Over the past decades, politicians, diplomats and policymakers on either side of the border have been blithely declaring that relations between Bangladesh and India have reached an all-time high. It is very justified for the Indians to make such remarks. If their target is not to identify all Bengali-speaking Muslims in India as undocumented Bangladeshi nationals and shove them over the border into Bangladesh, then it must be said that they have managed to achieve all they have sought from Bangladesh. The issue here is what Bangladesh has achieved through its India policy. The issue today is the policy officially adopted by the Indian border force along the border with its friendly neighbour state.
I had borrowed from a headline used by Britain’s Channel 4 seven years ago when I wrote a column in this paper, ‘The World’s Deadliest Frontier’. The fact that things haven’t changed an iota from then, is very evident in the statements of the home minister and the foreign minister. Speaking to newsmen after a human rights meet in Dhaka on 8 February, home minister Asaduzzaman Khan said that border killings had escalated and that the government was actively taking measures to halt this. A week before that, on 2 February, foreign minister AK Abdul Momen said that it was very unfortunate that border killings had increased this year. He said he had summoned the Indian high commissioner and had asked her why such killings occurred when relations between Bangladesh and India were so good. This was shameful, he said.
From the statements of these ministers it's evident that there has been no let up in the killings. On the contrary, the killings have increased. Yet both the governments have said in the past that these killings would be brought down to zero. A few years ago it was even said that the Indian border troops would not be armed with lethal weapons. Obviously, if any such decision had been taken, it has remained on paper only, not in action.
When food minister Sadhan Chandra Majumdar visited his home constituency on 25 January, three people were killed on the same day by Indian border forces. The minister saw nothing wrong in that. He said, “It is no of use blaming others when our own character is faulty.” He said that government won’t take the responsibility if anyone is killed trespassing on the other side of the border to bring back their stray cattle. The food minister had no compunction in blaming the citizens of his own country, without as much as asking for an inquiry or evidence. He has not even apologised for his remarks. His remarks are cruel and inhuman, not to mention humiliating. And it would not be unjustified if anyone took the food minister’s words to reflect the government stance. After all, he still remains firmly in office.
It is not only cattle being smuggled across the border. The border is rife with the trafficking of drugs, gold, women and children. Government and non-government records in recent years indicate a drop in cattle smuggling. It has been quite some years now that Bangladesh has become self-sufficient in livestock. But there is no evidence that Bangladesh has become self-sufficient in phensidyl or yaba and such drugs. These come in from outside. And human trafficking is on from Bangladesh outwards. Yet no one says anything about placing attention of the border crimes of human trafficking and narcotics.
It is not that border crimes occur only on the border between Bangladesh and India. In fact, this is a complicated border that has divided many families. In some cases their crop land is on one side of the border and their homestead on the other. So it cannot simply be explained as a matter of trespassing.
India has a hostile border with a different neighbour, Pakistan. India claims it is at high risk because of terrorists crossing over from Pakistan into its territory. And yet there is no killing of civilians along that border. The clashes between the two countries are on the line of control with the contentious area of Kashmir and are military in nature. The killings are mostly of members of the armed forces.
India also has a border with Nepal along with states afflicted by Maoist uprising. There too, civilians are rarely killed in border clashes. It is the same at India’s borders with Bhutan and Myanmar. Then why is such cruelty along the border with Bangladesh?
The human rights agency Human Rights Watch published a report ‘Trigger Happy’ on 9 December 2010 about such indiscriminate killing by the Indian Border Security Force (BSF). It gave a year by year account of the names and numbers of Bangladeshis killed on the border. Around 1000 Bangladeshis were killed on the border by BSF in the first decade of this century. That means around 100 people were killed every year in that decade along the border with India. The home minister in July last year told the parliament that between 2009 and 2019, a total of 294 Bangladeshis were killed in those 10 years along the Indian border. And according to Ain O Salish Kendra, just last year alone 46 Bangladeshis were shot dead on the Indian border.
Bangladesh has been highly praised in India for the manner in which it has wiped out Indian insurgent activities in Bangladesh. After this, the expected improvement in border management hasn’t materialised. No wonder the foreign minister has termed this as shameful. But shame won’t save the lives of the innocent civilians living along the border. The government must take a strong position to protect the people of the border areas.
We waste no time to implement communication projects, but it is time to reassess these. Before bothering about any new railway or river routes, the government must commit itself to bringing down border killings to zero. Over the 12 years of its rule, the present government has done all it can to fulfil India’s demands. It has not received even a fair share of river water in return. Negotiations can continue. But there can be no compromise when it comes to the lives of innocent citizens.
*Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist. This piece has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir