Can India rein in its border guards?
KOLKATA // In the 12-minute video, several uniformed Indian border police officers are seen kicking and beating a man accused of smuggling a cow.
“Cut his ears,” urges the cameraman as he records the battering.
Another voice counters: “Don’t beat him anywhere that can be easily seen.”
“This will teach you to steal,” says one of the officers as the man, stripped and with his hands and feet tied, is bludgeoned on his knees and buttocks with a long, bamboo pole. Another officer casually asks for someone to fetch tea.
The man cries out: “Mother, mother.”
The images and sound on the video mirror what rights groups have long alleged: India’s Border Security Force (BSF) behaves with impunity.
“The Indian government is well aware of killings and torture at the border but has never prosecuted the troops responsible,”Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director for Human Rights Watch said in a statement last week. “This video provides a clear test case of whether the security forces are above the law in India.”
The video was first released in January by the Kolkata-based organisation, Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (Masum), that monitors human-rights violations along India’s international borders.
The BSF has not disputed the authenticity of the video, which is said to have been recorded by a BSF soldier.
It shows members of the security force’s 105th Battalion beating a Bangladeshi national later identified by rights groups as Habibur Rahman. The troops apparently caught Mr Rahman smuggling cattle from India into Bangladesh, but instead of handing him over to the police as required by law, they held him and let him find his way back home.
Cow smuggling is a contentious, yet lucrative enterprise. While beef eating in Muslim-majority Bangladesh is acceptable, the practice is discouraged in Hindu-majority India, where the cow is consider a sacred animal. Those caught smuggling cows are the scorn of society and their detention or beatings often go unreported.
The BSF suspended eight soldiers after the video was released but, so far, no criminal charges have been filed against them.
A BSF spokesperson in a written statement said than an inquiry into the incident had been launched.
“The BSF does not permit any human-rights violation” and “strict disciplinary action against the concerned persons” will be taken based on the inquiry’s findings.
Ms Ganguly urged the Indian government to prosecute the officers to “end the culture of impunity”.
In 2010, a report by Human Rights Watch, along with Masum and Dhaka-based Odhikar said almost 1,000 Indians and Bangladeshis were shot or killed in the last 10 years by the BSF.
According to Human Rights Watch and Masum, the border security organisation has never prosecuted a soldier for alleged torture or human-rights abuses, despite overwhelming documentation.
No one disputes crime is commonplace along the nearly 3,000-kilometre border between India and Bangladesh. Only small portions of it are fenced. In some places, the border seems arbitrary, cutting villages in half.
People routinely move back and forth across the border to visit relatives and buy supplies. Smuggling is common, and Bangladeshis regularly cross to the Indian side in search of work.
But the Indian government is under great pressure to keep the Bangladeshis out.
In some Indian border states, the population explosion in the past decade has put tremendous pressure on infrastructure. The population growth among some of the border towns of the Indian state of West Bengal is greater than the overall growth of the state.
The last wave of dislocated people from Bangladesh to India arrived in the thousands in 1971, following the creation of the state of Bangladesh and its war with Pakistan.
Within a few years, there was a growing backlash against those who continued crossing over.
Kirity Roy, the secretary of Masum, has documented more than 2,000 cases of torture by the BSF on people living near the India-Bangladesh border since 2007.
In one high-profile case, a 15-year-old girl was said to have been shot dead by the BSF from close range on January 7, 2011, when her clothing got caught in her attempt to climb over a 2.5-metre barb wire fence.
The girl, dressed in traditional bridal wear and wedding jewellery, was crossing over to the Bangladesh side, along with her father, to get married. Her father told Bangladeshi media that the BSF had shot at them without warning and stripped his daughter of her wedding finery.
A photograph of the girl’s corpse hanging from the fence was first published a few days later by Ananda Bazar Patrika, a Kolkata-based Bengali-language daily.
It caused a such an uproar in Bangladesh that during a visit in July, the Indian home minister P Chidambaram announced that the BSF would use non-lethal weapons when patrolling the India-Bangladesh border.