Tension on the border

Print edition : December 03, 2004

India denies as baseless the Bangladeshi claim that the Border Security Force tried to push in "Bangla-speaking Indian Muslims" across the border and the Bangladesh Rifles thwarted it.

in Dhaka

On the fenced border with Bangladesh near Agartala, Tripura, a Border Security Force patrol.-REUTERS

BANGLADESH Sangbad Sangstha (BSS), the state-run news agency of Bangladesh, reporting on the border situation, said on November 7: "The Border Security Force (BSF) has detained Bangla-speaking Indian Muslims in Indian villages along the northwestern frontiers to push them into Bangladesh at an opportune moment". The previous day it had reported that "the Border Security Force of India again started its abortive push-in bids along the northwestern frontier on Friday night (November 5), creating a tense situation anew". Quoting `official sources', BSS stated that men of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), with the help of the Ansar-VDP (Village Defence Party) and people of the area, thwarted three major push-in attempts by the BSF on the border at Lalmonirhat, Panchagarh and Jaipurhat. It also gave details of the "abortive bids".

In late October, all major Bangladeshi dailies reported heavy exchange of fire on the border and said that the BDR had been put on high alert to thwart efforts to push in Indian nationals along the border with West Bengal, which is more than 2,250 km long. They also reported the BDR's apprehension that the BSF was herding Indians to push them across the border in Panchagarh, Dinajpur, Rangpur, Jaipurhat, Jessore and some other districts. Local media also reported that most of the people gathered along the border were "Bangla-speaking Indian Muslims" and quoted BDR sources as saying that they were being brought from slums in New Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. The BDR claimed to have pushed them back to India.

According to the BDR and local journalists, the new push-in attempts began in the third week of October largely on the northwestern and western borders. Press reports suggested that on several occasions the BDR and the BSF were on the verge of a confrontation, spreading panic in the areas. Even export-import activities through the Benapole port were disrupted. The BDR claimed that the BSF made more than 10 push-in attempts. Similar attempts earlier this year had resulted in tension, but high-level intervention helped defuse the situation.

Ironically, at the latest round of BDR-BSF talks, which ended in New Delhi on October 1, the Directors-General of the two organisations had decided to put in place a system of "coordinated patrolling" to check transborder movement and crimes. But the two sides differed sharply on the existence of insurgent camps in Bangladesh and illegal migration into India and on border fencing.

Director-General of the BSF Ajai Raj Sharma, who signed the `Joint Record of Discussion' with his BDR counterpart Major-General Jehangir Alam Chowdhury, handed over a fresh list of 195 camps in Bangladesh allegedly run by insurgents of India's northeastern region and sought their closure and the deportation of 126 insurgents based there. Maj. Gen. Chowdhury denied the existence of the camps or the presence of insurgents and in turn handed over a list of 90 camps run by anti-Bangladesh elements on Indian soil.

In September, the Home Secretaries of the two countries agreed at a meeting in Dhaka to adopt a series of measures to remove potential irritants. The two sides agreed to combat cross-border terrorism, have coordinated patrolling on the frontiers and work closely on the issues of `Indian insurgent hideouts' in Bangladesh and `anti-Bangladeshis' in India. But the developments on the border seemed to belie these efforts.

In the last week of October, Bangladesh sent an aide-memoire to India expressing concern over the alleged `push-in' attempts. Indian Deputy High Commissioner to Bangladesh S. Chakravarti was called to the Foreign Ministry and handed the protest note. Talking to journalists, Foreign Minister M. Morshed Khan said: " We have expressed our concern through the aide-memoire... We have had reports that they (BSF) are herding Indian Bangla speakers along the border in preparation for pushing them into Bangladesh." Morshed Khan also said that "there is an internationally accepted system of repatriating citizens of a country staying illegally in another country" and added that "we have friendly relations with India, and if there is any such problem it should be resolved through flag meetings. It is not right to push people into another country".

Morshed Khan, who was in New Delhi from October 31 to November 2 to invite formally Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for the 13th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit in Dhaka, also met External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh. He, however, did not give the details of his talks with the Indian leaders.

While Bangladesh was categorical about the push-in bids by the BSF, India termed the reports emanating from Bangladesh since October 21 "incorrect and baseless". In a press release, the Indian High Commission in Dhaka asserted that no "push in" of any Bengali-speaking Indian Muslims into Bangladesh had ever been made by the BSF. "The question of forcing Indian citizens into the territory of any other nation by any Indian authority does not arise."

The High Commission said the BSF had neither in the past nor recently forced any Indian citizen into Bangladesh. "Therefore, there is no question of taking any measures to put an end to a phenomenon that does not exist." It also said the reports attributing such acts of the BSF had been investigated and found to be "entirely incorrect and baseless". "In fact, the BDR has informed the BSF that its personnel fired approximately 340 rounds from about 1 km inside Bangladeshi territory in the Rangpur sector. Some of these bullets strayed into Indian territory. The BSF, however, has shown the utmost restraint and not fired even one single round," the press release said.

In the light of the aide-memoire and media reports, the High Commission said, the BSF had proposed to the BDR that if any persons were stranded on the border for any reason the nationality of such persons could be verified jointly at border meetings. The BDR refused to accept this proposal. The High Commission also refuted the reports of gangrape by BSF and Indian police personnel, which appeared in some Bangladeshi newspapers, and termed them "malicious, motivated and entirely untrue".

It said peaceful management of the border was important for the maintenance of cordial relations and added that India had always made every effort to maintain peace on the border and implement in letter and spirit the agreed 1991 guidelines for border management. The High Commission urged Bangladesh to fulfil its obligations in the spirit of cooperation reaffirmed at the BDR-BSF conference held in New Delhi in the first week of October.

The present situation is also not in sync with what was agreed upon in Dhaka in September. It was widely felt that if India thought that Bangladeshis were residing illegally on its soil, the matter could be resolved through established procedures.

The perception in Bangladesh is that the Bharatiya Janata Party, which led the earlier National Democratic Alliance government in Delhi, had used the "illegal Bangladeshi migrants" issue to garner votes. Stating that the estimates of `illegal Bangladeshis' staying in India were "awful and frightening", the then Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani assured the Rajya Sabha early this year that his government would take all measures to deport them. However, critics of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-Jamaat government say that the "Islamists in power" in Dhaka were, for the sake of their political interests, more comfortable with the `Hindu nationalists' than they are with the Congress-led and Left-supported government in Delhi.

The media were rife with speculation about the reasons for the push-in. The Independent of Dhaka carried on November 8 a report by the BSS, which said: "Some of them [government officials, people living on the frontier, public representatives and so on] said the BSF has been carrying out the push-in bids as part of the Indian plan to maintain a tense situation on the borders to keep Bangladesh always under pressure."

Despite the persistent Indian claim of "illegal immigrants", Bangladesh has maintained that there are no illegal Bangladeshis in India. However, some experts see the problem as having arisen from normal economic migration and demand a humane approach to tackle it.

Obviously, the humanitarian aspect of the issue has not been given the attention it deserves. A survey of news reports published in Bangladeshi dailies conducted by Odhikar, a leading human rights coalition, said that 381 Bangladeshis had been abducted by India since September 1, 2000, and 404 people had been injured. According to the report, released recently, 37 Bangladeshis were killed, 17 wounded and 58 abducted between January 1 and August 31. It said that most of the intrusions by Indians occurred on the northern and southwestern borders, and the victims were mainly farmers working in the fields.