It is reported by Bangladesh legal aid and human rights organisation Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK) that during 2012, Border Security Forces (BSF) of India killed 48 civilian Bangladeshis along the Bangladesh-India border.
In December 2010, New York based Human Rights Watch in a report described the Indian border guards as a "Trigger Happy" force and documented hundreds of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, torture, and ill-treatment by the BSF.
During the visit of India's home minister to Dhaka on January January 28-29, the foreign minister of Bangladesh raised with him the issue of killing of Bangladeshis along the border and the Indian home minister reaffirmed that BSF would bring down the killing to zero level. Hopefully, the assurance of the minister will reach the BSF.
Bilateral relations do not depend only on government-to-government relations but are the sum of the many ways individuals and institutions, public and private, manage relations between Bangladesh and India in which people of both countries are involved.
The people of Bangladesh are surprised at the insensitivity of the Indian government towards the killings of Bangladesh nationals and, as a result, the perception of people tends to be negative toward India. The New Delhi government should realise the Bangladesh government is put into great difficulty in its efforts in strengthening partnership with India.
Many researchers from Bangladesh and India have found that there is a simple way to end the killings at the border because such killings are mostly related to illegal cattle trade from India to Bangladesh.
During Track II dialogue between India and Bangladesh, the Bangladesh side had repeatedly suggested to the Indian side to legalise the export of cows from West Bengal, a state in which slaughter of cows is allowed, to end the border killings. Recently, former head of the BSF, U.K. Bansal, reportedly said: “The menace of smuggling might be controlled if the trade across the border is made legal. The legalisation of export of cows could also help curb tension on the volatile border.”
It is reported that the Bangladesh commerce minister supports the export of cattle from India to Bangladesh and said: “If India begins exporting cows to Bangladesh such untoward incidents will stop.”
What breeds and flourishes the illegal trade of cattle is the high demand for beef in Bangladesh, the supply of which is not met by the local market. It is reported that about three million cows per year are needed in Bangladesh where the people enjoy eating beef, but the local market reportedly can supply only about one million cows, leaving a gap of two million. This shortfall is met by illegal trade primarily at the West-Bengal and Bangladesh border through about 17 cattle routes.
Elaborating on the modus operandi of the network involved in the trade, one BSF official reportedly said that a group of people from the Bangladesh side first sends out a boy close to the border. When the boy gives the green signal people from both sides rush towards the fence. From the Indian side the group comes with about a dozen heads of cattle. One by one, the animals are hung on improvised bamboo cranes and sent across to the Bangladesh side within a few minutes
The smuggled cattle are brought from far flung Indian states like Haryana, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. By the time a cow reaches the bordering area, its price touches Rs.5,000. It increases to Rs.15,000 when it crosses the Indian border. Finally, it fetches Rs.40,000 in Bangladeshi markets.
It is reported by cattle smugglers that police, customs, border security guards and even local politicians are involved because of the big bucks in the illegal trade, which some researchers estimate to be about $1 billion every year. Bangladesh nationals are killed when they reportedly fail to “grease the palms” of the border officials including security guards.
The vast illegal trade thrives since cows are considered holy in the Hindu-majority country, and India is unable to legalise their export.
When asked for opposition party's reaction on the issue, a Bhartiya Janata Party spokesperson said: “It is a serious issue because scores of cattle are being smuggled every year. It is a tremendous loss of bovine resource and revenue. And it should not be legalised, as it goes against the ethos of the country.”
Radhakanta Saha, a leader of World Hindu Organisation and head of a volunteer group that aims to prevent cow smuggling, reportedly said: “The cow is our mother. We shall begin a countrywide agitation if India decides to export cows to a country where they are likely to be slaughtered for meat.”
Given the above facts, export of cows is a highly emotive and sensitive matter for New Delhi. While India will never be able to allow it, the sheer profit will drive illegal cattle trade.
Since Bangladeshi civilians are involved in the illegal trade in active cooperation with Indian nationals, BSF should use non-lethal weapons to prevent the illegal cattle trade without the loss of lives of Bangladeshis, as agreed at the highest political level (Paragraph 18 of the Joint Communique of January 13, 2010).
That a country which reveres the cow is among the world's largest illegal exporters of cows might seem contradictory. But it is happening allegedly under the nose of Indian border officials.
The reiteration of India's home minister to bring border killing to zero may hopefully act as catalyst in preventing the loss of lives of Bangladesh civilians at the border. Indo-Bangladesh relations should be a mature partnership on economic, social and political level.
The writer is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.