The Indo-Bangladesh border has been a point of contention ever since the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. A political boundary superimposed on communities sharing culture, history and economic resources would always pose a challenge to policing authorities. Despite the fact that the area has witnessed situations of conflict for the past four decades, the actions of the armed forces have not received considerable attention from Indian civil society. Much like the situation in Kashmir, any action by the Indian armed forces on the border was rarely examined and questioned, viewed by citizens as the army protecting the nation. However, a report published by the Human Rights Watch in 2010 examining instances of torture and arbitrary killings of Bangladeshis by the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) brought the method of policing into question, albeit not resulting in concrete action. The power mandated to the BSF, exercised, as evidence would show it, with little restraint and little oversight raises the question of whether firm, aggressive action at the cost of humanitarianism is necessary for India to maintain control over regional borders. This article is an attempt to interrogate the nature of Indian policing on the Indo-Bangladesh border, and understands why and how it does not conform to international human rights standard, as it stands today.
Nature of Illegal Activity on the Border
Before we delve into the method of policing adopted by Indian authorities, it is essential to understand the conditions on the Indo-Bangladesh border. Spanning over 4000 kilometers, the border has proven to be porous in nature, resulting in large scale informal trade and immigration. According to a World Bank report, the total informal, unregulated trade taking place across the border amounts to around $500million in the year 2002/03 . The area provides a unique platform for cattle smuggling, since India, being a hindu majority nation, has a surplus of cattle while Bangladesh has a considerable demand for beef. Illegal immigration is another considerable challenge for both sides. Before the Land Boundary Agreement of 2015, a vast number of Bangladeshi enclaves existed within territory claimed by India, and vice versa. These enclaves arose as part of the aftermath of the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. They facilitated illegal immigration as villagers crossed the border to visit family and find jobs.
Transformation of Border Relations
Bangladeshi immigration led to the first proposal to fence the Indo-Bangladesh border, raised by the state government of Assam. However, it only was accepted by the central government in 1998 in the form of the Assam Accord. The Accord originally only called for the fencing of only volatile zones; however an increase in illegal immigration along with the 2001 Indo-Bangladesh Skirmish resulted in the center proposing a fencing project to cover 3326km of the border in 2001/2 . The proposal marked the transformation of Indian border policy into an aggressive one. From here on, border security has proven to be a sensitive issue between the two neighbours, with India being perceived as hostile by Bangladesh. In order to crack down on smuggling and immigration, the BSF began to practice what the Human Rights Watch terms as a “Shoot to Kill” policy. The first line of defense practiced by the BSF is lethal in nature. The ability of the BSF to shoot at suspicion has resulted in the deaths of over 1000 Bangladeshi villagers from 2001 to 2010 with fresh cases emerging continuously through the last five years. It is this ability and lack of oversight that has not received the attention that it perhaps deserves on an international stage. The Indian government’s attempt to establish a secure border comes at the cost of the very principles on which its democracy is based on.
International Law and the Border Security Force; Powers and Oversight
What is disconcerting is the disregard shown towards internationally established standards by the Indian Government in its attempt to control the situation on the border. The actions of the BSF are often in clear violation of the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. Operative clause 4 of the resolution calls for law enforcement to “apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms”. The resolution also calls for the government to take criminal action against officials who use firearms arbitrarily. The Government of India has failed on both these counts. The failure to enforce these principles comes from the perception of the Government that maintaining supremacy through aggressive security on the border is paramount. The only explanation coming out of the Home Ministry is that those killed are not innocent, but smugglers. The statement is testament to the fact that the Government acknowledges its right to use lethal force on those indulging in illegal activities. It is this acknowledgement that is troubling.
The Human Rights Watch report “Trigger Happy” of 2010 cites over 1000 instances of the use of arbitrary lethal force by the BSF. These include the killing of the thirteen year old Abdur Rakib, who was merely grazing his cattle near the border fence, and who later the BSF attempted to label as a smuggler. No disciplinary action against the BSF was taken in the case. However, the one that captured international attention to a significant extent was the killing of a fifteen year old girl, Felani Khatun in January 2011. Felani was attempting to cross the border from the Indian side, returning home to Bangladesh along with her father. After her clothes got caught on the barbed wire, she began yelling. She was fired at by BSF officer Amiya Ghosh, fatally wounding her. The image of Felani’s body entangled on the fence sparked international outrage. What is equally disturbing is the acquittal of Ghosh in a BSF army tribunal in September 2013.
The incident is a clear indication of the impunity enjoyed by BSF officials, and raises questions of the ability of army tribunals to dispense justice. The fact remains that courts set up by the accused body itself will always lack the objectivity necessary to maintain a set of international humanitarian standards. Structurally flawed, these tribunals can be perceived as toothless in nature . Acting on self-interest rather than attempting to maintain a humanitarian standard of operation, BSF tribunals are a hindrance to justice along the Indo-Bangladesh border. Officers are given the right to use lethal force to maintain the border, and yet legitimate civilian oversight is virtually nonexistent. The idea of BSF cases being examined by civil courts is not entertained by the Indian Government, which maintains that army tribunals are essential to the efficacy of the armed services. Civil courts are perceived as a hindrance to the army. Yet, the issue of dispensing justice remains. As long as these tribunals exist, policing on the Indo-Bangladesh border will remain unquestioned and unpunished. The BSF will continue to operate in its bubble of total control, where the very basic human rights cannot be guaranteed.
Despite being in violation of internationally recognized principles, the Indian Government does not treat excessive force practiced by the BSF as a serious concern. This is clear by the number of arbitrary killings over the past decade, and the shocking lack of convictions of BSF officials. In a situation where a regional power (India) claiming to be a democracy, can brush off international principles by citing national security and face little to non consequences begs the question of the effectiveness of establishing a standard of international human rights. Furthermore, the right to be innocent until proven guilty, something acknowledged by Indian domestic laws, holds no meaning in the operations of the BSF. This dissonance between the Indian government’s actions in the domestic sphere and its policy on the Indo-Bangladesh border, flies in the face of the democratic, free world image that India strives to attain. The sad truth is that the actions of the BSF on the border are largely accepted by Indians as necessary evils, all for the benefit of Indian supremacy in South Asia. The gunning down of an innocent Bangladeshi citizen by the police in New Delhi would be treated with the utmost urgency, and yet the same on the border is seen as the Indian Government protecting the motherland. This double standard stems from the conventional definition of a superpower, one that aggressively enforces supremacy, to the extent of being ruthless. It is a definition that we have, and rightfully so, left behind with the turn of the century. It is time for the Government of India to question whether they want India to be feared by its neighbours, or respected as a global democracy. If it is the latter, then it is about time that it no longer treats the border as an explosive warzone.
– By Tejas Luthra
Adams, B. (2011). India’s Shoot to Kill Policy on the Bangladesh Border. The Guardian .
Das, P. (2014). Border Fencing Will Not Stop Illegal Migration. Institute of Defence and Strategic Analyisis.
Human Rights Watch. (2010). Trigger Happy.
Singh, N. (2013). The Toothless Armed Forces Tribunal? The Indian Defence Review.
The World Bank. (2006). India-Bangladesh Bilateral Trade and Potential Free Trade Agreement. Dhaka.
United Nations Human Rights Commission. (1990). Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. Havana.