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Bangladesh Under Siege

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R. S. N. Singh

Since its inception, Bangladesh has been suffering from an identity crisis. In search of identity, it has been oscillating between Islam and Bengali culture. This dilemma manifests itself in the posturing of all its institutions including the Armed Forces.  Like most of the countries born through a revolution, good governance has eluded Bangladesh .  The country is today characterized by extreme poverty, rampant corruption, overpopulation, violent political culture, growing Islamic fundamentalism and politicised armed forces. Bangladesh is the most densely populated nation in the world; wherein some 140 million people are squeezed in an area of 144,000 sq km. To reach that level of density, continental US will have to attract the entire world’s population.  As long as politics in Bangladesh remains mercurial and inimical, the country will continue to remain volatile, with the perpetual possibility of a military take over in case of anarchy.  Military rulers have been at helm for more than 15 years out of the 33 years of its existence.  The armed forces continue to be treated with suspicion by political parties of all hues and they seek to divide their loyalties by playing favourites.  The lack of political culture and governance has created ideal conditions for breading of Islamic fundamentalists who are gravitating from the fringe of political discourse to the core. The pernicious level that Islamic fundamentalism has acquired in Bangladesh was evidenced by the 400 simultaneous bomb blasts on 17 August, 2005 , which covered all the 64 districts of the country barring one. The Islamic fundamentalist parties like the Jamiat-i-Islami and the Islamic Okiyo Jote are now a part of the ruling dispensation; a parallel that Bangladesh shares with Pakistan . Internally, Bangladesh seems to be always on the boil because despite the fact that it has benign India as its only major neighbour. The present situation obtaining in Bangladesh is an outcome of historical and geopolitical processes.

Geopolitical Backyard

Before its emergence as a separate country in 1971, the area, which now constitutes Bangladesh , was historically the geopolitical backyard of the region. Although always a part of the pan-Indian framework, its peripheral position meant relative neglect and discordant evolutionary processes. Buddhism in the eastern part of Bengal , now Bangladesh , had persisted for many years compared to most other parts of India before being again supplanted by Hinduism. The process of Islamization beginning in the early 13th century, was more rapid as compared to other parts of the Indian subcontinent. The conversion to Islam was a mass movement as a reaction to the reassertion of cast ideology of Hinduism in the 12th century. However, the embracing of Islam did not manifest in repudiation of Bangla language and culture, which remained a vital force. Probably, the Pakistani rulers, who were basically from West Pakistan , underestimated the inherent strength and sway of Bangla heritage including language. It was because of the language and cultural factors that the ‘Monsoon Islam’ of the erstwhile East Pakistan could not reconcile with the ‘Desert Islam’ of West Pakistan .


Even under an able ruler like Akbar (1556-1605), who assimilated present day Bangladesh into the folds of Mughal Empire in 1576, the area, which was bedeviled by political disunity and piracy, was neglected. The region’s agricultural and textile wealth was used to maintain a vast Mughal Army without any corresponding returns in terms of good governance and development. The Mughals did very little to extend protection to the people of the eastern part of Bengal and as per some sources, in one year as many as 40,000 Bengalis were seized by Portuguese and Arakenese pirates to be sold as slaves. During the British East India Company rule, West Bengal had emerged as the nerve center of trade and commerce with the concomitant benefits of development, employment opportunities and shared proximity with the dispensation. This again resulted in the extremely lopsided and different evolutionary processes between East Bengal and West Bengal in favour of the latter. It was therefore not surprising that a large populace in East Bengal supported the partition of Bengal in 1905 (annulled in 1912). Of course, religion also was a strong factor. Islamic nationalism actually had its ferment in East Bengal . It was here ( Dhaka ) in 1906 that the first meeting of the All India Muslim League was held.


As part of Pakistan , Bangladesh (then East Pakistan ) was a case of neglect and discriminatory treatment in many areas including the Armed Forces. The high defence expenditure and its collateral benefits bypassed East Pakistan , as most of the military establishments were located in West Pakistan . The British mindset, with regard to Bengalis being less martially inclined as compared to Punjabis and Pathans, persisted in matters of recruitment. In 1956, the Pakistani Army had a total of approximately 890 officers (Major to Lieutenant General), out of which only 14 were from East Pakistan . Of these, only one was of Brigadier rank. Out of 593 officers in the Pakistani navy, only 7 were from East Pakistan . The situation in the Air Force was little better, out of 640 officers, 40 were Bengalis. The situation had marginally improved in the 60s. The dichotomy between East Pakistan and West Pakistan resulted in their separation in 1971 due to events that spiraled beyond the control of Pakistani rulers. However, it would be wrong to assume that all through the existence of Bangladesh ( East Pakistan ) with West Pakistan , there were no forces of attraction. Although, in the 1970 elections, in which Awami League led by Sheikh Mujib had won all but two of the 162 seats allotted to East Pakistan in the National Assembly, less than 50% of the people had voted for the party. Therefore, many political parties with their moorings in West Pakistan had a sizeable constituency in East Pakistan . Had it not been for some positive linkages, Bangladesh after independence may not have been able to build bridges with Pakistan so soon, as it did. Geo-strategic location


Except for Myanmar with which Bangladesh shares a 193 Km long land boundary, its remaining land boundary of 4096 Km is shared with India .  The country is ringed by massive Indian landmass from all sides barring south, wherein lies the Bay of Bengal .  This is a geo-strategic truism and therefore it would be logical to infer that till Bangladesh emerges as a stable, prosperous and confident nation, it will continue to consider India as its perennial and pervasive adversary. 

There is a section within the Indian strategic analyst community which is of the view that the emergence of Bangladesh as a separate country was not in India ’s strategic interest.  They contend that volatile Bangladesh, as East Pakistan would have continued to consume the concern and energy of the West Pakistani rulers, thus considerably diluting their focus on Jammu and Kashmir.  Moreover, for Pakistan , East Pakistan by virtue of its geo-strategic setting vis-à-vis India would have remained vulnerability – a soft underbelly of sorts.  Soon after Bangladesh gained independence, the Chinese leader Chou-en-Lai is attributed to have remarked that ‘ India has created a rock which will fall on its own feet’.  Nevertheless, the biggest strategic gain that accrued to India from the creation of Bangladesh was that Pakistan became bereft of a naval pressure in the Bay of Bengal i.e. in the vicinity of India ’s eastern seaboard and thereby also ceased to have a geographical interface of South-East Asia.

The big brother syndrome with respect to India looms very large on Bangladesh ’s security horizon and therefore its threat perceptions are perhaps more imagined than real. While to India , Bangladesh is one of the seven neighbouring countries; for Bangladesh , India is the only major neighbour. Therefore, there is a tendency to exaggerate apprehensions or fabricate threats from India . This has given rise to an anti-India lobby within the Bangla populace and polity, which has severely impaired and inhibited some mutually very beneficial cooperative proposals and ventures between the two countries. One such proposal that has fallen victim to the imagined Indian threat is the Bangladesh ’s ambivalence over granting transit route to India (North East) through its territory. The India-fear has also led Bangladesh to forge close relationship with China and Pakistan , the two countries, which it perceives India is disconcerted with. However, there is a segment in Bangladesh , which is of the opinion that such strategic ploy of countervailing India could prove to be self-defeating in the long run.

In most of its military training institutions and military exercises, India is referred to as an enemy. Bangladesh is conscious of the fact that it is not capable of undertaking any offensive against India , given the huge mismatch in the size and military capabilities of the two countries. It has therefore adopted a wholly defensive strategy. Its military strategy devolves around debilitating an Indian offensive by use of numerous rivers and other obstacles, and preventing the fall of Dhaka for a sufficient period to allow the international community to intervene. It also factors the use of guerilla warfare in its defence strategy against an Indian offensive.


Deployment of Armed Forces


The deployment pattern of the Bangladesh Army is on a geographical rather than any operational imperatives.  It has seven  Infantry Divisions and an Independent Armoured Brigade.  The 9 Infantry Division at Dhaka and 24 Infantry Division in Chittagong are considered important.  The division at Dhaka has played an important role in all the coups that Bangladesh has witnessed and is therefore considered to be extremely sensitive.  The division at Chittagong has been engaged in counter insurgency operations and has four brigades, as opposed to other divisions that have only two brigades. A map showing deployment of the Army and key Naval and Air Force bases is given here:


In the context of India – Bangladesh security interface ‘The Bangladesh Rifles’ (BDR), which has a strength of 60,000 personnel organized into some 45 battalions, assumes overwhelming importance, as it is responsible for the entire length of border. The quality of its interface with its Indian counterpart is a key determinant to peace, tranquility and development of border region between the two countries. Given the vast magnitude of border problems, the cooperative mechanisms between the BDR and Border Security Force (BSF) of India have to be sound.  However, in the last four or five years, there have been some bitter clashes between the two. In April 2002, a 16 member patrolling party of the BSF in Meghalya were captured and slaughtered by the BDR.  Three years later in April 2005, in another incident near Lankamara outpost 8 km from Agartala, an Assistant Commandant of the BSF was brutally knifed before being killed.  While differences and problems between the border forces is a normal feature and cannot be completely ignored two incidents are indicative of the growing animosity that the BDR harbours against the BSF.  If the trend escalates, it could lead to larger confrontations. The absence of any military threat from India is also evidenced by the fact that Bangladesh having only 1,40,000 (approximately) armed forces personnel is the largest contributor to the UN missions.


Bangladesh India : Strategic Interface   Bangladesh ’s security interface with India is on multitude of planes. It has the geographical luxury to impact on five Indian states i.e. West Bengal (2216 Km), Assam (263 Km), Meghalya (443 Km), Tripura (856 Km) and Mizoram (399 Km).  It is nearly impossible to completely seal the 4096 Kms border and as such its porosity can be reduced but not eliminated, even as about 3000 Km out sanctioned 3287 Km of border fence has already been erected by India . The threat emanating from Bangladesh to India is probably more insidious and therefore less discernible as compared to threat from Pakistan or China . That, Pakistan has gone overtly nuclear is not a totally unforeseen development since any technology sooner or later finds fresh avenues like the flow of water. There is atleast the comfort of deterrence, between two nuclear capable states. However, in case of a soft state like Bangladesh , the policy of deterrence has serious limitations. Some of the security related facets upon which Bangladesh impacts in its strategic interface with India are :-


·         Demographic Assault on India : As per an estimate, the annual illegal immigration from Bangladesh is approximately 300,000 and the total number of Bangladeshi nationals in India is approximately 15 to 17 millions. There is hardly any state in India , where Bangladeshi nationals are not residing. That, to many it is not a pronounced problem is because of the fact that the size and large population of India has been able to absorb such a massive influx. Nonetheless, in terms of numbers, more than two-third of Australia ’s population has been added to India from Bangladesh . There are any numbers of anti-India hawks in Bangladesh who openly espouse theory of lebensraum.


·         Sanctuary to Indian Insurgent Groups: Though consistently denied by Bangladesh , there are a number of camps of Indian insurgent groups, which include ULFA and NSCN(IM) in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHTs) of Bangladesh . Some of the top leaders of ULFA have been operating with impunity from Bangladesh ’s capital Dhaka . Probably, the clandestine support to Indian insurgents is a matter of strategic leverage for Bangladesh.·         Smuggling of Weapons: The Bangladesh territory has become a conduit for weapon smuggling for Indian insurgents as well as Myanmarese insurgents, which Bangladesh has been unable to  contain, despite vigilance and several crackdowns by Bangladesh ’s Security Forces. The Cox’s Bazar coast offers convenient landing points for arms smugglers. As per a number of media reports, these smugglers obtain their consignments from Ranong and Phuket (on Thailand’s Western Coast) and move it by boats to Cox’s Bazar from where it is further transported by land route along the India – Bangladesh border and India – Myanmar border. The coastal area stretching from port of Chittagong through Cox’s Bazar and to Myanmar’s border is not only notorious for arms dealing and gun running but is also the strong hold of the fundamentalist party, the Jamiat-i-Islami and its youth wing Islamic Chhatra Shibir and other more extremist Muslim groups like the Harkat-ul-Jihad-ul Islami, which was allegedly established with funds from Osama Bin Laden. The International Maritime Bureau because of high incidence of piracy and armed robberies has declared the Chittangong Port as the second most dangerous port in the world. The Bangladesh-Myanmar border area is also home to nearly 100,000 Muslim refugees and migrants i.e. the Rohingyas from Arakan (Rakhine) state of Myanmar . The Myanmar authorities accuse the Rohingyas of facilitating arms smuggling and having links with Islamic extremist groups within and outside Bangladesh.