DGFI's Lakshman Rekha
The JS Panel probe is perhaps the first "legislative enquiry," that went into the most unfortunate incident which originated from a fracas between some members of the army and some university students on August 21, 2007. The ensuing unrest continued into the next day till a curfew was clamped. The unfortunate incident had its knock-on effect on the other universities of the country outside Dhaka too. What followed was an outrage that should never have been allowed to happen at all.
We do not have the document in hand but only the reports based on media conferences by the chairman of the panel. The panel has put the blame on the DGFI for what occurred, and the then heads of the government and the army have been held responsible too. It has recommended legal action against the two as well as several other officers of the DGFI holding important positions during that time.
It is not the intention of this article to post-mortem the episode (that was done in the same column on August 29, 2007) or to dissect the report since one does not know the details as yet. The focus will be on one of the major recommendations of the panel concerning the role of the DGFI.
It should be made clear at this point that DGFI is not an army intelligence agency, as some in the media mistakenly refer to it. It is a joint service agency which was once under the ministry of defence, but presently under the PMO's office, the PM being the defence minister too. It provides operational intelligence to the three services as well as other intelligence backup.
It would be absurd to contradict the observation of the JS panel that the matter was compounded by the obduracy of the DGFI which at that time was virtually out of control of the DG and which, as far as one is aware, was commandeered by one of its directors. That the decision of the council of advisors for a peaceful and quick resolution of the crisis was overridden by some officers of the forces' intelligence shows the clout it had acquired at that time.
In fact, there was call from several quarters, and which was also conveyed to the DGFI, that exercising discretion would be more helpful than displaying reckless valour. The advice fell on deaf ears and the urge to "teach a lesson" to the students led to events that nobody can be proud of. Its urge to chastise was perhaps motivated by pictures of burning military vehicles, one of which happened to belong to a PSO of the AHQ, and people in military fatigue falling victims of students' wrath. And the consequence of that is in front of us.
Certainly the DGFI had transgressed its TOR and certainly those that were responsible for its tasking must take responsibility for the consequences of its action. And only after one has gone minutely into the details of the report, which we shall certainly do once it is in hand, can we comment on it including on the justification or otherwise of holding both the chief advisor and the army chief responsible for what happened between August 21 and 22, 2007. The boss is always accountable for the acts of commission or omission of his under command but may not necessarily be directly culpable for that. This might set a precedent that one may not be willing to countenance in future.
The JS panel has recommended that the forces intelligence be kept out of national politics. And not in the very distant past we had heard the general criticism of the DGFI that it had been overstepping its remit, and some, particularly a few among the affected, had suggested that it be disbanded or put under the ministry of home.
We must admit unreservedly that the criticisms were perhaps justified but we assert equally forcefully that our decisions must not be constrained by our emotions while dealing with not only a very sensitive but a very vital issue also.
Just to put the matter in perspective, it is not as if this was the first instance where the DGFI had gone beyond its TOR. The military rulers found it convenient to use the DGFI for consolidating their regimes, for obvious reasons. But what one fails to understand is that the democratically elected governments too had gone about in the same vein. And one got the very distinct impression that the remit of the DGFI went much beyond the realms of the armed forces when one saw the DG, DGFI accompanying the prime minister in the same helicopter in his internal tours around the country in 1974-75.
The suggestion of the panel to keep the DGFI out of politics is something that is not very difficult to implement. It is a matter of political decision and political will. The Lakshman Rekha should be drawn but that can be drawn only by the political masters, and which, one is certain, the agency will be only too happy to remain within.
The writer is Editor, Defence & Strategic Affairs, The Daily Star.