Friday, January 21, 2011

A Bullet Is A Bullet Is A Bullet

Deaths from BSF firing have assumed disquieting proportion, and the Indian authorities seem to be able to do nothing about it. And only recently has the Bangladesh government been spurred, by criticisms at home and prodding from the Border Guards Bangladesh (and perhaps from abroad in the form of a report by the International Commission on Human rights about the border killings), to summon the Indian high commissioner to register its condemnation of BSF action.

This was in the wake of the brutal and senseless killing (that is how the particular killing was described by the Bangladesh foreign ministry reportedly) of a 15 year old girl by the BSF on January 7. The situation had come to such a pass that the chairman of the Bangladesh Human Rights Commission was constrained to invoke the help of his Indian counterpart.

One is at a loss to rationalise the trigger-happy attitude of the BSF, and even more at the fact that the killings have gone on in spite of the declaration of unilateral moratorium on border firings by the Indian government, and assurances of the BSF authorities at the very highest level of command that such killings would cease. Statistics of border deaths belie the much vaunted excellent state of relationship between the two countries.

Felani's killing (that was the name of the poor girl who was shot like a sitting duck literally when her sari got entangled in the barbed wire she was trying to negotiate in her attempt to cross the border illegally) makes BSF explanations of the shootings, and the descriptions of those being killed as being criminals and felons armed to the teeth, sound hollow. It is a fig leaf that fails to hide their contempt for human lives. And hiding behind semantics and resorting to verbal subterfuge like these are not killings but death by firing, as the BSF DG tried unsuccessfully during his visit to Dhaka in September of 2010, doesn't assuage the feelings of those affected.

It just so happens that a meeting of Bangladesh-India JWG on security is on in Dhaka currently and as one paper has reported, both the countries "have agreed on the need to stop border killing." Is it not such an obvious matter that needs no consultation to "agree upon?" Instead, what one would have liked to hear is what steps would be taken to that end?

However, we have been given to understand that the Indian government, in order to prevent deaths in the border, is thinking of providing the BSF with rubber bullets instead of metal ones, to fire at the trespassers, majority of whom, going by the number of reported deaths in BSF firing, happens to be Bangladeshis. And Bangladesh has taken the credit for suggesting such an alternative.

A bullet, whatever it is one chooses to coat it with, rubber, or sugar or honey, will still hurt, and if it happens to strike at a sensitive spot of the human anatomy, may very well kill. Therefore, neither can one take satisfaction in suggesting it as an alternative to metal bullets nor should one feel elated by accepting the suggestion. It is a bad alternative to an equally reprehensible use of illegitimate and disproportionate use of force. And there is nothing to exalt at the new arrangement, since it sanctifies a bad alternative without going into the very fundamental nature of the problem; neither does it guarantee the physical safety of those that choose to use the border illegally, but nonetheless don't deserve death as a consequence of breach of the border.

Rubber bullet, according to the manuals, is rubber or rubber-coated projectile which is intended to be a non-lethal alternative to metal projectiles and is used for short range practice and animal control, but is most commonly associated with use in riot control and to disperse protests. According to experts, these are kinetic impact munitions meant to cause pain but not serious injury.

Rubber bullets are used at close quarters, but if used indiscriminately can prove lethal; they may cause bone fractures, injuries to internal organs, or death. In a study of 90 patients in Northern Ireland, one died, 17 suffered permanent disabilities or deformities and 41 required hospital treatment after being fired upon with rubber bullets.

Since the core element is metal the risk to life remains from misuse, particularly where intentions are hostile. It is more of a defensive expedient, but given the psychological disposition of the Indian border guards, the palliative, poor as it is, will not work.

Regrettably, the Bangladesh-India border is not as well managed as it might be. And changing the type of weaponry only is not the answer to a situation which requires a change of mindset of the BSF. Some of the deaths have been due to torture also.

Managing the Bangladesh-India border requires a deep understanding of the intricate nature of the border, a border that is not like borders between any two countries. Thus the rationale of rubber bullets is full of holes. And a hole is a hole is hole, as much as a bullet is a bullet is a bullet.