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Killing innocents is no mark of a great nation

India's border policy continues to threaten Bangladeshis

Killing innocents is no mark of a great nation
Third World View, Dhaka

September 13, 2013

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All living things will die some day. In fact, every day about 150,000 people die around the world because of illness, accident and, increasingly, from war, acts of terror and ethnic or religious conflicts.

In Bangladesh, a growing number have died in the last decade for the most trivial of reasons – gunned down by Indian border guards for allegedly trespassing on Indian territory along a 4,100 km border

About 1,000 people have been killed in the last 10 years at the hands of India’s Border Security Force (BSF). Most have been unarmed Bangladeshi villagers as India maintains a ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy.

India and Bangladesh share a common history, and Bangladesh is India’s largest trade partner. The popular culture of India has been enthusiastically embraced across the border. And yet, border guards shoot first and ask questions later.

Ironic, then, that Indian media has claimed that Bangladesh was found to be the most trusted nation in a recent online survey, with Russia a close second.

If this is the case, then why does the BSF kill so many people along the Bangladesh border? Or to put it another way, if the survey truly reflects the mindset of Indian citizens about Bangladesh, then is there not a disconnect among India’s politicians and government officials?

India has every right to prevent illegal immigration, smuggling and anti-government militant activities, but that right does not extend to the indiscriminate slaughter of innocents. There is no justification for a shoot first policy.

The killings went largely unabated and with no formal investigations or punishment – despite high-level talks between the two countries and promises to end the policy – until the death of a teenage Bangladeshi girl more than two years ago.

Felani Khatun, 15, was returning home from a visit to India with her father on January 7, 2011. Neither had travel documents, so they opted to use a bamboo ladder to scale the barbed wire fence installed by the BSF to protect the border.

Felani’s father made it safely across the fence, but his young daughter’s clothes got snagged on the fence and a BSF guard shot her dead.

Her lifeless body hung on the fence for hours, later becoming a symbol for Bangladeshis of the ongoing injustice of the border policy. It prompted an unprecedented global outcry.

In the years that followed, the number of such killings dropped while diplomatic and international pressure increased. And last month, after massive criticism at home and abroad, a trial was started to prosecute the border guard who killed Felani.

Bangladeshis had high hopes for justice, at least in one case among hundreds of others, from the world’s largest democracy. But their hopes were short lived.

A special court in West Bengal last Friday acquitted Amiya Ghosh, the man who killed Felani Khatun.

Outraged Bangladeshis believed that the trial held symbolic value and that if justice was done, then BSF guards would think carefully before they fired on unarmed civilians along the border.

India’s High Commissioner to Bangladesh has said the verdict is not final, but few have any faith that Felani’s killer will ever be brought to justice.

As a much larger, more prosperous neighbor, India must behave more responsibly with its smaller and less powerful neighbors. Moreover, it should set an example in the way it delivers justice, and its future as a superpower is not only contingent upon resolving its disputes with arch-rival Pakistan, but on its relations with all of its neighbors.

It’s worth remembering what Alfred Lord Tennyson once wrote: “No man ever got very high by pulling other people down.”

Third World View is the pseudonym for a Bangladeshi journalist based in Dhaka

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