Worst of Abu Ghraib on our borders

January 27, 2012

by Partho Sarathi Ray

Please watch this video. Watch it before the government of India blocks access to it or it disappears among the millions of videos on YouTube. Watch it even though it disgusts and nauseates you. Watch it because it is important to know. What does it remind you of? Abu Ghraib, Afghanistan, Auschwitz? The places where the human being has been subjected to the greatest indignities possible? Unfortunately, it is much closer home. It is somewhere near India’s border with Bangladesh, in Murshidabad district of West Bengal. It is in this place, quite close to the “highly cultured” city of Kolkata, on a bitingly cold winter morning, that a man is made completely naked, his hands tied to a stake behind his back, and systematically beaten with sticks by a bunch of men, while another person records his ordeal on a mobile phone to be shared and savoured later with friends. Who are the perpetrators of this horrendous act? They are members of the Border Security Force (BSF), the protectors of our borders, the proud custodians of the country’s sovereignty. They are dressed in their fatigues, and the banal ease with which they do the entire thing suggests that they are quite accustomed, and proud, doing it.

What happened on that winter morning two weeks back is that a group of men were caught by the BSF allegedly in the act of smuggling cows. Two of them, who were able to pay bribes to the BSF jawans, were allowed to go. The third, a young man, Muslim and Bangladeshi, and unable to pay the bribe, was caught and the BSF jawans decided to use him for their morning’s entertainment. He was completely stripped, his lungi torn into shreds that were used to hogtie him to a stake behind his back, his legs were bound together while one of the jawans stood with his foot on his chest, and then he was beaten with sticks, accompanied by jeering and laughter and advice where to hit him to cause the maximum pain without leaving visible marks. And one of these “protectors of our borders” filmed it on his mobile while his colleagues posed with their victim. The visuals are disgusting, and they sort of put you in a trance of horror, but even more nauseating are the comments which you can hear in the video. Because they give you an insight into the minds of these men as they are perpetrating this horrible act. How one of them suggests in the beginning to feed the victim some tea, possibly to enliven him up for the entertainment, adding that the utensils in which tea is provided to the person are washed, because he is after all a “damned coweater”. How another one tells where to hit him, and how one of them casually suggests cutting off one of his ears. And the gut wrenching cries and pleas for mercy of the man being beaten. Everything is designed to cause maximum pain and indignity, to dehumanize the victim.

What drives these BSF jawans to perpetrate these horrible acts on this man? Everything about the man makes him the perfect target of the sadistic rage of these security men. He is Muslim, a Bangladeshi citizen, a Bengali, a poor person and a cow smuggler. He is the quintessential “other” that the security forces, and we at large, are taught to hate. The members of the security forces are reared on majoritarian Hindu-Hindi nationalism, the dominant idea that defines India, but which we feel shy to acknowledge. Anyone outside the pale, adivasis, dalits, Kashmiris, people from the north-eastern states, are anthema for them, and are worthy of being treated in this manner. Because they are doing it for “bharat mata”, the same “bharat mata” who looks down benignly from behind the stage of Anna Hazare’s fast. Because they are doing it for “gau mata”, laws for the “protection” of whom have been passed in almost every state. Just as they have perpetrated these horrors on this Muslim man from Bangladesh, they do the same to the adivasis of the forested tracts of central India, where the Indian state has unleashed them on the Maoist revolutionaries. They do the same to Kashmiri youth, they do the same to young men and women from the north-east. They do it because the security forces represent and protect the “idea” of India, the idea that the majoritarian state wants to thrust down the throats of anyone who dissents, who diverges from this “mainstream” of sociopolitics and economics, anyone who is the “other”.

And that explains why there has been no public outrage over this video. Why the news of this heinous crime has not been splashed across front pages of newspapers. Why the video has not gone viral like “kolaveri di”. Why street protests have not been held, statements have not been released. Why even the civil society of Kolkata, always vocal on issues, has been silent. Because it reminds us that is has been done in OUR name. It has been done by the security forces which are protecting our borders, protecting our “sovereignty”. It is the same security forces that we have just celebrated on our Republic Day, as they have marched resplendent in their parade uniforms, in front of the eyes of the whole country delighting in their glory and prowess. In the light of this glory, who cares about what some of them might have done to some Muslim man on the Bangladesh border? Or to someone in the forests of Chattisgarh, or in the valleys of Kashmir? After all, they represent us, isn’t it? It is this culture of impunity, of eulogizing the security forces, that allows things like what we have seen in this video to happen. This is why stones are found to be inserted in the genital tract of Soni Sori after she is arrested by the same security forces in Chattisgarh. This is why two young women, Asiya and Niloufer, are raped and killed and their bodies thrown into a stream in Kashmir. This is why Thangjam Manorama is raped and killed in Manipur after being picked up from her home by the same security forces. We have forgotten them, just as we will forget this young Bangladeshi man. These things are going to continue to happen until and unless we challenge this impunity, unless it is understood that perpetrators of such acts will be punished. As the report accompanying the video, prepared by the Asian Human Rights Commission and Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM), a small human rights organization doing exemplary work in bringing such cases of torture to light, has detailed, in spite of complaints about numerous such cases made to the BSF authorities “not in a single case the BSF command has initiated a credible enquiry or taken effective corrective measures against the officers”. This case would also not have been known unless the owner of the computer parlour where the BSF jawan had gone to download the video had been horrified by it and informed local people about it, and then MASUM had taken it up.

According to reports received, the victim has gone back to Bangladesh. The Bangladesh government is also trying to suppress the matter, although it qualifies as an international crime. The Bangladesh government does not want to rock the boat of its relationship with India, especially where weighty matters such as Teesta river water distribution are pending. The chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, who used to take pride in standing besides the victims of repression when she was not in power, has not cared to utter a single word about this. And nothing, I guess, should be expected from the government of India. And, nothing will happen, unless we, the people, come out on the streets with tears in our eyes for the victim and fire in our heart against the powers that protect the perpetrators and create this culture of impunity in our society. Because both the perpetrators of such injustice, and those who tolerate it, are equally guilty in the eyes of humanity.



January 19, 2012

A Statement from the Asian Human Rights Commission

INDIA: To end BSF violence what more does it require?

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and its partner organisation, the Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM), have been documenting and reporting cases of extreme forms of brutality committed by the Border Security Force (BSF) stationed along the Indo-Bangladesh border in West Bengal state. The latest is a video of extreme torture by the BSF of a civilian that reportedly happened on 16 January 2012. The video shows blood-chilling torture, committed by the BSF. The incident is a shame and the brutality documented alarming, suggesting that the officers require psychiatric assistance, a condition that challenges their very legitimacy to guard the country’s border.

Since the past eight years, MASUM is reporting directly and through international human rights organisations like the AHRC, cases against the BSF to the Indian authorities. So far MASUM has reported about 800 cases. These are cases of torture and other forms of custodial violence, rape, murder, extortion and corruption. The AHRC is not aware of any open and credible action taken against any of the officers mentioned in these cases, though every possible detail has been provided to the authorities.

Every case report includes a narrative of the incident, the name of the BSF officers involved, that of the outpost and battalion where the officers were stationed, the name of the police station having jurisdiction over the place where the incident happened, the name of the witnesses and their statements as recorded by MASUM, and the name and other details of the victim. This information is sent to officers, including but not limited to the Director General of the BSF, Union Home Minister, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), the Chief Minister and Home Minister of West Bengal, Inspector General of Police and the District Magistrate having jurisdiction upon the area where the incident happened. These cases reported globally are available at AHRC’s Urgent Appeals website where cases from India are reported.

Each one of these communication calls for specific actions to be taken in the incident, at the very minimum, recording the complaint of the victim and the statements of the witnesses. However, according to the information available to the AHRC, not in a single case the BSF command has initiated a credible enquiry or taken effective corrective measures against the officers. Neither has the BSF nor the government cared to acknowledge the receipt of these communications. The response from the NHRC also has been thus far disheartening.

The NHRC’s action is always to direct the state police to investigate the case. The reports prepared by the West Bengal state police, always absolve the BSF from responsibility and accuses the victim as a cross-border smuggler or someone who tried attacking the BSF, when stopped for questioning. The AHRC and MASUM have been repeatedly contenting that such reports are farce and would do further damage to the morale of the BSF and of the people living along the Indo-Bangladesh border. The proof is the video.

It is a cruel joke, that the Raninagar police have claimed that they have not investigated the incident, as late as today, since they are yet to get a complaint regarding the event. Perhaps the West Bengal police have a new Criminal Procedure Code that requires them to receive a formal complaint to act upon a gruesome crime. Or is the response underlining the fact that the state police always shy away from taking any action against the BSF? The AHRC has been requesting the Government of West Bengal that it should seriously consider the fact that the rank and file of the state police stationed in areas where the BSF operates is suffering from a high degree of demoralisation.

When the video was aired yesterday through local television channels in West Bengal, the administration has taken ‘action’. This is the suspension of eight BSF officers and the transferring of the District Magistrate (DM) and the Superintendent of Police (SP) of Murshidabad district. While the response is appreciated, the AHRC is of the opinion that this is not enough.

The official defensive statement by the BSF, that the video could be as old as 15 years, is nothing but irresponsibility in print. The security agency that is mandated to protect the country’s border should have the minimum knowledge, that mobile telephones with a camera, now though common, was exceptionally rare 15 years ago. The BSF does not have a case that their officers exposed in the video are serving in the same outpost for the past 15 years. If the video is not of an incident that happened on 16 January, then on what reason was the officers stationed at Charmurasi border outpost suspended?

The video shows officers, identifiable in person, violating every code of their operative mandate, in some of the most brutal and inhuman manner. It shows the alarming wilt of discipline among the officers. Any agency, having such sick officers posted on duty has serious reasons to consider overhauling its operative structure to ensure basic discipline. In the BSF however, such actions are unlikely to happen. At the most the case would end, probably after a decade, with some punitive actions taken against the officers who are now placed under suspension.

The DM and the SP, of Murshidabad should have known that such incidents are common. They cannot content otherwise, since the MASUM and the AHRC together have sent these officers some 800 cases during the past eight years. These two officers have the legal responsibility to answer for what is in the video since had their office been diligent enough such incidents would not have repeated. In a case reported by the AHRC and MASUM on 19 October 2012, the victim in the case was stoned to death by the BSF. The incident happened within the jurisdiction of Raninagar Police Station. No action has been taken on this case so far. The details of the case are available at AHRC-UAC-210-2011 .

The Inspector General (IG) of the BSF is also responsible for the incident since the IG’s office is bound by ‘command responsibility’. In the same vein, the Inspector-General commanding the South Bengal Frontier unit of the BSF and the Commandant and under whom the officers involved in the incident served are also to be punished. Command responsibility is no legal fiction. It is legal norm, which applies in this case without exception.

Most importantly the question that needs to be answered now is that what allows the BSF to perpetuate such horrendous forms of violence against unarmed civilians? Had the BSF been operating in compliance with the Border Security Force Act, 1968 and its Rules 1969, such incidents would not have happened. It shows that discipline and commitment to duty is not ensured within the rank and file in the force. Violence by the BSF against unarmed civilians and other forms of corruption and crimes committed by the BSF with impunity is a threat to the border security of the nation. Such a BSF is a threat to the entire country.

If experience were of any value, one need to see whether, at least in this occasion there would be a transparent investigation and adjudication. If national security is of any interest to the government, it should prove it by taking actions in all cases reported to the government, of crimes committed by the BSF. The AHRC is willing to once again submit to the Government of India a dossier containing details of the cases documented by the AHRC involving the BSF.