Maher SattarFriday, January 06, 2012 - Rangpur, Bangladesh—“If they see me talking to you, they’re going to give me a lot of trouble,” says Abdul Rahim.Standing at the very edge of his property on the Bangladesh-India border, the 48-year-old Indian farmer is half a step away from illegally crossing into the Bangladeshi village of Chander Haat. But it’s not the possibility of getting caught trespassing by Bangladeshi border guards that worries him.
Behind Rahim, a couple hundred meters into the Indian side of the border, is the world’s longest — and bloodiest — barbed wire fence.Dubbed the “wall of death” by locals, the 4,000 km barrier spans the length of the fifth-longest border in the world, and is manned by India’s Border Security Force (BSF), whose guards kill both Bangladeshis and Indians with impunity. Rahim claims the BSF routinely harasses him and has occasionally beaten him on suspicion of aiding or sheltering illegal Bangladeshi migrants and smugglers.
It’s a tense border. Despite India helping Bangladesh gain independence in 1971, relations between the two countries have remained strained since the 1947 partition of India, when the subcontinent was split along religious lines, creating East Pakistan where present-day Bangladesh is. Partition resulted in a bloodbath, with over 1 million killed in the space of a few months and more than 10 million Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs displaced in one of the largest mass migrations in human history.Little progress has been made over decades between the two countries on hot-button issues like smuggling, supplying arms and refuge to Indian insurgents, and control of the numerous rivers that flow through both countries. But the standout crisis dominating Indian discourse is undocumented migrants.
Official estimates are that there are 2 million undocumented Bangladeshi migrants in India. A number frequently reported in India media is 20 million.Like Mexican undocumented migrants in the United States, their Bangladeshi counterparts are the favored scapegoats of the Indian right — blamed for unemployment, crime, terrorism, “low-key Talibanization,” and “disturbing our indian sex-ratio statistics.”
This has created a situation where many say India’s border guards are trigger-happy. On Jan. 7, 2011, Felani Khatun and her father arrived at the barbed wire a little after the early morning call to prayer had rung out from a nearby mosque.
Dressed up in traditional bridal wear and wedding jewelry, the drowsy 15 year old had fallen asleep several times during their overnight journey to the border and could barely keep her eyes open. Felani, born in India to parents who were undocumented migrants there, was returning to Bangladesh to get married.
But it was daylight now, and Felani’s father Nurul Islam was afraid.The local smugglers he had paid Rs 3000 ($70) to help him and his daughter across insisted however that everything was fine, and the two began to climb up the ladder that had been arranged for them.
Nurul Islam made it over successfully. Moments later, as Felani reached the top of the 2.5m high fence, Indian border guards who had spotted them came running out and shot her dead from close range.
“[The BSF shot] without any warning. I don’t understand why they didn’t shout anything,” remembers Nurul Islam, who has been relocated with the rest of his family to the Bangladeshi village of Ramkhana, near where his daughter died. “I wish they’d said ‘stop.’ If they’d just said ‘stop’ she would’ve been saved.”
Felani’s lifeless body hung from the fence for five hours, in full view of Bangladeshi and Indian farmers living nearby. Eventually, the BSF slung her hands and feet onto a bamboo pole and took her away.
It was over 30 hours before her body was handed over to Bangladeshi authorities and returned to her father. “They took her jewelry,” Nurul Islam said, sardonically.A photo, first published in Indian newspaper Anandabazaar, of Felani’s corpse hanging from the fence sparked a huge uproar in Bangladeshi media.
The Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram announced during a visit to Dhaka in July that the BSF would use non-lethal weapons, and that they would no longer shoot at civilians under any circumstances.Six months later the deaths on the border continue to pile up.Except now they come about in more creative ways. Shootings are rarer, but Bangladeshi border guards report recent incidents of fatal beatings, strangling, stoning, and poisonous injections.
Human rights group Odhikar accuses the BSF of killing over 1,000 Bangladeshis in the past decade. The BSF themselves admit responsibility for the deaths of 364 Bangladeshis and 164 Indians since 2006.—Agencies