The saga of border killings
Bangladesh shares its 4,096-km international border with India where the border runs along West Bengal for 2,216 km, Assam 263 km, Meghalaya 443 km, Tripura 856 km and Mizoram 318 km. Topography of Bangladesh-India border is characterized by plains, river-bed, hills, forest and many cultivation as well as settlements till the last inch of the border.
Bangladesh has 32 border districts whilst India has five border provinces. While economic relations between the two countries have been growing rapidly since the early 1990s, the borders are troubled due to smuggling of cattle, gold, drugs, arms and ammunition, human trafficking etc, a major challenge for the Border Security Force (BSF) of India and Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB). Often, there are allegations of border killings while protecting the border by BSF.
The Indian government has to deal with cross border smuggling particularly cattle. Border population which has ethnic similarity on both sides, often indulge in smuggling activities for easy money. Low key handlers mostly living in border areas carry out most of the trans-shipment of the cattle across the borders. There are about 68 smuggling corridors and 149 sensitive villages on the West Bengal border alone. This trade is illegal in India, but in Bangladesh it is allowed. So, the moment the cattle traders enter Bangladesh they can pay the custom charges and the trade becomes legalized. In the Bangladesh-India border region, there is a huge market of cattle. Bangladesh has a market of more than 500 million US dollars which cannot be served by domestic supply alone.
Moreover during the holy occasion of Eid-ul-Azha, the demand for cattle increases manifold. An estimated 1.5 million cows are moved across the border each year. A calf sells for Tk 40,000 during the Eid-ul-Zuha in Bangladesh, while the price on the Indian side is around Tk 2,500 to Rs 3,500. Fully-grown cattle sell for Tk 80,000 to Tk 1.15 lakh during the Eid in Bangladesh, while Indian prices of bovine are about Tk 45,000. Cross-border trade of cattle is estimated to be worth Tk 5,000 crore a year. For cattle-runners, therefore, the reward seems to overwhelmingly outweigh the risks. Even children are employed in this trade by cattle smugglers.
Mankachar on the Assam-Meghalaya-Bangladesh is a tri-junction and hub of the cattle trade. Transactions here are mostly through hawala. The Garobadha cattle market in Meghalaya is about 30km from Tura in West Garo Hills and 22km from the international border with Bangladesh, which is close to Mankachar town of Assam. Every week, about 500 cows or buffaloes are sold in Garobada, and the number increases to more than 3,000 before Eid. Cattle traverse hundreds of kilometres from states like Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Jharkhand to reach the Bangladeshi cattle markets, called the 'khattals'. From these border points, smugglers use either the porous land route or the water ways through the rivers Kalindi, Ichhamati, Raimangal and Hariabhanga of Bangladesh to finally enter the country.
BSF is facing a lot of challenges along Indo-BD border mainly in West Bengal due to its vulnerability for cattle smuggling, fence breaches and attack on BSF duty personnel by miscreants/cattle syndicates of both the countries. The peculiar nature of the border, crisscrossed with rivers/nullahs, char lands and thickly populated border areas sometimes upto zero line increases the vulnerability further. Cattle smugglers (rakhals) in a group of upto 250-300 manage to enter inside Indian territory taking advantage of darkness, fog, high growth of elephant grass/sarkanda, nullahsetc from the general area of riverine border of Sectors Berhampore and Malda. Such movement of rakhals in small groups of 40-50 also takes place on few occasions where there is fenced border after cutting as well as through gaps of the unfenced border in Kolkata and Krishnanagar sectors. They are always equipped with arms/ammunition such as dah, sickles, daggers, bamboo sticks, high beam torches etc. On many occasions, they have also been found in possession of country made bombs (popularly known as socket bombs in local area) and pistols/revolvers.
The rakhals make forceful attempts of cattle smuggling by injecting drugs to the cattle with the aim to make them violent and run cross country. The cattle smugglers move in a particular formation along with the cattle in large number in which few of them move in advance party, few in middle and few in the rear party duly equipped with arms/ammunition. In the remote villages, the cattle are bound to one another by iron chains and at night young 'Rakhals' or local swimmers, herd the cattle in the water. They also resort to cutting the border fences, and then animal is dumped inside the Bangladesh territory through the gap or tossed across the fence. At times, smugglers make these cattle run by piercing sharp sticks/iron rods in their body to cross the line of interception of the BSF troops with the aim of overrunning the troops using all means at their disposal. The remuneration received by the 'Rakhals' is close to three thousand taka for every journey made.
Smugglers also use floods in the river to devise new methods- the heads of the bovines are placed between two banana tree trunks and bound together before they are pushed in the water. The smugglers drop cattle mainly at places where the river is over 700-800 metres wide.After being tied with banana trunks and ropes, the cattle are dropped in monsoon-water laden rivers from Malda, Murshidabad, North 24 Parganas and Nadia districts.
The water currents take the cattle to Bangladesh. According to BSF, they have recovered cows with Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) tied around their necks aimed at targeting troops who try to catch them. This cruel method potentially lead to fatal injuries to both the cattle and force personnel, in case the crude bomb is triggered during handling. Few such cattle, with an IED placed inside a small aluminium canister tied around their neck, were recovered from the river near the Harudanga border post along the south Bengal frontier.There have also been instances of secret tunnels dug up, by the miscreants, between Bangladesh and India. This came to light when a route with a secret tunnel with one end located at Karimganj, India was discovered. The man-made tunnel used fitted drain pipes and to stay hidden, the cover of the dense forest. Apart from these innovative ways of trafficking the animal, smugglers also attach heavy wood logs to the animal's legs and raft them across the river to reach the shore of the neighbouring country. This leads to several cows arriving dead on the spot.
The Indian government has sanctioned new attack motorboats and larger troop strength at the border. This has proved itself useful, at least according to the official figures regarding the number of cattle seized.1,01,751 heads of cattle were seized in 2014, apprx 1,53,602 in the year 2015, 1,28,440 heads during 2016, about 83,378 heads in 2017 and 51,592 during 2018.
BSF has deployed close to 45 battalions in 725 BOPs along the border. It is anybody's guess that the smugglers on both the sides- India and Bangladesh-are well connected and pass on information on location of the border patrol guards. The BSF who patrol the area in groups of three or four are often outnumbered. When challenged by the BSF, the smugglers do not pay any heed to the warning but in turn attack them with sharp edged weapons and arms. On one occasion, the tormentors shot the incident on their mobile phone and circulated via social media.
BSF is often criticized for the extra-judicial killings of Bangladesh nationals along the borders, but BSF claims they are compelled to open fire in self-defence and have themselves suffered casualties. During 2019, one BSF duty personnel was killed and 83 other soldiers sustained injuries in such attacks. 12 Bangladesh nationals and 11 Indian smugglers also lost their lives in these unfortunate incidents. Relevant to mention that in a recent incident on January 23 in BOP Kedaripada under Malda sector, BGB was informed in advance about the possible infiltration of a group of rakhals to smuggle cattle through riverine border areas. Later, BSF personnel were attacked by the same very smugglers that led to unfortunate death of 2 Bangladesh nationals.
BSF claims since in 2011 they have adopted the use of non-lethal strategy to deal with the smuggling issue. As per policy, the troops operate with non-lethal weapons like pump action guns, stun grenades and chilli grenades to scare the smugglers. But in most of the cases, BSF troops are outnumbered and attacked by the group of smugglers, endangering their lives and that of fellow duty personnel. Since 2010, about 107 Indian smugglers and 135 local smugglers/criminals have died in clashes with BSF. In between 2010 to 2019, about 960 BSF soldiers have been grievously injured and 11 have lost their lives in attacks by smugglers.
To prevent recurrence of such incidents, 159 vulnerable patches have been identified along the border in West Bengal area. Due to enhanced surveillance on border, smugglers have become more and more desperate and aggressive for cattle smuggling. This is indicated by increased incidents of fence breach (746 cases) and attack on BSF troops during 2019.
The Bangladeshi press and even foreign media houses have been criticizing the BSF for use of excessive force on the borders, which is considered as violation of assurance given by the Indian government to Bangladesh repeatedly. In this connection BSF's only excuse is all that happen are to protect their lives.
The writer is a senior journalist in New Delhi