Blood at the border -- By Kuldip Nayar Back   Home  

I THOUGHT I would ask Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora, a key figure in the liberation of Bangladesh, how he felt about the spilling of blood at the border. He made two points: our people should not have allowed such a thing to happen, the way in which the BSF soldiers were taken by surprise and killed.

The second point he made was that many in the Bangladesh army were "anti-India and pro-Pakistan." This was their doing and they wanted to damn the Sheikh Hasina government at Dhaka. The second point more or less represents the general impression in the country.

New Delhi would have been really put on the mat if the political parties had not diluted their vehemence on the belief that the incident was orchestrated by the anti-Indian elements in Bangladesh and its security forces. Dhaka's word that its border policemen acted "without its knowledge" convinced the Vajpayee government that Hasina or her Awami League had no hand in the incident.

Therefore, Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh was polite, although firm, in his reaction in parliament to the incident. He spoke twice: once, when he said that the status quo ante should be restored on the border; the second time when he described the killings as "acts of criminal adventurism." By and large, members in both houses of parliament also responded with caution and restraint.

But the problem of Hasina is not India. It is Bangladesh. The incident may have been engineered to embarrass her to make it an issue during the coming elections in Bangladesh in October. Already the Dhaka foreign office has said that Hasina never expressed her "regret" and that the Bangladesh Rifles acted "in self-defence." This seems to have become necessary because Hasina's opponents must have gone to town with the 'regret' story.

Hasina has already been dubbed "pro-India." Her main opponent, Khaleda Zia, head of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), leaves no opportunity to have a dig at her - even alleging that Hasina is "New Delhi's agent." Khaleda and her main ally, Jamaat-i-Islami, miss no opportunity to convince the Bangladeshis that Hasina's "regret" was yet another proof of her policy of surrender before India.

Politics is in the air and Bangladesh is getting increasingly split into pro- and anti-liberation forces before the national election. Some pro-liberation groups are resisting the divide. But the incident may limit their choice to Hasina or Khaleda. It is unfortunate that New Delhi and Islamabad still cast their shadow, even after 30 years of Dhaka's liberation. There is no doubt that Khaleda's victory will strengthen the hands of anti-liberation and pro-Pakistan forces. Her alliance with forces of fundamentalism gives a communal edge to her party.

I fear that the nation will be further polarised as the days go by. Objectivity will be the casualty. In such a situation, the grey area gets shrunk. This is what is happening. But whichever side wins, Bangladesh has to reckon with India's size a fact that no political party can deny or ignore.

When I was in Dhaka two months ago, Khaleda said many times during an interview that she was not anti-India. Maybe, when she accuses Hasina of selling Bangladesh to Delhi, she is only indulging in rhetoric. But the perception about her is that she is part of the group which was against Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, father of the nation. And it is taken for granted that Khaleda's return will mean free operation of ISI and assistance to the hostile Nagas and other militants in the north-east. She is also expected to release those who have been given death penalty for Sheikh Mujib's assassination.

Had Khaleda condemned straightaway the killings and the mutilation of the bodies of BSF personnel, she would have erased to some extent the anti-India label against her name. In contrast, Hasina rang up Prime Minister Vajpayee to say that she was deeply saddened by the incident.

Of course, our soldiers have been caught napping. This happened in Kargil on a big scale. They were hoodwinked once again. The nation should be more concerned about it than even the incident because the soldiers betray an attitude of lassitude and laziness which has become part of our defence apparatus. Such incidents make one wonder how secure the country is in the hands of our security forces.

In the interest of Indo-Bangladesh relations, the best thing would have been if there were no border clash. But now that it has taken place, the two countries and their people must analyse the reasons for such a happening. It is obvious that the deep-seated suspicion about India has not gone from Bangladesh.

Dhaka's high commissioner in Delhi has said that certain areas, even after the demarcation of the border, have not been transferred to Bangladesh. I accept what he says. But the point at issue is whether the use of force is the way out. Frayed tempers are understandable when people feel that their territory has remained under India's occupation for years, even after a settlement. Even the allegation that the BSF had intruded into Bangladesh first is understandable. What is not understandable is the use of violence. And how does one explain the mutilation of bodies? We felt horrified when China tied some of our border policemen on the tails of horses and dragged them all over the Ladakh region in the sixties. That it happened in the wake of slogans such as Hindi Chini bhai bhai was all the more disturbing.

Friendly countries should never think of using force for settling any dispute. If they do, it will mean they have not been able to root out mutual suspicion. It also means that they have a long way to go to develop mutual confidence. Leading intellectuals and liberals in Bangladesh are conscious of the hidden hostility which has remained ever since East Pakistan broke away from West Pakistan. But they are helpless. They could not even raise a memorial to the Indian soldiers who had died during the liberation war. Only Hasina could do it when she came to power.

Political leaders and others should ask themselves what is in the mind of those who killed the Indian soldiers and mutilated their bodies? How does it benefit Bangladesh in any way? And what should be done to those who are determined to spoil the country's relations with India?

I recall when I visited Dhaka for the first time in 1972 after the birth of Bangladesh. "I wish I could die now because relations between India and Bangladesh are so good today that I do not want to see them deteriorate," Tajuddin, then No. 2 in the Bangladesh government, told me.

Sheikh Mujib was not worried when I met him. He said: "I know that some elements assisted by international interests are indulging in a whispering campaign against India. But they cannot sabotage the relationship between your great country and Bangladesh. A Bengali does not forget even those who give him only a glass of water. Your soldiers laid down their lives for my people. How can they ever forget your sacrifice? I can assure you that my people are not ungrateful. Therefore, those who are trying to foment trouble will not succeed in their designs."

I believe what the Sheikh said is true. The border incident was a bad dream. It needs to be forgotten sooner than later.

This article was published in Saturday, April 28, 2001 edition of Dawn, a leading Pakistani News Paper. Kuldeep Nayyer is a leading columnist and journalist writing mostly about Foreign Affairs of India.