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Saturday, August 06, 2011

India calls 'ceasefire' on border crossings

Photo: Felani shot, killed and left hanging on barbed fence for hours, which caused national uproar


EFFORTS TO transform the India-Bangladesh border from a 4,000 kilometer long zone of terrorism, smuggling and human trafficking into a peaceful barrier punctured by numerous trade corridors took a big step forward last week with a pledge that India's Border Security Force (BSF) would no longer shoot people crossing from one country to the other.

Indian Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram made the promise in Dhaka after signing a comprehensive border management deal on July 30.

"Let me make it very clear ... we have issued strict instructions to our Border Security Force that under no circumstances should they fire upon anyone trying to cross from either Bangladesh to India or India to Bangladesh. The message has gone down to the last jawan [private soldier]," he told a press conference.

The BSF has killed 20 Bangladeshis and wounded 50 so far this year, according to Bangladesh-based human-rights organization Odhikar. Chidambaram said seven people had been killed at the border this year, and 33 last year. As many as 930 Bangladeshis were killed from 2000 to last September, according to Human Rights Watch, citing Odhikar data.

"The only situation in which we have said firing may be justified is when a gang actually attacks a BSF jawan or an office," said Chidambaram. "Then he has to protect himself and fire in self-defense."

The director general of Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB), Major General Anwar Hussain, and the director general of the Indian BSF, Raman Srivastava, earlier signed a "Bangladesh and India Coordinated Border Management Plan" to stop cross-border crimes such as terrorism, drug smuggling and human trafficking. The sides agreed to cooperate on security and expressed their resolve to jointly combat insurgency, militancy and terrorism.

Chidambaran's visit precedes a trip to Dhaka early next month by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when a series of border-related agreements are expected to be finalized, an indication of the increasingly warm ties between the two countries.

At the end of last month, a border weekly market, or haat, was allowed to operate in Meghalaya district for the first time since 1971, and also in July the Indian Supreme Court gave the go-ahead to a ground-breaking cross-border cement project agreed to more than 10 years earlier.

Bangladesh has meanwhile taken a "political decision" to give transit to India as the "current government wants to establish all modes of connectivity in the region", Foreign Minister Dipu Moni said last month. One goal is to ease transit across Bangladesh's northern and eastern borders to improve sea access for India's far northeastern states.

India also wants improved road and railway routes that would allow it better access from Kolkata, the commercial capital of eastern India, across the Ganges Delta to the important port of Chittagong.

Chidambaram said outstanding issues concerning 6.5 kilometers of border demarcation, the transfer of enclaves and disputed land possession may be resolved during Manmohan's visit. As many as 51,000 people, 17,000 of them Bangladeshis, live in the 162 enclaves and exclaves that dot both sides of the border areas.

Asked whether the residents would be provided the opportunity to choose citizenship, he said the fate of the inhabitants would be decided by the countries' prime ministers when they met in Dhaka.

At a meeting of officials, Bangladesh's State Minister for Home Affairs, Shamsul Hoque Tuku, expressed "deep concern over the killing of innocent Bangladeshis by BSF, trafficking of women and children and smuggling of phensedyl from India to Bangladesh".
Phensedyl is an intoxicating cough syrup banned in Bangladesh and manufactured at factories along the

Indian side of the border. Bangladeshi Home Minister Sahara Khatun told the meeting the factories had now been closed.
According to a recent United Nations Children's Fund report, about 400 women and children in Bangladesh are trafficked each month from Bangladesh. More than 300,000 Bangladeshi women and children had been trafficked to India in the past decade and another 200,000 were sold in Pakistan, the report said.

One issue that may continue to test relations is Dhaka's determination to secure the capture of Captain Abdul Majed and Risaldar Mosleuddin Khan, two fugitives found guilty of being involved in the 1975 killing of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country's first president. The Bangladesh government believes the two, who have been sentenced to death, are in India.

Bangladeshi Home Minister Sahara Khatun told the press conference that Bangladesh had sought India's cooperation in the search for the two men. Chidambaram said they may be in India and his government would "leave no stone unturned to apprehend the convicts" although they will need more information and intelligence from Bangladesh on the issue.

On the general border issue, Bangladesh would "hand over a list of vulnerable border points being used for criminal activities", the Daily Star reported, citing a Home Ministry official. At least 700 kilometers of the border, on rivers and other points, are unfenced.

As relations have improved, and amid Bangladesh's repeated requests to India to stop killings and torture at the border, the BSF has resorted to more unusual methods, as widely reported in the Bangladesh media this month.

Bangladeshi cattle trader Rafiqul Islam was killed on July 2 while crossing the Saniyazan River with cattle, after being hit by stones thrown by BSF jawans. BGB officials later confirmed the killing.

Two days earlier, a 25-year-old Bangladeshi farmer, Selim Hossain, while working at a paddy field on the Bangladesh side of the border, was allegedly dragged into Indian territory by BSF jawans who had crossed the border in Chuadanga district, locals said. An hour later, people found Selim's body hanging from an electrified barbwire fence on the Indian side of the border.

Residents in dangerous areas will be hoping that the BSF will abide by Chidambaram's order from now on.

First published in Asia Times Online, August 4, 2011

Syed Tashfin Chowdhury is a senior staff writer at New Age in Dhaka.

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