A brush with Bangladesh

Print edition : May 12, 2001

Versions of the exact sequence of events differ, but there is unanimity in general on the need to resolve the outstanding issues.

THE third week of April 2001 will be marked as a black chapter in the history of India-Bangladesh relations. Perhaps for the first time since East Pakistan became independent Bangladesh about 30 years ago, the peoples of the two neighbouring countries came close to experiencing the effects of a major standoff on the border. Exchange of fire between the Border Security Force (BSF) and the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) even while they were in the midst of joint operations against smugglers, cross-border kidnapping of people and theft of cattle and the recovery of bodies of villagers or security personnel are not uncommon along the 4,000- km-long border, densely populated except in a few sections. But the bloody encounters between the BSF and the BDR at Padua and Baroibari came as a shock to people on both sides of the border. In the encounters, 15 BSF personnel and three BDR jawans were killed.

A demonstration against "India's intrusion", in front of the Indian High Commission in Dhaka.-PAVEL RAHMAN/AP

Bangladesh's version of the story runs like this: Padua (or Pyrdwah) in Sylhet's Tamabil area adjoining Meghalaya has been a Bangladeshi enclave that has been controlled as land of "adverse possession" by India since Bangladesh's war of liberation in 1971. During this war, Bengali freedom fighters set up a camp in this strategic border village. As India gave all-out assistance to the freedom struggle, the BSF also used this camp. The BSF did not withdraw from the camp after the war was over. Padua, however, did not become an issue because the two neighbours had bigger bilateral problems to resolve. The construction of a pucca road by the BSF connecting Padua with the mainland reportedly raised the hackles of the BDR. Alleging that the construction of the road was illegal, "violating international laws and the India-Bangladesh border agreement", the BDR asked for a flag meeting. As its request went unheeded, the BDR launched action on the night of April 15 and "recaptured" Padua "without any bloodshed".

This story, however, leaves many questions unanswered: Was there any clearance from the government for the BDR's action? Why did it choose a line of action that was contrary to the spirit with which disputes involving the two countries have been settled?

Even before the shock of Padua subsided came the attack on Baroibari, 80 km from Padua, in the Roumari-Mankerchar area adjoining Assam. In a pre-dawn action on April 18, as the accounts in major Bangladesh dailies put it, nearly 300 heavily- armed BSF jawans entered Roumari to attack the Baroibari post, reportedly to avenge the "defeat" at Padua. Baroibari is also a land of "adverse possession" under Bangladesh's control. The BSF suffered heavy losses in the April 18-19 clashes. As the story goes, when the BSF opened fire on a BDR camp the BDR personnel did not retaliate immediately, giving the impression that there was nobody inside the camp. But they struck when the BSF moved closer to the camp. With the help of quick reinforcements from nearby border posts and the support of the people of the village, the BDR launched a full-scale counterattack. Heavy exchange of fire continued for more than two days, forcing nearly 10,000 people to flee their homes. The bodies of BSF men were lying in the paddyfields for more than two days as the fight continued. The people recovered several bodies from the fields and handed them over to the BDR later. Two injured BSF men were flown to Dhaka by helicopter for treatment.

The Baroibari incident also raised some questions. What prompted the BSF to attempt to capture the border post, which is inside Bangladesh territory? Did it have any clearance from the higher authorities?

Bangladesh argues that the BSF men were attacked by the BDR when they were inside Bangladesh territory. Referring to the Indian allegation that the BDR fought with the BSF without the knowledge of the Bangladesh government, a Foreign Office spokesperson said that the BDR had the power to act on its own in the event of an emergency. The BSF and the BDR have their own charters which allow them to repulse an attack or to fire in self-defence without waiting to take orders from government. While some major Bangladesh newspapers have questioned BDR chief Major General Fazlur Rahman's role in the incidents, many others have supported him and glorified the BDR's action in Padua and Baroibari. Newspapers have also carried reports citing official accounts that 415 civilians and 10 BDR personnel were killed by the BSF in the past two decades and that in most cases the bodies were not returned. They also alleged that Bangladesh nationals had been mistreated by the BSF along the border. Some media reports said that the bodies of BSF personnel might have decomposed before their delayed recovery, implying that they were not disfigured deliberately.

New Delhi's angry reaction caused serious concern in Dhaka. Quick high-level interventions stopped the exchange of fire on the border and brought down the level of tension. But the Bangladesh government was embarrassed by Indian newspapers and television channels flashing pictures of BSF men who were captured or killed and by allegations that BSF personnel were "tortured to death" by the BDR and not by a mob of villagers as it claimed earlier.

On April 22, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina spoke to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, saying that the BDR had to open fire "in self-defence". She also expressed her shock and grief over the casualties and agreed to order a high-level investigation into the circumstances that led to the incidents on the border and the allegation of torture of BSF men.

The Hasina government was criticised by the Opposition for "surrendering national sovereignty" to India and withdrawing the BDR from Padua. The border conflict has occurred at a time when Bangladesh is getting ready for general elections in an atmosphere of tension created by religious fundamentalists. The elections are crucial for the secular-democratic forces who face a challenge from religious fundamentalists who are reportedly backed by external powers, mainly Pakistan. The fundamentalist groups have declared war against the ruling Awami League and its "pro-liberation" allies. The "neo-Pakistanis", who have consolidated their base over the years, now use as a shield the Opposition alliance led by Begum Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (Frontline, March 16).

THE tension on the border has subsided considerably, thanks to the political initiatives of Dhaka and New Delhi. But the reported build-up of the BSF along the border might change the situation for the worse. There were allegations that BSF men burnt villages and kidnapped people even after status quo ante was restored.

Well-meaning observers are of the opinion that political leaders must take the initiative to implement the treaty signed by Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1974, in order to avoid any recurrence of border tensions. Bangladesh ratified the treaty soon after it was signed, but India has not.

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