Tensions have been mounting at the India-Bangladesh border following the discovery of a video showing Indian border guards torturing a Bangladeshi cattle smuggler.
Shot on a mobile phone camera, the video contains graphic (NSFW) footage of several men wearing the uniforms of India’s Border Security Force (BSF) stripping a Bangladeshi man in his 20s completely naked and then tying him to a bamboo pole in a manner resembling a crucifix. The guards then proceed to take turns beating him for several minutes with sticks as the man writhes in the mud screaming loudly for his mother.
The video is believed to have been filmed by the soldiers themselves, apparently intending to circulate it as a warning to smugglers. Eventually someone put the footage up on Youtube, where it quickly sparked a media sensation and outrage in Bangladesh.
The man being tortured in the video has been tracked down. Habibur Rahman, 22, says he passed out after the beating, and woke up abandoned in the middle of a mustard field.
According an account of Habibur’s account which appeared in Banglades’s leading English-language daily The Daily Star, the Indian border guards caught him around 11pm on Dec. 9, 2011, during what would be the last of many illegal border crossings he had done throughout the year to smuggle cattle from India into Bangladesh. Once he was in their custody, he says the guards demanded Rs1,000 (US$20), a torchlight, and a mobile phone.
When Habibur said he did not have any of those things in his possession, the guards began to hit him with punches and kicks. Then they took him back to their camp, and in the crisp, foggy morning that followed, tortured him for over an hour.
Then, just one day after the video was discovered, a Bangladeshi border guard was kidnapped by Indian smugglers after he allegedly crossed into Indian territory and killed one of them. The Bangladeshi guard is now in BSF custody, and is expected to be released shortly.
Conflict between India and Pakistan dominates international and regional headlines, but the India-Bangladesh border has been a deadlier place in recent years.
The majority of those killed are cattle rustlers. Selling cows for slaughter is illegal in India, where they are considered holy, but it is legal to sell smuggled Indian cows in Bangladesh.
One consequence of this is that Indian media refers to those involved as cattle smugglers, while the Bangladeshi media call them cattle traders and ‘businessmen.’
A more tragic consequence has been the deaths of more than 1,000 Bangladeshis and Indians at the hands of India’s frequently trigger-happy border guards over the past decade, according to Human Rights Watch. The BSF itself admits to killing hundreds of people of both nationalities, although they say they fire in self-defense when attacked by smugglers.
Trading cattle between India and Bangladesh is a lucrative and dangerous business, one that tempts thousands of young men like Habibur who live in impoverished conditions near the border.
Villagers can double their monthly incomes in one night, earning as much as $70 per trip. Cows in Bangladesh sell for three to four times as much as they do in India. Simple economics means that even the threat of death or torture will not stop the smugglers.
Neither will the world’s longest barbed wire fence. Over 4,000 km long, construction on the 3m high fence began in 2006, inspired by Israel’s West Bank barrier. BSF outposts have also increased in frequency during that period, but the trafficking of cattle continues.
“Most of the beatings happen on both sides of the border, and it happens because of extortion,” says Mizanur Rahman, the chairperson of Bangladesh’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).
An October 2011 expose by Indian investigative magazine Tehelka revealed the mechanics of the trade. There are the ghatiyals, who own the cows and are buying and selling them. Then there are the rakhals, who actually transport the cows across the border. Finally, there are the dalals, or brokers, who arrange the bribing of Indian and Bangladeshi border guards.
Things can go wrong. Bribing the guards may be “bypassed” in order for the smugglers to make a bigger profit. A dishonest dalal might pocket the entire sum given to him instead of bribing the border guards. Or one outpost might be bribed, but the smugglers might encounter guards from another who could open fire.
Rakhals like Habibur get the smallest cut of the profits, but when something goes wrong, they pay the biggest price.
Change in the air?
After sustained pressure from human rights watchdogs and numerous, India agreed in 2011 to bring a halt to the shooting. In July of that year, Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram announced that Indian border guards would no longer shoot Bangladeshi civilians.
“Our stance on border killings is very clear,” says Bangladesh’s NHRC chief Mizanur Rahman.
“In very strong and unqualified terms we have protested the killings. On certain cases we have directly written to the National Human Rights Commission of India (NHRC India) to investigate. I personally met with [NHRC India Chairperson] Balkrishnan in Delhi and asked him to take this up. And now BSF has said border guards will not use any lethal weapons. So we can claim some credit for this.”
Despite the no-shooting decree, violence on the border remains a problem. Shootings still occur, albeit more rarely, but there has been a spike in reports of stonings, drownings, and beatings.
On the face of it, the video of Habibur being tortured implies that nothing has really changed. But for the first time, eight BSF guards were actually suspended for their role in the beating. Also for the first time, the India-Bangladesh border became headline news in Delhi as well as Dhaka, with the torture video featuring in every major Indian news channel.
The past few months has seen a notable increase in media savvy among South Asia’s security forces, who in previous years have showed scant regard for the opinions of civil society.
The rapprochement that led to the no-shooting decree in July began because of media outrage over the killing of 15 year old Felani Khatun, an illegal Bangladeshi immigrant in India who was shot by BSF guards while climbing the barbed wire fence.
India’s BSF is not the only acronym that human rights groups complain about in the region. Bangladesh’s own Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an elite force comprised of the best of the country’s army and navy, have allegations of extrajudicial killings to deal with as well.
Since the force was formed in 2004 RAB has acknowledged killing at least 622 people inside Bangladesh with impunity – it claims that most of the deaths are a result of “crossfire.” Human Rights Watch says many of RAB’s victims as well as those who survive RAB custody bear marks of torture. US diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks described the force as a “death squad,” which was widely reported in international media.
But in recent months, RAB too has taken tentative steps towards an image makeover. They have had much publicized human rights training provided by the US government recently. And RAB press conferences take place regularly now, highly staged events with somewhat theatrical speeches and confrontational dialogue between the press and RAB officers on one side and apprehended criminals on the other. If this wooing of the media leads to improvements in accountability, then few will complain.
(Maher Sattar is a South Asian journalist based in Bangkok. You can follow his work or reach him at mahersattar.wordpress.com or via twitter at twitter.com/mahersattar)