Saturday, September 14, 2013

On the Felani Verdict


Saturday, 14 September 2013
Author / Source: M. Serajul Islam 

It looks like little is working in favour of the AL led government these days. When it needs New Delhi very badly to come forward and deliver its commitments to establish that the government did not waste the leverage it had over India with the security and land transit cards, two disappointing news have come from India in the last one week. The Congress led Government’s efforts to ratify the LBA deal ended unsuccessfully in Parliament. More importantly, a special court in Cooch Bihar acquitted Havildar Amiya Ghosh on charges of killing Felani. 

The disappointing news on the LBA was expected. Recent developments in India’s domestic politics had more or less assured that although sources in the Congress led government and in the AL Government were sending signals to create false hopes. The expectations were different on the Felani case; that perhaps New Delhi would do the right thing with the Felani murder trial. The killing of Felani Begum on 7th January 2011 on Bangladesh-India border at the hands of the Indian Border Force (BSF) had abhorred the nation as well as human rights organizations in India and the world by the manner in which the 15-year-old Felani was killed.

Unarmed Felani was shot dead and her body was left hanging for five hours on the barbed wire fence that India has raised on the 4,100 km long Bangladesh-India border.  The body was later taken down by the BSF and handed to her relatives the next day. Pictures of Felani hanging on the barbed wire fence and later being carried by BSF personnel like dead cattle was shown in the media all over the world over and caused outcry everywhere. There was an air of barbarism surrounding the entire sordid episode.

The Felani murder also brought to focus a chapter of Bangladesh-India relations that has emerged as a major obstacle towards the development of beneficial bilateral relations. The issue is the rampant and senseless killing of Bangladeshis on the Bangladesh-India border by the BSF. The Economist in a report after international outcry over the Felani murder wrote: “The BSF kills with such impunity along India's 4,100-kilometre (2,550-mile) border with Bangladesh that one local journalist wonders what the story is about. According to Human Rights Watch, India's force has killed almost 1,000 Bangladeshis over the past ten years. That implies a shooting every four days. The death toll between two democracies dwarfs the number killed attempting to cross the inner German border during the cold war.”

New Delhi did not take up the anger in Bangladesh and international concern over the border killings seriously. The official line New Delhi has taken has been that those killed should not have been where they were killed. After the uproar over the Felani murder, all the Indians could muster was a “feeble” apology. New Delhi later committed a zero tolerance to such killings in response to pressure from Bangladesh but on the ground, it never established that it intended to keep such a commitment. In fact, even during important bilateral meetings in which the Indians gave the commitment or re-iterated it, there was news of border killings that neither embarrassed nor concerned them.

New Delhi must take the major responsibility for allowing the border killings to become such a huge obstacle in development of Bangladesh-India relations. It did not take into account a number of obvious facts. First, the Bangladeshis killed were mostly all shot at the back while running away from the BSF. Second, the border was fenced by India and BSF controlled both legal and illegal border crossings. Third, an organized racket based in Indian side of the border controlled smuggling business worth in billions of US dollars where the BSF was involved. Finally, the killings were almost all the outcome of smuggling deals that went sour. In the Felani case, her father had paid 3000 rupees for the illegal crossing to organized racket. Her murder too was another case of a human trafficking deal that went sour.

The reasons were plenty for India’s indifference to go into denial over these obvious facts. Acknowledging that the BSF was merrily shooting down Bangladeshis on the border would have given the country a bad name. It would also have caused problems in a well embedded smuggling racket worth billions of US dollars in which with the BSF, many other Indian government agencies working in the border and individuals with political links were involved. Thus when sentiments in Bangladesh were aroused as was when Felani was killed, all New Delhi did was make promises such as zero tolerance, use of rubber bullets, etc. that it never intended to keep and hoped that emotions and tensions would die down.

New Delhi was also never put under serious pressure by the present AL led government on the issue. Those who negotiated with New Delhi were concerned that pressure on the border killings issue would take focus away from bigger issues to implement the vision of paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations of Sheikh Hasina. That such a policy has proved fatal for the vision of Sheikh Hasina has become clear as daylight as the AL led government’s tenure enters its final days. It is interesting to see that it is now not Bangladesh side that is alone in complaining that New Delhi did not act fairly to the great political risks that Sheikh Haisna had taken for her vision of paradigm shift. Prominent Indians are speaking out forcefully for Bangladesh.

New Delhi too has shown awareness that it had let down Sheikh Hasina very badly. In recent times, it has been trying its best to deliver the LBA and Teesta deals but with elections in India now not very far away, those who hold the key to let New Delhi deliver these deals to Bangladesh, namely the BJP and the Trinamool, are not willing to give the Congress anything that would benefit it in the elections. Thus, the last ditch attempt by the Congress led government to ratify the deal was frustrated last week.  New Delhi’s efforts with the Felani trial were however not sincere.

It decided to bring the Havildar who killed Felani to trial more than two and half years after the death had caused absolute abhorrence in Bangladesh. After taking the line that Felani was in the wrong place at the wrong time, New Delhi decided to hold a trial for the murder. However, it allowed that trial to be held under the BSF Act by a special tribunal chaired by BSF official where even the charge was diluted. Havildar Amiyo Ghosh was allowed to go scot-free after standing trial for “unintentional killing.” If New Delhi were serious it would have decided to hold the trial in a civilian court with the more serious charge of murder against him.

Again Bangladesh was caught on the wrong feet in dealing with the Felani case. The Law Minister said that the government would take steps to ask New Delhi to try the case in a civilian court.  That the case would be tried under BSF Act by BSF personel was known to Dhaka before the trial started. Why then did Bangladesh wait for the verdict to do what the Law Minister now would want Bangladesh to do? It was ironically the Indian High Commission that showed more concern than Bangladesh where its Foreign Ministry is still silent about such an important issue in Bangladesh-India relations. The Spokesman of the Indian High Commission asked Bangladesh to wait, as the judgment pronounced by the BSF Tribunal was “the first step” and would go to “competent authorities” for a final decision.  Was there some hint in that statement about what Bangladesh should do?

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

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