When Bangladesh's relations with India have reached their highest levels since its independence, a thorny issue-border killings---is giving an impression whether the two nations are at loggerheads. But in reality, they are not. They are probably the friendliest and closest allies in the current world order sharing common interests and views on almost all regional and international affairs.
Why are there border killings of unarmed Bangladeshi citizens by the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) every now and again when both countries have been enjoying deep-rooted ties on many fronts-politically, economically and culturally and well benefitting from a mutual understanding and growing people-to-people connectivity? It is understood that those killed along the borders are not innocent as claimed by the BSF, but they are evidently unarmed. Their only alleged offence is that they were trying to infiltrate into India either as illegal immigrants or as drug and cow smugglers. The border is also frequently crossed by relatives and friends who were separated by a line arbitrarily demarcated during the British rule. And these people irrespective of their intention for entering into India, they are being killed and these killings have continued unabated.
In 2015 alone at least 46 Bangladeshis were killed along the borders, according to an estimate by a human rights organization, Ain-O-Salish Kendra. Since 2000, over 1,000 people have lost their lives at the hands of BSF until the end of last year. In addition, several thousand people were injured and there were also incidents of rape cases. All of these unwanted killings and incidents are attributed to BSF.
Unfortunately, no one has been punished until today for any of these wrongdoings, in spite of evidence in many cases that makes it clear the killings were in cold blood against unarmed and defenceless humans. Although BSF claimed they have opened fire in self-defence, there were no reports of major hostilities with the infiltrators or any recovery of weapons. It is like BSF is acting as judge, jury and executioner routinely shooting at poor and unarmed villagers.
Until now, only a BSF member, Amiya Ghosh, has been prosecuted for shooting to death a Bangladeshi teenage girl Felani Khatun along Kurigram border on January 7, 2011. Amiya Ghosh was tried twice in BSF's own court, but both times he was acquitted. Felani's death drew unprecedented local and international criticism when the heart-rending picture of her body hanging upside down from the fence was broadcast in the media. Her death could have been avoided as it looked that while the frightened girl was trying to climb over the barbed wire fence hurriedly, her clothe was stuck with the wire and then she was shot dead.
Since BSF man is exonerated from the Felani case, her father went to the Indian Supreme Court for fair trial and the writ petition is lying with the ISC with the hope that the justice will be let roll down like water.
Despite repeated appeals from the Bangladesh side to put a stop to the gruesome border killings, there is no letup in sight. As recently as January1, 2016, a Bangladeshi citizen was shot to death by the BSF personnel along the Borogram border in the Bangladesh's southern district of Dinajpur.
There have been numerous fruitless discussions, flag meetings between BSF and Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) and talks at ministerial levels between the two countries to curb border killings. BSF has officially pledged not to use lethal weapons and to abandon its shoot-on-sight policy, but it has remained a hollow promise. It is, probably, because there is absence of effective accountability mechanisms for the killings carried out by the members of BSF who justifies the killings of suspected smugglers by claiming that they were evading arrest, or that its personnel had to fire in self-defence. But suspicion of a crime or evasion of arrest cannot alone justify the use of lethal force.
An investigation conducted by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) revealed the facts that the alleged criminals were either unarmed or armed with only sickles, sticks, and knives, which suggest that in shooting people the border guards have used excessive force. In a number of cases, the victims were shot in the back, suggesting that they were running away. In other cases, injuries indicate the person was shot at close range. There are also some cases where witnesses often allege that the victims were tortured and killed in BSF custody. Many others appeared to have fallen victims to bullets because they were too close to the border.
The HRW has come up with a set of recommendations saying that the Indian government should publicly order BSF to abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the use of force and firearms. This requires forces to apply, as far as possible, non-violent means before resorting to the use of lethal weapons. Even in self-defence, intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life. International law also requires security forces to give a clear warning of their intent to use firearms, and sufficient time to surrender. Given the continued failure of the BSF's internal justice system to prosecute its own members for human rights abuses, personnel of all ranks implicated in serious rights abuses should be investigated by civilian authorities and prosecuted in civilian courts. In cases of abuses against Indian and Bangladeshi nationals, the police must register complaints filed against the BSF.
Bangladesh has over 4,000-kilometer border, the fifth largest land border in the world and its three-fourths are covered with fence of barbed wire constructed with the chief aim of preventing illegal immigrants from entering India. Although the border is also used as a route for smuggling livestock, food items, medicines and drugs from India to Bangladesh, the victims are mostly Bangladeshis and the killings mostly take place in the Indian side by the BSF and there are hardly any reports of deaths by the Border Guards Bangladesh (GBG).
Judged by the amicable bilateral relationships, both Bangladesh and Indian governments should not let the border killings of unarmed people continue unabated watching them happen sitting on the fence. Despite repeated promises, India's 'do nothing' policy in this regard is likely to stir doubts among 160 million Bangladeshis whether Delhi is a friendly neighbour. It would also cast a slur on India's reputation as a largest democracy in the world as well as an emerging superpower aiming to become a permanent member in the Security Council of the United Nations.
Shamsul Huda is a senior Bangladeshi
journalist based in Saudi Arabia