An Indian army soldier keeps guard from a bunker near the border with Pakistan in Abdullian. Photo: Reuters / Mukesh Gupta
An Indian army soldier keeps guard from a bunker near the border with Pakistan in Abdullian. Photo: Reuters / Mukesh Gupta

In the first week of November 2016, this writer, as part of a distinguished three-member fact-finding team of experts set up under UN-mandated program, undertook a rapid appraisal of the work of the voluntary agency Masum, which operates in four districts along the Indo-Bangladesh border in the Indian state of West Bengal.

The agency seeks to prevent or deal with torture and extrajudicial execution by central and state security forces deployed along the international border. The team found that far from posing a threat to national security, the organisation is actually working to defend the human security of ordinary people. It recommended that instead of harassing the agency on spurious grounds, the official agencies must take advantage of and support its work in light of the provisions of the Constitution of India and the general and specific laws of the land in order to promote peace and amity between India and Bangladesh.

The UN-mandated Human Rights Defenders Alert (HRDA)

India set up a high-level fact-finding team of experts comprising Justice Hosbet Suresh, former judge of the Bombay High Court, Dr. Kadayam Subramanian, former Director General of Police in northeast India and Ms. Miratun Nahar, Professor of Philosophy of the Calcutta University, to visit Kolkata for a rapid appraisal of the performance of the Voluntary Agency (VA), Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM) headed by its Secretary Kirit Roy, in defending the human security of ordinary people in the four districts of Murshidabad, Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri and North 24 Parganas in the state of West Bengal located along the Indo-Bangladesh border.

Masum reports on and takes initial legal steps to deal with serious criminal offences such as torture and extrajudicial executions committed by state security forces and the central government’s Border Security Force (BSF) in the light of UN promulgation on the subject.

West Bengal has a 2217 km long border with Bangladesh which is strategic and sensitive.

On completion of its rapid appraisal of the work of Masum in these districts, the team of experts held a press conference in Kolkata. A preliminary report will be produced followed by a more detailed final account.

A number of women and men who were victims of state violence and private violence in the four heavily populated and poverty-stricken districts where Masum is active, appeared before the team of experts along with the Masum appointed District Human Rights Monitors (DHRMs) and provided powerful and moving accounts of their sufferings at the hands of the West Bengal state police forces and the central government’s Border Security Force (BSF) apparently functioning with complete impunity and lack of accountability. Learning about the various forms of inhuman torture to which these men and women were subjected was an intensely painful and moving experience for the team of experts.

The majority of the population in the affected districts belong mainly to the deprived Muslim, Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities. Though India has elaborate Constitutional and specific legal provisions for the protection development of these communities, it appeared that the state police forces and central paramilitary BSF were unaware of these onerous provisions and functioned outside the framework of these Constitutional and legal provisions. Or at least they seemed to be poorly trained.

Several farmers on both sides of the international border have lost their lands and livelihoods because of erosion of the river Padma. Many of them, in the absence of adequate government welfare provision, seemed to rely on antisocial elements for their livelihood.

Illegal cross-border activities including cattle rustling and trafficking in persons, narcotics and so on seem to prevail across the Indo-Bangladesh border. Many cattle smugglers, active at night, are beaten up or shot down by the BSF in the name of law enforcement. Many others are tortured or killed on suspicion of being involved in smuggling of cattle and other commodities such as the medicinal cough syrup, Phensedyl. Children are often employed by smugglers to avoid detection. These activities are well documented.

A brief description of the basic security scenario in the four districts is given below:

District Murshidabad is the most affected of the four districts in terms of protection of the human security of ordinary people by these security forces which indulge in torture, custodial deaths, extrajudicial killings, human and cattle trafficking and other procedural violations. In the first six months of 2016 alone, 53 cases of rights violation were investigated by Masum. These violations took place in the name of controlling cross border movements of good and persons. The reported nexus between elements of the state police, the BSF and antisocial groups has complicated the security scenario and made life miserable for ordinary people. The erosion in the river Padma makes life harder for the villagers in the re-emerged or ‘char’ lands; they are deprived of basic necessities of life. The district human rights monitor (DHRM) appointed by Masum find it difficult to articulate the civil rights of people and provide legal-political support to victims of torture and worse at the hands of the security forces. They become thorns in the side of the security forces reportedly involved in cross border smuggling in the lucrative business of cattle rustling and trafficking of other commodities in concert with antisocial elements.

The DHRMs such as Ajimuddin Sarkar, Nazrul Islam and Saiful Islam have faced the wrath of the security forces and suffered severe physical and psychological harm for themselves and their families, which seems too painful to describe.

District Cooch Behar, faces, in addition to the infliction of violence on Masum inspired activists by the security forces, the problem of the relocated inhabitants of the Bangladeshi ‘enclaves’ in India. The 2012 Land Boundary Agreement between Bangladesh and India involved the return of people from Indian enclaves in Bangladesh and vice versa. Those from Bangladesh face serious resettlement problems in Cooch Behar; the provision of land, electricity and other inputs for them brings fresh challenges to Masum activists such as Tilakbala Barman and Azizul Haque who work enormously hard to address the plight of the enclave dwellers.

The development and security agencies of the Indian State must thank these activists instead of seeking to harass them on various spurious grounds inflicting on them various forms of violence including registration of false criminal cases.

District North 24 Parganas is notorious, among other things, for human and cattle trafficking across the international border. The lower middle class sections of the civil society are enticed to participate in these nefarious activities. The poor people of the border villages are tempted to join the illegal nexus between criminals, antisocial elements and the bureaucracy at different levels. This makes Masum volunteers and their clients vulnerable to torture and shooting and blinding by the deadly ‘pellet guns’ used by the BSF personnel. The real culprits, however, seem to operate under cover of the security forces who too benefit from the smuggling and trafficking activities of antisocial elements. The leading Masum activist in this district is Mohor Ali Mondol.

District Jalpaiguri faces specific issues arising from the prevailing unemployment in tea gardens and consequent starvation deaths in various tea estates of north Bengal. In March 2016, The Masum activists visited various offices concerned with tea garden labourers and found that though legal provisions did exist for their welfare and protection of the labourers and their families, they were unable to actually benefit from them owing to a variety of hindrances along the way. The Masum activists in this case were led by Durbadal Mondol.

This and other similar cases bring home the fact that Masum activists do play a constructive role in society and assist the local developmental bureaucracy in the provision of goods and services to the public at the bottom of society. They could be of use to the decentralized bureaucratic administrative structure known as Panchayati Raj institutions (PRIs). They can be of value to society provided the functionaries of these institutions work in an open, flexible and accountable manner. This does not seem to be the case at present.

After discussions with the victims of violence, the Masum activists and perusal of the documentation placed before the team of experts, the conclusions followed that i) the Masum workers in the four districts of West Bengal are faced with increasing attacks from antisocial elements allied to security forces who fabricate criminal charges against them and inflict serious violence on them and their families; ii) the state machinery has failed to utilize the beneficent provisions of the Constitution of India and the several specific laws for the protection development the weaker sections society who are predominant in the four districts; iii) the testimonies of the victims of violence and brutality provided a graphic picture of the extremely cruel conditions in which the Masum workers have to function in their quest of justice; iv) human security in these district is downgraded in the name of national security; v) security forces who are charged with crimes find it easy to hit back with counter cases against the Masum workers and their supporters in civil society; vi) the immunity provisions in the Indian law (Section 197 of the Criminal Procedure Code) protect the security forces who commit crimes against the people; vii) a nexus prevails between the security forces, politicians and antisocial elements; viii) shockingly, ‘pump action pellet guns’ are used against unarmed civilians harming and blinding them; ix) avoidable police surveillance is carried out against social activists; x) the over 600 cases reported to the National Human Rights Commission by Masum need to be investigated expeditiously; xi) cases pend for too long in the state High Court and the Supreme Court of India; xii) the West Bengal Human Rights Commission functions without a duly appointed Chairperson; xiii) the security forces must abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement officials (see Human Rights Watch, 2010 report “Trigger happy”: Excessive Use of Force by Indian Troops at the Bangladesh Border’).

Kadayam Subramanian

Kadayam Subramanian is former director of the Research and Policy Division of the Indian Home Ministry and former director general of police in northeastern India. He is the author, among others, of Political Violence and the Police in India and State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India.