Thursday, March 13, 2008

Gen. Moeen as the man Delhi can trust

Media treats Gen. Moeen as the man Delhi can trust
M. Shahidul Islam
Source: Holiday
March 7, 2008

The army chief's recent visit to India has drawn mythological anecdotes of varied natures. The timing and the texture of the visit aside, this was the first time an incumbent Bangladesh army chief was accorded a very unusually high-profile reception by the Indian government.

Marked by glittering galas and grandiose receptions, General Moeen U Ahmed was afforded closed-door interactions with External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Defence Minister A.K. Antony and the West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, besides the chiefs of the three services of India. Such an opportunity is usually preserved for a senior cabinet minister.

Interestingly, the visit further highlighted how the digit 'six' has become a magic number in the life of the army chief. The duration of the visit was six days long; he was gifted with six horses, and; he met six important personalities and discussed six important bilateral matters with the Indian authorities. The four-star General is also slated to be retired on the sixth day of the sixth month of this year; and he still has at least six more important things to accomplish before giving up a career that he'd successfully traversed for 33 years (3 plus 3 also equal six) to attain the pinnacle.

Despite the Indian High Commissioner Pinak Ranjan Chakrabarty's earlier comment to the media that the visit of "Bangladesh army chief was military-to-military", the itinerary of the visit belied that remark.

During the visit, the army chief has dealt with economic relations and made a fresh appeal to India to expedite the export of rice to Bangladesh and to liberalise bilateral trade. The political agenda included discussion on a plan of action for early return to democracy. The other major topic covered during the visit included bilateral security matters, joint collaboration in war on terror, prisoner extradition treaty, and Dhaka-Kolkata railway link.

The visit got catapulted into an august trajectory due partly to another reason: The President of India had greeted the arrival of Bangladesh army chief with a potent but veiled political message. No sooner the army chief landed in Delhi, President Pratibha Patil said in an address to a joint sitting of Parliament on February 25 that Bangladeshis "would be able to exercise their will through free and fair election for restoration of full democracy and liberalism in their country."

This particular signal was translated by observers as the army chief calling shots in Dhaka for all major decisions and Indian leaders and the media had reasons to treat him as the master of Bangladesh's political affairs, something the General has persistently denied. In more than one conversation with this writer, Gen. Moeen insisted he and the military were only aiding the caretaker government and he personally harbours no political intent.

However, despite all the bright side of the visit, some unwarranted display of power play by the Indian government and the media has truncated the glitters of the displayed symbolism to a great extent. At least six innocent Bangladeshis were killed by BSF in the wake of the army chief's India visit and major Indian media outlets carried an assortment of speculation-ridden stories that did not bode well with what the General's future plan is all about, at least whatever we all know. That aside, most of the Indian media also chose to present the General as the person India can trust, knowing well that a blind-pro Indianism is an anathema to the people of Bangladesh.

Reliable sources say the visit took place on the heels of an assurance from the government of Bangladesh that the army chief will get one year extension to enable him to complete a political mission which he has so enthusiastically undertaken since 1/11 to fine-tune certain fundamental pitfalls of our national polity. That is what has made him more precious to the Indian authorities who think General Moeen will roll past the electoral turmoil awaiting the nation.

Another observable factor was that astute Indian observers not paying much heed to the army chief's repeated assertion of not aiming for a political office, many of who believe the military is in power in Bangladesh.

This fabled perception was elucidated with convincing details in the Statesman newspaper of Kolkata that wrote in its post-editorial of February 29, "Having been a party, along with the USA, Britain and the EU, to giving consent to General Ahmed's takeover of power on 11 January last year so as to stall the "farcical" parliamentary poll that was scheduled for 22 January, India is now keen to know from the General how soon he plans to hold a free and fair poll and hand power back to a democratically elected government. And what plans and schedules he may have drawn up for holding such a poll, which was one of the key promises he had made when taking over. This promise was prompted by the fact that Bangladesh would have witnessed violence and chaos on an unprecedented scale. Major Western donors as well as India concurred with this view as they knew that the country's outgoing Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and her pro-Islamist four-party alliance, before laying down office, had made elaborate arrangement to rig the poll. In fact the caretaker government, which was to oversee the exercise, had also been usurped by her with this end in view."

The Statesman's post-editorial was penned by none other than the paper's editor, Manash Ghosh, who, however, did not fail to make an insightful observation while dealing with the nuances of the prevailing political situation in Bangladesh.

Ghosh observed, "The General also realises that Khaleda Zia, who made him Army Chief, superseding four other generals, will never forgive him for his "betrayal" of putting her behind bars on "frivolous corruption charges". Khaleda's party may go for retribution. Sheikh Hasina and her party's reaction will be much the same, because he also put her behind bars on "frivolous corruption charges".

The High Court having struck down her detention as illegal has not made things any easier for the General. He is convinced that if the Hasina-led alliance wins the poll, it will wreak vengeance on him and the military. Therefore the need for him to have his own political party and secure a two-thirds majority in the poll."

In an oblique reference to the need for Indian support and the disguised political inclination of the military, at least in the author's view, Ghosh wrote, "One can well gauge the popular mood in a country where rice prices, predominantly, determine who the populace want pulling the strings in Dhaka. Perhaps this has prompted General Ahmed's government into starting a dialogue with political parties. Knowing the mind of Sheikh Hasina's alliance, it has begun to make the right noises, like calling Sheikh Mujib "father of the nation" and hinting at the process of trying war criminals of the 1971 liberation war."

The geopolitical twist of the visit came from the Indo American News Service (IANS), which has a fondness in propagating the virtues of the ongoing US-led war on terror. The IANS reported, "With a gift of six horses worth a little over $850,000), New Delhi is attempting to build bridges with Bangladesh's army chief in an attempt to persuade the eastern neighbour to cease support to anti-India insurgent groups operating from that country. The agency quoted an anonymous official for having said, "It's an attempt to build bridges, to move forward in persuading Bangladesh to stop supporting anti-India insurgent groups that are operating from its soil."

The report further said, "Even more worrisome than the anti-India groups are the operations of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Harkat-ul-Jehad-al-Islami (HuJI) extremist group. India blames the HuJI that was established in 1992, reportedly with assistance from Osama bin Laden's International Islamic Front, for two sets of blasts in Hyderabad last year." The report quoted the same anonymous official as saying, "The activities of the ISI and the HuJI will figure in the discussions with General Ahmed."

While we are not sure how much priority such issues were accorded during the army chief's visit, sources maintain the visit was a routine one and did not deal with pending political and economic agenda which the government is expected to conduct. It, nonetheless, cemented the ties of fraternity between the two close neighbours. "The army chief has earned respect at home and abroad by standing firm on cracking down corruption. That is what has prompted the Indian authorities to honour him in a special manner," said one of the sources.

Such a rationale does not seem to pacify a crowd of cynics who think the army chief's series of visits to USA, China and then to India was a calculated move to elicit consent from major powers in order to prepare himself for a political mission that might be necessitated if the forthcoming election does not yield a government of the military's liking, or the election efforts get jeopardised by unwarranted political turmoil of any breed. They reinforce this argument with examples of recent talks on forming a national government.

Others say the General, who spent his childhood studying in Pakistan -- and has had a stint as a defence adviser (DA) to the Bangladesh High Commission in Islamabad -- was either misunderstood, or underestimated, by the India authorities who imperfectly thought him to be pliant to the myriad of wishes presented before him for considerations.

"If the General had promised something, such promises must be materialised through the usual diplomatic channels with input from an elected government," commented an expert on Bangladesh-India relations.

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