Sunday, September 8, 2013

Felani verdict :A big disappointment


Published : Sunday, 08 September 2013
M. Serajul Islam

A special tribunal set up in Cooch Bihar in Paschimbanga has acquitted Havildar Amiyo Ghosh of the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) in the Felani murder case. Felani's father has dismissed the verdict and has vowed to take it to the international court of justice. In Paschimbanga, human rights group MASUM said that "the BSF trial was a sham." In Bangladesh, at the time of filing this article, there has been no official response from the government or from human rights groups/civil society or the political parties.

Felani was a teenager who was killed by the Indian Border Security Force on January 07, 2011 while crossing the barbed-wire fence between Bangladesh and India, illegally. That was not the worst part of the death of the teenager; her body was kept hanging on the barbed wire fence for five hours before it was taken down by the BSF. The death caused widespread anger in Bangladesh. Human rights groups in India, Bangladesh and many other countries were abhorred. Unfortunately, New Delhi failed to acknowledge the anger and sentiments in Bangladesh over the death. Although insisting that Felani died because she was at a place she was not supposed to be, New Delhi eventually apologized but it was long in coming. 

India came to Bangladesh's assistance in the worst moments of its history when the Pakistani military had unleashed one of history's worst genocide on the people of Bangladesh in 1971. India hosted 10 million Bangladeshis on its soil who had fled Bangladesh for fear of their lives. More importantly, India assisted the Bangladesh freedom struggle to victory. That should have tied the two countries in friendship forever. That did not happen for an array of reasons for which Indians had always blamed Bangladesh. The way the Indians dealt with the Felani murder was a reflection of that mindset in India while dealing with Bangladesh.

In recent times, however, prominent Indian citizens have come forward for the first time to set the record straight - that for the pitiable state of Bangladesh-India relations, India must share responsibilities. Sekhar Gupta, the distinguished Editor of the Indian Express, addressed a letter to the Chief Minister of Gujarat, who many Indians now see as the next Indian Prime Minister, to come forward and resolve the internal strife within the BJP so that the party would come behind the Congress-led government to ratify the Bangladesh-India land boundary agreement (LBA) that the Indian Prime Minister signed in Dhaka in September 2011.

Sekhar Gupta joined other prominent Indians who have recently spoken strongly against New Delhi's failure to deliver to Bangladesh the Teesta Water Sharing Agreement in addition to the LBA. Four former Indian High Commissioners to Dhaka - Muchkund Dubey, Dev Mukherjee, Veena Sikri and Rajeen Mitter - have also criticised New Delhi for letting down Sheikh Hasina who they thought had taken great political risks to provide India its dream from Bangladesh - a complete assurance of its security. They stated that Indian failure to reciprocate has become what Sekhar Gupta described as "killer embarrassment" for Sheikh Hasina with elections in the country within months. An IBN/CNN/The Hindu poll conducted not too long ago placed Bangladesh on top of list Indians trusted most. 

These prominent citizens have put New Delhi on a spot forcing it to strengthen the efforts that Prime Minister Manmohon Singh and Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid have been undertaking with the BJP and Mamata Banarjee in recent times to deliver the two deals to Bangladesh. In fact, the latest developments in India have convinced most people in Bangladesh that New Delhi would have delivered the two deals had the BJP and Mamata Banarjee not been the party spoilers. Further, these developments have also revealed that the objections of the BJP and Mamata Banarjee to the deals have more to do with the nature of domestic politics in India rather than with any anti-Bangladesh bias.

These are paradigm shifts in India that augurs well for the future of Bangladesh-India relations. Therefore, even if the Congress-led government were to fail to bring the BJP and Mamata Banarjee to the party to deliver the deals before Bangladesh's national elections, the realisation in India among the stake holders there that New Delhi has been unfair to Bangladesh would undoubtedly augur well for the future of Bangladesh-India relations under new governments that the two countries would have within the next year. Of course, New Delhi would need to have faith in the democratic process in Bangladesh to complete the paradigm shift. It would need to believe in relations with Bangladesh and not with a particular political party. Indian President Pranab Mukherjee had made that promise while on a visit to Dhaka in May 2012 when he was the Indian Finance Minister. New Delhi would need to keep that promise.

Nevertheless, the changes in India are positive despite its failure on the deals. It also did something unusual to make up to Bangladesh with the trial of Havildar Amiya Ghosh. This was the first time that the Indian authorities decided to try BSF personnel for killing a Bangladeshi on the border. According to Human Rights Watch, BSF personnel killed over a thousand Bangladeshis on the border in the decade ending in 2010. Two hundred Bangladeshis have been killed by the BSF in the last four years despite commitment by India to a zero tolerance on such deaths. Felani's death and continued killings on the border have "abhorred" Bangladeshis.

The Indians have fenced off Bangladesh-India border with control of border crossings in the hands of the BSF. Yet illegal crossings of both human beings and commodities, including the hugely lucrative cattle smuggling, are a commonplace. The smuggling racket is controlled by the BSF, a fact well known to New Delhi. Yet the Bangladeshis are killed regularly, most of them shot in the back that occur when smuggling deals go sour over payment. New Delhi never acknowledged this well-known fact. Therefore, when it agreed to try Amiyo Ghosh for Felani's murder under Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code (unintentional killing) and Section 146 of the BSF Act, it was welcomed in Bangladesh as a positive development in Bangladesh-India relations.

The no-guilty verdict delivered on the case was thus a big disappointment in Bangladesh. The law does not allow appeal on the verdict. Amiya Ghosh has already been released. Felani's father Nurul Islam talked about going to the international court that was more out of frustration because there was no question of that happening. West Bengal-based human rights group MASUM talked about putting pressure on New Delhi to find out legal ways to keep the case alive. That too does not appear likely to happen. So far, Foreign Ministry officials in Dhaka said, unoffciially, that there were "disappointed" at the outcome.

The Indian High Commission asked Bangladesh to wait, calling the verdict reached at Cooch Bihar as "the first step." A High Commission spokesman said that the verdict would go for "review by a competent authority". The Indian High Commission knows too well that a not a guilty verdict would add to the negative impression about India. 

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

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