The India-Bangladesh border is undefined, which regularly leads to skirmishes and death. When a large number of Indian jawans died, within Bangladeshi territory, India’s press and television decided that they did not need to check the facts and nuances.
Earlier this year, Bangladesh had a problem with Burmese authorities who had begun construction of a culvert at the Bangla-Burma border, an act which violated the existing border arrangement. There was exchange of fire at some point but the conflict was resolved after talks between the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) and the Burmese border security outfit. The problem ended with the disputed construction being stopped.
Bangladesh’s border with India is not like its border with Burma or the India-Pakistan Line of Control. It is almost a magic-realist border, with local people defining where each country ends or begins according to need, convenience, or whim. There is no Naf river as in the Bangla-Burmese frontier to give some natural fixity to it. In fact, the designated border existed only in the British minds of long ago that drew it.
It is the abstractness of this border that makes it, at once, both a locus of brisk economic activity and an area of continuous conflict which, for whatever reason, rarely attracts concern. In fact, human rights organisations had to take to the streets of Dhaka on 27 April this year, demanding an end to the killing on the borders.
They were not referring to the uniformed combatants on either side but to the civilians living in the border areas. Hundreds have died in the low intensity belligerence between the BDR and the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) that began soon after 1971. Such incidents, which are followed by routine announcements of BDRBSF flag meetings to restore normalcy along the border, usually receive very little coverage in the newspapers. But the border has now suddenly come alive in the media after 30 summers (since 1971) because of the number of BSF and BDR soldiers who died in just one incident.
The recent tension all along the border, which escalated into an armed conflict at Boraibari in Bangladesh’s Kurigram district that left at least 18 soldiers dead, was unexpected and certainly caught the Bangla government on the wrong foot. Since India is not perceived as an actively hostile country but more of a weight-thrower— and there is no particular compulsion to do so at
the moment—the official rhetoric was also absent.
But the course of events still remains somewhat foggy. Aside from the routine skirmishes that periodically consume locals, there was nothing in the air to indicate the imminence of such a large-scale conflict. The area in question was part of East Pakistan but came under Indian control in 1971.
Most agree that the tension began when India started to build a road in the disputed Padua-Pyrdiwah area in the Sylhet-Meghalaya border. Protests had been lodged against this as a road should not have been built in the “no-man’s land” near which a BSF outpost is located. In 1971, there had been a Mukti Bahini camp here and Bangladesh considers it to be part of its territory. India of course has another point of view.
On 16 April, the BDR overran the area. No military engagements occurred. Some Dhaka newspapers gave it headline status but many did not. To most, the incident at Padua was “another one of those things that happen in the border areas”, not enough to bother switching channels. There was in fact no official reaction to the Padua incident and it was not something that created a furor. The only people who played it up were the fringe press and the Islamic fundamentalist lobby. On such matters, neither of them is taken too seriously.
Those who witnessed the events and those who visited the “hot zone”, Boaraibari, including the international media, say that on the early morning of 18 April, about three battalions of BSF members entered this area and queried villagers on the whereabouts of the BDR outpost. The villagers, who do interact with the forces on both sides, apparently pointed them in the wrong direction and after the BSF soldiers moved on, informed the BDR outpost where less than 15 soldiers— the standard outpost presence—were on duty. The men were not expecting any move from across the border, as Boraibari is not a disputed area.
By the time the BDR men took up position, the BSF was apparently still moving about and had reached an open area. To the villagers in the area, it appeared that the BSF did not know what to do next. The soldiers then suddenly torched a few huts. At this point the BDR began to fire from its secure positions.
Whether either contingent was aware of the other’s numerical strength and firepower is not definite but the BSF was badly hit in the absence of cover. A large number of them were killed in the hail bullets, forcing the remaining soldiers to scatter. Some of them headed back to the Indian border. Apparently, the villagers, provoked by the torching of their huts, also gathered in hundreds—this is a well populated area—and attacked whoever was left from the Indian contingent.
Soon after, the BSF commenced a heavy artillery barrage that went on for almost two days. All the while the corpses of the BSF soldiers remained where they were. During the short lulls in the firing some of the injured BSF men still in the field were “captured” and faced the wrath of the villagers. Once the firing ceased, the BDR asked the villagers to collect the bodies, which had by then decomposed. Some of the corpses were strung up and carried like trophies by the villagers. The Bangla media reported these scenes and because of the adverse reaction, the BDR was asked to ensure order in the area. The bodies were sent to Rangpur Medical College for post-mortm to verify how many had died from bullet wounds and how many at the hands of the villagers.
The BSF’s relationship with local residents is poor as they come in the way of smuggling, a prime source of livelihood for villagers on both sides of the border. Besides, most families in that area are part of a single extended family, separated by a line on the map which is difficult to define. To them those guarding the ‘border’ are keeping families apart. The Indian side is certainly more vigilant in this matter and in the last five years almost a hundred villagers have died in BDR-BSF conflicts.
As far as the Boraibari killings were concerned the death of so many Indian soldiers naturally woke up the media in India, which devoted a lot of time and space to publicising the deaths, airing revanchist views and linking the incident to the pressures of domestic politics in Bangladesh. Of them, Zee TV, which has a wide following in the cabled areas of the border, stood out for the extreme hard-line that it pursued.
By and large, the mainstream Indian media echoed the Ministry of External Affairs line without checking the facts. There was an absence of investigative reports, and the commentators on the electronic media, barring a few exceptions like Muchkund Dubey, the former foreign secretary, were unanimously shrill in seeking retribution. Liberal voices found little place on Indian air waves. The first story in The Times of India, that the incident could have been a “badly planned move which went badly wrong”, was probably the only account that varied from the standard reportage.
Indian authorities confused the situation by trying to disassociate Sheikh Hasina from the BDR capture of Padua. This was surprisingly immature and showed a lack of understanding of Bangladesh’s nuanced politics. Giving Hasina a clean chit while putting the blame on the BDR, which is under the control of the home minister made her look a very weak head-of-government.
The net effect was to present a contrast between a soft leader and a tough armed force. In Bangladesh, where the military has taken over many times, the political effect of this image could be catastrophic.
Predictably, this portrayal compelled the Awami League (AL) to pre-empt domestic criticism and Hasina was forced to ‘harden’ her line and commend “the patriotic armed forces”. And Indian media’s loose talk about Hasina’s apology to Vajpayee only compounded the situation; so “politically insensitive” was it that the foreign secretary of Bangladesh found it necessary to openly challenge the report.
While the Indian media appeared to be satisfied with the official line handed out by South Block, in the Bangla media, by contrast, jingoism was unusually low. In fact, a few major columnists, including those considered to be “pro-government journalists”, even upbraided the BDR for not exercising restraint. The Bangladeshi media in general took the line that unless the 1974 Indira-Mujib agreement on demarcating the borders was implemented, such unfortunate incidents would go on. The Dhaka editors, it is known, even held back reports which they thought would aggravate the situation. Local TV stations withdrew footage on the corpses, unlike Zee, which repeatedly telecast such visuals with accompanying statements about criminal adventurism by the Bangla forces.
The Indian media also found it necessary to give vent to its obsession with Pakistan. The chief of BDR, Major General Fazlur Rahman was targeted for being ‘pro-Pakistani’. A question that Bangla media persons frequently encountered was “Why hasn’t Hasina taken action against a pro-Pakistani officer like him?”
The fact is, Rahman, who is from the army, like all BDR chiefs, is a Hasina ‘loyalist’. In a country that has seen so many years of military rule, the civilian leadership does not lightly confer important commands on those who are not proven friends.
If the Indian media’s coverage of the incident was motivated, its attempt to cull a political meaning out if is betrayed abysmal ignorance The media saw in it an attempt by Bangla politician to gain political mileage before the national election. The plain fact of the matter is that India presently is not a political issue in Bangladesh, not even an electoral one. It was so in the mid-1970s after the assassination of of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, in the days of Farakka dispute and when Indio supported the Chittagon Hill Tracts (CHT) militants. In the run up to the last election, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) campaigned intensively on thest. issues. But this time around it has not even held a single meeting on the border incidents. Nor has it gone beyond issuing a couple of press statements. Clearly, there are no dividends to be had here. The Ganges Water Treaty and the CHT Peace Treaty, whatever their problems, have eroded the scope for India bashing.
The current reality of Bangla politics is very different. The biggest issue wracking the polity is the “hartal heritage”, which has had a disastrous impact on society and the economy. Hartals became a major political weapon in the mid-1980s during the anti-Ershad agitation. It gained momentum under successive regimes causing immense suffering to people everywhere. The business lobby, the only civil lobby that matters in Dhaka, has been badly hit while ordinary people have had to cope with a political process they have no control over, one which can shut down lives and cause serious violence. Things have reached such a pass that the president of Bangladesh has had to intervene to convince political parties, to desist from calling hartals. The electoral base of both the AT and the BNP is around 35 percent each, a figure that has remained more or less constant. Between 10-15 percent of the vote belongs to former President Hussain Muhammad Ershad’s Jatiyo Party (JP). The Jammat-e-Islami follows with less than 10 per cent. Since the two major parties’ vote banks stay within a certain range, the JP has emerged as the ‘kingmaker’. Instead of slogans, therefore, parties have focused on political arithmetic. As Ershad had joined a four-party alliance under BNP leadership and including the Jammat, the alliance had a very strong chance of forming the next government _given the combined vote banks. But the government hauled Ershad into jail for his many corruption cases and this forced him to withdraw from the alliance. Always seeking the path of convenience, he extended support to Hasina, leaving the BNP with just the Jammat as its only sizeable ally. Given this configuration issues are not an issue in this election. In the circumstances, attempts to link the border conflict with Bangla electoral politics do not make much sense.
The conflict along the border makes even less sense for trade. One group that has been very concerned by the Boraibari incident is the one involved in the overland trade between the two countries. They form a major pressure group and the possible loss of millions of dollars worth of business has reportedly been a factor in the quick reopening of the border trade after the incident. If events take a turn serious enough to lead to the closure of border, both sides would suffer. But the fact to note is that India exports much more than it imports. In fact, Bangladesh became a major trading area for India during the BNP era and trade has only improved under the present regime. Indian goods arrive more quickly and cheaply and this has little to do with AL politics. All this is not counting the informal trade which is larger in volume than what passes through the formal transit points at Hilly or Benapole. So what the authorities in India and the New Delhi television and press must understand is that a jingoistic coverage of Bangladesh only hurts Indian business.
Living with India
For most Bangladeshis, having India next door is like living with the tiger. In this, Bangladesh is not unlike Nepal. India is perceived as a patronising big brother at best and a serious bully at worst. Even more than in Kathmandu, however, there is a strong anti-India lobby in place in Dhaka, which for long had nothing to talk about. But now, the Boraibari incident has handed it a gift on a platter.
While many do not like the attitude of the Indian officialdom, it is accepted as an inevitable part of life and people are willing to live with it. Indians are also present in huge numbers in Bangladesh. They range from executive in the MNCs to TV companies selling programmes. And Indians are running many businesses in Dhaka as well along the border.
A week after the incident there are a few people raising questions about the efficacy of what is described as the “appeasement approach”. Some traditionally anti-Indian newspapers and politicians are beginning to rail against the AL, and ultimately Hasina might be forced to pose as a hardliner in the face of an Indian hardline.
There are other implications, too, for Bangladesh. A year ago, Bangladesh bought nine Mig aircraft from Russia at a cost of USD 150 million. To this was added another 50 million for making them air-worthy by the Indians. This elicited strong protest and open antimilitary activities were observed for the first time in Bangladesh. The money spent could have done wonders for Bangladesh’s children, said some. It was argued that India would never attack Bangladesh and hence there was no justification for spending on such arms. That argument has for the present been silenced. Boraibari has become the best argument for higher defence investment in poor Bangladesh.
Afsan Chowdhury is a Bangladeshi liberation war researcher, columnist and journalist.