Bangladeshi patience with Indian belligerence continues to be stretched. While Dhaka remains ever hopeful for the Land Boundary Agreement to be ratified by India, and the Teesta waters to be satisfactorily shared, a new blow was dealt to their faith in bilateral cooperation. Earlier this month, a Border Security Force (BSF) court found that Amiya Ghosh, a constable in the Force and the only accused, could not be judged guilty for the killing of Felani, a teenage Bangladeshi girl, because of “inconclusive and insufficient evidence.”
Members of the BSF – and other security forces in the country – are tried in martial courts, if and when they are tried at all, hidden from public view and knowledge. The appalling verdict in Felani’s case will be reconsidered, it has been swiftly announced, after a widespread public outcry in Bangladesh. It included a moving letter written by Felani’s father holding the Indian people and state responsible for not only the death of his unarmed teenage daughter, but the prospect of justice to be brought to her killer. Felani’s death – and the difficult process of bringing the BSF member to task – sheds light on some grave issues that merit attention and public debate in India.
One in countless?
It is not often that incidents or issues along India’s border with Bangladesh receive attention in the Indian national media. This is in stark contrast to Bangladeshi Bengali and English language media where the violence and harassment suffered by Bangladeshis at the hands of Indian troops is the subject of everyday reportage. At the dawn of January 7 2011, Amiya Ghosh, of 181 Battalion in the BSF, shot this fifteen-year old girl as she was climbing over the barbed wire fence at the border in the vicinity of Choudhuryhat (in Coochbehar district, India) and Phulbari (in Kurigram district, Bangladesh). The heart-rending picture of the girl’s body hanging upside down from the fence for hours before her body was handed over to the Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB), the Bangladeshi security force, accompanied many of the reports in Bangladesh and abroad and attracted unprecedented response in India as well.
The incident added to international outcry and attention toward India’s rapid militarisation of this border, and the release of a bold Human Rights Watch report, called ‘Trigger Happy?’ - which stirred up a storm in both India and Bangladesh - elicited a rare response from the BSF in the press. The report documents, in collaboration with Manab Adhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM) and Odhikar, human rights organisations in West Bengal and Bangladesh respectively, the inordinately high number of killings by the BSF along the India-Bangladesh border.
According to Human Rights Watch, India’s force has killed almost 1,000 people, both Indians and Bangladeshis, in the ten years between 2001-2010. That implies the stunning frequency of a deadly shooting every four days. Further, the report documents the pervasive nature of harassment and torture in the daily lives of those who live in the densely populated borderland. While reportage in Bangladesh focuses on the implication of the BSF’s actions for Bangladeshi citizens, this report underlined that the Indian force is equally brutal to citizens of its own country, the very people whose interests it is ostensibly protecting.
It is imperative to call for an end to the extrajudicial deaths and cases of torture of both Indian and Bangladeshi citizens at the hands of the BSF, as the Human Rights Watch report and several other organizations do. In my own research in border areas in both countries, residents speak of feeling helpless at having no recourse to the law in cases of violence and harassment at the hands of the BSF. Such a culture of impunity must certainly be curtailed. In July this year, the Indian government paid the family of Shah Alam, killed in BSF gunfire in 2010, a compensatory amount of Rs 5 lakhs in the first case of assumption of responsibility.
Given the nature of agreements that the Indian and Bangladeshi border security forces have signed in the past two years, including joint border patrols, regular information sharing meetings, it is reasonable to expect some form of cooperation and transparency to emerge on the subject of complaints and trials against members of the respective security forces.
Violence along a ‘friendly’ border
Demanding accountability for the actions and operation of our security forces is necessary, and this instance of state compensation to a Bangladeshi citizen indicates a welcome willingness to recognize responsibility. However, we should not be limited to hoping that this may set precedence for providing compensation in all cases of unprovoked killings and assaults.
We must ask the fundamental and larger question – why is the Indian government investing so heavily in the control of this border by increasing the number of troops and establishing technologies of control and surveillance? India’s increasing militarisation of this border between two ostensibly ‘friendly’ nations in times of ‘peace’, begs further scrutiny. Why are border security forces allowed to open fire so rampantly in the first place?
The professed reasons are to prevent infiltration by potential terrorists and the cross-border smuggling of people and goods. While there is very little conclusive evidence regarding the movement of potential terrorists across the India-Bangladesh border, thousands of residents in these border areas, predominantly Muslim, face indiscriminate harassment in their daily lives and activities. Moreover, it is an open secret that the BSF are heavily involved in cross-border smuggling, supplementing their meager salaries with earnings from the profitable, ‘illegal’ border economy.
We must ask why there is no public debate on the subject of border security. What makes the management of this border so different when compared to India’s management of its borders with Nepal and Bhutan? With a veritable absence of debates in India on decisions being taken with regard to the management of its borders – and the realities of such border control practices – the treatment of ordinary people as suspected criminals continues unnoticed, unquestioned.
Felani’s killing, gruesome and tragic, is sadly not one of its kind. It takes us to the heart of the many dimensions to India’s violent border control practices as they unfold along the country’s eastern border. On the one hand, the arbitrariness and impunity with which the BSF operates along the border with Bangladesh creates resentment toward the Indian state among both Indian and Bangladeshi citizens. On the other hand, the targeting of Muslim residents in the border-lying thanas in several subtle as well as explicit ways by a security force predominantly and vocally Hindu, has created a polarisation within these areas on religious lines.
The case of Felani’s killing warrants attention and justice. It is not to be consigned to the heap of anonymous and unaccountable deaths. We must keep her memory alive to ask fundamental – and larger – questions about what transpires in the name of Indian national security, about inhuman border control regimes, about the nature of regional relations that the Indian state has been fostering.
Sahana Ghosh is a doctoral student in social anthropology at Yale University