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Surviving perils of bloodied Bangladesh-India border

Rights groups are skeptical that a pact to stop killings and respect human rights will reduce the danger

Stephan Uttom and Rock Ronald Rozario, Dhaka

Stephan Uttom and Rock Ronald Rozario, Dhaka

Updated: September 28, 2020 04:46 AM GMT
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Surviving perils of bloodied Bangladesh-India border

A Bangladeshi villager from Thakurgaon district shows the national identity card of her husband, who was killed by India's Border Security Force (BSF). (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)  

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For generations Patrick Baskey and his family have been living undisturbed in Kurmoil village in the Dhamoirhat area of Naogaon district in northern Bangladesh, close to the Indian border zone.

Several hundred villagers, mostly ethnic Santal and Catholic like the Baskeys, rely on agriculture, fishing and day labor for a livelihood.

Like most of Bangladesh’s 18 border zones with India, it is notorious for illegal activities including smuggling of goods and cattle, human trafficking and trespassing, leading to torture, arrest and killings by members of India's Border Security Force (BSF) at regular intervals.

“Often people trespass into India illegally for various purposes like migration, employment and smuggling. A syndicate consisting of Bangladeshi and Indian people as well as some officials of the local administration are involved in illegal activities. People get arrested, tortured and shot dead by the BSF, and all of them are Bangladeshi citizens,” Baskey, 29, told UCA News.

“Some poor people do it for an income and others do it to get rich quickly. Lack of employment, low income and greed can be blamed for such activities that sometimes cost lives.” 

Baskey is a member of Christ the King of Peace Church in Chandpukur of Naogaon in the Diocese of Rajshahi. The parish, set up in 1979, has about 5,230 indigenous Catholics spread around 60 villages, some within two kilometers of the Indian border.

No local Christian, despite being poor, will resort to such illegal activities because of the considerable risks to their lives, so there have been no abuse or killing of Christians in decades, he said, adding that priests, nuns and catechists always warn Catholics about the dangers of illegal activities on the border.

“Involvement in illegal activities is not always about poverty but also due to a decline in morality. On the other hand, abuses and killing people by shooting are violations of human rights and unacceptable,” Baskey added.

Keeping people away from border

Father Fabian Mardy, the former parish priest of Chandpukur Church, said alerting Catholics to the dangers of illegal activities on the border has been a priority for years.

“In my seven years in the parish, I never heard any Christian had been abused or killed at the border as they don’t do anything that can threaten their lives. Also, we always keep in touch with our people in the border zone and make them aware of various risks,” Father Mardy, parish priest of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, also in Naogaon district, told UCA News.

The priest strongly condemned arbitrary shootings and killing of unarmed civilians at the border by the BSF.

“If people commit crimes, they can be arrested and punished, but no one should be victims of extrajudicial shooting and killing. Both governments must work better to bring border killing to zero,” the priest said.

Like Chandpukur Parish, Queen of Fatima Church in Ruhea in Thakurgaon district of Dinajpur Diocese, has not seen any Christian casualties in recent decades. The parish has about 7,514 Bengali and indigenous Catholics, with hundreds living in villages close to the border.

“Local Christians are mostly farmers and day laborers, and they never go to the border, so there has been no abuse or killing of Christians in the past years. We always advise them to remain alert so that they don’t face any troubles,” Father Anthony Sen, convener of the diocese's Justice and Peace Commission, told UCA News.

The priest also deplored the torture and killing of people at the border by Indian forces irrespective of their religious or ethnic background.

“This is a gross violation of human rights. India is a big and powerful country, but it does not mean its forces can do whatever they like and keep shooting and killing people at will. We are frustrated to see border forces of both nations holding meetings and promising to stop border killings, but now and then Bangladeshi people are being killed,” Father Sen said.

While churches in border areas score successes in helping people evade casualties at the hands of Indian forces, in many places Bangladeshi people continue to be killed.

Unabated border killings

Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority South Asian nation of over 160 million, shares a border of about 4,100 kilometers with Hindu-majority India, its giant eastern neighbor.

Despite India’s support for Bangladesh’s War of Independence from Pakistan in 1971, its border forces have adopted a lethal policy that has left several thousand people, mostly unarmed Bangladeshi villagers, shot and tortured to death in the past decades.

India has also constructed a barbed wire fence encircling Bangladesh to stop illegal immigration, smuggling and other crimes on the border.

In a 2010 report, New York-based Human Rights Watch dubbed the BSF a “trigger-happy” force that follow a “shoot-to-kill” policy and termed Bangladesh-India border zones “South Asian Killing Fields” due to unabated killings. No one has been held responsible or prosecuted for the killings.

A series of diplomatic exchanges and joint meetings of border forces of the two nations have been held in recent years in an attempt to stop the use of excessive force and lethal weapons. The killings have declined but not stopped, rights groups say.

At the end of the 50th meeting between director generals of Border Guards Bangladesh and India's Border Security Force on Sept. 16-19, promises were made to stop border killings, prioritize human rights and introduce joint patrols to curb smuggling and trafficking of drugs and arms.

Rights activists, referring to earlier promises, are skeptical about the new pact.

So far, 34 Bangladeshi people have been shot and tortured to death by the BSF at the border in 2020, according to Ain-O-Salish Kendra (ASK), a Dhaka-based rights group. It has documented a total of 43 killings on the border.

“Even if crimes are committed at border zones, killing is in no way acceptable. There are laws to punish people if they engage in crimes, but they cannot be shot at like birds to kill. While India needs to act as a responsible neighbor, Bangladesh needs to be vocal against such rights violations,” Nina Goswami, senior deputy director at ASK, told UCA News.

“We would like to see meetings are held not only for the sake of meetings but also to bear fruit and stop abuses and killings.” 

Efforts to curb crimes on the border will continue to increase, said Lt. Col. Foyzur Rahman, spokesman for Border Guards Bangladesh, but he didn’t elaborate on activities to stop killings by Indian counterparts.

“We try to tackle criminal activities, which are daily realities in border areas. Our efforts to maintain close connections with Indian forces and to curb crimes and killings have increased and will continue,” Rahman told UCA News.

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