrolling the area. As the relentless and indiscriminate firing by the BDR continued, a Bangladesh Air Force gunship came into view. It opened fire from quite a distance away, as a warning to the jawans. But these efforts did not have the hoped-for result. Reportedly, the defence forces, particularly the army and air force, were prepared to attack the BDR premises when they learnt about their officers killed inside. The government, however, called for restraint, fearing more casualties.
Matter of money, rank
Two hours later, at 1:00 pm, back at the off-limits Road 2, Jahangir Kabir Nanak, the state minister for local government and rural development, arrived along with Parliament Whip Mirza Azam. They were the first government representatives to arrive at the scene. They came bearing a message from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, to the effect that the government was willing to negotiate with the BDR’s demands. Taking cover behind the boundary wall of an international bank adjacent to Pilkhana, the minister announced his mobile-phone number by megaphone, asking that those inside call him immediately. His only reply was more gunshots. After waiting a while, Nanak began to walk slowly towards Pilkhana, holding a white flag. Awami League member Mahbub Ara Gini joined Nanak from the south, at the Pilkhana entrance, and both entered the compound.
The firing inside continued even after the government negotiators had entered the property. At that point, I once again climbed up the terrace of one building and jumped into another, to find a better vantage point for my photographer. It was clear from here that the jawans were relaxed in their movements. Pickups were dropping them at the Pilkhana gate; but considering the large premise inside the BDR compound it was not clear from where they were being brought. Inside, red bandanas and red flags – symbolising a state of war – could be seen everywhere. Though the view was clearer this time, we, with only the terrace railing as our guard, were also easier targets. And there was still no dearth of firing. An army officer on phone confirmed me that the sounds of firing were of mortars and machine guns. As soon as the firing paused, we climbed down the ladders and got off the building. By this time, all of Road 2 and the surrounding streets were filled with paramilitary Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and police troops and their vehicles. In the evening around 4:00 pm, three cars whizzed out of the Pilkhana with Nanak and 14 representatives of the jawans, in order to negotiate their demands with the prime minister.
Starting early in the afternoon, the army had taken position with their troops, trucks and machine guns at Roads 1, 2 and 3 – all close to the BDR premises. Yet even as negotiations were taking place, the bodies of two murdered army officers suddenly floated up in the adjoining Kamrangirchar area. The corpses were apparently being dumped into manholes inside the BDR compound, and were now beginning to flow out onto the surrounding streets. Around 7:00 pm, Nanak and the 14 jawans returned to Dhanmondi with the message that the prime minister had declared a general amnesty for the mutineers. Nanak assured the hundreds of gathered media personnel that the mutineers had agreed to surrender their weapons, and the prime minister had accepted the jawans’ list of 50 demands – the foremost being the removal of army officers from the BDR.
The end was yet far away, however. The jawans’ representatives returned to the headquarters to discuss the negotiation proceedings. Though they had initially asked for a half hour to respond to the government’s offer, they announced that another hour was needed. During these proceedings, the lights at the BDR gates were switched off. By this time, Inspector-General of Police Noor Mohammad, Commissioner Naim Ahmed of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police and RAB Director-General Hassan Mahmood Khandker had arrived, and were waiting with the government delegates for the jawans’ decision. Nanak, Noor Mohammad and Awami League lawmaker Sheikh Fazle Noor Tapash were eventually called inside, and soon emerged saying that the jawans needed additional time to disarm themselves. The lights at the gate were turned back on. Before surrendering, the jawans wanted the military be pulled out of the streets. Later in the evening, some of the jawans held another round of conversation with government delegates waiting in the parking lot of a nearby inn. But for all purposes, there appeared to be a self-imposed ceasefire from the time the two parties returned from the prime minister’s residence.
By this point, media personnel had reached the Rifles Square roundabout, almost in front of the BDR gate, all waiting for further developments. Gaining exclusive access seemed unlikely, especially as hundreds of reporters were packed next to each other. As one of the throng, I approached the Pilkhana gate where about 20 jawans were patrolling with rifles on their shoulders. One of those jawans, masked in a red bandana, picked me for an interview by pointing a pistol at me. Not much was visible inside, as it was night and the jawans were still maintaining a blackout inside. But two pickups with the jawans eventually arrived at the gate, halted for a while and left again. All of them had removed their name tags from their uniforms.
They spoke about how the promised BDT 800 per person (roughly USD 11.5) travelling allowance and daily allowance was not provided during Operation Daal Bhat – a BDR initiative to sell essential food items at a lower price. “We are class-four employees. We were sent home on punishment if we sought permanency,” said one of the masked jawans. (Cooks, cleaners, carpenters and other similar occupations are classified as class-four employees.) The BDR personnel claimed they deserved the rank and status of soldiers in the army – something they say they were promised two years ago, but which has yet to happen. In addition, they claimed they were poorly fed and, although they were entitled to a ration worth BDT 2500, the food they received was worth no more than BDT 1000.
Soon after the interview, as I crossed over to the other side of the road, the jawans fixed a mortar in front of the Pilkhana gate. They refused to surrender that night, fearful of what the military outside them might do. In the meanwhile, the Red Crescent received seven injured persons. Home Minister Sahara Khatun eventually arrived for further negotiation with the jawans, yet even at 1:30 am there was still no news of how many officers were alive or how many civilians were being held hostages inside. At around three in the morning, the first round of hostages were released, though only a small fraction of the jawans had surrendered their weapons after the home minister assured their safety. Many among the jawans had still not agreed to surrender, and remained in divided groups.
At that point, another seven corpses of uniformed army officers were found at the Kamrangirchar, and the military presence intensified in the area. At 10:00 am the next day, a delegation of mutineers held another round of meetings with the government delegates. Once again, they delayed their submission till 2:00 in the afternoon, then demanded that Deputy Assistant Director Tauhidul Alam, the seniormost among the jawans and the man under whom they had agreed to surrender their arms and ammunitions, be made the BDR commander. Though the government accepted their demands, gunshots could still be heard.
Amidst the continuing chaos, around noon, the prime minister went on television to warn the mutineers not to compel the government to take harsh steps. After the speech, a second group of civilian hostages – some 10 to 15, mostly children – were released, to be followed soon afterwards by some army officers. By evening, the mutineers had yet to surrender, but had released about 22 army officers. Then, Awami League lawmaker Asaduzzaman Noor arrived at the Pilkhana gate and, along with DAD Tauhidul, told the media that the jawans were in the process of surrendering their arms. With this, announcements were intensified to evacuate houses within a three-kilometre radius of BDR headquarters.
After the surrender was finalised, I moved to another end of the area to get a sense of the military presence on the street. It was massive. A playground had been converted into a temporary army camp, while some 12 to 15 tanks were being offloaded and armoured personnel carriers were cruising on the streets. Speaking with an army major about his orders, he told me, “By now we should been in,” referring to the BDR headquarters. At around 5:00 in the evening, the tanks had already started to move forward but had been stopped their movement for the time being. In the evening – apparently when the surrender was in process – the prime minister met the chiefs of the three defence forces. Subsequently, the tanks began moving back to their bases around 11:00 pm, a result of the prime minister not wanting the army to risk civilian lives through any retaliation. A trial of the perpetrators was guaranteed. It was incredibly difficult to remind myself that this bloodstained area – where I had practically lived for the previous two days, where I had witnessed a nearly 40-hour mutiny and an almost literal rain of bullets – was actually a quiet residential neighbourhood.
The witness account was first published in the web exclusive of Nepal based South Asian magazine Himal Southasian