Print edition : April 28, 2001

The border skirmish between India and Bangladesh, which had the potential to spiral out of control, ends following negotiations at the diplomatic level, but the killing of 15 Border Security Force personnel leaves a bitter trail.

THE exchange of fire on the Meghalaya-Assam-Bangladesh border, which began in the wee hours of April 15, ceased on April 19 following negotiations at the diplomatic level between Bangladesh and India. A joint flag meeting was also held between the field commanders of the two border forces, the Border Security Force (BSF) and the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), in the disturbed border areas. The BDR troops, who had laid siege to Pyrdiwah, 85 km from Shillong on the Meghalaya-Bangladesh border, withdrew from the village to restore the status quo ante.

In the course of the border clashes, 15 BSF jawans, taken hostage by the BDR from Boroibari in Assam's Mankachar sector on April 18, were killed. Their bodies were returned to the BSF on April 20 at the Boroibari point on the Indo-Bangladesh border, 6 km from Assam's Mankachar town, which witnessed heavy shelling during the clashes. V.K. Gour, the Inspector-General of the BSF who is in charge of the BSF troops in the northeastern border States, alleged that his men had been murdered in "cold blood" and not in a border clash. The bodies were so badly mutilated that the BSF officers initially refused to accept them. Only seven bodies could be identified as those of BSF men. The rest were disfigured beyond recognition.

THE Assam-Meghalaya-Bangladesh border has for long been a sensitive zone. According to reports, on April 15, three battalions comprising 3,000 men of the BDR and the Bangladesh Army occupied the Pyrdiwah outpost, held by the BSF. The Bangladesh side claimed that the Indians had been in illegal control of the village since Bangladesh's liberation following the war against Pakistan in 1971. It was an unwritten agreement between the two countries that India would maintain a BSF outpost in the village, which is one of the 112 Indian enclaves (chits) in Bangladesh. Bangladesh has 32 such chits in India. During the 1971 Bangladesh War, Indian security forces used the land to train the Bangladeshi Mukti Bahini, who were fighting the Pakistani Army. After its liberation, Bangladesh staked its claim to the area. Following this, the Indian authorities set up a BSF outpost and the sleepy village soon turned into a potential battle zone between the BSF and the BDR.

Border Security Force personnel deployed along the India-Bangladesh border in Assam's Mankachar area.-RITU RAJ KONWAR

The majority of the inhabitants in Pyrdiwah are Khasis. They claim that for centuries they and their ancestors have lived in the land and so it is rightfully theirs. "How can Bangladesh say it is their village when even the name Pyrdiwah is Khasi?" asked a village resident. The initial skirmish took place when BDR personnel tried forcibly to flush out BSF men from the Pyrdiwah outpost. Three BSF jawans were captured by the BDR and flown to Dhaka by a Bangladesh Army aircraft.

V.K. Gour said that he failed to understand what prompted the BDR to make an "unprovoked attack" in Boroibari of Assam's Mankachar sector on April 18, three days after the attack in Pyrdiwah. According to Gour, there was no dispute over Mankachar, as it was a well-demarcated area. Gour said that the only possible reason for the aggression was to divert "our concentration from Pyrdiwah".

Bodies of BSF personnel in a Bangladesh Police van near the India-Bangladesh border.-RAFIQUR RAHMAN/REUTERS

During the exchange of fire in the Mankachar region on April 18, a patrol of 16 BSF jawans reportedly got separated from the rest of the troops and fell into the hands of the Bangladeshis. Director-General of the BSF Gurbachan Jagat said: "One of our patrols strayed and got caught by the Bangladesh Rifles or Bangladeshi villagers on the other side of the border." However, the BDR claimed that it was not responsible for the death of the captured BSF jawans and added that the marks on the bodies indicated that it was the work of a mob of Bangladeshi villagers. A probe team led by a former BSF Director-General is investigating the circumstances that led to the death of the BSF jawans.

Even after the Bangladesh Rifles and the Bangladesh Army withdrew from Pyrdiwah, which they held under siege for about a week since April 15, the Khasi inhabitants of the village, who took shelter on nearby mountain slopes, were yet to return. It has been alleged by the villagers that the Bangladeshi security forces looted and destroyed their houses before withdrawing. John Kharshiing, spokesperson of the Federation of Khasi States, said that the organisation will ask the Indian government to include it also in any future dialogue between India and Bangladesh regarding border disputes. He said that the Khasi States bordering Bangladesh did not accept Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh's statement that only a small portion was disputed and the rest had been demarcated. Kharshiing said that the sensitive areas should be well-defined for the sake of the villagers who were constantly suffering and under threat.

Hundreds of people living in villages around the Meghalaya-Assam-Banglade-sh trijunction, who had left their homes following the clashes, are yet to return. Meghalaya Chief Minister Mowlong said that the State shared a long border with Bangladesh and its people often suffered owing to disturbances on the border. An end to this problem was essential, he said. The Meghalaya government is providing food and relief materials to villagers who had to leave their homes because of the border disturbances.

SOURCES said that Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who is also the country's Defence Minister, may have been unaware of the BDR's capture of Pyrdiwah and the attack on the Indian border outpost. With general elections scheduled in Bangladesh for October, some feel that the whole affair may have been the handiwork of the Opposition forces intended to embarrass the Prime Minister and her party, the Awami League.

Some newspapers in Bangladesh which are critical of the Awami League government described the "quick withdrawal" of the BDR and the Army from Pyrdiwah as a "sell-out" to India. Hasina was visiting remote areas when the attack was allegedly masterminded by the BDR Director-General, Major-Gen-eral Fazlur Rahman.

Making a statement in Rajya Sabha on April 19, Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh termed the action of the BDR as "unacceptable". He said that although the situation along the Meghalaya-Assam-Bangladesh border was "worrying", the government had brought it under control as both countries had agreed to restore the status quo ante. The friendly ties between India and Bangladesh should be maintained at any cost, Jaswant Singh said.

On April 19, Home Secretary Kamal Pande told a press meet in Delhi that Major-General Fazlur Rahman spoke with Director-General Gurbachan Jagat over telephone and expressed regret for the incident. On whether the firing was carried out without Dhaka's knowledge, Pande declined to comment on what he described as the "internal affairs of a friendly country". According to informed sources, the Bangladesh government has also expressed its regret to the Indian government.

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