May 2, 2001


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G Parthasarathy

The Boraibari fiasco

'Intelligence failure' is a term that is regularly used by our rulers whenever the nation is taken by surprise by developments on our borders. But, it is gratifying that when Jaswant Singh narrated the events leading to the massacre and mutilation of the members of what was described as a Border Security Force party on "aggressive patrolling" along the Indo-Bangladesh border, he ruled out the misadventure having occurred because of "intelligence failure".

The BSF party was taken by surprise and overpowered in the early hours of the morning of April 18 when it was at the village of Boraibari -- a village under the "adverse possession" of Bangladesh. The BSF patrol had been sent to Boraibari to retaliate against an attack by units of the Bangladesh Rifles on the village of Pyrdiwah in Meghalaya that is in the "adverse possession" of India. The BDR had surrounded a BSF Post in Pyrdiwah and forcibly evicted the villagers on the morning of April 16.

It is important that one has a clear idea about what exactly do terms like "adverse possession" mean when analyzing these developments. India and Bangladesh share a 4,096 kilometre land border that has never been fully demarcated. But, realizing that an undemarcated and unsettled land border is a sure recipe for continuing tensions, Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman showed vision and statesmanship and signed a historic agreement in May 1974 laying down precise guidelines on how the border should be demarcated.

It is in keeping with the letter and spirit of this agreement that around 4,090 kilometres of the border have been subsequently demarcated. Barely 6.5 kilometres still remain to be demarcated. In the meantime, some villages that are on the Bangladesh side of the border like Pyrdiwah remain in India's possession and some Indian villages like Boraibari remain in the possession of Bangladesh. It is precisely such villages that are said to be in "adverse possession". The 1974 agreement clearly specifies that there should be no disturbance of the status quo in such "adverse possessions".

Bangladesh has alleged that we had disturbed the status quo in Pyrdiwah by constructing a road there. We have not refuted this allegation. But, even if such a road was under construction, it certainly did not justify the military intervention in the village by Bangladesh or the eviction of its inhabitants by the BDR.

Apart from the issue of "adverse possessions," the 1974 Indira-Mujib agreement also requires India to return around 111 enclaves in its possession to Bangladesh. We are in return to get 51 enclaves from Bangladesh. We were also required to lease a small corridor of land near Tin Bigha to Bangladesh. It took us 18 years to effect this lease, when the P V Narasimha Rao government did so in 1992.

While it is Bangladesh that has continuously been alleging, with some justification, that India has been going slow on the demarcation of the border, the shoe has really been on the other foot during the last 18 months or so.

Despite repeated efforts by South Block for foreign secretary level talks to sort out border issues, the former Bangladesh foreign secretary Shafi Sami seemed totally disinterested in an early dialogue. When the talks were held in December 2000, New Delhi urged the setting up of a joint working group on border issues and even readily agreed to a somewhat illogical counter-proposal for two such groups from the Bangladesh side. By February this year New Delhi had sent Dhaka the terms of reference for the functioning of the working groups. Even as it was awaiting a reply, the BDR struck at Pyrdiwah.

It is quite obvious that the BSF patrol sent to Boraibari went in unprepared and ill-equipped, with little understanding or appreciation of the complications and resistance it would face before it could accomplish its mission. It lacked strength, firepower, communications equipment and readily available reinforcements to successfully undertake its mission. It is also astonishing that such a mission was undertaken even before diplomacy was given a chance to secure Bangladeshi withdrawal from Pyrdiwah.

The external affairs ministry was informed of developments only on April 17. The matter was taken up strongly both in New Delhi and Dhaka the next day. The Bangladesh government acted swiftly to order the BDR to vacate Pyrdiwah within twenty-four hours. It is quite obvious that neither our intelligence agencies nor the armed forces were taken into confidence nor their views sought, before the ill-fated operation at Boraibari was undertaken. Who was responsible for this fiasco?

The tragedy in Boraibari has unquestionably called into question our entire approach to dealing with national security issues. We neither anticipate problems nor do we respond firmly when they arise. While Bangladesh may have had its own justification for what happened in Pyrdiwah and Boraibari, the sheer savagery of the mutilation of the bodies and the cold-blooded custodial killings of our BSF jawans can neither be forgiven nor forgotten.

Our tragedy is that successive governments have shown a remarkable lack of institutional memory. How many people still remember the mutilation of the bodies of Captain Saurav Kalia and our soldiers in Kargil? It is not surprising that those in our neighborhood who are inimical and hostile to us believe that we are a soft state that lacks both the will and the resolve to hit back when the bodies of our men in uniform are mutilated, or when Jehadis are emboldened to strike at the very heart of the national capital at the Red Fort.

Our relations with Bangladesh have had their ups and downs since that nation was born in December 1971. There is no doubt that there are strong elements in that country like the Jamat-e-Islami party that are hostile to us. Elements of their armed forces, the BDR and their intelligence agencies do have Pan-Islamic sentiments and have provided active support to insurgent and separatist groups in our north-eastern states like Nagaland, Assam and Manipur.

Like her father Sheikh Mujib, Begum Hasina is also well disposed towards us. But like her father, she is naturally concerned first and foremost with the welfare, dignity and progress of her country and people. This is evident from the manner in which she publicly condoled with the families of BDR personnel killed in Boraibari and also the comments of the Bangladesh foreign office on her conversation with Prime Minister Vajpayee.

Whether it was the 1974 Border Agreement or the 1996 Farakka Accord, Sheikh Mujib and his daughter have invariably come out strongly in safeguarding the national interests of Bangladesh. This is only natural and we have to respect those who act in this manner, even as we seek friendly relations with them.

It is in this spirit that we will have to convey to Bangladesh that even as we are prepared to resolve the border issue in accordance with the 1974 agreement, we expect the Bangladesh government to act firmly against those who savagely killed and mutilated the bodies of the BSF jawans in Boraibari. It should be made known to all our neighbours through word and deed that those who brutally kill Indian citizens, whether in Kashmir or Boraibari will not escape unpunished. In the meantime, the National Security Council would be well advised to draw up a comprehensive system of border management with all our neighbours.

Such a system involving regular contacts to deal with insurgency, drug smuggling and trans-border terrorism does exist in our management of the Indo-Myanmar border. The home secretaries of the border states of Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh participate in these contacts. There is no reason why such a system should not be devised to deal with the management of our borders with Bangladesh.

Finally, if the use of force is considered inescapable, it is imperative that operations should be carefully planned and the strength and firepower deployed and used should be overwhelming.

The Bangladesh Intrusion

G Parthasarathy

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