India’s Bangladesh border management policy needs to be re-evaluated
Dilip Kumar Mekala
Border Security Force (BSF) recently suspended seven of its soldiers including an officer after a Bangladeshi national, allegedly part of a smuggling group, was killed by the troops in Krishnanagar district of West Bengal. According to the BSF, the troops had used non-lethal bullets to stop the suspected smuggling which had gone awry. The court of inquiry had been ordered to investigate this incident further.
While the incidents of killing and abuses by the BSF troops along the Indo-Bangladesh border had reduced after a report by Human Rights Commission in 2010 titled ‘Trigger Happy- Excessive use of force by Indian troops at the Bangladesh border’ was made public, the recent policy changes in the Bangladesh border management policy points at the downward spiral of all the progress made from 2010. The BSF’s mandate at the eastern border in the last two years obsessively focussed on stopping cattle (or more specifically cow) smuggling and thwarting illegal migration of the Bangladeshi nationals, both of these mandates are often cause for mutual acrimony between the countries as they are primarily the reasons that instigate BSF troops to use force against civilians.
The top officials of the BSF agree that one of the most substantial recent initiatives of the BSF has been the construction of a fence along the border, geared primarily to prevent illegal immigration. This has been questioned in Bangladesh as a ‘big-brotherly’ attitude and unfriendly gesture. Since the border cuts across many villages with livelihoods on the other side, the complete shut-down of the border is an unwise situation. The BSF, backed by the government has been trying to ensure the border is sealed, and thereby ensuring no migration. There needs to be a clear mechanism for regulation of the movements across the border, which is currently lacking.
Another sticking point between the two countries is the issue of cattle smuggling which gets politicised to appease domestic sentiments in India, where cattle in general and cows in particular are considered sacred by Hindus. Home minister Rajnath Singh, in his speeches to BSF, encouraged the troops to crackdown on the cow smuggling “so that the people of Bangladesh give up eating beef”. Various sources claim that this illegal cattle trade constitutes a 600-900 million dollar industry. It is a huge source of livelihood for locals on both sides of the border and accounts for an overwhelming portion of Bangladeshi’s cattle meat supply. The Indian home ministry recently instructed the border security force to crackdown on this illegal trade, even as the prevalent thinking in Bangladesh is that making this trade legal will benefit both sides. Such disagreements, coupled with specific instances of border killings has heavily contributed in creating mistrust between India and Bangladesh.
All of this points to how effective border management policy on the Indo-Bangladesh border is the need of the hour to transform the existing mistrust between the two nations into cooperation and partnership. India must not look at the Indo-Bangladesh border policy in isolation but it must encompass all stakeholders involved in the region like the ministry of external affairs, ministry of commerce, ministry of defence and the ministry of development of the Northeastern region. Border policy in isolation with the rest of the policies is only adding to the lack of strategic depth in the relationship between India and Bangladesh. Due to India’s preoccupation with the other borders, the Indo-Bangladesh border gets lower priority and the operational control of day-to- day monitoring has effectively devolved to the BSF itself, giving it a free hand to deal with the primary objective set for it, which is to curb illegal immigration and cattle trade.
The lack of a friendly and cooperative relationship between India and Bangladesh may be seen as a policy failure specific to border control, especially given the two nations’ strategic importance for each other and the region.