New Delhi needs to make an unreserved apology to Bangladesh for the brutal conduct of its Border Security Force personnel who were seen in a recent video torturing a Bangladeshi man. Not surprisingly, the telltale video has caused widespread outrage in Bangladesh. A remark by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee that the incident must not be hyped, echoed by a Bangladeshi Minister, seems only to have provoked more anger and fuelled opposition allegations against the Sheikh Hasina government for being “pro-India”. With the Bangladesh Army claiming the other day that it averted a coup against the government by an “anti-India” section of officers, New Delhi needs to guard against becoming an unwitting cause for political instability in its eastern neighbour. Anti-India sentiment has been high in Bangladesh since the killing of three of its nationals by the BSF in two separate incidents on the border last month. A March 2011 agreement between the two countries not to use firearms in dealing with illegal activities on the border has brought down the number of such incidents, but the video is evidence that the guards feel free to use other forms of violence. It underlines the fact that such bilateral agreements on the management of their complex boundary are worth nothing unless accompanied by a change in the mindset of those responsible for it on the ground.
The distressing 11.56 minute footage, circulated through YouTube, is quite evidently a trophy video, the guards happy to pose as they strip their victim, tie his hands and feet, and beat him mercilessly while discussing among themselves other severe options of dealing with him. The man was a suspected rustler — the border is notorious for cattle smuggling — and it has been alleged by rights activists in Bangladesh that the guards were punishing him for not paying them a bribe. The guards appear to have such an entrenched sense of impunity that the thought of being found out and punished does not seem to cross their minds as they participate in the abuse. The BSF has suspended the eight guards involved in the distressing episode and ordered an investigation. While it may be convenient for the paramilitary to treat this as an isolated incident of “rogue” personnel, the enquiry needs to focus on the overall climate of impunity that makes such incidents possible. The BSF must also reflect if there is something missing in the training of its recruits that some of them are capable of such brutality. This is important because their conduct not only brings disrepute to the organisation but also risks jeopardising India's relations with an important neighbour.