Why is the border between two supposedly friendly nations a death zone?
With neighbours like this, who needs enemies?
India’s Border Security Force has been particularly trigger happy in the past year, killing at least 43 Bangladeshis in 2019 according to Ain O Salish Kendra statistics. Six of the victims, according to ASK, were tortured, while 37 were, mercifully, just shot.
In 2018, the reported death toll was “only” 14, and top Indian officials talked big about how border killings would be brought down to zero -- but if a three-fold increase is their idea of bringing something down, then it becomes clear that the political will to control this phenomenon is not there at all.
It’s not that BSF are just loose cannons, or that these are rogue shooters giving a headache to the top brass in Delhi with all this bloodshed. Killing at this frequency, with this much impunity, does not happen without blessings from upstairs, and that is what makes the whole affair so sordid.
It’s not that India can’t stop shooting Bangladeshis on sight. It is just that India won’t.
Let us be clear about what is going on. Over the years, thousands of Bangladeshis have been killed at the Bangladesh-India border.
Sure, we can quibble over the exact numbers. Human rights organizations will say one thing, BGB will say one thing, and BSF will say the dog ate their homework, but there can be no doubt that killings are happening with startling regularity at the border.
Let us also be clear about the true nature of these killings.
These are not acts of self-defense on the part of India. There’s no “he-pulled-a-gun-on-me-first” excuse. These are regularized, normalized, acts on the part of armed security personnel mowing down unarmed civilians caught in an unfortunate circumstance.
None of this is breaking news.
Who could forget the image of Felani, hanging on a barbed wire fence? That was back in 2011. Much ink was spent saying “never again.” But BSF did it again and again and again.
Our neighbourly relationship with India continued.
It is easy to ignore border killings when talking policy, because most of the pain and suffering happens to desperate, unimportant people anyway. They are of little consequence, and they don’t have uncles up in government. It is easy, then, to say a few words of tribute to Felani and move on to more important matters, like trade relations.
A potent symbol can often act as a catalyst for change. Anywhere else in the world, Felani’s death would have created international pressure for comprehensive reform. Not here.
While the horrifying, heartbreaking photograph is widely recognized in Bangladesh, many are still fuzzy on the details of her story, so here is a refresher: Felani was a 15-year-old girl. She was following her father, trying to cross the 2.5 metre-high border fence. While trying to do so, her outfit, red and purple, got caught on the barbed wire.
BSF shot her. No warning was given to Felani. She was entirely unarmed.
For the next five hours or so, Felani dangled on the barbed wire fence, in full view of locals. Some cried out for help, but no one dared go near the girl. Felani bled to death.
Her body was brought down after 30 hours, with her hands and feet tied to a bamboo pole. Even in death the girl was disrespected.
What is most tragic is that Felani never had a say in any of this. Crossing the border wasn’t even her decision -- she was just a child following her father. A girl who posed no security threat whatsoever to anyone.
Most deafening has been the silence of the world. Countries that constantly thump their chests at how much they champion human rights have paid no attention these atrocities. Since Felani, there have been innumerable accounts of not just murder, but torture -- slow, deliberate torture -- at the border.
Some of these accounts are available in gruesome detail. I will not reproduce those stories here, but you may do some research if curious. But be warned, you may lose your breakfast, and your sleep.
Like all countries, India has the right to protect its borders. There are situations in which lethal force can also be justified, for example in instances where it is necessary to protect life. But the BSF playbook goes far beyond any ethical boundary of any modern nation -- most certainly of a nation that will remind you of its status as “the world’s largest democracy” till your ears bleed from the faux self-righteousness.
Felani was shot dead on January, 7, 2011, so the ninth anniversary of her death is in a couple of days. We are reminded that she never got justice: A farce of a trial was held to show that something was being done to try her killer, but the BSF jawan responsible was exonerated.
Our neighbouring country is a giant of a nation, with a dizzying amount of history and culture. India is bursting with writers and artists, liberal intellectuals, and some of the most vibrant minds in the world of innovation. And it is indeed, technically, the world’s largest democracy. But this friendly neighbour also enforces its own “security” through an agency which can murder an unarmed child in cold blood, and face zero consequences.
Not to worry, the Bangladesh-India brotherly love is not at risk of fading, because hey, it’s politics.
Abak Hussain is Editor, Editorial and Op-Ed, Dhaka Tribune.