On January 7, 2011, Ms. Felani Khatun, a 15-year-old Bangladeshi girl and domestic helper in India’s capital New Delhi, was shot dead by Amiya Ghosh, a constable of the country’s Border Security Force (BSF) in the Cooch Bihar sector of West Bengal’s border with Bangladesh. Ms. Khatun was attempting to illegally cross the barbed wire fence along international border. She, along with her father and uncle, were on their way home for her wedding.

While the men used a ladder to get over the concertina fencing, Ms. Khatun failed to get through because her clothing got stuck in the barbed wire. She failed to free herself from the wire and the BSF Constable on duty Amiya Ghosh shot her and left the body hanging from the fence on the international border instead of capturing and handing her over to the local police for necessary action. The shooting was unjustified.

Later, the BSF tied up and removed the body in a most brutal, inhuman and insensitive manner as became clear from the graphic photographs produced by human rights activists and reported by Asia Times journalist Syed Tashfin Chowdhury. After an unconscionable delay over four years, the BSF’s General Security Forces Court, after a secret trial, pronounced on July 2, 2015 Constable Amiya Ghosh not guilty. India’s Protection of Human Rights Act 1993 remained a dead letter.

Enclaves conundrum

The human security of an ordinary human being, it seemed, was less important than the ‘national security’ that the constable was allegedly upholding. Was the constable influenced by the inherited hostility towards Bangladeshis?  Both India and Bangladesh in the Cooch Behar sector possess enclaves inhabited by citizens of the other country. There are also enclaves within enclaves as well in some areas. Complicated issues arise regarding provision of basic human rights to education, health, employment and other rights to all inhabitants of all enclaves!

BSF soldiers patrol a floodlit section of the India-Bangladesh border fence
BSF soldiers patrol a floodlit section of the India-Bangladesh border fence

The Indian and Bangladeshi Prime Ministers agreed this year to deal with the problems of the people living in these enclaves in a humanitarian fashion. It is not clear whether Ms. Felani Khatun was from an enclave in Cooch Behar. The inhumanity and brutality with which the dead woman was treated by the BSF was objectionable and called for immediate response from the Ministry of Home Affairs in New Delhi under whom the BSF functions. The indifference was unpardonable given India’s commitment to human rights protection. Amnesty International is to be complimented for taking up the case for review by the Supreme Court of India.

Serious problems arise from the influx from across the international border in the northeastern region of India surrounded by Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Myanmar and Nepal. Cattle smuggling by farmers of overpopulated Bangladesh across the Indo-Bangladesh border in order to sell the cattle in Indian markets to make a living causes the largest number of killings by the border security forces. When captured, these “criminals” are subjected to torture, rape and extrajudicial killings. Border security personnel are not generally sensitized to human security protection as noted by human rights defenders. Rights-based awareness has grown worldwide but it has left Indian police professionals largely untouched.

The Indo-Bangladesh border is about 4100 kms long, cutting across West Bengal state in the east and the northeastern states of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, and Mizoram. The problems associated with the management of the international border are immensely complex. Perhaps border fencing became politically necessary to meet public complaints of illegal infiltration by Bangladeshi citizens into the northeastern states. The Indian state of Tripura in the Northeast, which has a porous, 856 km long border with Bangladesh, has been overwhelmed by influx of Bangladeshi migrants with the result that the once ethnic tribal majority state has been transformed into Hindu majority state.

Orders were given for the fencing of the long border. Five government agencies took up the task of border fencing in the state: the central and state Public Works Departments of Tripura and Assam; the Border Roads Organisation; and the National Building Construction Corporation. The cost has been hefty for the exchequer: Rs. 11 to 13 million per kilometer. More expensively, flood lighting and live fencing of the international border is also underway. Ostensibly, border fencing would prevent the movement of militants of various descriptions, illegal infiltration, drugs and arms trafficking and illegal trade in goods. However, protection of human security of ordinary people does not figure as an important priority for the security forces involved in these operations.

200 killed annually at border

Though fencing the Indo-Bangladesh border in Tripura and the other northeastern states is an Indian preference, it is not liked by the Bangladesh authorities who hold that there is no influx from that country into India. In Tripura, sharp differences of opinion over the interpretation of the provisions of the Indo-Bangladesh Treaty of 1972 persist on the definition of the border and its fencing. Violent incidents between the border security forces of the two countries were reported in the 2007 Tripura  Human Development Report: in one case, Bangladesh Rifles (BR) opened fire across the Sabroom border in south Tripura several times demanding that the provisions of the Indo-Bangladesh Treaty obligations be adhered more strictly by the Indian BSF; in another,  a BSF official was arrested and killed by the Bangladeshi forces in the West Tripura district; in a third, Indian security forces supporting the workers of the construction company in different districts came under attack by insurgent outfits hiding in Bangladesh. It is reported that overall about 200 people are killed every year during border security operations by the Indian border security forces across the Indo-Bangladesh border.

The 2007 Tripura Human Development Report has noted other serious problems with fencing.  Strict adherence to the provisions of the Indo-Bangladesh Treaty of 1972, it said, would lead to: i) the displacement of large populations living in border villages causing immense hardship to people; ii) the removal of different sub-divisional HQs and towns adjacent to the border; and iii) other hardship to citizens from the need to re-locate airport at Agartala, the state capital, important government offices, markets and schools, commercial areas as well as thousands of hectares of cultivable land, which provide for the survival of thousands of farmers and their families. Fencing was thus getting seriously entangled with law and order problems and was forcing the state government to initiate further discussions with the central Ministry of Home Affairs, the nodal agency for the Northeast.

Legalize cattle trade?

It is not clear whether border fencing across the Indo-Bangladesh border would help prevent illegal cattle smuggling which is said to be the main cause of the by the large number of killings by the Indian border security forces. Perhaps legalizing cattle trade would help prevent the killings. The huge sums of money spent in the pursuit of border fencing could affect India’s Look East policy and the NER Vision 2020 policy. There is a need for India to put its relations with Bangladesh in a more strategic framework and pursue its development policies in the region effectively. The Indian government must engage in serious interaction with Bangladesh on the whole range of complex issues connected to fencing of the international border. Further, human security must be considered as important as national security. There is a need to intensify human rights-centric training programmes for all security forces.

It is to be noted that the National Human Rights Commission of India has observed in 2007 that 75% of all complaints of human security and human rights violation in India relate to the functioning of police and security forces. The adjudicating authorities attached to central paramilitary forces such as the BSF need to be appropriately groomed to ensure that the human security of citizens are protected even while national security is ensured by the security forces.

Kadayam Subramanian was a Director General of Police in Northeast India. He is a human security oriented scholar and analyst. He was Director of the Research and Policy Division of the government of India’s Ministry of Home Affairs, New Delhi.

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