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A Tale Of Two Blunders

Misplaced machismo and a poorly demarcated border combine to lead to a flare-up

A Tale Of Two Blunders
A Tale Of Two Blunders
Had it not been for an injured Border Security Force (BSF) soldier who managed to escape from Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) custody, the real story of the killing of 16 BSF jawans on April 18 would have taken some investigation before it surfaced. What transpired is something the BSF would rather keep under wraps. The spur to the killing of the Indian jawans was the decision taken by some officer in the BSF—identity not revealed as yet—to teach the Bangladeshis a lesson for their "audacity" of taking over Pyrdiwah village in Meghalaya's Dawki sector on April 15.

A 20-man team was hand-picked and sent in to invade/attack Boraibari village on the other side. But the team was outnumbered by the combined force of Bangladeshi villagers and the BDR. Two bsf men managed to escape, two were caught and 16 were lynched.

This is what one learnt as soon as one reached Mancachar on April 19. Satish Basak, a local villager, told Outlook: "If they hadn't gone to attack Boraibari, the BDR wouldn't have retaliated." Basak and his family were on the road, trying to get as far away as possible after the BDR resorted to mortar fire on his village. Later, two police officials confirmed the BSF folly of the day before.

By April 20, BSF IG V.K. Gaur had been forced to make a statement that some men in civilian clothes asked a BSF patrol party to stop and "suddenly they were surrounded by 1,000 men who had been hiding behind bushes. They were dragged to the other side and handed over to the army. One of the jawans escaped to tell the story. There was no firing, no encounter. They were killed in cold blood".

Gaur's theory isn't supported by the situation on ground. The entire Mancachar sector is well demarcated and fenced with barbed wire. How is it then that the BSF jawans were stopped by civilians unless they had intruded into Bangladesh? No one is willing to answer this question.

The latest crisis was triggered off on April 15, when at least 500 BDR men backed by their army invaded Pyrdiwah in Meghalaya's East Khasi Hills district. They evicted the 700-odd villagers and encircled the BSF outpost, with at least 15 BSF men—including their commander—trapped inside.

The Outlook team was the first to reach Pyrwidah on April 16. Simal Khonjang, a local, narrated what happened. "The BDR men told us to leave the village at midnight after firing in the air. Terrified, we ran for our lives. We could not bring anything with us." Another local, Arkhene Lamin, a betelnut plantation owner, says the BSF took the warnings from the villagers lightly. "We told them twice on the day of the attack that BDR men were moving about in the village but no one paid any heed. By the time the BSF came in, we were already evicted."

The BDR apparently maintains that the village and the BSF outpost is in Bangladesh and hence they have claim to the area. In reality, Pyrdiwah is on the border and is divided into two: Pyrdiwah I, in Bangladesh, and Pyrdiwah II, which is in India.

For the locals, the border is a fuzzy area. In Meghalaya, there are places where it is not demarcated properly. In Lymkhat village, for instance, John Kharshiing, spokesman of the local darbars, shows us around, indicating how the boundary cuts through the village football field. "The delineation is unclear," John says. "This is the root of the trouble here."

There are, for example, at least 40 border markets along the Meghalaya-Bangladesh border where people from both countries exchange produce under the age-old barter system.On April 17, the day after the Pyrdiwah incident, the market is quiet. Trade in the Dawki land customs outpost, an export route to Bangladesh, also came to a halt as the border was sealed. Flag meetings between the two sides failed to yield a breakthrough initially.

The heightened tension found an outlet at Mancachar, 300 km west of Pyrdiwah, on April 18. After the BSF's Boraibari foray, the BDR started firing 3-inch and 8-inch mortar shells on Mancachar, forcing villagers to flee. "We fear for our lives. Bombs are landing in our village. How can we live there?" asks Jehangir of Kalughat village.

At Mancachar police station, civil sub-divisional officer Syed Rafique Ali confirms the panic. "We can't stop people from leaving but are trying our best to persuade them to stay," he says. At Mancachar, BSF men are digging trenches. We run into BSF dig J.D. Singh 300 metres from the border. All he will confirm is that intermittent firing continues.

But by April 20, things had quietened down at both the trouble spots with the BDR agreeing to withdraw from Pyrdiwah. At Mancachar, attempts are on to restore normalcy but it will be a while before both the sides can get over the bitterness generated by the latest exchange of fire.

Nitin A.Gokhale in Mancachar (Assam-Bangladesh border)And Pyrdiwah (Meghalay-Bangladesh border)

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