Instead of arresting suspects and handing them over to the police for trial, Border Security Force soldiers are often accused of taking the law in their hands, says Syed Tashfin Chowdhury from Dhaka
Around the early hours of June 9, Joy Shikdar, 32, of Kalna Potapara village in North 24 Pargana district of West Bengal was amongst a group of Indian traders handing over cattle to Bangladeshi traders near the Angrail border camp of the Border Security Force.
After they were spotted by BSF personnel, the group started to flee.
Bangladesh's Border Guard camp Commander Humayun Kabir, in an interview to the Independent newspaper in Bangladesh, said that at one point, BSF shot at the fleeing traders. One of the bullets killed Shikdar.
Impoverished villagers, like Shikdar, on either side of the heavily populated 4,000-km long India-Bangladesh forder often cross over to generate income through smuggling and illegal sale of cattle. People from both sides of the border also move back and forth to visit relatives, buy supplies, and look for jobs. Others engage in petty and serious cross-border crimes.
Border forces on either side are mandated to address illegal activities, especially narcotics smuggling, human trafficking, and transporting fake currency and explosives. But instead of arresting suspects and handing them over to the police for trial, BSF soldiers are often accused of taking the law into their own hands.
A press release on June 12, issued by the Human Rights Watch, urged authorities in India to "investigate fresh allegations of human rights violations" by the BSF along the Bangladesh border and "prosecute those found responsible".
Based on evidence documented and published by Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM), a Kolkata-based non government organisation, and Bangladesh's Odhikar, the release mentioned, "Despite assurances to the Bangladesh government and public orders to exercise restraint and end unlawful killings and attacks on suspected smugglers, the BSF is once again committing abuses including extrajudicial killings, torture, and ill-treatment of both Indian and Bangladeshi border residents."
According to Odhikar, a Dhaka-based human rights organisation, between January and May 2012, 13 Bangladeshis have been killed, 46 injured and 24 abducted by BSF personnel from the India-Bangladesh border areas.
From January till May 2012, MASUM has documented five killings of Indian nationals, based on statements from witnesses and families of victims.
One such case is that of 21-year-old Babu Seikh. MASUM reported to the National Human Rights Commission that on April 22, soldiers from the BSF's 91st Battalion chased and shot Babu Seikh in Murshidabad district of West Bengal, when he was walking toward the marshland in the evening with friends. BSF members chased his friends as well and eventually fired at them "without warning".
"After a bullet hit Seikh, one of his companions saw the soldiers drag an injured Seikh to their camp nearby, where he later died in custody without access to medical attention," said MASUM.
"In another case, MASUM reported that on January 1, four Indian teenagers, accosted while smuggling cattle, jumped into a rivulet to avoid punishment. The BSF soldiers allegedly beat them when they tried to come out of the water. All four boys, severely injured because of the beatings, eventually drowned."
Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at HRW, said on June 12, "The BSF has reverted to its previous tactic of unilaterally punishing suspects, defying orders from Delhi issued last year to exercise restraint and protect the right to life."
"But the central government is also responsible, since it has failed to hold perpetrators accountable," she added.
Last year, MASUM released a video showing BSF soldiers brutally beating a Bangladeshi national caught smuggling cattle in West Bengal state.
"Eight soldiers were suspended but no further information is available regarding their prosecution or punishment," said the release.
Odhikar documents other cases where Bangladesh nationals were shot dead or tortured after being held by BSF members for crossing the border. Odhikar has even documented cases of BSF personnel crossing the border into Bangladesh territory to commit similar crimes against innocent Bangladeshi nationals.
In December 2010, Human Rights Watch released a report on border atrocities, titled Trigger Happy: Excessive Use of Force by Indian Troops at the Bangladesh Border, which documented nearly 1,000 killings by the BSF over the last decade.
In January 2011, the Indian government assured Bangladeshi officials that it would order the BSF to exercise restraint and encourage the use of rubber bullets instead of more lethal ammunition.
The Bangladesh government, after initially failing to address the issue, finally began to call for the protection of its citizens.
In March 2011, at a joint border coordination conference, Major General Rafiqul Islam, chief of the Bangladesh Border Guards, called on the BSF to respect the right to life and said that individuals "must be treated as innocent unless and until he or she is proved to be a criminal or an offender."
BSF Director-General Raman Srivastava, in turn, promised "to maintain utmost restraint on the border" and also provide troops "with non-lethal weaponry."
"The BSF high-ups and the ministers in New Delhi are assuring non-lethal measures but the BSF personnel are going against these commitments," observed Nasiruddin Elan, director of Odhikar, to rediff.com.
"This lack of coordination is not helping either of the two nations. By not bringing to book the BSF personnel at fault, the Indian government is providing impunity to the BSF to do as they please," he added.
The HRW observed that although the NHRC tries to provide justice by seeking responses when complaints are filed, the witnesses are threatened and intimidated into not providing their accounts.
As such, the HRW stressed that it knows of no cases in which BSF soldiers have been prosecuted for violations committed along the India-Bangladesh border.
"This includes a highly publicised case in which a 15-year-old Bangladeshi girl trapped in the wire fencing at the border was shot by the BSF in January 2011," said the HRW release.
Ganguly concluded, "Unless the government orders an independent investigation and ensures the prosecutions of those against whom credible evidence has found, such acts of brutality will continue."