WHEN a citizen of the Indian Union dies at the India-Pakistan border, the Delhi media says that an Indian has died. When a citizen of the Indian Union dies at the India-Pakistan border, the Delhi media says that a Tamil has died. That is far from outrageous but it is pretty revealing about the hierarchy of concerns, the hierarchy of ‘Indians.’ This was revealed once again this March. The top dogs of the Union government are outraged because the Tamil Nadu government is outraged and it looks bad if Delhi isn’t. The Tamil Nadu government is outraged because the Tamil fishermen and people at large are also outraged. They are outraged because a Tamil fisherman aged 22 years was shot dead by the Sri Lankan navy on March 6, 2017. Why did they shoot him? The answer depends on who you ask. Sri Lankan navy had denied that they shot dead anyone, calling it an ‘unsubstantiated allegation.’ Given the one who has died is Tamil in Delhi eyes but a co-citizen in Tamil eyes, the Tamil Nadu government wrote to the Indian Union’s prime minister noting that the Union government ‘did not seem to put adequate pressure’ on Colombo. This is all that Tamil Nadu can do since all foreign affairs are the exclusive fief of the mandarins at Delhi, the Indian in Pakistan border and Tamil in Sri Lankan border folks. The publicly declared pressure from the government of Tamil Nadu has pressurised the government of India to pressurise the Sri Lankan government for a face saver it can sell to the Tamil Nadu government. It has taken it up at the level of the Sri Lankan prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The face saver has come in the form of a promise of an internal probe to be carried out by the Sri Lankan navy in cooperation with ‘relevant Indian authorities’ and at the same time added that ‘initial investigations indicate that the Sri Lanka Navy is not involved in this alleged incident.’ The Lankan Navy said, ‘Since there is an allegation of a shooting incident, Sri Lanka Navy is carrying out a comprehensive investigation to find out the veracity of this alleged incident.’ Tamils are not happy because they know exactly what this means. The Government of India at Delhi also knows that this sort of an internal probe means nothing. It knows this because it is itself an expert as such ‘internal probes’ after its agencies kill innocent people at its territorial borders.
It is clear that Indian Union’s Union government’s authorities consider such killings due to crossing of international borders (the maritime border in this particular case) to be unjust. Hence, it has reacted at the highest level. Thankfully, in its communiqué, the Union government has recognised the dead person as a citizen. It said, ‘Government of India is deeply concerned at the killing of an Indian fisherman.’ The Union external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj has met the aggrieved Tamil fishermen who were protesting this killing of one of their very own. Sushma Swaraj said in the Indian parliament, ‘I will again like to reassure the honourable members that the government accords the highest priority to promote the well-being, safety and security of our fishermen. We have strongly conveyed to Sri Lanka that the use of force cannot be justified under any circumstances.’ This stance must rub salt in the wounds of the people of Bangladesh whose citizens are regularly gunned down by Indian Union’s Border Security Force at the Indo-Bangladesh border. Some of them might also get some perverted solace when Sri Lanka promised to do a probe. Indian Union also does so in the case of Indo-Bangladesh border killings. Nothing happens.
While Indian Union’s external affairs ministers says that ‘the use of force cannot be justified under any circumstances,’ it turns out that India does exactly the opposite in the Bangladesh border, killing many every year and conducting ‘internal probes’ where no one is ever found guilty. No one was found guilty in the case of Felani Khatun either.
Felani Khatun was a poor 15-year-old from East Bengal who lived in New Delhi for work. She was an ‘illegal.’ She also happened to be a human — something that no shadow of illegality can hide. In 2011, while she was crossing the barb-wired border between the two Bengals, she was shot. The murdered, bloodied body of this child hung grotesquely on the barbed-wire fence erected by the Border Security Force of the Indian Union.
We live in times of refined aesthetics. Pictures of murdered bodies are offensive; murder of children by men in uniform drawing monthly salaries from the public isn’t. And it is this sensibility that we want inculcated in our children so that they become ‘good human beings.’ And Anglophone make-up artists are never in short supply in boardrooms, newsrooms, universities, ‘Lok’ Sabhas, and other places to help you understand the meaning of words such as ‘good’ and ‘human’ under this over-arching tri-colour tent. The ‘free’ media of the Indian Union did not disturb your morning cup of tea with the horrific pictures of Felani, the murdered child, or her Khaki killer. However, the rest of the world did. But inside the Indian Union, we are safe from being ashamed. Let’s relax. At the end of the day, Felani’s family is poor — so her death will become a number and a date. So a protest about her case wouldn’t last for too long. But for the powerless, something lasts for a long time — the wait for justice.
The prime accused of the Felani case is Amiya Ghose, a BSF man. In June 2013, BSF’s own inquiry court pronounced him ‘not guilty,’ hence another ‘good’ human being. Felani’s family saw what went on in the name of ‘inquiry’ but took India’s ‘Satyamev Jayate’ slogan seriously. Another ‘special’ BSF court again acquitted this BSF man on July 3, 2015. And if this trial of a BSF man by other BSF men without any public scrutiny seems okay as the victim was an ‘illegal.’ Bangladeshi, let us remember that most allegations of major human rights violations against BSF men in the Bengal border pertain to crimes against people of West Bengal and Tripura. On 18th March, the BSF shot dead three people belonging to a tribal community in Tripura — all Indian citizens. We can be rest assured that no one will lose their BSF, leave alone jail time or any greater punishment. Not all killers are equal in Indian eyes, not are all killed people.
Clearly, people living near the border, under the protection of the BSF aren’t ‘good’ human beings. All they do is habitually concoct lies about murders, torture, rape, slave labour, beatings, etc done by the BSF. Since rape, torture, and forced labour are minor things, the ‘good’ local police mostly don’t dare register these cases, so that their Indian nationalist credential of being the greatest defenders of truth and justice on Earth isn’t tarnished.
Once, Somnathda, a friend of mine who works with marginalised communities in Murshidabad district of West Bengal related to me an incident. A border security man, young and dashing, calls up an old local labourer in Murshidabad, somewhere near the Indo-Bangladesh border. He needs to cross a shallow stream without getting his shoes or clothes wet. Local men in these parts know the drill. They carry the dashing public servant on his back. But something changes mid-way. The old man slips and falls. So does the brave man on his back. Before the brave one can curse in chaste Hindustani, the old man apologises profusely. Whether his small ‘slip’ was real or a subtle, calculated, momentary revolt without trace will never be known. There were no witnesses. Such can be the power of small gestures. They speak more than a thousand outraged liberals of the NCR.
The Indian Union must come up with a plan to inject nationalist morale into these areas, so that the morale of the BSF men are not affected by minor charges of murder, torture, rape, slave labour, beatings, extortion, and stealing — in short, activities that are pre-conditions of ensuring “national security” of a nation-state built on the edifice of truth and nothing but the truth. Otherwise, such allegations of crimes may diminish the value of ‘national security’ in the minds of these citizens of the Indian Union, and they may start finding resonance in the murdered Punjabi poet Avtar Singh Paash: ‘Jey desh di surakhya eho hondee hai kay be-zameeree zindagi lei shart ban javey/ Akh di putli vich han ton bina koi bhi shabd ashleel howe/ Tay man badkaar ghadiyan de samne dandaut’t jhukiya rahe/ Tey saanu desh di surakhya ton khatra hai’ (If a life without conscience is a pre-condition of the country’s security, if anything other than saying ‘yes’ in agreement is obscene, and the mind submits before the greedy times, then the security of the country is a danger to us).
On 9th March, the Sasastra Seema Bal (Armed Border Force) of the Indian Union shot and killed a Nepali man at the border. Huge anti-India protests followed as had happened in the case of Felani. The Delhi pronouncement that ‘the use of force cannot be justified under any circumstances’ has for some curious reason is always applicable to forces of neighbouring territories but never to Indian Union’s own forces. In just the South Bengal stretch of the Indo-Bangladesh border, BSF has fired 4000 rounds in 2016. One hundred and sixty two of these were lethal rounds from Insas rifles. And, that is just the official number. If the Indian Union is not ashamed of being blatantly hypocritical, it can at least hold fire for reasons of bilateral relations, which is at its most strained state in decades. Pakistan and Russia have conducted joint military exercises. Nepal, Bangladesh and China are doing so too. Indian Union must deal with its neighbours in the way it expects Sri Lankan navy to deal with Tamil fishermen who cross into Sri Lankan waters. Unless it does so, it will be perennially perplexed at the anti-India sentiment in almost all of its neighbouring countries. It can choose to innocently ask, ‘why do they hate us?’ The reasons are not hard to find. One hopes for the lives of all the border people of South Asia that this reality dawns on this innocent query and that is followed up by making sure Indian border forces too are subject to the praiseworthy principle that ‘use of force cannot be justified under any circumstances.’
Garga Chatterjee, an Indian brain scientist at MIT, writes columns from Kolkata for newspapers in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.
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