Vol. 5 Num 327 Fri. April 29, 2005  

Clashes on our borders

There were several disquieting developments last fortnight along the Bangladesh-India border that appeared to strain relations between the two countries. Several deaths of Bangladesh nationals from BSF firing and arraying of extra forces along the border by BSF on several points demonstrated a simmering tension between the two neighbours.

What was however most regrettable was the BSF incursion into Bangladesh in Akhaura on a village called Hirapur on the 16th of April by about a platoon along with 100 or more Indian civilians. The incident, which involved heavy exchange of fire, resulted in the deaths of a Bangladeshi girl and a BSF personnel of the rank of Assistant Commandant. The matter was doubly regrettable because it happened when the chiefs of the BDR and BSF were about to ink an agreement in Dhaka on some vexing matter relating to the management of the Bangladesh-India border.

What was not acceptable to BDR was the BSF attempt to construct fences, which in some places were less than 150 meters from the zero line, known as the No Man's Land (NML). This was a clear violation of the " India-Bangladesh Guidelines for Border Authorities, 1975", an agreement between the two countries relating to the management of the borders. On the cards were accords on the issue of construction of fence inside the NML and simultaneous patrolling on both sides of the border.

The BDR had agreed to coordinated patrol along the border, while the BSF had almost relented to the requirement to stick to the clauses of the 1975 Guidelines, particularly insofar as it related to construction of defence structures in the NML. Reportedly, it was initially decided that, should a need arise on the Indian side to erect fences within the NML, it would be referred to the Bangladesh side and decision would be given at the government level, implying that no arbitrary action by India would be resorted to in this regard.

The unfortunate incident of the 16th of April has put paid to any possibility of reaching a common understating on two very important issues relating to management of Bangladesh-India border.

The incident unfortunately drew some very strong comments from the Indian side, some of which, according to many observers, went beyond diplomatic norms and bordered on veiled threats of reprisals. Disconcerting also were BSF activities, following the incident of the 16th along several points on the Bangladesh-India border, in which several Bangladesh nationals were killed by BSF fire. One wondered whether it was a Baraimari all over again.

Interestingly, the press statement of the Indian High Commission in Dhaka, and the BSF version of the Akahaura incident, are at variance, although the major thrust was that it was the BDR that had intruded into the Indian territory and resorted to abduction, shooting and killing of the Indian nationals.

The long and short of the BSF version of the incident is that on the afternoon of 16th April, BDR personnel intruded deep into Indian territory in the vicinity of the Indian BSF camp of Lankapura. They were requested by the BSF to go back, but instead, insulted AC Jiwan Kumar, the officer on the spot. A firefight ensued between BDR who, according to BSF version, were "well entrenched in a premeditated plan and defence", and the BSF. Implied in the statement is that the BDR shot and killed the officer and dragged his body inside the Bangladesh territory to give it the appearance of an Indian intrusion into Bangladesh.

The statement from the Indian High Commission on the other hand says that AC Jiwan Kumar had come to seek the release of one Ramdan Pal who was allegedly kidnapped by Bangladesh nationals and brought inside Bangladesh. Instead of sitting for a flag meeting, "Assistant Commandant Jeevan Kumar and Constable KK Surendran were dragged inside Bangladesh territory and attacked by BDR troops".

The contradictions in these two statements are evident and there are several anomalies that prevent one from accepting the validity of the substance of the Indian versions of the incident.

It seems rather incongruous that a group of intruders would be 'requested' to go back into their own territory instead of being arrested for trespass. Even more odd is the fact that this body of troops (could not have been more than four or five) had themselves "well entrenched in a premeditated plan and defence," well inside Indian territory, shot and killed the assistant commandant of the BSF, and carried his body and also that of another injured person (an injured Indian national was also recovered about 400 yards inside Bangladesh territory) from 'well within Indian territory,' into Bangladesh, and all this under the eyes of the BSF in broad daylight. Given the nature of terrain, the Indian High Commission's statement, "From the marks on the ground, the spot enquiry established that assistant commandant Jeevan Kumar and constable K. K. Surendran were dragged inside Bangladesh territory and attacked by the BDR, resulting in the death of the assistant commandant," appears far-fetched.

As per records there has so far been no incident of trespass by the BDR into Indian territory. The terrain conditions as well as the character of the barbed wire makes it difficult to rationalise the Indian statements. Even Ramdan's account that appeared in some local dailies of Agartala admits of his crossing into Bangladesh territory in search of his stray cattle.

There is no doubt that the BSF had intruded into our territory on whatever pretext, and it is evident that there was a firefight following the looting of Bangladesh property by Indian nationals. The unfortunate result was the death of Indian BSF personnel and a young Bangladeshi girl.

There cannot be any doubt that the fence that has been erected along the Bangladesh-India border is by any definition a defence structure. It is for the two countries to follow the 'Guidelines' of 1975 both in letter and spirit and not use its provisions in a selective manner. Bangladesh has no problems with construction of the fence along its border as long as the relevant provisos of the 'Guidelines' are followed by India. Given the comments from the Bangladesh side that it was willing to consider cases where India may be constrained by ground conditions unable to keep to the relevant stipulations of the 'Guidelines', there was no reason for it to continue as an intractable issue.

It is also learnt that the policy of fencing on the NML was a recent formulation based on the argument that as much use of land as possible would be made by India in its territory to construct border fences.

Since the incident the BSF had resorted to a lot of muscle flexing. Reportedly, its elements were on a high state of alert and several of our nationals were killed by the BSF at several other points of the border.

Border incidents are not unusual between neighbours. But, we must not let it get out of hand. It does not help to explain away events through contradictory statements and media hype calling for tough action against errant neighbours. Incidents such as this call for phlegmatic approach.

It is heartening to note that the two foreign ministers have decided to sit to take the "steam out of the present irritants through negotiation."

Flexing of muscles will not help, flexible minds will.

The author is Editor, Defence and Strategic Affairs, The Daily Star.