It began with smuggled cough syrup
If you read the Dhaka dailies…
It all began when troops from the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) caught hold of 50-year old Ramdhan Pal on the grounds that he was smuggling 20 bottles of Phensidyl, a cough syrup that is legal in India, but is illegal in Bangladesh (because it is addictive and responsible for ‘destroying the morale of the younger generation along the frontier districts of northern Bangladesh’).
Following this a contingent of the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) entered Bangladesh and launched ‘violent attacks on six houses of civilians’. BDR personnel reached the scene and were fired upon by the Indian BSF who was now helping looters. The Bangladeshi forces were compelled to fire in self-defence, killing Assistant Commandant Jeevan Kumar and severely injuring Constable KK Surendran. Three Bangladeshi civilians, including a girl who was 1.5 km away from the ‘zero-line’, were killed in the cross-fire.
…and if you read the Indian ones
The Indian version of events has it that Ramdhan Pal was being kidnapped by armed villagers when the BSF entered the fray. The BSF chief alleged that the BDR had dragged the Indian contingent into Bangladesh and before attacking them. The Indian High Commission in Dhaka alleged that this attack was pre-planned as the BDR had resorted to unprovoked firing, even as top-officials were engaged in bilateral discussions on border-security in Dhaka. As a direct result of this incident, tensions have increased all along the India-Bangladesh border.
It’s about the fence
The roots of this latest border clash can be traced back to India’s concerns over illegal immigration and terrorist camps in Bangladeshi territory. In response to Bangladesh’s refusal to conduct joint patrols, India began to build a fence along the border. This led to a disagreement on how far away from the ‘zero-line’ could that fence be built. Under the Indira-Mujib accord of 1974 no ‘defensive structures’ could be built within 150 yards of the ‘zero-line’. India’s position has been that it largely adheres to this guideline, but may need to get closer in some cases. In any case, India holds that the border fence is not a ‘defensive structure’ and thus does not violate the bilateral agreement.
Bangladesh disagrees with this and dislikes the fence for the same reason. And tensions have risen over the last several months along with the length of the fence. Smugglers of all sorts, including those who smuggle cough syrups dislike the fence for their own reasons.
Who were those armed civilians?
The involvement of ‘armed villagers’ who weigh in on the side of the Bangladeshi forces complicates matters considerably. The most innocent explanation is that the villagers have a vested interest in preventing the construction of the fence because it impedes their historically free movement across the border. Their less innocent counterparts may be doing so in the interests of the smuggling rackets. But the positively sinister explanation could involve the use of ‘irregulars’ by the Bangladeshi security forces. While there is little evidence that this is the case, Bangladesh cannot simultaneously tolerate the role of aggressive ‘armed’ civilians and then point out to atrocities against civilians, in offence or in defence, by Indian forces.
An imposed peace
Clearly, the security situation on the India-Bangladesh border has deteriorated to absurd levels. There have are clear indications for some time that on the political level, Bangladesh does not share India’s sensitivities over immigration and terrorism, and on the tactical level, it sees room to engage in low-grade hostilities. The most straightforward way for India to address this is through a greater power projection — through the use of military power to deter such incidents.
The guns on either side of the border must go silent first. So far, official bilateral negotiations have not resulted in preventing border clashes and civilian casualties. While the Indian government has begun to realise the futility of its current approach, it must invest much greater military resources along the Bangladesh border to see the construction of the fence through.