Page last updated at 11:09 GMT, Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Bangladesh's first line of defence

Border guards have mutinied in Bangladesh - apparently over pay and working conditions. The BBC's Subir Bhaumik reports on the origins of the force.

File photo: Bangladesh Rifles soldiers stand guard during a protest rally in Dhaka, December 12, 2006
Bangladesh border guards complain of low pay and status

The Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) is said to be the country's first line of defence. It is meant to patrol the borders, check smuggling and cross-border crime and establish the government's authority in remote areas.

In times of war, it is supposed to provide support to the army.

The Bangladesh Rifles originated from the East Pakistan Rifles - a force set up in undivided Pakistan - and came into existence shortly after the country's independence in 1972.

The original batch of 9,000 troops were mostly East Pakistan Rifles deserters who revolted against the Pakistani officers.

But when Bangladesh's founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, wanted to merge the Bangladesh Rifles with the national militia Jatiya Rakkhi Bahini, the BDR stiffly opposed the move.

But that was the first and last time the border force witnessed a situation close to mutiny.

"Though the Bangladesh army has a turbulent history of mutinies and revolts, specially between 1975 and 1984, the BDR has been remarkably free from indiscipline," says Bangladesh security analyst, retired major Shamsul Arefin.

"Its soldiers have severe resentment about pay and perks and they have angrily represented them from time to time, but they have never revolted.

"So it has to be seen whether there's a conspiracy to use the disaffection to destabilise the new government," he said, referring to Wednesday's mutiny at the BDR's Dhaka headquarters.

Major role

By 1973 a vigorous recruiting campaign had swelled the Bangladesh Rifles ranks to about 20,000 personnel. Its current strength is around 70,000.

The BDR is under the Home Ministry, but the army plays a major role in staffing, training and directing the force. Most Bangladesh Rifles officers are seconded from the regular army.

TV grab of BDR headquarters on fire in Dhaka
Disputes over pay could have laid to the mutiny
For instance, the army chief of staff, Lt Gen Atiqur Rahman, served as director general of the Bangladesh Rifles for four and a half years before taking over as army chief.

In addition, retired junior commissioned officers and those below them are often assigned to the Bangladesh Rifles in recognition of long years of service.

"That's the problem. The army fellows don't take up our cause. We are paid very poorly," one BDR soldier, who did not want to be named, told the BBC.

Although Bangladesh Rifles units can be called upon to assist the police in putting down domestic disturbances, their primary role is to guard the nation's frontiers.

The force is organised into battalions along military lines.

During war time or national emergencies, the president as commander in chief can authorise the military to assume direct control over all paramilitary and police forces.

The present BDR chief, Shakil Ahmed, who is said to have been attacked by his irate troops on Wednesday, has promised to work closely with India countering terrorist groups active along the borders.

Indian Border Security Force officials talk of him as a "very friendly person always willing to co-operate".

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