The year 2011 heralds completion of two-year of the Awami League-led Grand Alliance government, and marks the 4th anniversary of the so-called ‘1/11’ — a ‘military coup’ in disguise. Under close watch of police and RAB, New Year’s Eve celebration went fairly uneventful.
There were some upheavals though. The long queue to acquire tickets for the upcoming World Cup Cricket was lead news and talk of the town. World Cup ticket hoopla was duly followed by nearly 24/7 news coverage of the stock market roller coaster ride. TV news as well as talk shows, all were busy airing footage of angry investors — bleeding from the baton-charged by law enforcers, rallying and pelting stones at nearby cars and offices. The government took the challenge politically and ‘made sure’ that the following day the stock index rebounded with a two-fold vigour.
Other than all these discussable and forgettable stuff, the New Year as well as the second year anniversary of the Hasina-Ershad government was supposed to be a happy event. But an unhappy and ugly episode of a bright red deep blue spot hanging 15-feet above the ground on our horizon caused a major distraction.
An image of the dead body of a young girl, in bright red and deep blue dress, hanging high from the Indo-Bangla border fence, was published in some newspapers and online news sites. This horrific image sent shockwave across the nation. The photo was of Felani, a 14-year-old Bangladeshi girl from a poor rural North Bengal family.
It is ironic that her name was Felani. Felani is a generic name in Bangla that usually describes an orphan or a poor girl who serves her master’s household all day and night to make ends meet. Felani was born in the region of Bangladesh where ‘monga’ — seasonal food crisis — is endemic. In quest of the basest of basic human needs of quenching hunger, five-year old Felani, her parents, along with many others like them, crossed international political border and managed the lowest-wage job in a far away land — Southwest India. They took the hardest and the lowest paid jobs, which even the locals passed. But at least, it was a job that gave little Felani, food. For Felani and her family, and other hungry souls, political border does not mean much and hunger does not care for any border.
Poor people cross the border in a much different way than the urban educated folks do. They don’t read newspapers or journals. They don’t understand India’s growing stature and accompanying security concern. They only heard that there were jobs in this and that far away land. Many of them don’t have passport, visa — no one has the money to spend on airfare.
Their trail is rather long. Some will stop in nearby Kolkata, while some will travel to Delhi, Mumbai and many of them will cross another fearsome border to land in Karachi, Pakistan. There is no clear data about how many economic migrants are in which country.
While working as a child labourer, carrying and washing brick in a brick-field in a far away land, Felani grew up and reached the age to be married off, as per the standards of rural Bangladesh. She was returning home after 10 years to get married. Everything was set.
And then tragedy struck in the form of a bullet.
Like 12-year-old Monjura or 13-year-old Parul, Felani was shot by the Indian Border Security Forces as her salwar kamiz got entangled high up in the barbed wire fence as she attempted to cross it on her way back home. Reportedly, Felani was alive at least four hours after being shot. Local villagers reported that they heard her screaming and asking for water.
Felani bled to death. Finally after she died, the Indian BSF brought the body down and conducted a post mortem. Felani’s family got the body back few days later.
Local people protested. Internet-based citizen journalism sites erupted in anger. Though the government protested Felani’s death, not a single word about Felani could be heard from our articulate prime minister. No word for Felani from one of the most powerful women in the world. Rather shockingly, some Awami League supporters saw ‘Jamaati’ conspiracy to foil “War Crimes Trial” as regards the incident.
Felani means disposable. Is the Bangladeshi citizen Felani actually disposable? Isn’t her death important enough to seek justice for?
Indiscriminate killing of Bangladeshis on Indian border started soon after the independence of the country. But over the last few years, the killings have become much more frequent. Bangladeshi human rights organisation Odhikar says in a report that the BSF kills one Bangladeshi in every four days. It also says that the BSF killed 74 Bangladeshi citizens in 2010, injured 72 and kidnapped 43. In the past decade, more than 1000 Bangladeshis were killed in the border regions by BSF. There are credible reports of other outrageous acts by Indian security forces. There are reports when a Bangladeshi boy was killed as he refused to share fish he caught from a border area river. Even since Felani was killed, very recently another report of BSF kidnapping and torturing of a Bangladesh teenage boy to death came to news.
Last year when our prime minister Sheikh Hasina made her ‘victorious’ trip to India, her Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh even failed to acknowledge the killings committed by India’s border security forces.
For a political government which should understand people’s pulse fairly well, failing to address general public’s concern about India’s very aggressive and trigger-happy border strategy may have long lasting effect on the credibility that took Awami League 25 years to build.
On the other side, why the BSF continues to shoot and kill Bangladeshis also remains a big question. Especially when there are promises made from highest political leadership to stop this indiscriminate killing. One may assume that the BSF killings may be result of a policy of deterrence to prevent further economic migration into India. Why can’t BSF use rubber bullets instead of live bullets, fire warning shots before aiming to kill or use verbal deterrence? Other explanations may put the blame on an undisciplined BSF. However, if BSF discipline was indeed the reason, then we would have heard of deaths along the other borders of India, especially crowded and porous India-Nepal border. Or are these growing number of killings stem from lack of strong deterrence from BSF’s Bangladeshi counterpart?
At this time, the anti-India sentiment is lowest in the history of Bangladesh. But if these Felani-style murders keep occurring, this favourable public opinion can reverse in the shortest possible time. Since the Grand Alliance government came to power, the leadership has been busy selling connectivity. With Felani’s body hanging high on the barbed-wire fence, people may start questioning how a meaningful connectivity is possible when the whole country is enclosed with 15-feet high barbed-wire from all sides to prevent connecting. It is good news that a transit deal with India is being ratified. The nation is told connectivity would be great for our economy. But for the sake of connectivity, while Bangladesh opens up all that it has — our Parul, Monjura or Felani or many Shafiq, Rafiq, Swapon are being shot to death while farming along India-Bangladesh border. They are shot at sight if caught in the process of connecting in some cases. How the families of those killed will feel when they will see India’s 18-wheeler lorries driving through Bangladesh via special road built for them with our people’s money?
India’s prime minister Dr. Singh is scheduled to visit Dhaka sometimes this year. Will it be too much to ask him to change BSF’s rule of engagement in Bangladesh India border?
If we talk about more connectivity, more regional cooperation, like the European Union, why can’t we have EU-style open border? Let’s open our borders so that real economic integration can begin. Let our Felanis and their parents’ travel fearlessly providing cheap labour to the growing economies in the region.
Now, that would be connectivity.
Rumi Ahmed is a blogger and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org