West Bengal

Need To Maintain Friendly Ties With Bangladesh Is Taking A Grim Toll On BSF

Jaideep Mazumdar

Jun 26, 2024, 02:24 PM | Updated 05:50 PM IST

An Indian BSF soldier (L) and a Bangladeshi BGB soldier.
An Indian BSF soldier (L) and a Bangladeshi BGB soldier.
  • BSF casualties rise amid policy to maintain friendly ties with Bangladesh despite escalating border breaches.
  • The need to maintain friendly ties with Bangladesh is costing lives and limbs of soldiers of India’s Border Security Force (BSF). 

    BSF soldiers deployed along the India-Bangladesh border have been given strict instructions against using lethal force on intruders from across the border who even cut the double-line barbed-wire fence to enter India.  

    It is no secret that smugglers, human traffickers and criminals from Bangladesh often breach the border, especially in south Bengal and Tripura. 

    The most determined of these criminals are cattle smugglers and human traffickers. Not only are they not deterred by the BSF who confront them, they often even attack India’s border guards. 

    Till the middle of last year, the BSF used to fire back at these Bangladeshi intruders, resulting in deaths and injuries to the intruders. 

    But every such death or even injury caused to a Bangladeshi criminal becomes a big issue in that country with the Bangladeshi media, politicians, activists, Islamic groups and human rights activists slamming India and the BSF for using lethal force. 

    The killings and injuries caused by BSF firing on the criminals is always leveraged by Opposition groups, including Islamists, in Bangladesh to criticise and mount huge pressure on the Sheikh Hasina government. 

    A false narrative is successfully created that trigger-happy BSF soldiers open unprovoked fire on Bangladeshi nationals who "accidentally and unknowingly stray into Indian territory". 

    That the border is fenced — and it is well demarcated and marked in areas where it is not fenced, like the riverine areas — and thus cannot be breached ‘accidentally’ or ‘unknowingly’, had been of no consequence to Bangladesh’s media, politicians and others who had been jumping to the defence of their country’s criminals. 

    The overwhelming evidence (gathered and submitted to Bangladeshi authorities by India after every incident of firing on intruders by BSF) pointing to criminal culpability of the intruders who are mostly cattle smugglers and human traffickers (who facilitate the illegal entry of Bangladeshis into India) has also been of no consequence to the Bangladeshi media and politicians.  

    The opinion, peddled by Bangladeshi media, politicians, Islamic and civil society groups, that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina ignores the killings of her countrymen by BSF because she is very friendly with India gained currency and started to affect her popularity. 

    So intense was the pressure on Sheikh Hasina that she took up this issue during all her meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the last three years. 

    This issue has emerged as a major irritant in ties between the two countries and, following a spate of killings of Bangladeshi intruders by the BSF in 2022 and early 2023, even threatened to derail harmonious relations between the two countries. 

    India has repeatedly tried to explain to the Bangladeshi side that the BSF uses lethal force only when attacked by armed Bangladeshi intruders. 

    “The intruders are always very aggressive and are armed with firearms or with lethal weapons like swords, spears, machetes and daggers. Since the stakes are very high — they make a lot of money through cattle smuggling and human trafficking — they are desperate enough to attack our personnel when they are detected and challenged. Use of force  by our jawans becomes necessary to thwart their attacks and to save their own lives,” explained a senior BSF officer at the force’s South Bengal Frontier Headquarters in Kolkata. 

    But all these explanations failed to cut ice with the Bangladeshi leadership which had persistently insisted that the BSF be instructed to use only non-lethal force on intruders. 

    Ultimately, in order to avoid a downturn in ties, the Home Ministry asked BSF high-ups to instructs the force to use only non-lethal force — stun grenades and tear-gas shells, firing rubber bullets in the air etc — while dealing with intruders. 

    But this has only emboldened the Bangladeshi criminals who now know that they can get away with even killing BSF soldiers who challenge them. 

    The statistics are revealing: between 1 January and 31 May this year, 969 attacks on BSF personnel by Bangladeshi criminals were reported, mostly in south Bengal. 

    Last year, 2,145 such attacks took place. In the first three weeks of the current month (June), the BSF reported six incidents of armed Bangladeshi criminals breaching the border in south Bengal. The BSF overpowered them and recovered swords and machetes from them. 

    In three more back-to-back incidents along the international border in south Bengal, armed Bangladeshi smugglers attacked BSF jawans and tried to snatch their weapons. The criminals’ attempts were foiled, but three BSF jawans sustained grievous injuries. 

    The India-Bangladesh border in Tripura is also very volatile and has witnessed a spike in armed Bangladeshi criminals breaching the border. On 9 June, a group of Bangladeshi cattle smugglers managed to enter 150 metres inside Indian territory near the Kalamcherra border outpost in West Tripura when they were confronted by BSF soldiers. 

    The intruders attacked the BSF soldiers and tried to snatch their weapons. The BSF soldiers fired in self-defence, killing one Bangladeshi criminal. That triggered huge outrage in Bangladesh. A week before this incident (on 2 June), armed Bangladeshi smugglers waylaid a BSF jawan and fled with his weapon after seriously injuring him. 

    “Our jawans had to open fire (on 9 June) in order to ward off the attackers and prevent a repeat of the 2 June incident,” said the BSF officer. 

    Last week, a group of about 20 Bangladeshi smugglers armed with lethal weapons intruded into India at Bengal’s Malda district and tried to attack a BSF patrol party. The BSF party fired stun grenades, but that did not deter the intruders. The criminals fled only when the BSF fired in the air. 

    BSF brass are very concerned over this latest trend of Bangladeshi criminals not only attacking the force’s personnel, but also trying to snatch their weapons.

    Over the last five years, at least 10 BSF jawans have lost their lives in attacks by Bangladeshi criminals because of the restraint the BSF jawans exercised on instructions from their top brass. Many more have been injured, and quite a number of these injuries have left the BSF personnel disabled. 

    The BSF, however, can do precious little because its hands are, literally, tied behind its back. “We are prohibited from using lethal force except as a last report. The Bangladeshi criminals know this very well and are taking advantage of it,” the BSF officer said. 

    BSF-BGB Meeting In Kolkata

    The attacks on BSF personnel by Bangladeshi smugglers and human traffickers figured prominently at a four-day meeting between top officers of the BSF and Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) at the South Bengal Frontier Headquarters in Kolkata that ended on Tuesday (25 June). 

    The Indian side, comprising 15 officers from the BSF and MHA, was led by BSF’s IG, South Bengal Frontier, Ayush Mani Tiwari, while the 11-member Bangladeshi delegation was led by BGB area commander, south-western region, Brigadier General Shamim Ahmed. 

    The two sides agreed to evolve a consensus on measures to deal effectively with cross-border crimes. 

    A DIG-rank BSF officer told Swarajya that the BSF conveyed its deep concern over increasing attacks by Bangladeshi criminals and smugglers on BSF jawans and Indian citizens to the BGB officers. 

    “Both sides have now decided to work together and carry out joint patrolling. This will help identify the vulnerable areas and prevent such crimes. We will also share real-time intelligence to enhance operational efficiency. This will enable both forces to get timely information about illegal activities taking place along the border and take immediate action,” said the BSF officer. 

    But, say BSF officers on the field, such decisions at high-level meetings often remain only on paper. That’s because BGB personnel posted at the international border are often hand-in-glove with the criminals from that side. 

    “BGB personnel are paid good sums of money by the smugglers and human traffickers. That is why they patronise these criminals and help them breach the border. We have often seen that the Bangladeshi criminals are helped by BGB personnel to cross the border,” said the commanding officer of a BSF Battalion stationed in Nadia district of Bengal.

    Senior BSF officers acknowledge this, but say there is little they can do about it. “Our hands are tied. We have to abide by orders, and the standing orders now is that non-lethal force should be avoided unless absolutely necessary,” said the BSF DIG. 

    To deal with the changed situation at the border and in order to prevent Bangladeshi criminals from taking advantage of the new border management protocols by attacking BSF personnel and snatching their weapons, the BSF top brass are mulling a set of measures. 

    These measures include intensifying human and electronic surveillance on the vulnerable stretches of the international border that are most prone to intrusions, joining patrolling with BGB along such stretches, involving the BGB in dealing with intruders and neutralising the network of smugglers and human traffickers on the Indian side who operate jointly with the Bangladeshi criminals. 

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