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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

India's border with Bangladesh: Almost all quiet on the eastern front

Poor Felani, trapped in distrist
 AT LAST, some good news from one of the world’s bloodiest international borders. Last month, the number of Bangladeshi nationals killed by India’s trigger-happy Border Security Forces (BSF) along the India-Bangladesh border dropped, like a stone. Down to zero.

This is a first. For years, not a week had gone by without news of yet another killing. The death toll between these two democracies dwarfs the number killed attempting to cross the inner-German border during the cold war. According to Human Rights Watch, India’s border force has killed almost 1,000 Bangladeshis over the past ten years.

The recent ceasefire is not total. On April 10th, the BSF shot dead a Bangladeshi cattle trader at Naogaon on the eastern border.

Still, the change is striking. In March, the head of the BSF announced that “non-lethal weapons” would be issued to Indian border guards in sensitive areas on an “experimental basis”. If successful, this practice would be implemented along their meandering 4,095km border, the world’s fifth-longest.

The change to India’s shoot-to-kill policy comes only months after the BSF shot dead a 15-year-old girl named Felani at an illegal crossing point between Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal. Soon afterwards the walls adjacent to the office of Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, were plastered with a picture of Felani, calling for the killings to stop.

Shootings along the border have been one of many obstacles that have hobbled Sheikh Hasina’s attempt at a rapprochement with India. Bangladesh’s giant neighbour to the west, midwife to its birth forty years ago, nowadays tends to be regarded in the public mind as a wicked, overbearing stepmother.

The sort of normalisation of economic relations that would reflect the two countries’ shared history and geography is still far off (Bangladesh’s biggest trading partner is China; India is not even among its top-ten foreign investors). India regards China’s growing influence in South Asia as a major headache.

The leaders of both India and Bangladesh hope to make progress on a number of knotty issues when India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, visits Bangladesh later this year. The topics up for discussion ought to range from water rights along their common rivers to terrorism, trade and even to swapping parcels of territory.

Sheikh Hasina has already agreed in principle to allow India to use its ports and roads for transit. The biggest difficulty for her party, the Awami League, will be to explain its new policy of engaging India to voters, in a country with a strong anti-Indian sentiment. Khaleda Zia, the leader of the main opposition group, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, likes to remind the electorate that under her leadership “no foreign vehicles” would be allowed to cross Bangladesh’s territory. She declares that she will resist her rival’s “move to turn Bangladesh into a state of India”.

Mrs Zia’s rhetoric sounds like a voice from the past. The Dhaka-based Bangladesh Enterprise Institute estimates that full economic integration with India could raise Bangladesh’s average rate of economic growth from 6% to 8%. Full integration is a long way off. But a less bloody border seems a fine place to start.

First published in The Economist weekly, London, Britain, April 18, 2011

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