Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Murder In The Neighbourhood

Murder In The Neighbourhood

It is not clear what, precisely, has changed in Bangladesh since February when India refused to attend the SAARC summit in Dhaka, but the timing of our willingness to attend at "any suitable date acceptable to other members" soon after the threatened


On April 16, 2005, an Assistant Commandant of India's Border Security Force (BSF), Jeevan Kumar, along with a BSF jawan, was dragged across the border by Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) personnel and local villagers into Bangladesh territory. Kumar was tortured and shot dead; the jawan was also brutally tortured and left for dead with multiple wounds. Kumar had gone to the Akhaura Border Check Post in Tripura to seek a meeting with BDR officials after reports that an Indian man had been abducted by Bangladeshi miscreants, when this appalling incident occurred.

Apart from the gratuitous brutality of the act, there are reasons to believe it was entirely premeditated and planned. It is significant that the incident took place exactly four years after the infamous Pyrdiwah incident of April 16, 2001, when 16 BSF personnel were tortured and killed by BDR officers and personnel in the Boroibari area of the Mankachar sector bordering Meghalaya, with the active participation of Bangladeshi villagers. The bodies of some of the BSF soldiers were then tied onto bamboo poles and paraded through the villages - with photos of the incident widely circulated through the region, shocking Indian sensibilities.

On both occasions, the Indian reactions have conformed entirely to an historical pattern of bluster and infirmity that puts little value on the lives of the country's fighting men. After the Pyrdiwah incident, the then minister of external affairs had declaimed in Parliament that India would not take "lightly the defilement of men in uniform", and demanded that Bangladesh act immediately against perpetrators of such "criminal adventurism". A 'strong protest' was also registered with Dhaka through diplomatic channels, with demands for action against the guilty. 

Within days, however, Delhi was rapidly backtracking, making excuses for Shiekh Hasina's 'friendly regime' and blaming the incident on the 'local adventurism of the BDR' and the machinations of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). The then home secretary went so far as to inform the media that it was "a unilateral action by the BDR troops and government of Bangladesh was not aware of it". The fact that Dhaka chose to take no action against the guilty - and that it has till now taken no such action - has not deterred the pronouncements of Delhi's political and bureaucratic illusionists.

This time around, again, the initial rhetoric was searing. The BSF Director General, R. S. Mooshahary, who was in Dhaka at the time of the Akhaura incident, engaged in the scheduled bi-annual institutional talks with the Director General of the BDR, declared, "You cannot kill men in uniform like this," and again, "If they keep persisting with their misadventure, we have to say this is the limit. Beyond this, we cannot tolerate." The Indian High Commission at Dhaka 'unequivocally condemned' the 'highly reprehensible' killing; and the ministry of external affairs called in the acting High Commissioner of Bangladesh at New Delhi to convey its "deep disappointment and regret over the incident" and warn that "its repercussions could not be ignored".

Before the week was out, however, Delhi changed its tune. Mooshahary downplayed the significance of the torture and murder of his officer, stating, "2001 and now 2005 - two incidents have taken place. You cannot say our men are getting killed all the time." The fact that these incidents were only compounding factors in a long and continuous history of mischief has been deliberately suppressed here: there are frequent skirmishes with the BDR along the border, many involving loss of life;

Bangladesh has long supported terrorist organisations operating in the Northeast; Dhaka has been complicit in the massive demographic invasion and destabilisation of India's East and Northeast; BDR personnel have disrupted every Indian effort to construct a fence along the border by firing on the workers and BSF personnel engaged in this task; Bangladesh has emerged as the primary source of illegal arms and explosives for virtually every insurgent and criminal operation all along India's East and Northeast; and the BDR supports a wide range of smuggling and criminal operations along the border.

But Mooshahary is not alone in burying his head in the sand. On April 20, 2005, National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan directed the BSF Chief to instruct his commanders in Tripura to 'exercise restraint'. On the sidelines of the Asian-African Summit at Bandung, India chose this time to communicate to Bangladesh that the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit could be held at "any suitable date acceptable to other members" of this seven nation group.

Significantly, the summit, to be held at Dhaka, was postponed in February when India refused to attend on the grounds that 'regional developments' were not conducive to its proceedings. While India did not elaborate, the February 1 'King's coup' in Nepal, and security concerns in Bangladesh as a result of the increasing activity of Islamist extremist groupings linked with the ruling coalition, were thought to be the 'regional developments' referred to. It is not clear what, precisely, has changed since February, but clearly the threatened 'repercussions' of the Akhaura incident can easily be ignored.

In the meanwhile, Bangladesh has ordered a probe into the Akhaura incident and has relocated the BDR unit responsible. However, tensions along the Indo-Bangladesh border have escalated, with both sides accusing each other of invasion of air space, massing of troops, movement of heavy weaponry and other intimidatory activities.

These transient tensions overlie the deep and abiding mistrust and hostility that have become integral to relations between the two countries. Bangladesh has often accused India of 'hegemonistic designs'. India, on the other hand, has a long and growing list of specific complaints, including the presence of terrorist camps, safe havens and leadership headquarters on Bangladesh soil. While Bangladesh has dealt with these allegations through a strategy of blank denial in the face of mounting evidence - much of it available in Bangladeshi open sources - this pattern of 'minimal credible deniability' often comes under specific strains. 

Thus, Delhi's note verbale for the extradition of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) 'general secretary', Anup Chetia alias Golap Baruah, charged with a number of crimes, including murder, in Assam, has been repeatedly rejected by the Bangladesh authorities - though his presence in that country is fully documented, since Chetia has been in a Bangladesh jail at Kashimmpur since 1997 on charges of possessing foreign currencies, a satellite phone and several passports. His prison term ended on February 25 this year, but Bangladesh has refused to extradite him to India, instead sending its own list of criminals who it claims are 'sheltering' in India. Over the years, there have been repeated incidents of violence, many of them in Dhaka, involving internecine clashes between various Northeast Indian terrorist groups housed there, including the top leadership of some of these, and these have been widely reported in the Bangladesh media. But Bangladesh persists with the fiction that 'there are no terrorists on Bangladesh soil.'

Delhi has also been concerned with the increasing activities of Islamist extremists and terrorists on and from Bangladeshi soil as well as the enormous quantum of small arms and explosives that are moving across into India - most dramatically exemplified by the massive seizure at Karnaphuli on the Chittagong coast on April 2, 2004, the result of poor coordination between different Bangladeshi enforcement agencies, some of which failed to 'cooperate' with the officials who were overseeing the transaction, of a consignment of small arms sufficient, as one commentator noted, "to arm a brigade".

Bangladeshi belligerence has also found repeated political expression. In September 2004, in an attack described by one Bangladeshi editorial as an "amateurish outburst", Bangladesh Foreign Minister Morshed Khan accused India of 'over-criticism' saying that if the larger neighbour continued to blame Bangladesh for "things across the spectrum, future bilateral discussions would be in jeopardy", adding the threat, "we could end India's $3 billion trade here by issuing an SRO [Statutory Regulatory Order] on all Indian goods entering Bangladesh." On an ominous note, he added, further, that although "Bangladesh is India-locked, Delhi also has to remember that the seven north-eastern Indian states are also Bangladesh-locked."

Geography is certainly part of the problem, and the countries share a 4,095 kilometre border, with some pockets remaining un-demarcated, though agreements for the resolution of all issues on the border have long been in existence on paper. 

Tripura - where the recent Akhaura incident occurred - for instance, has a 856 kilometre long border (barring 6.5 kilometres, the rest of the border is well demarcated) with Bangladesh, of which just 200 kilometres has been fenced. . However, fencing has progressed slowly, despite a long-standing Indian mandate to fence off the whole area, and this is at least in part because of the BDR's repeated obstruction of fencing work. 

BDR men regularly fire at the men engaged in the border fencing work, and a BSF official disclosed that there had been at least five incidents of such "unwarranted firing" by BDR troopers on civilians and security personnel along the border with Tripura between March 1, 2005 and April 21, 2005. On April 20, the Tripura Director General of Police, G.M. Srivastava stated, "I am not saying that the government of Bangladesh is involved in such acts, but there are reasons to believe that some BDR men, at the local level, are working to delay the construction of the fencing." 

There are also a number of small pockets under 'adverse possession' as well as some 'enclaves' of Indian and Bangladeshi populations in the other country. While agreements on these have long been in existence, their implementation remains in abeyance because of tensions along the border, as well as Bangladesh's evident strategic and tactical interests in obstructing an Indian fence that would put an end to the movement of terrorist and criminal groups, as well as the large volume of illegal migration that Dhaka implicitly supports. 

In some cases, topography also creates problems. The Belonia sub-division in South Tripura, for instance, has been a repeated flash-point, because the Muhuri river keeps changing its course, creating vast islands, which both the countries claim leading to border skirmishes.

Under the circumstances, occasional clashes along the border are not unexpected. However, the torture and cold blooded murder of soldiers is impossible to justify or countenance. India, unfortunately, appears to lack the political will to impose minimal norms of civilized conduct in interactions with any of its recalcitrant neighbours.

Ajai Sahni is Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management. Bibhu Prasad Routray is Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal.