ON FEBRUARY 23, the home minister, Sahara Khatun is scheduled to leave Dhaka to take part in bilateral talks with her Indian counterpart, P Chidambaram, on issues relating to border management, security cooperation, etc, scheduled for February 24-25 in New Delhi. The last time she had a similar meeting, in July 29-30, 2011, in Dhaka, her counterpart emphatically told a press conference: ‘We have issued strict instructions to our Border Security Force that under no circumstances, they should fire on anyone trying to cross either from Bangladesh to India or from India to Bangladesh. The message has gone down to the jawans.’ Since then, from August, 2011 to January, 2012, according to rights-based organisation Odhikar, 13 Bangladeshis have either been gunned down or tortured to death by the BSF, while 20 Bangladeshis have been injured. Add to that the recent brutal torture of Habibur Rahman, a Bangladeshi young man from Chapainawabganj, by the BSF, caught on camera and shown on Indian television, which caused uproar in Bangladesh, in conscious sections of Indian society, as well as amongst the international human rights watchdogs. Further adding insult to injury came the words of BSF director general, UK Bansal, ‘Firing in the border can never be stopped totally… So long criminal activities would continue to take place along the India-Bangladesh border’ during an interview with BBC Bangla on February 7. Given that much water has flown under the bridge since the last time she met him, the home minister should indeed have a number of serious questions to ask her Indian counterpart, which she owes as an answer to the Bangladeshi people on her return.
The Indian border guards have so far killed 935 Bangladeshis since January 2000, and 220 since the Awami League-led government assumed office in January 2009. From the joint communiqué issued during prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to Delhi in 2010, to Manmohan Singh’s visit in September 2011, to an agreement on the use of non-lethal weapons signed between the two border guard chiefs of two countries in March 2011, it would be fair to say that the Bangladeshi government has tried to lay their concern about border killings at the highest level of the Indian government and received assurances at equal measure. However, the Indian authorities appear almost defiant in ignoring all the pledges made to Bangladesh and in recent months the situation has gotten much worse, with Indian authorities seeming to indicate they have undergone a clear change in stance.
While Bangladeshis have always felt aggrieved at the killing of unarmed Bangladeshis along the border, the events in recent months, following the assurances of the highest level of Indian government, have forced public opinion to such a low, that if it is not addressed immediately it may cause prolonged damage to future relations with India, at least in the perception of ordinary people. Bangladeshi people feel dismayed and betrayed at the state of affairs and that is the message the home minister must convey to her counterpart in her upcoming visit. The home ministry has so far promised that she will ‘strongly protest’ the killing and torture and we hope she manages to also convey the gravity and seriousness of the issue at hand, and what is at stake.