Killing thy neighbour: India, and its Border Security Force
Felani’s clothes got entangled in the barbed wire when she was crossing the Anantapur border in Kurigram. It was 6 in the morning, Friday, 7th January 2011. Felani was 15, she worked in Delhi and was returning home with her father after ten years. To get married. She screamed. The BSF shot her dead. They took away her body.
THE fence is made of steel and concrete. Packed with razor wire, double-walled and 8-foot high, it is being built by the government of India on its border with Bangladesh. When completed, it promises to be larger than the United States-Mexico fence, Israel’s apartheid wall with Palestine, and the Berlin wall put together. It has been dubbed the Great Wall of India.
The fence is being constructed, with floodlighting in parts, to secure India’s borders against interests hostile to the country. To put in place systems that are able to ‘interdict’ these hostile elements. They will include a suitable mix and class of various types of hi-tech electronic surveillance equipment such as night vision devices, handheld thermal imagers, battlefield surveillance radars, direction finders, unattended ground sensors, high-powered telescopes to act as a ‘force multiplier’ for ‘effective’ border management. According to its rulers, this is ‘vitally important for national security.’
Seventy per cent of fencing along the Bangladesh border has been completed. In reply to a question in the Rajya Sabha on November 10, 2010, the Indian state minister for home affairs said, fencing will be completed by March 2012. One estimate puts the project’s cost at ?600 million.
The colonial boundary division between East Pakistan/Bangladesh and India, notes Willem van Schendel, had little to do with modern concepts of spatial rationality. It was anything but a straight line, snaking ‘through the countryside in a wacky zigzag pattern’ showing no respect for history, cutting through innumerable geographical entities, for example, the ancient capital of Gaur. It was reflective of someone with an ‘excessively baroque mind’ (The Bengal Borderland: Beyond State and Nation in South Asia, 2005)
The fence divides and separates. Villages. Agricultural lands. Markets. Families. Communities. It cuts across mangrove-swamps in the southwest, forests and mountains in the northeast (Delwar Hussain, March 2, 2009). It divides villages. Everyday village-life must now submit to a tangle of bureaucracy as Indian Muslim law clerk, Maznu Rahman Mandal and his wife Ahmeda Khatun, a Bangladeshi, discovered after Ahmeda’s father died. To attend the latter’s funeral in the same village, Bhira, they would now have to get passports from Delhi, visas from Kolkata (Bidisha Bannerjee, December 20, 2010). It split up Fazlur Rehman’s family too, the fence snaked into their Panidhar village homestead, his younger brother who lived right next door, is now in another country (Time, February 5, 2009). Other border residents have had their homes split in two, the kitchen in one country, the bedroom in another.
To access one’s field, or markets, residents must now line up at long queues at the BSF border outposts, surrender their identity cards. They must submit to the BSF’s regimen, which often means disregarding what the crop needs. As Mithoo Sheikh of Murshidabad says, ‘The BSF does not understand cultivation problems.’ By the time we get to the field it is noon. Sometimes we get water only at night. But we have to stop working at 4pm, because they will not let us remain in the field. If we disobey, they beat us, they file false charges. (‘Trigger Happy’. Excessive Use of Force by Indian Troops at the Bangladesh Border, Human Rights Watch, December 2010).
This lack of ‘understanding’ percolates to the topmost levels of both border forces. During an official visit to Bangladesh and talks between the BSF and the BDR (Bangladesh Rifles, recently renamed Border Guard Bangladesh) in September 2010, Raman Srivastava, director general of the BSF, in response to allegations that BSF troopers were killing innocent and unarmed Bangladeshi civilians said: ‘The deaths have occurred in Indian territory and mostly during night, so how can they be innocent?’ Ideas reciprocated by the BDR chief Major General Mainul Islam in March 2010, who, while explaining that there was a history of ‘people and cattle trafficking during darkness’, said, ‘We should not be worried about such incidents [killings]…. We have discussed the matter and will ensure that no innocent people will be killed.’
Abdur Rakib was catching fish in Dohalkhari lake, inside Bangladeshi territory. It was March 13, 2009. A witness saw a BSF soldier standing at the border, talking loudly. ‘It seemed that he wanted the boy to give him some free fish.’ Heated argument, verbal abuse. ‘The BSF pointed a gun at the boy. The boy ran and the soldier started to shoot.’ Two were injured. Rakib was shot in the chest. He died instantly. He was 13.
Smuggling, cattle rustling and human trafficking has increased in the border areas as poor farmers and landless people faced by population increases, poor irrigation, flooding, and continuous river erosion struggle to make ends meet. While both the BSF and the BGB accuse each other of corruption, the reality, says the recent Human Rights Watch report, is that some officials, border guards, and politicians on both sides are almost certainly involved in smuggling. It quotes a senior BSF official, ‘There are a lot of people involved, including our chaps. That is why only these farmers, with one or two cows are caught, not groups that ferry large consignments of cattle or drugs.’
A culture of impunity prevails, says Kirity Roy, head of Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (Masum), a Kolkata-based human rights organisation. We have repeatedly approached the courts, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), the National Minorities Commission, the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights. But none of the cases raised have been brought to a satisfactory conclusion. In some cases, family members appeared before the BSF court of inquiry but we, as the de facto complainant, were never summoned to appear or depose before any inquiry conducted by BSF. No verdicts have been made public.
Neither has the BSF provided any details to Bangladeshi authorities of any BSF personnel having been prosecuted for human rights violation. Impunity is legally sanctioned as the BSF is exempt from criminal prosecution unless specific approval is granted by the Indian government. A new bill to prohibit torture is being considered by the Indian parliament, it includes legal impunity.
On April 22, 2009, when Rabindranath Mandal and his wife were returning to Bangladesh after having illegally gone to India for Rabindranath’s treatment, a BSF patrol team from Ghojadanga camp detained them. She was raped. Rabindranath tried to save her, they killed him. The following morning, the BSF jawans left her and her husband’s dead body at the Zero Line at Lakkhidari.
The reason for building the fence, said an Indian Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson, is the same as the United States’ Mexico fence. As Israel’s fence on the West Bank. To prevent illegal migration and terrorist infiltration.
But Rizwana Shamshad points out that the hysteria generated by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party during the 1980s and 1990s—Bangladeshi Muslim ‘infiltration’ by the millions constitutes a serious strain on the national economy, it poses a threat to India’s stability and security, it represents a challenge to Indian sovereignty, demographic changes will soon lead to Bangladeshi citizens demanding a separate state from India—did not withstand investigation. A study carried out by the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism in 1995 revealed that the BJP-Shiv Sena allegations were not only an exaggeration, but a complete fabrication. Fears and insecurities had been deliberately whipped up to consolidate Hindutva ideology; migrants, it seemed, were more preoccupied with struggling to make a living. While the BJP-Shiv Sena had alleged that there were 300,000 illegal Bangladeshi migrants in Mumbai, they were able to detect and deport only 10,000 Bangladeshi migrants, when in power (1998-2004).
The numbers vary with each media or official report, writes Rizwana. A BJP National Executive meeting declared over 15 million (April 1992). Nearly 10 million, said former Union Home Minister Indrajit Gupta (May 6, 1997). The group of cabinet ministers (home, defence, external affairs, finance) set up by prime minister Vajpayee post Kargil, reported 15 million (2000). The definitions, she adds, are prejudiced: Muslim migrants are described as ‘infiltrators’. Hindu migrants as ‘refugees’. Neither is there any mention of the Indian economy having benefited from cheap labour.
The HRW report notes, few killed by the BSF have ever been shown to have been involved in terrorism. In the cases investigated, alleged criminals were armed with nothing but sickles, sticks and knives, implements commonly carried by villagers. Nor do the dead bodies bear out the BSF’s justification that they had fired in self-defence. Shots in the back indicate that the victims had been shot running away. Shots at close range signal they were probably killed in custody.
The BSF kills Indian nationals too. In Indian territory. Basirun Bibi and her 6-month old grandson Ashique, May 2010. Atiur Rahman, March 2010. Shahjahan Gazi, November 2009. Noor Hossain, September 2009. Shyamsundar Mondal, August 2009. Sushanta Mondal, July 2009. Abdus Samad, May 2009. The imposition of informal curfews on both sides of the border at night, reportedly to prevent the accidental shooting of villagers, has not lessened the number of innocent people killed.
Beatings, torture, rape, killings. What could be the reason for such compulsively violent behaviour? According to the HRW report, it could have been caused by previous deployment in the Indo-Pakistan border in Kashmir, by ‘difficult and tense periods of duty.’
However, checkpoints, curfews, hi-tech electronic surveillance equipment, harassment, intimidation, beatings, torture and sniper fire remind me of Gaza. Not surprising, given that once finished, the fence will ‘all but encircle Bangladesh’ (Time, February 5, 2009).
The 1947 colonial border division was reflective of someone with an ‘excessively baroque mind.’ Its brutal enforcement through fencing, through the deployment of trigger-happy BSF soldiers speak of a Nazi-state mentality.
Not too far-fetched given Israel and India’s ‘limitless relationship’ (Military ties unlimited: India and Israel, New Age, January 18, 2010). This includes Israeli training of Indian commandos in urban warfare and counter-insurgency operations (in Kashmir), and proposals for offering the Border Security Forces specialised training. Given Israel’s behaviour, which Auschwitz survivor, Hajo Meyer, likens to the Nazis. ‘I can write up an endless list of similarities between Nazi Germany and Israel.’
Israel’s inability to learn to live with its neighbours is increasingly turning it into a ‘pariah state’ (British MP). Its ‘paranoia’ has been noted by Israelis themselves (Gideon Levy). That a similar future awaits India is increasingly clear.