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Cooperation is the key to manage the India-Bangladesh Border

Dr Pushpita Das is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • October 12, 2012

    That consultation and cooperation between neighbours can pave the way for resolving contentious issues, especially those relating to management of their shared borders, is amply demonstrated by the outcomes of various bilateral interactions that took place between India and Bangladesh in recent months. The more important in the series were the 36th Directors General (DG)-level Border Coordination Conference between India’s Border Security Force (BSF) and Border Guards, Bangladesh (BGB), held in Dhaka from September 25-29, 2012 and the third Directors General-level talks between India’s Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB and Bangladesh’s Department of Narcotics Control (DNC) held at New Delhi on October 4, 2012.

    During these deliberations, India put across matters which had been creating hurdles in effectively managing its border with Bangladesh. These were: erection of border fences within 150 yards of the zero line; repair and construction of border pillars; cross-border smuggling of cattle and fake Indian currency notes (FICN); illegal migration including human trafficking; action against Indian insurgent groups based in Bangladesh; and attacks on BSF personnel by criminals. Bangladesh, on its part, raised the issues of “killing of innocent Bangladeshi citizens and cattle traders” by BSF personnel and smuggling of drugs and narcotics, especially Phensedyl from India. Notwithstanding the fact that all the issues of concern raised by both the countries are recurrent phenomena, appreciable progress made in resolving some of them highlights that such interactions always do not become mere calendar events but do achieve at least some of their objectives.

    To begin with, the issue of “killings of innocent Bangladeshis” by BSF personnel at the border, which had become a highly emotive issue in Bangladesh as well as a potential spoiler in India-Bangladesh relations, was resolved to a large extent when the BSF agreed to use non-lethal weapons while confronting suspected illegal migrants or smugglers. The successful implementation of this measure since 2011 has brought down the number of Bangladeshi deaths at the hands of BSF personnel from 55 in 2009 to 11 in 2011 and 6 in 2012 (till August). Encouraged by these results, the BSF promised to further reduce such incidents of deaths at the border.

    From India’s point of view, one issue that has been rankling for years but is now gradually moving towards resolution is the construction of fences close to the zero line. Existence of water bodies and other hurdles such as houses, villages and temples necessitate that India construct border fences close to the zero line on a number of patches (180 to 185). However, Bangladesh had always been opposing such constructions, terming them as ‘military wires’ and therefore a violation of the 1975 guidelines that prohibit construction of any defensive structure within 150 yards of the international border. Inability to construct fences in these patches was proving difficult for the BSF to prevent illegal migration and smuggling. To resolve the issue, India has now proposed the construction of a single row fence instead of the standard double row fence and put the plan across for Bangladesh’s consideration. Incidentally, a joint inspection by a team of BSF and BGB personnel of 21 such patches along the border in Tripura in September 2012 indicates that Bangladesh has given tacit acceptance to this proposal.

    Besides, it has been realized, over time, that most trans-border crimes could be effectively dealt with if the law enforcement agencies of both countries work together as a team, leading to better information/intelligence sharing, coordination as well as capacity building. Towards this end, India has proposed the setting up of a joint task force with Bangladesh to deal with the menace of smuggling of FICN. Smuggling of FICN from Bangladesh has become quite rampant in recent years. For instance, in 2009 approximately Rs. 28.5 lakh worth FICN was seized by the security forces, a figure which by 2011 had shot up to Rs. 44 lakh. Unilateral operations against FICN smugglers by Indian law enforcement agencies have not yielded the desired results since the smugglers have deep cross-border linkages. If the experiment of a joint task force against FICN smugglers becomes a success, it could be replicated for tackling other cross-border crimes such as drugs and human trafficking, because the same linkages and routes are used to smuggle in drugs and people.

    Certainly, the listing of success stories does not mean that such regular interactions will be successful in resolving all outstanding problems between the two countries. There are many issues, whose resolution is bedevilled by differing perceptions as well as outright denials. One such issue is assaults on BSF personnel by cattle smugglers. While on the one hand the use of rubber bullets and pump action guns have reduced the number of deaths along the border, on the other, it has emboldened the cattle smugglers who attack BSF personnel knowing well that even if fired at they will escape serious injury. In the past few years the number of BSF personnel injured by cattle smugglers has gone up from 12 in 2009 to 147 in 2011. This issue has been raised by the BSF with their Bangladeshi counterparts during various interactions with the request to rein-in the cattle smugglers. The response of the BGB, however, has not been encouraging primarily because unlike the BSF who see them as criminals, the BGB treats them as legitimate cattle traders since cattle trade is legal in Bangladesh.

    Similarly, the issue of illegal migration, which has been plaguing India since independence with disastrous political and security implications, does not seem to lend itself to resolution any time soon, because of Bangladesh’s unwillingness to acknowledge that it is a source of illegal migrants . Bangladesh has persistently denied that its citizens have been surreptitiously entering India for various reasons. It argues that since Bangladesh’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is growing at a higher rate than India’s, there is no reason for Bangladeshis to sneak into India to seek a better life. But Bangladesh does admit that economic migration is taking place from its territory but asserts that such migration takes place to European and Gulf countries rather than to India’s ‘impoverished’ Northeast.

    Given such differing perceptions it will be quite a while before these views can be reconciled and an amicable solution found. Nevertheless, endeavours should be consistently made by India and Bangladesh to engage in dialogue and deliberations to iron out problems that sour bilateral relations.

    Of course, it also has to be borne in mind that positive results from such interactions also depend on friendly relations and political will displayed by the two governments to resolve differences. As far as India and Bangladesh are concerned, their relationship is at present going through a positive phase and both countries need to sustain this upswing and work closely to secure and effectively manage their shared border.