On the BSF atrocities
The last post on this topic is now the most popular in this blog, showing how much people care about this issue. This post covers various aspects of the issue that seems to come up again and again in discussions. Some of it is going to challenge popular perceptions. Others repeat of what I’ve already said in this blog and UV.
Details over the fold.
1. It’s getting better.
From the Deshi cyberspace or TV scene, one will get the perception that the BSF has ramped up its killing spree since AL’s return to power, and it’s the current government’s ‘spineless’ pro-Indian foreign policy that is to be blamed for this problem. I certainly expected this perception to be supported by data. Imagine my surprise then to find that things have actually gotten better in the border!
So, the single worst year in the past decade in terms of the number of BSF ‘kills’ — 147 in 2006. Now, do you remember Mr Morshed Khan grilling the Indian High Commissioner or Mahmudur Rahman’s fiery TV sermon? No, I don’t either. Just like some of our progressives-seculars become concerned about minority persecution only when BNP is in power, some nationalists and defenders of sovereignty care about BSF killings only when AL is in power.
Some might quibble about the veracity of this data. Data between 2007 and 2010 are from Odhikar, hardly a pro-AL organisation. I do not vouch for the accuracy of every data point, and will update the chart if better data is presented. But I would be very surprised if the overall shape of the chart is fundamentally wrong.
Six has been killed so far in 2012 — at that rate the death toll will be 33 by year’s end. Of course, 33 dead is 33 death too many. But let’s have a bit of perspective here please. Contrary to the popular perceptions, the border has actually become safer in recent times.
2. Bengal is unique.
Another point raised repeatedly is that ‘BSF doesn’t behave this way in other borders’. This observation is true at a superficial level, but is meaningless when one thinks about it carefully.
India’s borders with other countries are not really comparable with the border with Bangladesh. With China, Burma, Bhutan and much of Nepal and Pakistan, the border is through forests, mountains or deserts — where no one lives near or crosses the border, BSF doesn’t kill anyone. Parts of the border with China and Pakistan are also heavily militarised. Nepal and Bhutan are not comparable with Bangladesh because these are two countries with whom India has open borders, where not only people can move through without immigration restrictions, but also where the Indian rupee is accepted alongside the national currencies.
And more importantly, there is substantial difference in terms of BSF killings even within the Indo-Bangla border. Look at the map below (taken from here). Between March 2009 and February 2012, BSF didn’t kill anyone in the Bangladesh-Meghalaya or Bangladesh-Mizoram borders. Bangladesh-Paschimbanga border, on the other hand, is a very different matter.
So, what’s going on here? The BSF sends the violent types to West Bengal, and the wimps to Meghalaya or Mizoram?
Dear reader, Bengal is unique. If you haven’t been to the border, you wouldn’t know how crazily the Radcliffe Line cuts. Arguably, the border between Indian and Pakistani Punjabs is just as ‘unnatural’. But that border was hardened by the death trains to and from Lahore and Amritsar in August 1947. Not so in Bengal.
Next time you hear about ‘BSF doesn’t behave like this elsewhere’, remeber that there is no place like Bengal.
3. Not about illegal immigration or security threat.
That map also puts into question two other talking points — that BSF needs to deter illegal immigrants, or that it’s about securing the border against terrorists.
Are there undocumented Bangladeshis in India? Yes there are. Whether they are net drag on India is something I’d leave for a separate post. For now, let’s assume that India needs to defend itself from the undocumented migrants. How come BSF is so skewed in its deterrence? They don’t care about the demographic change Bangladeshis are allegedly causing in Assam or Tripura?
And if this is about national security, then why the killings aren’t concentrated in the border with North East India? Last I heard, it was those states, not Paschimbanga, facing militancy/secessionism.
4. BSF is a mafia gang …
If you’re not convinced by the map, look through this archive. It’s hard to discern a clear pattern supporting the ‘BSF kills illegal immigrants’ thesis. The infamous Felani case — where the victim was crossing the border back to Bangladesh with her family, who lived undocumentedly in India — seems to be relatively rare. Most of the victims seem to be ‘cattle traders’ or people living in the border areas. The case of Habibur Rahman, who was tortured over bribe, seems very common.
I posit that the anecdotal evidence doesn’t suggest a ‘shoot to kill’ policy set in New Delhi. Rather, it seems to me that the local BSF units, posted in the Bangladesh-Paschimbanga border, acts as a mafia gang, extorting local people who cross the uniquely porous border for many reasons including cattle trade. As far back as 2006, BSF admitted that it had a corruption problem (and illegal immigration wasn’t the main challenge).
5. … that can be disciplined.
Yes, one way to stop the killing would be if people stopped crossing the border. But anyone familiar with the human geography of the border between two Bengals would not make that suggestion. If we want to stop the killing, we will have to do two things — legalise cattle trade, and discipline the BSF. Let me focus on the second point here.
Lant Pritchet, a development professor at the Kennedy School, calls India a ‘flailing state’ whose organs are chaotic and dysfunctional. There is a huge literature about how the Indian state fails its poor citizens abysmally, even as it has world class institutions at the elite level. So it’s not at all surprising that BSF is allowed to be an indisciplined criminal gang in Bengal, where the payoff from criminality is high.
But that doesn’t mean the BSF cannot be disciplined. I contend that if a few jawans are tried and convicted for murder or rape or other such crimes that carry capital punishment in India, and if such capital punishment is actually enforced, we would see a significant further drop in the atrocities.
The question is now whether this can be done. The question is whether this will be done. As things stand, Indian authorities — politicians and bureaucrats in New Delhi — will do nothing. They have no reason to. Politicians won’t do anything unless there is a political benefit from doing it. Bureaucrats won’t change the status quo unless their political masters tell them to (and often they will resist the political masters).
That is the hard reality we need to grapple with.
6. Indian civil society is an ally.
There is a tendency in Bangladesh to think of India as a homogenous, monolithic entity. This idiotic — there is no polite way of saying it — belief cuts across the political spectrum. The reality of India is, in Rushdie’s celebrated terms, one of ‘teeming multitudes’. How can the plight of people living along the Radcliffe Line in Bengal be heard in the cacophony that is Indian democracy?
Not through fiery rhetoric in Amar Desh or Sachalayatan. Nor through infantile hacking of Indian websites. However, persistent writing, in English, in the Indian media — blogs, newspapers, magazines — will make a difference. The supposedly ‘pro-Indian’ Zafar Sobhan has actually been raising this issue consistently in the Indian media for a while. Yours truly has written in a progressive Indian blog on the issue.
And it is making a difference at the margin. In January 2010, Asif Saleh and I failed to get the issue raised in a major Indian paper. In January 2011, Felani’s tragic murder was broken to the world by Ananda Bazar Patrika. This January, the torture of Habibur Rahman was shown in NDTV, and the Hindu editorialised on it.
It won’t be easy to get the Indian government to move. a few dozen murders in Bengal is not a priority for the beast that is Indian bureaucracy or politics. But India does have a vibrant civil society, and with enough pressure the Indian state machinery does react. Citizen activism in Bangladesh needs to be more constructively channeled through cross-border solidarity so that there can be more pressure in Delhi.
7. Politics is local.
Recent efforts by Prothom Alo and Times of India is a hugely welcome move in the direction of cross-border citizens’ activism. Not surprisingly though, Mahmudur Rahman is upset by this. Fortunately for Bangladesh, he isn’t in charge of Bangladeshi foreign policy. Unfortunately, people who are in charge don’t seem to take the issues as seriously as it should be taken.
Politics being what it is, can we blame AL though? The Awami leadership isn’t keen on this because it thinks the issue is a wedge to beat up AL, just like many BNPwallahs think, rightly, that many ‘progressive issues’ are really about beating up BNP.
How do we break out of this cycle? It’s easy to denounce our leaders for their failures. But it’s about time we asked ourselves what we are doing to convince our leaders that this is a national issue that should be above partisan point scoring.