It is an image that will haunt relations between India and Bangladesh for years to come. The body of a slain Border Security Force (BSF) jawan tied to a pole and carried like an animal carcass.
Accompanying it were the grisly visuals of trussed up, mutilated and brutalised bodies of 15 other BSF personnel killed in the Boraibari incident on April 18. Understandably there was a national outrage.
Even as tensions continued to mount last week, with both sides fortifying their borders with additional troops, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee came under fire from his own partymen for not taking tough retaliatory action against Bangladesh.
Yet almost 10 days after the fracas, instead of clarity there is still enormous confusion over what really caused the worst flare-up on the Indo-Bangladesh border since the 1971 war. There were other searching questions: how did the 16 BSF men die and why were the bodies returned mutilated? Why did the Indian Government do everything to de-escalate the situation, even risking flak for soft-pedalling the issue?
The truth may take awhile in coming but there are indications that the earlier reports about what really happened were misleading. That while Bangladesh did make the first aggressive move, a bungled counter-attack by India well inside Bangladesh's territory may have resulted in the death of the BSF personnel. This could also explain why the Indian Government's response was restrained, both verbally and in military terms.
The 4,096-kmborder between the two countries has always been tense. In the past six months alone, regular skirmishes between the BSF and its counterpart, the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), have left 32 dead, mostly civilians.
Reports of abductions and assaults on women in the villages have been common and local resentment against the troops is high. There is also a dispute since the 1971 war over who has territorial rights to certain pockets of land or enclaves along the irregular border. There are 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh and 50 Bangladeshi ones in India.
The current hostilities broke out over two such enclaves - one bordering Meghalaya and the other Assam. Trouble began on April 15 at a village called Pyrdiwah in Meghalaya. It is now clear that the BDR, in a surprising show of aggression, moved in to capture it. An entire battalion strength (1,000 men) of the BDR had walked in through the arecanut groves and encircled the 31 BSF personnel guarding the post.
The BSF held their ground and waited for reinforcements to be sent. It took a day for three additional companies (each company comprises 100 men) to reach the area.The BSF asked for a flag meeting - the usual practice to settle such adventurism which has happened several times along the border.
But the BDR stuck to its stand that Pyrdiwah was partof Bangladesh and asked the BSF for proof that the village was on Indian territory. When the BSF showed them papers, the BDR said they wanted to see original documents, not photocopies.
BRUTAL END: The bodies of the 16 BSF personnel were badly mutilated All along the BDR insisted that the BSF vacate the village and that they would not budge because they had orders from Dhaka. The next day, on April 17, BDR Director-General Fazlur Rahman gave details of the Pyrdiwah thrust and told the media proudly: "We have just completed a mission to restore our territory and sovereignty." It may have also been a ploy by Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed to shake off her pro-India image, which could prove tobe a liability in an election year.The Indian response, however, spun things out of control.
On hearing of the Pyrdiwah capture, BSF Director-General Gurbachan Jagat issued an alert and ordered intensive patrolling. "If they could suddenly get belligerent in Pyrdiwah, there was no way of ruling out similar incidents elsewhere," he said.
Patrols were asked to go out along the zero line that divides the two countries, for unlike in Kashmir where each battalion is responsible for a30kmstretch, in the North-east, each battalion has to cover 90 km and thus there is a gap of 7-9 km between posts.
Patrols were out after the red alert but at Mankachar in Assam, over 200 km away from Pyrdiwah, the BSF had other ideas. A party of 50-60 men drawn from 118 Battalion and led by Deputy Commandant B.R. Mondol was making an attempt to capture a post well into Bangladesh territory.
It is still not clear whether Mondol was acting on His own or whether there were secretorders from BSF headquarters clearing the capture of a post to be used as a bargaining chip to regain Pyrdiwah. Officially, Jagat denies that such an order was passed and maintains it was a decision made by the local commander. "I asked for intensive patrolling," he says, adding," Crossing the fence was not part of the brief." The operation, however, was ill conceived in more ways than one.
SAFE AND SOUND: A BSF jawan after he was handed over to Indian authorities by the BDRTo begin with, the choice of the post was horribly wrong. Unlike Pyrdiwah, which is an adverse possession - a village inhabited by Indians but one that actually belongs to Bangladesh (till the border agreement is ratified and the populations exchanged) - Boraibari bordering Assam lies across a fence.
Also, unlike Pyrdiwah, which is neither fenced nor has any pillars to clearly demarcate it, Boraibari is a large village with a population of at least 1,000. Its population has also largely been hostile to India because, as one senior official admitted, "We have often fired at them for entering our territory to cut trees."
The issue of the BSF firing on civilians has often figured in the bi-annual meetings between the BSF and BDR chiefs. Former BSF chief E.N. Ram Mohan was even described as a "trigger happy chief" by Indian diplomats stationed in Dhaka, for the high commissioner there often got called to the Bangladesh foreign office over BSF firing on civilians.
Splitting the BSF party into three groups, Mondol led one comprising 16 men. Their aim-to cross the Boraibari village and occupy the BDR post. This was error number one, for unlike the Pyrdiwah post which is located on an adverse possession, the BDR post is on Bangladeshi land.
The BSF would thus be violating Bangladesh's sovereignty if they took it and the BDR had the right to retaliate with force if necessary. Besides, Mondol had neither the numerical strength nor the fire power or the communication back-up that is crucial to counter-attacks. Mondol and party walked through a gat ealong the fence and took a nullah to reach Boraibari. They were totally unprepared for what followed.
Discovered by civilians, Mondol and his men heard aloud voice over the megaphone at the local mosque appealing to all villagers to gather because they were under attack from the BSF. According to the official version, before they knew it, the BSF party had been surrounded and dispossessed of weapons and wireless sets. Dragged by civilians and handed over to the BDR, Mondol's was among the 15 bodies that came back in wooden boxes, muti-lated and shot at point-blank range. There is even evidence that Mondol may have been shot dead a day after he was captured.
So why did the BSF party not fire in self defence? "Probably because they are trained not to fire at civilians," says Jagat. But the rule changes if there is a life-endangering situation like the one in which the BSF men found themselves. Why did the party not try and send out a wireless message to warn their seniors? "Mondol probably felt that being a Bengali, he could handle it himself," says a BSF officer.
There is a third explanation - they were caught in foreign territory and had no business to be there. A more uncharitable theory is that the BSF men were busy pillaging the village when the BDR struck.
India began moving only after the BDR announced the killing of the 16BSF personnel in the Boraibari encounter on April 18.Foreign Secretary Chokila Iyer summoned the Bangladesh High Commissioner Mustafa Farooq Mohammed to South Block.
Iyer, handling the first major diplomatic crisis since her appointment earlier this year, said the "unprovoked and unwarranted" intrusion by the BDR was unacceptable. She apparently told the high commissioner in no uncertain terms that in case status quo ante was not restored in Pyrdiwah and cross-border firing not stopped, Delhi would not be responsible if the situation got out of hand.
Around midnight, Iyer received a call from Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Syed Muazzam Ali, saying that orders had been issued to restore status quo ante as well as for immediate withdrawal from Pyrdiwah. The BDR withdrew from Pyrdiwah by the night of April 19.
TAKING PRECAUTIONS: Patrolling has been intensified on both sides of the Indo-Bangladesh border after the incidents
Although the BDR handed over the 16 bodies to the BSF on April 20, Prime Minister Vajpayee could convey "India's deep sense of hurt and anguish" over the mutilation of bodies to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed only two days later.
The conversation took place hours after Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh expressed similar sentiments to his Bangladeshi counterpart Abdus Samad Azad.If India's initial response to the BDR's misadventure was muted it was because the flare up came at a time when India was looking towards fulfilment of its pending agenda to promote security and economic interests in Bangladesh and beyond. With a friendly Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League Government in Dhaka, Indians were visualizing some bilateral benefits that would make its north-eastern region more secure. Delhi is keen to get transit rights through Bangladesh in order to reduce the vulnerability of the Siliguri corridor.
It wants access to natural gas in Bangladesh (some 428 billion cu m of it) in order to feed its energy hungry markets but cannot do so given the political situation in Dhaka. In fact, Bangladesh is central to India's theme to draw closer physical linkages with south-east Asia.
However, the "unwarranted" intrusion by the BDR has severely jolted the Indian plans and could derail Delhi's strategic interests. The anti-India sentiment currently raging in Bangladesh may give a leading edge in the forthcoming elections to Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh National Party, which has strong fundamentalist overtones.
The Indian reaction to Pyrdiwah appears to have gauged the extent of its negative impact on Delhi's relationship with Dhaka.The Government knew that if not handled properly, the border crisis had the potential to reopen the eastern front, thus nullifying the prime objective of the 1971 conflict.Also, as G. Parthasarthy, former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan, says, "It could be Pakistan's plan to open another front on India's eastern sector in order to divert Indian troops from Kashmir where the passes will be opening shortly." While hasty action could have regrettable fallouts, Delhi's reaction to the Boraibari massacre has come in for criticism. In the coming months it will have to justify its restraint as more uncomfortable truths pour out.
- with Ruben Banerjee and Almas Zakiuddin in Dhaka