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Border killings: Self defence is poor excuse

Publication Date : 10-01-2013


The matter has once again made the headlines, particularly after the killings at the border by the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) on the first few days of the New Year. It is little comfort to Bangladesh that the number of Bangladeshis killed in BSF firing in the border has come down in the last one year. It is staggering when compared to statistics of such incidence along the Indo-Pak border that, given the state of animus that prevails between the two countries, is supposed to be more hostile than what prevails between Bangladesh and India.

India does not see these as killings, they are "deaths," according to the Indian BSF commanders. Semantics cannot screen the reality nor can that bring the dead to life. It only adds to the agony of the victims, almost all of whom belong to the border areas. And whatever explanations, justifications, reasoning, validations etc are offered for these killings, they cannot help prevent a negative mindset developing in the minds of these people. And that is twofold.

Firstly, these people form a deep distrust about our neighbour whose "trigger happy" BSF jawans, an appellation used by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in its report of 2010, have gotten away with murder of Bangladeshi nationals. But they have no means to change BSF behaviour. And secondly, and what is more perilous, is the perception they form about the government's ability to protect the lives of its citizens. And no government can afford to have its citizens form an adverse opinion about its capability to provide security to its own people.

The BSF firing on our citizens has come under the scrutiny of the HRW which has been calling upon the Indian government to rein in the Indian border guards. The BSF response is both predictable and interesting. In its response to Bangladesh complaints after the incident of December 2011 the Indian ministry of external affairs explanation stated: "To prevent loss of lives along the border areas, BSF has exercised the utmost restraint and has resorted to firing in self defence only in rare cases. India has taken various steps, including strict control on firing, introduction of non-lethal weapons, round-the-clock domination and intensive patrolling. It has also imposed night time restrictions on the movement of people in the border areas."

The Indian explanation also cited instances where a large number of Bangladeshi nationals entered inside Indian territory and pelted stones on BSF personnel. The Indian government also maintains that persons trying to cross the border illegally are not innocent persons.

Are the Indian arguments valid?

Even if we agree that the persons who cross the border illegally are not innocent persons, is it for the BSF to be the judge, jury and the executioner? And should all the so-called guilty deserve the death sentence? What about the assurance by India to use non-lethal ammunition?

As for the 50 or 60 persons who are alleged to have entered into India and pelted the BSF with stones, one finds the statement difficult to accept. How is it that the Bangladeshi citizens could manage to negotiate a double strand barbed wire fence, and that too in such large numbers, and then subject the BSF to attack? Why was BSF not able to detect them well before the "infiltrators" had crossed the border and accreted in such numbers, particularly when they have the facilities of night vision devices? The reality is that very few crossing take place without the connivance of the border guards.

The argument of firing in self defence is equally untenable, mainly because so far the BSF has not been able to exhibit the types of weapon that the Bangladeshi "miscreants" had supposedly attacked the BSF with. On the contrary, there are pictures of dead Bangladeshi citizens bearing bayonet wound and marks of physical assault.

It was not until the surprising revelation by the Bangladesh home minister recently, that both parties had agreed on the principle of firing in self defence, that we came to know about our validating the killings, because the phrase "self defence" lends itself to subjective explications, apart from the fact that it is self defeating. To think that joint inquiries would reveal whether the firings were in self defence or otherwise is puerile.

While the Bangladesh foreign minister has termed the killings as unpardonable we find her comments, advising her countrymen not to cross the border at night, rather intriguing. So, we can cross the border (illegally) in the daytime? She has also suggested that under the circumstances both sides needed to act. We would be every interested to know how she sees the Indian side acting and in what way so that no more Bangladeshi is killed.

The border killings do not reflect the state of bilateral relationship between the two countries, particularly developed in the last four years of the Awami League-led coalition government. Regrettably, the killings, given the very little progress on various issues between the two countries, except for liberalising imports from Bangladesh by India, have created serious misgivings in the public mind about India's attitude towards the entire gamut of bilateral relations, and about its earnestness in resolving the outstanding issues.

The writer is Editor, Oped & Strategic Issues, The Daily Star.


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