April 28, 2005

Savagery Repeated on Indo-Bangladesh Border

by Anand Kumar

Four years back, in the month of April, 16 Border Security Force (BSF) soldiers were killed in most brutal manner by Bangladeshis at a place called Pirdwua in Meghalaya on Indo-Bangladesh border. In a virtual repeat of that incident a BSF officer has been killed and two others seriously injured in Tripura. Ironically, this incident took place while the border talks at the director general level between BDR and BSF were into their final phase in Dhaka where both sides were deliberating on how to manage this border more efficiently.

This incident was only waiting to happen, as regular skirmishes have been taking place between the border guards of two countries since February over the issue of border fencing. As usual, both Dhaka and New Delhi have given different versions of the incident that took place on April 16. Both sides have accused each other of provoking the violence opposite Lankamura outpost of BSF which is just eight kilometers from state capital Agartala.

Bangladesh alleges that the firing took place between the two border guards when India’s Border Security Force (BSF) officials intruded into their territory. On the other hand, Indian assertion is that its border guards were abducted and dragged into Bangladeshi territory when they were investigating a reported abduction about 50 meters from the zero line and thus they were well within Indian territory. BSF believes that its personnel walked into a trap carefully laid out by BDR, which was acting in connivance with the local smugglers. The BDR resorts to such treachery, as it is allowed to get away with it.

Even if, we go by the BDR version that the officer had entered Bangladesh territory his killing is violation of Geneva Convention. India has always handed over BDR and Bangladesh army officers to the BDR whenever they were apprehended inside Indian territory in accordance with the Geneva Convention. A captain of the Bangladesh army Fazel Nooman stationed at Kaptai in Rangamati district of Chittagong Hill Tract was apprehended by the BSF on December 27, 2003, at Montali in West Tripura district and was handed over to BDR the very next day. In February an assistant sub-inspector of Bangladesh police Belal Hussain had entered India with a BDR delegation, but was found wandering around in Sabroom town in South Tripura district on February 16 by the BSF even after the other members left. He was handed over to the BDR on February 19.

It appears, Bangladesh did not want to return the BSF officer. By now, it’s an open fact that Bangladesh does not like the fencing work being done by the Indians on Indo-Bangladesh border. A fenced border creates hurdles in the path of illegal immigration, smuggling and activities of Indian insurgent groups based in Bangladesh. All this has been now part of Bangladesh foreign policy though it has never been acknowledged officially.

Besides animosity between the two border guards, deep rooted corruption is another reason for the unfortunate incident. A nexus exists between BDR and smugglers. BSF believes that one important reason for this brutal act was smuggling of Phensidyl. This is a cheap cough syrup widely abused by drug addicts in Bangladesh. Local smugglers and the BDR were angered by the efforts of the BSF officer to curb the smuggling of the syrup across the border.

Phensidyl contains codeine, an opium extraction. Under the Drug Ordinance of 1982, the Bangladesh Government had banned the product from the import list, but is smuggled into the country as an alternative to more expensive narcotics.

A powerful smuggling lobby along the Indo-Bangladesh border especially in the border along Tripura, carries out the trade. Indian intelligence sources say that the local BDR personnel get two rupees for every bottle of the syrup that is taken across the border.

International Narcotics Control Strategy Report released in March 2004, reveals 28,288.71 liters of phensidyl was seized in Bangladesh between January and October in 2003. The report is also critical of Bangladesh' enforcement agencies. It blames corruption at levels of government, especially in law enforcement agencies for hampering the country’s drug interdiction efforts.

Over the past year smuggling of Bangladeshi edible oil into different parts of West Tripura has also picked up. On April 19, a team of Customs officials led by Santosh Deb conducted raids on dens of smugglers in Sonamura and Melaghar of West Tripura and recovered huge quantities of edible oil. But a group of smugglers in Melaghar market assaulted and injured the officials besides damaging their vehicle. Later, two persons, known to be accomplices of the smugglers, were arrested.

Smuggling has intensified across the Indo-Bangladesh border in south Assam’s Karimganj district. Recently, lot of illegal trade has been taking place in petrol and cattle. While petrol, concealed in plastic containers, has been increasingly finding passage into India from Sylhet, cattle in large numbers are now being furtively ferried into Bangladesh. The smugglers usually force the cattle to wade across the Kushiara river on the border. A conservative estimate by the BSF says that every year, 3,000 animals on an average are smuggled across both the land and riverine border from south Assam into Bangladesh from Karimganj and Cachar districts.

The smuggler lobby on Indo-Bangladesh border enjoys strong political support. The Bangladesh politicians including leaders of some of the Islamist parties like Jamaat-e-Islami are known to have helped smugglers whenever, their smuggled goods were seized even by the BDR. A Bangladesh member of parliament (MP) had reportedly visited Hirapur. He had a discussion with the BDR officials after which about 200 soldiers of Bangladesh regular army, besides the BDR men, took position with guns at a forested upland close to the border. The unfortunate incident of April 16 happened after that.

Naturally India strongly protested the "premeditated and preplanned" killing of the BSF officer by men of Bangladesh Rifles. It also warned Dhaka that its "repercussions" cannot be ignored. Bangladesh Acting High Commissioner in Delhi Masud bin Momen was summoned to the South Block and was conveyed India's "deep disappointment and regret" over the incident. Indian High Commissioner in Dhaka, Veena Sikri called on Acting Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh Sarwar Hossain Mollah to convey Indian government's strong condemnation of the incident.

Director General of the Border Security Force (BSF) Ranjit Shekhar Mooshahary warned Bangladesh not to escalate border tensions by "unprovoked attacks." He said, "We're exercising maximum restraint but will be forced to take strong action against such criminal activities."

India’s Home Minister Shivraj Patil told the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of parliament) that Bangladesh Government has promised to fully investigate the killing and fix responsibility for the crime. This assurance was given by the Bangladesh Home Minister who spoke to him and expressed regret over the incident.

But overall, Bangladesh appears to be downplaying the incident. Foreign Minister M Morshed Khan said, "Since we've a long 4002-km porous border with India, many incidents can take place. But this is quite unnatural to think that such incidents will affect our good relations." He also hoped that such incidents would not recur after the BDR and BSF would make joint effort to maintain peace along the border between the two neighbours.

He said both Bangladesh and India had already constituted independent committees to inquire into the incident that killed a BSF officer. A statement issued by Bangladesh ministry for interior said that a committee of four senior officers headed by Joint Secretary (Police) Anwarul Karim would investigate the incident and submit a report within seven days.

Though, both sides have formed probe committees, in the village of Lankamura and in the BSF camp, people are convinced that there’s very little to probe. They say that murdered BSF officer, Jiwan Kumar was targeted, because he had repeatedly foiled attempts to push people into India illegally. In the last two years, he had become a big hurdle for local smugglers. Though the BDR maintains that Jiwan Kumar died in the crossfire, his body bore multiple injury marks other than two bullet wounds. He had been struck with daos (machetes) and there were boot marks all over. This, BSF officials say, cannot be a crossfire casualty.

Though India has protested over the incident, it is still doubtful that the message has been conveyed sufficiently strongly. Bangladesh has apologized for the incident. But at the same time has tried to find fault with the BSF. An effort is being made to diffuse the situation after the issue was discussed between the chiefs of border guards of Bangladesh and India over telephone.

But, despite the effort to diffuse tension on the border, regular skirmishes are taking place. India has also alleged that its airspace has been violated by the Bangladesh side. The BSF inspector general for Tripura-Mizoram frontier, Suresh Kumar Dutt, stated in Kolkata that his troops observed Bangladesh military helicopters flying across the border into Indian territory. These intrusions were reported from Chotakhil, Magrum and Beltoli of Tripura. The BSF has threatened to fire at the helicopters if they fly into Indian territory again. However, Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) dismissed the BSF allegation of violating Indian airspace, making a counteraccusation.

The Indo-Bangladesh border is far from being calm. The BSF chief has himself stated that the core issues like handing over Indian militant leaders taking shelter in Bangladesh, destroying militant camps, and checking illegal migration from across the border, have not been resolved in the meeting that took place at Dhaka recently. Both sides have merely agreed that these issues would be discussed at the next meeting that would take place after six months in New Delhi. Hence, the issues that have bedeviled the bilateral relationship still remain intact. Moreover, the fencing work and patrolling of BSF along the border especially after the increasing tension between the two neighbours has threatened to disrupt the economy based on smuggling. This is not to the liking of Bangladeshi sides. India must take up this issue at appropriate level so that such incidents are not repeated. Besides, the other side should also not feel that they can get away with their heinous acts time and again. We can not leave our security personals who are guarding our borders defenseless.

(The author can be reached at anandkrai@yahoo.com)

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