border too far for
Bangladesh By Syed Tashfin
DHAKA - Prime Minister Sheikh
Hasina's government last week showed its
determination to maintain improved ties with New
Delhi, defying public anger over the torture of a
young Bangladeshi man by Indian border guards
while signing with India a US$1.5 billion power
plant deal that threatens Bangladesh's most famous
natural asset, the Sundarbans.
VIDEO CONTAINS DISTRESSING
Even as the
furor continued over the videoed treatment of
22-year-old Habibur Rahman by Indian Border
Security Force (BSF) personnel, who stripped him,
lashed his arms to a bamboo pole across his back,
and thrashed him about the body and on the soles
of his feet, the BSF on Friday handed over the
body of another young man, Saiful Islam, 25.
Saiful's elder brother said the BSF had
tortured his sibling with
sharp weapons before
killing him. The BSF denied the claim, saying they
had recovered the body at Lalpur, about two
kilometers inside India the Bangladesh border, the
Daily Star reported on Sunday.
savage treatment of Bangladeshis, often related to
bribes for smuggling cattle, has been a
long-running sore, but the video of the torture of
Habibur Rahman, made public in mid-January, has
increased demands for an end to the brutality.
Habibur told Asia Times Online that after an hour
of torture in the end-of-year attack, and before
losing consciousness, the BSF members discussed
bathing him "in petrol and then putting him on
The Bangladesh government is "not
worried about these incidents", Syed Ashraful
Islam, general secretary of Hasina's ruling Awami
League and minister for local government, rural
development and cooperatives, told the press on
January 19 after the video clip became public.
Days later, Bangladesh Finance Minister A M A
Muhith and Indian Power Secretary P Uma Shankar
attended the signing of the power plant agreement
The Indian government's reaction
to the video of the border thrashing was immediate
once it was made public. Eight BSF jawans
were suspended on January 18 for their alleged
role in the incident and the next day the
government said a full investigation had been
ordered. The Indian media also reacted angrily to
the behavior of the country's border guards. The
Hindu urged an "unreserved apology" to Bangladesh
for the "brutal conduct" of BSF personnel.
Yet it was not until January 23, as public
anger rose, that Bangladesh Prime Minister Hasina
told the Foreign and Home Affairs ministries to
take up the issue with the Indian side. The next
day, State Minister for Home Affairs Shamsul Haque
said the Bangladesh Border Guards were on "high
alert" and had been asked to "take steps for a
meeting with BSF at the director-general level in
February, before its scheduled meeting in March".
More than 900 Bangladeshis and 164 Indians
were killed along the border by the BSF between
2000 to 2010, according to New York-based Human
The issue looked set to
improve after India and Bangladesh agreed last
March to avoid using lethal weapons in dealing
with illegal activities on the frontier, and in
July Indian Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram
said India had ordered the BSF not to shoot,
except in self-defense.
Yet between April
and December, 16 Bangladeshis were shot dead by
the BSF, seven others were tortured and three more
were killed through other methods. In January
alone, two Bangladeshis were killed by the BSF,
nine were injured and three were allegedly
abducted, according to Dhaka-based human rights
The body of one,
22-year old Saddam Hossain Babu, was recovered
from a river bank on January 24 with torture marks
on his hands and neck. He had been picked up by
BSF personnel three weeks earlier. Last year, 31
Bangladeshis were reportedly killed, 61 injured
and 23 abducted.
Habibur, a day laborer,
told Asia Times Online he had earlier crossed into
India after bribing Bangladeshi border guards 20
takas (US$2.33) to get work as a cattle smuggler.
Due to a lack of cattle-handling experience, he
failed to get a job and was returning to
Bangladesh when Indian border guards picked him up
late on December 9 and took him to a BSF camp. Out
of cash, he was unable to pay any bribes. "They
beat me for half an hour ... as I did not have any
money or mobile phone," he said.
dawn on December 10, they again asked for money
from me," said Habibur, who at the start of the
video can be seen tied to a stake on the far left
of the picture as cattle and their drivers pass
"As I could not pay up, they
stripped me naked, tied my hands and legs, jumped
on my chest and beat me with thick sticks," said
Habibur. "Some BSF personnel were witnessing my
torture while sipping tea. Another recorded the
whole incident through a mobile camera.
"They probably thought I was dead after I
fainted, as they threw my naked body into a
mustard field, from where other Bangladeshi
cattle-runners rescued me and brought me back to
Khanpur in Bangladesh."
images of torture ... show what rights groups have
long documented: that India's Border Security
Force is out of control," Human Rights Watch South
Asia director Meenakshi Ganguly said. "The Indian
government is well aware of killings and torture
at the border, but has never prosecuted the troops
responsible. This video provides a clear test case
of whether the security forces are above the law
"Whenever offenses attributed to
the BSF occur, its leadership insists that there
will be an internal inquiry and action taken,"
said Ganguly. "But secret proceedings and
suspensions or transfers won't end the abuses.
Torture is a serious crime that should be
prosecuted in the courts."
Much of the BSF
violence is against smugglers of cattle, whose
export is banned by India. While the present
Bangladeshi government is unwilling to strain ties
with India, international trade experts and cattle
traders in Bangladesh say it also does not want to
disturb trade involving influential smuggling
rings that has prevailed for over three decades.
"Both governments are subtly tolerant
particularly toward cattle smuggling," Manjur
Ahmed, adviser to the Federation of Bangladesh
Chambers of Commerce (FBCC) and Industry, told
Asia Times Online.
The trade is good for
Indian traders as smuggled cattle is sold "at a
price 35% to 40% more in Bangladesh than in
India", said Shahin Miaji, a cattle trader and
butcher shop owner in Dhaka. It is also good
business for the government. Shahin estimated that
nearly 65% of Bangladesh's total cattle supply,
ranging between 20,000 to 25,000 cattle daily,
comes from largely Hindu India, where the demand
for beef is negligible. Some media reports in
Bangladesh say cattle worth $81,000 is smuggled
into Bangladesh daily.
Once the cattle are
brought in from India, the smuggler tells
Bangladesh customs officials that he found them
near the border and that they were probably
trafficked. The customs officer takes the cattle,
whatever the number may be, then lets the "good
Samaritan" buy them back at 500 takas (US$6) per
cow - making them legal livestock.
Ali Khan, a former chairman of the National Board
of Revenue chairman, last week said the payment
system was set up by the Bangladesh government in
1993 so it could take in revenues from already
established smuggling networks.
cattle are sold in the markets, the money they
garner is channeled back to Indian businessmen
through the illegal hundi, foreign currency
payment system, which itself is nourished by gold
smuggled from Bangladesh to India.
phensedyl and light arms are also smuggled into
Bangladesh across the border. We hardly hear of
the BGB [Border Guard Bangladesh] apprehending
these smugglers," said Ahmed of the FBCC.
Illegal trade has long been "accommodated"
and "the killings and torture of Bangladesh cattle
fetchers at the border are actually due to botched
negotiations between the cattle trafficking rings
and the BSF," he said.
The treatment of
Habibur was made public through an 11-minute
video, apparently taken by a BSF member and
released, according to some reports, as a
cautionary tale to other smugglers. The video was
posted on YouTube by Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha
Mancha, a Kolkata-based non-governmental
India is Bangladesh's
second-most important trading partner, trailing
only the European Union, but issues arising from
their 4,000 kilometer common border have blighted
their relationship, most recently involving a
brief armed conflict in 2001.
recently improved, leading to a state visit to
Bangladesh by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
last September, when Premier Hasina signed a
"Framework Agreement on Cooperation for
Development between India and Bangladesh". The
pact was seen to make important headway on issues
such as shared water systems and cross-border
Yet since then, concern in
Bangladesh has grown that India seems prepared to
press ahead unilaterally with construction of the
Tipaimukh dam, which may threaten the livelihood
of millions of Bangladeshis, and no progress is
seen on implementation of border realignments
intended to remove dozens of troublesome enclaves
in both countries.
A $1 billion loan by
India to Bangladesh under an August 2010 agreement
remains virtually untapped. On January 16, the
government in Dhaka said it planned to abandon
eight of 21 projects planned under the loan due to
Terms of the loan
require Bangladesh to procure from India 85% of
the goods, works and services involved in any
project. Only one project, initiated by the
Bangladesh Road Transport Corp, is going ahead
smoothly, while 19 others are stuck due to
procurement complications, the Financial Express
Syed Tashfin Chowdhury is the
Editor of Xtra, the weekend magazine of New Age,
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