Sunday, September 4, 2011

Is Barbed-Wire Fencing Consistent Wth Friendly Relations?

BANGLADESH’S immediate neighbour is India. Save for a relatively small tract of frontier shared with Myanmar to the southeast, and the Bay of Bengal to the south, Bangladesh is surrounded by its mighty neighbour India from all sides. Since the inception of Bangladesh, business and commerce with India, which has seen rapid advances in the past few decades, has been heading towards a grossly disproportionate bias towards India. This is one of the thorniest issues and of late a number of such disputed issues have gathered moss for having remained unresolved for years.(New Age BD)

Bangladesh, contrary to established norms when it comes to friendly relations, has come to enjoy rather a curiously multifaceted and multi-layered relationship with India that has come to be defined and influenced by various exogenous factors. Significant among these is the political tilt of the government towards India. Overall, however, while a positive outlook may be best summarised regarding the level of relationship between Bangladesh and India, it would be worth a mention that underneath this fine but notoriously unstable veneer lies an undercurrent of prickly issues which, while not publicly acknowledged, has come to evoke considerable unease and disconcerting views among various quarters in Bangladesh.

Predominant among these thorny issues which have yet to be amicably and constructively sorted out is the issue of cross-border shootings by the Border Security Force, India’s border enforcers, of Bangladeshi nationals on often flimsy grounds. Of late, this issue has come to enjoy a vastly expanded horizon of attention among the general populace and experts alike in Bangladesh. However, equally perplexing is the relatively lethargic pace of Bangladesh’s reactions to such occurrences. While such occurrences have shot up alarmingly in the past few years, the lack of an effective approach by both the Bangladesh government and the Indian government to address the underlying factors is undeniably helping to further exacerbate the problem.

Furthermore, there is the general feeling of India’s border guards being given a free rein to pull in all the stops with regards to halting the flow of illegal migrants from Bangladesh to India with impunity. Thus, the lack of an effective framework to deal with various associated outstanding issues, in particular the issues of enclaves and exclaves and border demarcation, has led the Indian authorities to act boldly against Bangladeshi nationals attempting to cross the border. Fanning the flames further is what can be best described as apparent meekness on part of the Bangladesh government in its perceived reluctance to lodge strongly-worded protests with the Indian government.

It should be noted that in December 2010, a galling report by the internationally renowned NGO Human Rights Watch has further elevated the level of awareness regarding the plight that Bangladeshi nationals have to face near the border with India. The report, aptly named ‘Trigger Happy’, documents extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, torture, and ill-treatment by the BSF.

Many people routinely move back and forth across Bangladesh’s border with India to visit relatives, procure supplies, and search for jobs. However, some engage in petty and serious cross-border crimes. The Border Security Force is mandated to address illegal activities, such as narcotics smuggling, human trafficking, and transporting fake currency and explosives. It also works to stop militants planning violent attacks in India’s restive northeast. However, in its pursuit to oversee its objectives it would appear that the BSF tends to be rather too liberal with regards to pulling the trigger.

In many of the cases which have been investigated by Human Rights Watch, however, the victims were cattle rustlers, farmers, or labourers who said they were hoping to supplement their meagre livelihoods by working as couriers in the lucrative but illegal cattle trade that is rampant at the West Bengal border.

Of late, visiting Indian high officials have given ironclad assurances that they would see to it that cross-border shooting incidents are toned down to a minimum, and would also encourage the use of rubber bullets, instead of conventional ammunition which are inherently lethal to stop influx of Bangladeshis into India. According to a report, although border killings by the BSF has come down quite significantly this year, at least 17 Bangladeshis were mowed down by BSF fire and 49 others wounded between January and June. Thus, it becomes apparent for an exhaustive solution to this quagmire, it is imperative to approach some of the bigger issues that stand at a stalemate between India and Bangladesh, the ramifications of which have allowed this practice of shooting by the BSF at Bangladeshi citizens to thrive and go unbridled.

Of another growing concern is the fact that a comprehensive barbed-wire border fencing network, at a cost of $2.1 billion, is scheduled for completion in the near future. While in India, the 1,790-mile fence, which barricades nearly the entirety of the India-Bangladesh border, is seen as a cure to the persistent ills of illegal immigration from Bangladesh, influx of ‘terrorist elements’ from Bangladesh as well as safeguarding jobs in the economy, to ordinary Bangladeshis, this barrier seems emblematic of what can be misconstrued as India’s irrational fears of a neighbour seemingly based upon rather ludicrous grounds.

Furthermore, among other thorny issues that remain to be settled is the issue of Bangladeshi exclaves located on Indian soil. Owing to the perceived shortcomings of the Bangladeshi government, as well as lack of any institutional framework, the citizens of these enclaves are deprived of the rights and services that Bangladeshi citizens are entitled to. Thus, to come to the mainland, these people have to risk their very lives while trying to sneak past the border below the BSF’s notice, as catching their attention would almost inevitably means shooting.

With regards to the issue to exclaves and enclaves, and resolving of other outstanding issues though, one positive that can be gleaned is that Indian home minister P Chidambaram expressed optimism, during his recent visit to Bangladesh, that these issues would be resolved before Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh’s arrival on September 6. However, the reality is that for many reasons not to be mentioned, people of the country in general are less optimistic regarding any groundbreaking resolution of the various outstanding issues.

By - Ikteder Ahmed.