Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Bangladesh-India Border Talks: Forward movement in relations

Daily Sun, Sunday, March 20th, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

There has been some major forward movement in Indo-Bangladesh relations at the recently concluded meeting of the heads of the border forces of the two countries. Major General Rafiqul Islam, Director General of the Border Guard, Bangladesh (BGB) and Mr. Raman Srivastava, the Director-General of the Border Security Forces (BSF) led their respective delegations. The talks were held in New Delhi between 8 and 12 March. A Joint Statement was signed after the talks.

The ghost of Felani, the teenage Bangladesh girl who was killed by the BSF in January in Kurigram and whose dead body was left spread over the barbed wire fence at the border that had created widespread bipartisan condemnation in Bangladesh, created the background for the talks. The two sides reviewed all pending issues carried over from the last talks at this level and reached a few positive decisions.

The most positive one was that related to the killings of innocent Bangladeshis like Felani in the Bangladesh-India border by the trigger happy BSF. At the joint press conference, the leader of the Indian delegation said that the BSF soldiers would henceforth carry non-lethal weapons at certain designated spots on an experimental basis. If the experiment is positive, the experiment would be expanded to bring the entire border under its purview. The DG however made it clear that the BSF soldiers would also carry their normal weapons while carrying the non-lethal weapons.

Death of innocent Bangladeshis at the hands of the BSF soldiers is a major sour point in the bilateral relations between the two countries. Felani’s death had brought patience in Bangladesh to a breaking point over the inertia of the Indian Government to stop the killings of innocent Bangladeshis. In fact, people were aghast when it took the Bangladesh Ministry of Foreign Affairs nearly 10 days to hand over a protest note to the Indian High Commissioner against the killing of the young girl Felani.

The deaths has also been severely condemned and criticized by the Human Rights Watch, an international non-government watchdog against such arbitrary killings. The Watch’s report for 2010, has mentioned that in the last one decade, over 1000 Bangladeshis have been killed by the BSF on the Bangladesh-India border. The Report has gone to great details in investigating many of these deaths. In the majority of the cases, death could have been very easily avoided if the BSF had adopted a more civilized approach to the problem.

During the end of the last term of the Awami League, the two countries were involved in an armed conflict over killing of innocent Bangladeshis in the border by BSF soldiers, the first and only time in the history of the two countries. It was stooped before turning ugly after Sheikh Hasina and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee intervened on behalf of their respective countries. It did not however do India’s image in Bangladesh much good. Since then, the Indians have taken a number of steps to stop smuggling and illegal movement of people from Bangladesh to India that the BSF has identified as the major cause for the deaths. The most important of these steps has been the fencing of the Bangladesh-India border on the Indian side. In 2005, the Indians External Affairs Minister Mr. Natawar Singh categorically stated that it was Indian intention to fence the 4000 miles long border to stop cross border illegal activities. A large part of that intent of India has already been accomplished.

Despite the border fencing, the deaths of Bangladeshis at the hands of the BSF has not declined nor the way they are being killed. Although in such killings, there are many Indians too that are not reported in the Bangladesh media, the fact remains that the Bangladesh nationals are killed indiscriminately and insensitively. It is a well known fact that a very vibrant smuggling trade thrives at the Bangladesh-India border. India has the fence on its side and also the control of the gates. Therefore, it is India that must take the responsibility for the deaths of both the Bangladeshis and Indians some of whom have been shot and killed while running from the BSF. None of these victims were armed.

On its part, Bangladesh Government, both under the AL as well as the BNP Governments and even when the Caretaker Government was briefly in power, has regularly asked the Indian Government and the BSF authorities to stop these senseless border killings. The Bangladesh side has consistently asked the BSF to use non-lethal weapons in stopping Bangladesh nationals in the border because they were in a majority of cases used as conduit in smuggling operations that are largely controlled by operators on the Indian side with full knowledge of the BSF. It is a well known fact that on the India side of the Bangladesh-Indian border, phensedyl factories have been set up with official permission of the Indian authorities whose products are all smuggled into Bangladesh! In case of most of the Bangladeshi victims, their deaths are the outcome of smuggling deal with the BSF authorities going wrong. The insensitivity of the Indian side was brought home even when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was on her official trip to New Delhi last year and being treated as a state guest in exception of protocol for the visit of a Prime Minister. The BSF’s trigger happy ways against Bangladeshis went on like business as usual.

In the context of how this unfortunate issue has been handled by India in the past, the news from New Delhi augurs well for Bangladesh-India relations. An editorial by one leading English daily of Dhaka, while welcoming the decision, has written that the Indians would do well to see that no more innocent lives of Bangladeshis are lost.

The news that the Indians would allow Bangladesh 24 hours’ access to the enclaves of Dahagram and Angorpota enclaves through the Teen Bigha corridor is another welcome news from the Delhi talks. The Indians have unbelievably sat over it for over 3 and a half decades after the Indira-Mujib border agreement was reached in 1974 that should have given this access at that time. This will help clear some of the negative perceptions in the public mind about India’s small heartedness. Nevertheless, to borrow a cliché, it may be very well said, better late than never.

There was a final piece of good news from New Delhi. The two countries will soon introduce a ceremonial retreat or lowering of flags on Bangladesh-India border at Petraople-Benapole as is done in the Attari- Wagah sector on the Pakistan-India border. All these come together with the news that Bangladesh and India have reached an agreement on sharing of the water of the Teesta. The sum total of all these may be some forward movement in Bangladesh-India relations in the near future.

Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohon Singh is now expected to visit Bangladesh after the elections in April in West Bengal (the first round of those elections will start on April 18th). The long wait to see the Indian hand in improving the Bangladesh-India relations after Bangladesh played out its hand by giving India total commitment on its critically important security concerns and land transit, may be over with this impending visit. Or will it?

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and a former Secretary to the Government.

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