Print edition : October 02, 2015

A portion of the fenced India- Bangladesh border in West Bengal. It was while crossing a similar fence that Felani Khatun, 15, was shot by a BSF constable. Photo: Sushanta Patronobish

On the morning of January 7, 2011, a 15-year-old Bangladeshi girl, Felani Khatun, and her father were illegally crossing over barbed wire fencing into Bangladesh from Cooch Behar district in West Bengal. While her father, Nurul Islam, made it safely across, Felani’s clothes got caught in the barbed wires and she was stuck midway. Her stricken cries caught the attention of the personnel of the Border Security Force (BSF) on patrol there, and a BSF constable, Amiya Ghosh of 181 Battalion, allegedly shot and killed her. For several hours, Felani’s lifeless body hung entangled in the wires. The incident had sent shock waves all over West Bengal and Bangladesh, prompting human rights bodies to write to the National Human Rights Commission of India (NHRC).

Ghosh was tried in 2013 in a General Security Force Court and exonerated. A revision trial took place, and in July 2015, once again the special BSF court acquitted him. Four and a half years after Felani’s death, her family saw some hope of justice when the NHRC directed the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, to pay the family Rs.5 lakh as compensation.

In its directions, the NHRC observed: “From the materials available on record, the Commission was satisfied that there could be no justification for shooting an unarmed girl.” The compensation may even be given through the Indian High Commission in Bangladesh. The NHRC stated that it was aware that the security forces discharged a sensitive job at the border but maintained that “they must adhere to some discipline and norms while performing such duty”. Referring to an order dated May 5, 2005, from the office of the Deputy Inspector General (OPS) BSF Headquarters that clearly states that even under grave provocation the utmost distinction be made between dealing with unarmed women and children and armed intruders, the NHRC said in its report: “In the instant case, the victim was an unarmed girl. So the BSF constable who shot at her obviously acted in disregard of the circular issued by the BSF HQrs.”

Speaking to Frontline from Bangladesh, S.M. Abraham Lincoln, whom the Bangladesh government appointed to take care of the legal matters of Felani’s family, said: “The National Human Rights Commission, by recommending compensation for Felani’s killing, served to establish the fact that the killing was unjustified. In the name of state duty, the offender killed an unarmed girl who did not deserve to be killed. The state can justify a killing if there is a cogent reason, but there was none here.” Lincoln pointed out that both the Amiya Ghosh trials taking place at the BSF’s own initiative and without any appeal from Felani’s father indicated that the agency had itself taken cognisance of the crime. However, he called it a “partisan” trial: a “trial by the BSF for the BSF”.

“Felani has become a symbol of anti-human rights. The state should reject the results of the two trials of the BSF and have a proper trial take place in a civil court. A fair trial is necessary for India to uphold the reputation it enjoys internationally of its judicial system,” Lincoln told Frontline.

In the meanwhile, the West Bengal-based rights body Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM) submitted a petition in the Supreme Court seeking its intervention in the case. Felani’s father was also a signatory to the petition, which the apex court duly accepted. Kirity Roy, secretary, MASUM, told Frontline: “It is not only about the killing of an innocent girl, there are many other factors to be considered here like the systematic failure to control cross-border smuggling and human trafficking. What has happened is a blight on the justice system in our country, and the Supreme Court’s intervention has been sought to look into the matter. We want the guilty to be punished, we want a trial in an open court, and we want the deceased’s family to be recompensed.”

Felani’s killing has been an important issue in the bilateral talks that have been taking place between India and Bangladesh and was reportedly raised at the Director General-level talks between the two border forces of the country, the BSF and the Border Guards Bangladesh.

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay

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