There were two senior-level meetings between Bangladesh and India so far in 2021. One was held at the foreign secretary level in New Delhi in January, while the other was held between the two foreign ministers in Dhaka a week ago—both as preliminary exercises in preparation for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Dhaka later this month as part of celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of our independence.
While the first meeting in January was part of regular consultations, and has nothing much to write home about, S Jaishankar’s visit and subsequent comments on the border killings bear enormous significance for Bangladesh. That and the West Bengal chief minister’s comments on the prospects of a water-sharing deal about the Teesta river are two significant messages that have been conveyed to Bangladesh recently.
Firstly, accept border killings (“unfortunate deaths” is the euphemism India prefers to describe Bangladeshi deaths by BSF bullets), until such time as the “criminality” of the border is cured. And secondly, leave the Teesta water for the future.
Am I getting too ahead of myself? That depends on who is reading this piece.
Criminal activities are responsible for the killings along the India-Bangladesh border, so said Mr. Jaishankar during a joint press conference after his latest visit to Dhaka. There is a clear message in his statement, and one wonders whether our foreign office has got it. But we have, and loud and clear too. Let me quote the Indian foreign minister’s comments in order for the readers to read between the lines and grasp the significance of it.
Before we go further, let me ask if every criminal in India is served with a bullet in his or her body. Is that how India deals with criminals in the country? What else can be the inference of the statement of the Indian foreign minister regarding the high incidence of killings by BSF personnel of Bangladeshi citizens? And if some “criminals” were found dead well inside Indian territory, was shooting them the only option?
The Indian FM’s comments carry several implications, and it’s surprising that his statement was not adequately responded to by his Bangladeshi counterpart. In fact, we heard no riposte, not even a whimper from him. Should we assume that Bangladesh concurs with the Indian view that, firstly, the “problem” stems solely from the “criminalisation” of the border, and secondly, that the 45 Bangladeshis killed by BSF between January and December 2020 were all criminals? That number was the highest in the last several years. This despite the level of amity and friendship created in the last decade between the two neighbours. Of those killed, five were reportedly tortured. Thirdly, the victims (“criminals”, according to India) being Bangladeshis, the ball is in Bangladesh’s court. The onus has been put squarely on Bangladesh for the deaths on the borders. The burden of the solution of the “problem”—since those who were killed are Bangladeshis and fall into the category of “criminals”—has been thrust on us as well.
What we have seen in Mr Jaishankar’s statement is the deft display of diplomacy that has helped India to absolve itself of all responsibilities for the killing of Bangladeshis in the border areas with one sentence: stop border crimes, the killings will stop.
We believe we are owed an explanation as to what constitutes criminal acts. If smuggling falls into that category, are we to believe that only Bangladeshis are involved in smuggling? How come the Indian cattle can negotiate the fence and cross into Bangladesh? Who determines whether someone is a criminal? Who decides if the so-called criminals deserve the bullet? The role of judge-jury-and-executioner that the BSF has been playing so far has now been given the official seal of approval by the Indian government. Every killing will have a predated approval. Every “crime”, according to the new Indian philosophy, will be met with instant punishment and the “criminal” with the inevitable death, without the opportunity for self-defence.
Just imagine: if the US border guards apply the criteria which India seems to have fixed newly in relation to the use of lethal weapons along the Indo-Bangladesh border, there will be thousands of dead bodies littered along the US-Mexico borders every day.
As far as water sharing of the Teesta is concerned, the prognosis is bleak despite the Indian prime minister’s reiteration of India’s commitment and continued effort to complete the interim water sharing arrangement for the Teesta River. The Modi government has to contend with the Mamata factor, and Ms. Banerjee shows no signs of relenting. In her address at a public meeting in Siliguri recently, she said that the people of West Bengal should have enough water of the Teesta for themselves first, before thinking of sharing it with Bangladesh.
Bangladesh’s problems have defied resolution, in some instances frustrated by the position taken by Indian state leaders, which is of no relevance for Bangladesh. Teesta and border killings are the two issues that dampen the relationship between the two neighbours whose relationship is at such levels of comfort, according to Mr Jaishankar, that there is no issue that the two countries cannot discuss and resolve through amicable dialogue. Regrettably, facts present a different reality.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (Retd), is a former Associate Editor of The Daily Star.