There are many things about our men in uniform, be it in the ‘armed forces’, paramilitary forces or the police, we could actually be proud of. These shouldn’t, however, be cited to hide, or worse, justify, many other things which are appalling and deeply offensive.
I have observed India’s Border Security Force (henceforth BSF) in ‘border protection’ (particularly in Assam-Meghalaya Frontier HQ stretch of the Indo-Bangladesh border) as well as ‘counter-insurgency’ deployment since 1996. This is long enough to have an admiration for the conduct of its officers and men in discharging the duties the nation has entrusted to them, honourably, even under difficult situations.
It was for this admiration I have that I chose to share some insights on their life in the Indo-Bangladesh border through my photo essay on 10 September, 2011 A Glimpse of the Indo-Bangladesh Border and the Sentinels.
This admiration, however, doesn’t make me blind to the disturbing allegations and dark rumours that I have inevitably come to learn about, not infrequently, in course of such a long association.
For instance, it is a fact that there is a huge cross-border illicit trade in cattle and commodities, where these are smuggled out of India into Bangladesh, whether it is over land or riverine borders. The allegations are not just about the BSF being slack and unable to prevent such illicit trade but actually profiting from it. Then of course are rumours of brutality. It is indeed a fact that casualties due to BSF firing on the Bangladeshi side (either of smuggler or infiltrators, as always claimed by the BSF) has been an issue serious enough to be not only discussed in flag meetings but to be addressed by even Ministerial representatives of both countries.
How true could such rumours of brutalities be? The video embedded below categorically substantiates the kind of violations that are perhaps not infrequent. Whereas the entire approximately 12 minute long video is deeply disturbing, the part between 7-12 minutes would make many squeamish at the realization of what kind of torture could be committed on a prisoner in hands of our soldiers. That the Inspector General of BSF, South Bengal Frontier HQ in whose jurisdiction Murshidabad lies (where the incident had reportedly occurred), has accepted responsibility and suspended eight of the soldiers found involved, pending inquiry, leaves no ground for even suggesting that the video is not authentic.
Now that you have watched this deeply offensive act of the BSF soldiers, let me put in perspective what should be so deeply worrisome.
First, the victim of such brutal torture was perhaps a Bangladeshi cattle smuggler who appears to have been tortured not for smuggling but for refusing or failing to pay the requisite ‘bribe’ for safe passage. Can one imagine what may happen to someone picked up as a suspected militant?
Second, these were just eight men out of approximately quarter of a million serving in the BSF. Isn’t it entirely likely that there would be many more if one manages to learn of all the violations that have occurred? This wasn’t an isolated incident. BSF deployments in counter insurgency operations in Jammu & Kashmir and the North East is testimony to that.
Third, Murshidabad is in Poschim Banga (West Bengal) which is neither a ‘disturbed area’ nor under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). BSF soldiers don’t enjoy any special protection for torture or rights violations against civilians there. Yet such violations can still occur. We are assuming the victim to be Bangladeshi, but it can happen to an Indian villager as well. Not such brutal torture, but assault or manhandling of villagers, who have to go across the border fence to cultivate, over petty disputes or altercations is rampant. Can one imagine torture, custodial killings, fake encounters or even rapes being impossible in hands of at least some such brutal men in uniform, particularly when AFSPA accords them immunity in places like Jammu & Kashmir or the North East?
Fourth, ‘suspension’ is not punishment and in all likelihood, if the torture hadn’t been been captured in video and posted on YouTube provoking a furore, even this wouldn’t have been done. Whether those involved are actually prosecuted and punished remains to be seen.
Fifth, mere dismissal and imprisonment of sundry ‘jawans’ for crimes such as torture or custodial killings won’t amount to an effective deterrence. The forces are aware of the ‘code of conduct’ towards civilians and any violation to that is a failure of command. Unless ways and means for holding ‘commanders’ accountable for any erosion or violation in the code of conduct and penalizing them through effective instruments is not institutionalized, the brutal ‘inclinations’ of India’s security forces are unlikely to change. I say so from numerous occasions I had observed the same men behave in distinctly different ways under the command of different officers.
A nation needs to believe its soldiers to be heroic souls who are gallant and willing to lay down their lives in supreme sacrifices. Soldiers, who torture, kill or maim even innocent civilians, or rape women at gunpoint, denigrate the honour of our martyrs and many who serve the nation in uniform with honour and pride. For those who tarnish that honour and pride, there must not be anything but our collective wrath.