Human vs. national security: Managing the Indo-Bangladesh border

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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  • Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha

    A quote from the Article: “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.”
    The National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) is a separatist militant organization that gets funding from the Baptist church in Tripura. These North Eastern separatists are generally portrayed as “tribal” but they are also Christians. Tripura is one among some other North Eastern Indian states with a Christian based militant separatist movement in the world.

  • Kamath

    Perhaps , in my view the root cause of this tragedy is overpopulation that makes people compete, engage in violence to survive. Illegal migration naturally is an outcome. Poverty adds to the misery. At the time of Partition of India, the population of India was only 330 million and now it is 1300 million . Imagine that. Pakistan’s population jumped from about 30 to nearly 190 millions.
    In Egypt it was about 30 booming to about 90 millions.
    After all, the Lord nor Allah provide for a runaway population.

  • DavePh

    So what is the point? The subcontinent was partitioned and most Hindus were driven out to India from Pakistan, but Hindu majority India did not ask it’s Muslims to leave. Those Hindus who chose to stay back in Pakistan and Bangladesh have been persecuted, ethnically cleansed, killed and forcibly converted. That is why their population in these countries have dwindled from 10-15% at the time of partition, to 1-2% now.

    We openly welcome our Hindu brothers and sisters in India, the NDA Govt. has approved citizenship of thousands of such persecuted Hindus from Pakistan and Bangladesh, who are living in India. We do not want Muslims to migrate to India, because they have been given their country, and it is the responsibility of their respective Govt. to take care of them.

    As far as separatist movements are concerned, they will be dealt with as per the constitution of India. We care two hoots if it is Tribal, Christina or Buddhist or Muslim separatist movements. They will be crushed if they do not compromise and stop their terrorist activities.

    It looks like you are on the quest to highlight Christianity of these separatist movements, so that you can garner some support from Sympathetic Fundamentalist Christian Churches in Western countries. LOL, sure do try and see where it takes you. Looks like you got your Green Card from the religious quotas, due to converting to Christianity. Still you need to take that “Wijeyasingha”, out of your name to be a full convert.

  • DavePh

    There is a religious dictate to over populate and out populate others to take control of the land they live as stated in Koran. I wonder why others should be responsible to take care of these abnormal population? There is a need for 1 child policy in Islamic countries, like China has so rightly instituted since decades to control the population growth. After all, there is only so much land and natural resources for human beings, and it is grossly absurd for certain religions to disturb the natural progressions.

  • Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha

    Point is very clear in my comment. The North Eastern militant separatists are one of the few, if any, Christian backed separatist movements. Nagaland wanted to be an independent nation before 1947. and has a higher percentage of Baptists than the US state of Mississippi Nagaland Baptists make up 75% of the population, In Mississippi it is 55%. That has to be highlighted.
    If this was reversed and Hindus were fighting for secession from a Christian nation I am sure Hindus would point it out. Indian media generally covers this up and only calls them “tribals”. That has to be corrected.
    Hindu Militant Nationalism is extremely intolerant. From the Babri Masjid destruction to the Gujarat Muslim carnage, to reconvertion by cohesion by the VHP, Christians, Muslims, Dalits and Adivasi human rights are constantly violated.
    in the case of the Adivasi (tribals) they are NOT Hindu but have their own beliefs, yet when they convert to Christianity many are forced to convert to Hinduism. not back to their own faith.
    As for Hindu militant Nationalism, that can be seen in the 30 year war in Sri Lanka where the Hindu Tamil Tigers were one of world’s most vicious militant movements. It seems to have spread into Indian Hindu militant nationalism
    Now Dave you got your 1 comment and I answered it. No more will you get a reply from me on this article

  • DavePh

    Burnard, thanks for making it clear to me your agenda… LOL.. No more comment required from you on this, but you didn’t answer my question!!

  • Low Shen-Cheang

    China was demonized by western NGO for their one child policy in many ways. But then if you listen to these supremacists you will always end up the loser.

  • DavePh

    @Low Shen-Cheang: India tried to follow the Chinese example by asking the citizens to limit to 2 children, but obviously it did not work. Especially Muslims have an agenda of over populating and out pacing the other religious groups, so that they can take over the country and dictate Sharia laws for every one.

    The end result is extermination of minorities or forceful conversions as you can see in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia.