Saturday, January 21, 2012

From India with love

It is said that an image is worth a thousand words. Last week, newspapers in Bangladesh printed a set of pictures taken from the Indian TV channels showing a Bangladeshi boy being beaten inside India, close to our border, by the Indian Border Security Forces (BSF) for allegedly not paying bribes to them for smuggling cows. The pictures were graphic and told a tale that was told by us many times in the past.

We are happy to know that the Indian authorities have taken cognisance of the event. The BSF commander of the unit which committed the offence was sent to the spot to investigate and report. We are keenly following the story to see the outcome of the investigation.

There is no doubt that India has become one of the profitable smuggling markets. Cows from as far as Mumbai reach West Bengal (Paschimbanga) to be pushed over to Bangladesh.

To many, smuggling seems to make so much sense. You sell, others buy. But there seems to be the small matter of laws in both the countries which are now pushing criminal activity to the border. The residents there happen to live in the gateway from where these animals are pushed into Bangladesh. Their homes therefore become a place for this criminal activity.

It might be relevant to understand the dynamics of cow smuggling. It is reported that 1.5 million cows worth $500 million are smuggled from India into Bangladesh each year. It is also estimated that a medium sized cow in Jharkand can be bought for $100. But when the cow enters Bangladesh its price can become as high as $350. The Indian authorities, in order to prevent smuggling, had taken an initiative to provide photo identification of all Indian cattle and their owners. But massive falsification of data by interested quarters there has put an effective end to this project.

We are told that illegal trade between India and Bangladesh bring in $2.7 billion annually to India. Compare that to the legal trade between the two countries, which ropes in $3.6 billion annually. So imagine the economics of our love with India.

For better understanding of animal smuggling, let us retrace the steps of a cow smuggled into Bangladesh. Traffickers bring the cow usually by truck to West Bengal (Paschimbanga) from as far as Haryana or Punjab. They have a strong network in border villages adjoining Bangladesh. The cows are held there in transit, before being pushed into Bangladesh.

Reports say that traffickers inject Diclofenal Sodium (a banned anti-inflammatory drug) to energise cows before they leap into Bangladesh and crash through physical obstacles including rivers and canals that demarcate the two countries. Once they reach this side of the border, the traffickers keep them in hiding till they are sent to markets and sold.

India and Bangladesh share an international border of 4095 kilometres with the final 6.5 kilometres recently demarcated. Five Indian states adjoin a total of 28 Bangladeshi districts at the border. According to Odhikar, a Bangladeshi human rights group, between 2000 and 2010, at least 924 Bangladeshis were killed by the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) on account of alleged offenses. 

This force was set up in 1965 and now has 190,000 personnel. Bangla-desh's Border Guards are only 67,000 in number. Thus, the BSF is among the largest border forces in the world. Its major peacetime duties include preventing trans-border crimes, unauthorised entry and exit from India and prevention of smuggling and other illegal activities. With about 70% of the border between Bangladesh and India already fenced with barbed wire, the keys to the gates of the fence are necessarily with the Indian BSF. So anyone caught sneaking through these areas must have some links with them. 

BSF in the past has justified the torturing of suspects by noting that smugglers evade arrest. Sometimes, the BSF says, it has to fire on them out of self defense. But the evidence collected suggests that BSF has always used excessive force. Cattle rustling is not a capital offence according to Indian law. So why do they shoot the people in the back? This suggests that the victims were running to evade arrest.

It is quite clear that the BSF ignores procedural safeguards to prevent torture. Like our law, Indian law requires that everyone taken into custody must be produced before a magistrate within 24 hours of the arrest. But this is more in breach than in practice. The Indian Penal Code forbids the causing of "hurt" or "grievous hurt" to any person while in the custody of a force. There are prescribed prison terms and fines for persons found guilty of torture. We rarely hear of any such punishment given to BSF personnel.

On the other hand, the BSF says that whenever they apprehend criminals at the border, they send them to the local police for prosecution. It is alleged that these criminals, get released against corrupt payments. Indeed, if this is so then this is a challenge for the Indian police. Criminals cannot be spared whatever nationality they belong to. But there is no reason for them to suffer inhuman and degrading treatment at the hands of BSF.

While we are looking into the corruption and excesses by Indian border forces, we must also start looking at alternative methods to buy beef from India. Some states in India have banned slaughter of cows for religious reasons. Other states prevent export of beef. But can we not welcome the legal import of cows for husbandry? Paschimbanga, we understand, allows the slaughter of cows. At least, the leftist government there did not ban it. So why can't we legally import frozen meat from Paschimbanga by opening letters of credit? We must find a mutually acceptable way out.

A wise man had once said: "Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable." Smuggling of cows and other items must end. Only a few gain while the two countries and people lose. An Indian proverb encapsulates the sentiment: "It is love that makes the impossible possible." And so from India we expect love and the impossible to happen. We hope India will consider selling us what we need. Let us negotiate this with India.