Are they Indians or Bangladeshis?
Almost 80 per cent of these people are Indians and 20 per cent are Bangladeshis but nobody talks about the Indians.
You have been recording this information as well as informing various Indian government agencies and courts. Who are providing you with information?
I think 10-15 million people live along the West Bengal-Bangladesh border. A big portion of them live in this side of barbed wire fence or Indian territories and a relatively small portion of them live on the other side of the fence but that too is in the Indian territories and within 150 yards from zero point; this 150-yard territory is left in accordance with the Geneva Convention, and no defence infrastructure can be built there.
The problem is due to some problems the barbed wire fence is being built two or five, even 8-10 kilometers inside the Indian territory. As a result, those who live in this area face immense problems. Cultivation or fishing is the main way of livelihood of the people living here, so, their lands or a big portion of their ponds fall inside this 5-10 kilometer-area, the part left on the other side of barbed wire fence. These are their ancestral properties. They have been living there since before the India-Pakistan partition. Barbed wires are erected; gates were installed, and those were kept locked, and then it was said gates will remain open for a certain time during the day. If a fisherman wants to go other side of the fence, he must go between 8:00am and 9:00am. But, midnight is the best time for fishing as everything remains silent then, but you cannot go. A farmer may see cattle from Bangladesh eating crops on his field sometimes in the afternoon but he cannot go there to chase the animal away.
How are you receiving information regularly?
We have been working among the people of these areas for long and we have gained their trust. We formed committee “Amra Simantabasi (We're border people)” with villagers in about 100 villages. We also have local volunteers. We are trying to collect medical certificate of the victims after documenting torture incident. We also are trying to provide some health services and legal assistance. Besides, we are trying to inform central and state home ministries, central and state human rights commissions, various international organisations, mass media and people about the entire process.
Have you ever been arrested?
Of course. I was arrested various times; six-seven cases have been filed against me. I was arrested during the rule of both CPM-M and Trinamool Congress.
Recently, you said during a public hearing on border issues that border killings, especially the murder of Felani Khatun, is a shame for us.
I am saying it again. Border Security Forces (BSF) killed teenager Felani Khatun in Chowdhuryhat border of Dinhata on 7 January 2011. Bangladeshi citizen Felani Khatun was said to have attacked the BSF, so, she was killed. We investigated the incident and informed the national human rights commission about what actually happened. After reviewing the incident, the commission in its report said the girl was in no way in a state of attacking the BSF and there was no weapon in the belongings that were seized from her. Prior to this, an special court of BSF heard the matter where everyone including judges, accused, defendants, and defence lawyers were from BSF. It was not an open court and the BSF does for fall under the jurisdiction of Right to Information Act. So, the accused Amio Ghosh was released. There is much discussion and criticism of this in India and, especially, in Bangladesh.
After that, the case was heard again at the Supreme Court following our appeal. All the concerned parties were brought together in 2013. Felani Khatun’s father Nur Islam and I filed the case at the Supreme Court in 2015. Six years have passed since 2016. The other party submitted their response. Then everything was all set and the verdict was supposed to be delivered in the next hearing. But neither the hearing was held nor was the verdict delivered. That's why I said the killing of Felani Khatun is a shame for India.
Are there more such lawsuits over border issues?
There are innumerable cases. I filed a case with the Supreme Court in 2012, bringing together 152 incidents including murder, rape and torture. The statement of central home ministry, West Bengal home ministry, BSF, national human rights commission and state police have been heard. The Supreme Court in April of 2017 ordered to deliver the verdict in the next hearing, but that day never came in the last five years. There are more than 300 such cases filed against police and BSF pending at various state courts but the trials did not take place.
You have been doing this on human rights ground and this is necessary but don’t you think putting too much emphasis on human rights issue weakens national security issues?
The question of human rights falls under the jurisdiction of the state constitution; neither the BSF and nor the other government forces are above the constitution. People are dying along the border areas regularly, The people have been saying that they want to sell their land along the border. If the government is really that much concerned over security, they could buy the land. But instead of doing that the government has now ordered to increase BSF surveillance inside 50 kilometres from the border and that means 20-30 per cent of the state area goes under the control of the central forces from the jurisdiction of the state police.
So, what do you want then?
My opinion is clear. There is no relation of Geneva Convention with the border of two friendly countries. Pakistan was an enemy state but we heard Bangladesh is a very friendly country of India. India shares border with Nepal and Bhutan as well. There is Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB), no BSF. Those two borders do not shed blood like the border with Bangladesh. People of Nepal or Bhutan can come to India without hesitation; likewise, Indians can go there too. Nobody requires passport and visa. Why is the discrimination for Bangladesh?
Forget about Bangladesh; in most of the cases, they (BSF) are killing farmers of their own country. They are saying the victim attacked first but a scythe is being recovered from the deceased, many people died after being shot at head from behind. In the name of providing security to locals, this large paramilitary force is patrolling the area, harassing people anytime, making arrests and firing shots. We are just seeking justice for this under the constitution of India.
You have been often speaking for removing border.
I am not saying to remove the border. I want a humanitarian border, no discrimination with a friendly state. One more thing, today India possess such equipment through which surveillance on border is possible from space, or from Delhi or Kolkata. There are large tent of the paramilitary force at a little distance from border. Produce those who are intruding before the court but that will not happen and that also have reasons.
What is the reason?
Smuggling is going on through border round the clock with the consent of the security guards. All of them who earn from it are famous people. So, people must get shot at border to increase their income. The second reason is easier to understand. Mainly Muslims live there (in Bangladesh). Why no border haat (market) could be opened along the Bangladesh-West Bengal border despite the decision of the Indian home ministry? It would improve economic condition of border people and smuggling would drop. And, if the BSF members do not guard staying inside the barbed wire fence and patrol on the actual border line, they can prevent the smugglers and the villagers will get benefit too.
* This interview appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Hasanul Banna