The Bangladesh-India border has been labelled as one of the most securitised borders of Asia, if not of the world. During 2010 to 2016, on average, the Border Security Force of India (BSF) personnel killed 40 Bangladeshi nationals every year. Despite being a highly emotive issue in the Bangladeshi national psyche and repeated promise of “zero tolerance” by the Indian political leadership under successive regimes, border killing remains a grim reality. The unsettled high profile case of Felani has only exacerbated public perception of 'the big neighbour's highhandedness' in dealing with unarmed civilians along the border.
Quite understandably the issue of border killing finds a place in the agenda of periodic meetings of the Director Generals (DGs) of the Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) and the BSF. At least 28 Bangladeshis were killed by the BSF since the 42nd meeting held in May 2016. The five-day long 44th meeting was concluded last week in Dhaka.
The joint press statement issued after the meeting noted Bangladesh's expression of “grave concern on incidents of firing and killing of Bangladeshi nationals.” In response to Bangladesh's position the DG of BSF claimed that use of non-lethal strategy has proved “extremely successful in reducing deaths in the border”, but it resulted in “an alarming increase in incidents of attacks by the criminals on BSF personnel”. Indirectly the DG of BSF acknowledged and justified the use of lethal weapons on grounds that his force acts in self-defence. The press statement did not indicate if any evidence was furnished by the BSF delegation in support of their claim if indeed there has been an “alarming increase” of the “attacks by the criminals”, nor is it clear if the members of the Bangladesh delegation demanded such evidence.
The justification for firing on self-defence of the BSF chief appears to be in sync with the BGB chief. About a month back while visiting Chuadanga border the latter observed, as reported in a Bengali daily, “the BSF forces only act on self defence” and went on to argue “everyone has the right to defend himself”. He further noted, “the smugglers in both countries are dangerous.”
It may not be farfetched to argue that the DG of BSF's reasoning did little to placate those concerned with border killings. The standard BSF narrative endorsed by the BGB chief stands out in sharp contrast to what the residents of border areas of Bangladesh have been reporting to the investigative media and the rights defenders. The killing of the schoolboy Shehab Uddin in Chuadanga on May 14, 2016 at point blank range by BSF personnel defies the veracity of the BSF chief's assertion.
In the last meeting the DGs decided to jettison the plan for “joint investigation into border killing”, a decision taken at the 42nd meeting in the wake of Shehab Uddin's killing. Instead, the parties decided on “joint spot verification and appraisal on major incidents/killings in border areas”. In response to the media's query a BGB member stated that the Bangladesh side agreed with the BSF that the joint investigation process decided earlier “was not easy to start” and that such investigation was a police matter. This may very well be the case. However, such revision of a decision brings to the fore the larger questions of the quality of preparatory work done for important bilateral meetings, degree of coordination among various agencies and the competence of those involved in decision making.
The DG level meeting was marked by another disconcerting development. The BSF chief sought cooperation of his Bangladeshi counterpart “for destruction of reported hideouts of Indian insurgent groups”, indicating such hideouts are in existence in this country. Bangladesh summarily dismissed the audacious allegation. The claim has surprised many as it was made at a time when the relationship between the two countries has been officially acknowledged to be in great shape. A series of agreements, including those on trans-shipment by land and riverine routes on concessional terms, use of Bangladeshi ports and those related to security issues such as that of handing over of the most wanted Anup Chetia, have been signed and implemented with much enthusiasm that Bangladesh's big neighbour has been craving for years. No less important indicator of such good relations is the statement of a key figure in the Bangladesh administration who felt it was in “bad taste” to claim fees and charges for the services that India was availing and the feeling of “disappointment” by a senior Bangladesh minister at the anti-dumping measure adopted by the “brotherly neighbour”.
At the BGB-BSF meeting the Bangladesh team “expressed its gratitude to the Government of India and BSF for approving plans” to use its roads to build border outposts. At this time and age if at all such acknowledgement were to be recorded it would have been befitting for a sovereign country to express 'appreciation' for the support than 'gratitude'.
Instead of providing satisfactory explanation to Bangladesh's claim of border killing and framing effective mitigating measures to reach the avowed “zero tolerance” target the BSF has engaged in a diversionary tactic of lodging spurious claims about the Indian insurgent hideouts. Ostensibly to curb the “menace of cross-border crimes” a series of confidence building measures (CBMs) have been agreed upon by the two parties. Included among them are joint training and exercise, “adventure training like kayaking, rafting, cycling, rowing, mountain climbing etc. joint band display with cultural programmes and exchange visits”. While “BSF will sponsor scholarships for selected brilliant children of BGB members in Indian medical and engineering colleges”, they will also “facilitate in setting up of a Dog Training School or required facilities for BGB”.
Joint social and cultural activities of the two paramilitary forces are a welcome development. However, in the backdrop of unrelenting use of lethal force and killing of unarmed Bangladeshi civilians along the border, the refusal to acknowledge the reality and institute proper investigation, let alone take action against the perpetrators and the failure to pay compensation to Felani's family by the BSF, as per the directive of the National Human Rights Commission, India, such “adventure trainings” gives the impression of trivialising and dishonouring the memory of fallen Bangladeshis.
The writer teaches International Relations at the University of Dhaka.