Indian High Commissioner Vikram Doraiswami thinks we need more candid and open conversations about border killings. While he did not quite answer the question that was put to him, he did explain in considerable detail his government’s position and thinking on the issue. This is the third part of his interview series with Adam Pitman, exclusive to Dhaka Tribune.
DT: You have made no effort to justify border killings. You have said one death is too many. But you have also said the problem is a “law and order” issue. That phrase has a controversial legacy in the West; it suggests security forces will continue to lead thinking on this problem. At what point would it be fair to conclude their approach is not working?
Doraiswami: Let me answer this question at length.
Yes, I have said that there should be no deaths on the border, but to be clear, this is not just me. This is also exactly the position our government has repeatedly taken in public, including at the highest level.
However, there is often insufficient understanding of what is actually happening on the ground.
Let me explain what happens in these tragic incidents, and perhaps you might see why I say this is fundamentally a law and order issue; one which must be understood in the local context of law and order.
First, the nature of the incidents is very different from the popular narrative.
It is not recognized that well over 95% of these incidents take place between 10pm and 5am, in the darkest hours of the night. The incidents start by breaching border fencing. This means that the action is already well inside India, since the fences are by agreement almost entirely 150m from the zero line.
Further, the profile of those involved, or to be exact, the activity that is involved, is very different from illegal immigrants, seasonal or otherwise. Those involved in smuggling goods, and breaching fences, are groups of young men from both sides of the border, who are moving goods, mainly cattle, illegally.
Those involved in local movement across the border are often victims themselves; these groups include women and young people, and they seldom if ever resist arrest with violence; nor are they involved in large scale fence breaches.
When detained on the border, such victims are always returned to their country, provided their papers are accepted by the Bangladesh side. Else, they are then sent to local police authorities in India for processing.
Therefore, and I must emphasize this, contrary to the impression, it is not these unfortunate people who are usually involved in violence on the border.
Second, cases of violence on our side of the border are the end result of attacks on border guarding forces.
Our BSF patrols these areas continuously, but are obviously not deployed in static positions on every metre of the 4,096km of the border. Our patrolling parties, usually in groups of two to four. Only one member in the party is authorized to carry a lethal weapon — for self-defence.
When the patrolling parties confront and prevent illegal activities, confiscating the proceeds, they are regularly attacked at night by groups of 20 and more young men, who are members of criminal syndicates — and are citizens of both countries.
Our troops respond with a graded protocol of escalation. They use a lethal weapon option only as a last resort for self-defence.
So, maximum force is the last option, and must be accounted for legally and formally — which, by the way, is being done scrupulously. Third, statistics show that in the firing incidents leading to the death of individuals, there have been as many, and in some years even more, Indian citizens killed as Bangladeshi citizens.
The number of BSF men injured, maimed, or even killed, is disproportionately high, which could not be the case if lethal force was being used as a first option instead of as a last resort, in self-defence. The almost daily toll of BSF men with deep gash injuries, sometimes losing an arm or a hand, is also carefully documented and recorded on our side.
In fact, more often than not, it is the man carrying the weapon who is attacked first. Why am I confident about that?
Well, if you visit the border areas as I have done and seen the infra-red camera footage, it will be clear that targeting is not only not possible in the dark of the night, it is also next to impossible at any time, since the people involved in such activities are from communities on both sides of the border — meaning that they are ethnically, linguistically, and culturally indistinguishable.
Let me back this point up with numbers: in the first eight months of this calendar year, nine lives were tragically lost in such violence, of which four were Indian citizens.
Even with regard to injuries, there have been 24 BSF soldiers injured these eight months with sharp edged weapons — some severely –while six Indians and one Bangladeshi national sustained injuries in such violence.
And I can cite statistics like this for the past ten years — from 2010 to December 2020 — where, as per official statistics, there were 233 deaths, of which 95 were Indian citizens, 132 Bangladeshi citizens, and 6 were unidentified.
At the same time, there were 17 fatalities and up to 1,110 injuries in the BSF.
The number of injuries is significantly high. It is fair to say that no uniformed law enforcement authority, anywhere, will allow its men to be attacked and exposed to life-threatening injuries without retaining the right to respond with force in self-defence.
In other words, not all the casualties on the border are the result of the use of force by border guarding forces, either Indian or Bangladeshi.
You also may ask: “What can be done to reduce such incidents on the border?”
The short point is that we need to work with the government of Bangladesh, and all stakeholders, to increase economic opportunity for communities living in the border regions, who are often on the margins of subsistence, and are, therefore, easy prey for criminal syndicates who need labour or couriers.
People are being made victims by such criminal syndicates, which also traffic women and children. This is a terrible, slow-motion human tragedy that has its roots in lack of opportunities, which we need to collectively address.
Border haats, or border markets, are in this sense helpful pressure valves that at least offer an opportunity to recover economic connectivity across the border, lost after the borders hardened in 1965. This can be done in particular through local roads and local markets, which have an important and often underestimated role in driving local economic growth.
Overall, we all need to do much more in this regard, as a blended strategy of development, business promotion and law and order management, on both sides.
At the same time, we need to significantly upgrade our capacity to have our border guarding forces share information and work together to interdict criminal activity on both sides of the border, including through joint night and dawn patrolling at vulnerable points.
Behind the border too, there is a need for greater coordination between police units and administrators and the border guarding forces to interdict crime and seize the proceeds where feasible.
So, what we need is a balanced approach that offers development as an option, and interdicts crime in depth, rather than allowing it to percolate to the border.