No one killed Felani Khatun. Yet on January 7, 2011, the 15-year-old’s body was found swinging from the barbed wire fences dividing India and Bangladesh, shot through the chest. As Felani’s body hung for hours, people reported they heard her pleading for water.
No one was persecuted, no one was held responsible for killing Felani, an unarmed, defenceless child. Constable Amiya Ghosh of the Border Security Force (BSF), who was on “ambush and patrol duty” on the border with “friendly neighbour” Bangladesh, was accused of shooting Felani. He was tried in 2013 and then exonerated by the General Security Force Court. Two years later, a revision trial acquitted him. Felani’s parents, who travelled from their village in Khurigram, Bangladesh, were not even permitted to observe the proceedings. But Felani’s father, Mohammed Nur Islam never gave up hope for justice.
On March 18, the Supreme Court of India will hear Nur Islam’s plea for a fresh investigation by an SIT or the CBI into Felani’s death, to disclose the proceedings of the GSF Court against constable Ghosh and seek compensation for the family. Nur Islam found willing support in MASUM, a West-Bengal based human rights organisation, to jointly petition the SC. If states erect borders and organise patrols to intimidate neighbouring states, ordinary citizens too find ways to overcome barriers.
Twenty years ago in January 2000, in another incidence of cross-border justice (The Chairman, Railway Board & others v Chandrima Das & others), the Supreme Court upheld the Calcutta High Court judgment to compensate a Bangladeshi woman passenger with Rs 10 lakh when she was raped at the Howrah Station, Kolkata. The historic judgment reads:
“Even those who are not citizens of this country and come merely as tourists…will be entitled to the protection of their lives in accordance with the constitutional provisions.”
The quiet determination of lawyers and women activists in Kolkata and Delhi had played a major role in this case. Even the survivor’s lawyers, Dhaka-based Bangladesh Women Lawyers Association (BNWLA), acknowledged the support of the activists in Kolkata. “We cannot forget the unity and sympathy you showed for HK (identity withheld); it proves that the women of the world are together,” they said. Retired Justice D.K. Basu of the Kolkata high court had commented that the “best part of the entire episode” was played by activists (Maitree, a women’s rights network). They were “…constantly with HK giving her courage and hope.”
Immigration and access to resources
On that fateful day, Felani, a Bangladeshi girl who was working as a maid in Assam, was illegally crossing the Anantapur border in Cooch Behar district, West Bengal into Bangladesh along with her father. She was returning home to get married. While her father Nur Islam crossed the fences with the help of ladders, Felani’s dress got caught in the high barbed mesh. Felani’s stricken cries alerted Amiya Ghosh of the 181 Battalion, who allegedly shot Felani.
It was in reference to poor immigrants like Nur Islam and Felani that Amit Shah, currently the Indian home minister, last year made the appalling “termites” remark. In 2015, the National Human Rights Commission of India (NHRC) directed the Ministry of Home Affairs to pay Felani’s family Rs 5 lakh as compensation. It observed that “there could be no justification for shooting an unarmed girl”. The NHRC stated that though the security forces discharged a sensitive duty at the border, “they must adhere to some discipline and norms while performing such duty”.
The commission referred to an order issued on May 5, 2005, of the BSF Headquarters that states that even under grave provocation, the utmost distinction must be made between dealing with unarmed women and children and armed intruders. “In the instant case, the victim was an unarmed girl. So the BSF constable who shot at her obviously acted in disregard of the circular issued by the BSF HQrs.”
The MHA, however, has not paid the compensation. Nur Islam is hoping the SC hearing later in March will finally give Felani justice.
With her head hanging, ponytail swinging and right hand flaying in the air for help, the disturbing picture of Felani failed to make it to the headlines or front pages of newspapers in India, or draw the attention of governments across the world. It was the Dhaka-based Odhikar, a human right’s organisation that articulated the conscience of the subcontinent on the cover of its report: “It is not Felani hanging. It is Bangladesh.“
“Felani has become our symbol of the fight against human rights violation in the border region. The BSF’s shoot-to-kill policy is a blight on our justice system,” said Kirity Roy, secretary of MASUM. Since 2012, the organisation has been documenting and legally fighting cases of abuse and violence in border areas. According to Roy, each year the BSF kills 180-200 people – most are Indians – in the Bengal border alone, one of the five states bordering Bangladesh. Between 2011 and 2019, MASUM has investigated at least 86 cases of killing in the Bengal border by the BSF.
Allegations of torture, indiscriminate killings
Torture, indiscriminate killings and abductions are among the many allegations against the BSF. Several survivors and eyewitnesses of attacks allege that the BSF engaged in indiscriminate shooting without warning. No one has been persecuted despite the evidence, say the human rights activists working on these cases.
Rabibul Sheikh, 27 years old, a mason of Sukarurkuthi village, Coochbehar district was shot through the back of his head on July 9, 2019 by the BSF while he was smuggling cattle across the border. On the night of December 13, 2019 night, a group of men smuggling cattle to Bangladesh were shot by the BSF. Safikul Islam was killed and from the Gadadhar river, four bodies were retrieved tied with rope and stones.
These men and women – poor and without resources – cross borders regularly for their livelihood, risking their lives. They are killed or tortured and perhaps their socio-economic background is one reason why protests have not erupted in urban India or made it to the front pages or headlines of newspapers. Yet, the more such violations are ignored, the more the region and its people are marginalised. The victims of killing and torture are either Muslims or from the Scheduled Castes.
The response of government officials to these abuse allegations range from: “we shoot in self-defence” or “we never shoot to kill” to “we shoot illegal border crossers”. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms urge officials to apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms, and exercise restraint and “act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense.” In 2012, former judge D.K. Basu had observed that states must ensure that the various agencies “act within the bounds of the law and not become law unto themselves”.
India’s 4,156 km border with Bangladesh is an emotive political issue in Indian politics, which has further been heightened with the enactment of the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) in December 2019. This law provides a fast track to citizenship for non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan who faced religious persecution and entered India before December 31, 2014. The rhetoric surrounding the National Register of Citizens (NRC) has also seen the targeting of Bangladeshis.
Those who argue that thousands of Bangladeshis live in India illegally ignore the fact that Indians exploit them as cheap labour, like Felani and her father. While the BSF is on the watch against smuggling of narcotics, fake currency, cattle and arms, common people on both sides of the border view the “line” drawn by the British in 1947 as unfairly arbitrary as it cuts through the rice fields, villages and markets they have always traversed, deterring the natural cross-border movement of friends, relatives and trade.
Rajashri Dasgupta is an independent journalist based in Kolkata.