India and Bangladesh: Uneasy dialogue

Wasbir Hussain

Yet another round of border talks between India and Bangladesh ended in Dhaka on May 3 amid charges and counter-charges by both sides that share a blow-hot-blow-cold relationship. The five-day Director General (DG)-level talks, beginning April 29, between the Border Security Force (BSF) and the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), were held less than a month after the Bangladesh Coast Guard seized as much as 10 truckloads of sophisticated military hardware from the Chittagong Port, estimated at a value of more than Rs 10 billion. BSF Director General Ajay Raj Sharma, heading the 15-member Indian delegation, and his BDR counterpart Major General Jahangir Alam Chowdhury, leading the 19-member home team, discussed the usual border irritants between the two highly populous neighbours. BDR officials bombarded the media in Dhaka with charges that included killing of 15 ‘innocent’ Bangladeshi nationals by the BSF and Indian civilians between January and March, push-in attempt of ‘Bengali speaking Indian nationals’ by the BSF, setting up of ‘illegal structures’ by India within 150-yard of the zero point in violation of international rules and regulations, and trafficking of women and children. Besides, the BDR officials, according to Bangladeshi media reports, also raised the issue of drug and illegal arms smuggling from India.

The Indian side, on its part, sought the strengthening of BDR-BSF coordination to prevent border crimes, ensuring border security, and environmental conservation. The Indian delegation also sought details regarding the latest position on the implementation of the 1974 Indira-Mujib Accord between the two countries. New Delhi and Dhaka have, at fairly regular intervals, been discussing issues that are actually ‘borderless’ in the sense that terrorism and crime recognise no national borders. However, evidences, again coming up at regular intervals, suggest that sections within the Bangladeshi power structure could well be aiding and abetting separatist insurgencies in India’s Northeast.

When these facts are taken into account, the stark reality of a border that exists, and which needs to be demarcated and protected, becomes impossible to ignore. Take, for instance, the April 2 arms seizure near the Chittagong Port in southern Bangladesh. Well placed Indian intelligence sources disclose that the cache comprised 1,790 rifles, that included Uzi sub-machine guns and those of the AK series, 150 rocket launchers, 840 rockets, 2,700 grenades and more than one million rounds of ammunition. The seizure of such a large consignment of illegal arms is itself a highly disturbing development, and when such a huge quantity of lethal military hardware is destined for a foreign location, the issue becomes all the more serious.

Both countries have, individually, an insufficient force to effectively patrol the border, and that would help end abuses on both side.

The BSF-BDR talks are intended as an exercise at smoothening out existing irritants and ensuring the security of both nations, rather than sessions aimed at levelling charges and counter-charges. A higher degree of transparency on Dhaka’s part will be necessary before this annual exercise can serve its intended purpose. Absence of such transparency within the structure of bilateral relations, future options can only include international scrutiny and investigations into developments such as the latest arms haul and Bangladesh’s support to terrorist and extremist groups — options that Premier Zia would certainly prefer to exclude.

Hussain is consulting editor, The Sentinel, Guwahati