Home-Made Fiasco

It is now clear that the BSF’s retaliatory attack on Boraibari village, across the border from Mancachar, Assam, in which 16 Indian soldiers were brutally killed, was carried out with the consent of the Union home ministry. BSF officials say the entire operation was hasty and botched up because of intelligence failure and tactical blunders.

Senior bsf officials in Delhi say there was an “informal directive” from the home ministry asking troops to be proactive. “In matters like this, nothing is given in writing,” says one. The bsf leadership had all along apprised the home ministry of the ground situation following the April 15 attack on Pyrdiwah village by the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR). This obviously means that home minister L.K. Advani was aware of what was happening.

Advani’s silence on the issue has been inexplicable. Indeed, there’s a feeling in the bjp that the response was inadequate. For days, the government fielded a mere bureaucrat, home secretary Kamal Pandey, to answer queries on the incident. Obviously, the government was embarrassed at the disastrous operation and seemed keen to play down the killing on the border only because the blame lay squarely with it. The sequence of events Outlook has pieced together testify to the government’s culpability.

The trouble on the eastern border began on the night of April 15-16, when the BDR captured the Indian-held Pyrdiwah village. The BSF was caught unawares. About 700 BDR men surrounded and held hostage 20 BSF men at a small outpost there. The BDR personnel dug trenches and evicted villagers, mostly Khasis. The Bangladeshi contention was that Pyrdiwah (Padua to them) is in India’s “adverse possession” and so needed to be taken back.

Neither the BSF’s G Branch, responsible for intelligence, nor a raw operative stationed at Dawki, 3 km from Pyrdiwah, had any inkling about the BDR plan. Having taken possession of the village and encouraged Bangladeshi villagers to plunder it, the BDR had drawn the first blood.

India’s response was slow. Senior officials including IG V.K. Gaur were away from Shillong, the BSF HQ for Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur and Nagaland, supervising a counter-insurgency operation in Manipur. Even New Delhi reacted tardily, losing almost a day before realising the gravity of the situation.

As the BSF men remained trapped at Pyrdiwah, reports that Bangladesh was massing BDR reinforcements along the border and that the Bangladesh Army was also being put on alert started coming in. The decision-makers in Delhi, namely the home ministry, felt something drastic must be done to break the deadlock. They hit upon attacking Boraibari, some 300 km west of Pyrdiwah. Says Gaur, “I had to ease the pressure on the Pyrdiwah side since my men were trapped there.”

Gaur wasn’t alone in his attempt to mount pressure on the BDR. In fact, after the Pyrdiwah incident, BSF troops were specifically instructed to patrol the border areas intensively. The delay in taking counter-measures is also being attributed to an ego tussle between Advani and defence and external affairs minister Jaswant Singh. Says a source in the Shillong-headquartered Assam Rifles, “A brigade-strength reinforcement of the Assam Rifles was put on stand-by a day after the Pyrdiwah intrusion at the instruction of the home ministry. But the decision to move them was ultimately shot down by Jaswant Singh who, apparently, is against annoying the friendly neighbour.”

Once it was decided to attack Boraibari, the BSF’s deputy commandant B.R. Mondal was asked to lead the charge. Mondal was perhaps too complacent about his familiarity with the people and the terrain of the region. But he hadn’t reckoned with the changed sentiments on the other side. A reconstruction of events that took place on April 18 shows that Mondal and his 15-member team were taken hostage by a combined group of Bangladeshi villagers and BDR personnel and then killed in cold blood.

This begs the question: how were they taken hostage in the first place? Either the BDR had already anticipated the BSF attack or there was a leak at the local level about the impending operation. Whatever the cause, by the time Mondal led his team into Boraibari, the other side was ready for them. According to one theory, although Mondal’s team managed to capture the BDR outpost easily, it was taken by surprise when villagers surrounded and later disarmed them. “Since our boys must have been worried about harming the civilians, they perhaps did not fire on them when surrounded,” explains a senior BSF official.

Others differ. Says an officer stationed on the border, “Mondal’s team was clearly taken by surprise. They were captured and killed by a numerically far superior force.” The other side was obviously well prepared as is evident from the use of three- and eight-inch mortars by the BDR. “They started the mortar fire almost immediately after our men were captured which means they were well prepared. Normally, the BDR does not carry mortars as part of its usual armoury on the border,” says the officer.

But why were the BSF men killed so brutally? At the Mancachar outpost, R.N. Mishra, a veteran BSF man who’s replaced Mondal, is at a loss: “Why would anybody want to kill in such a fashion? There is hardly any contact between the Bangladeshi villagers and our men. We patrol on this side of the fence, about 150 metres inside the actual boundary. So where’s the question of having any relationship, good or bad?”

But villagers in Mancachar have a different story to tell. “Although Mondal was a good soul, the BSF’s reputation in this sector is not clean,” says Amirul Islam, who runs a betelnut business. “They allow the smugglers on both sides to carry out their business with impunity in return for money.” Islam and several others think that there must have been some friction between the villagers on the other side and the BSF in recent times. “When they finally got a chance to settle scores, they did,” says Mohammed Shafiqur, another villager.

Back in Delhi, as news of the killing hogged headlines, a confused government tried to shy away from explaining the incident. The home ministry tried to deflect attention. The external affairs ministry, concerned about its friendly relations with the Sheikh Hasina regime in Bangladesh, was left to do the explaining. That’s why Jaswant Singh was given the job to make a statement in Parliament although it should have been Advani’s taskā€”the BSF, after all, comes under his ministry. In Parliament, Jaswant Singh condemned the killings but was also soft on Hasina.

At a meeting of the bjp parliamentary party, Jaswant Singh told angry party MPs that when he made a statement in Parliament on the killings of BSF soldiers by Bangladeshi forces, he was speaking as India’s external affairs minister, not defence minister. Later, a bjp MP quipped, “That’s the whole problem. Jaswant is busy playing the big diplomat. No one is playing the part of defence minister.” Perhaps Jaswant Singh will score brownie points should the Bangladeshi prime minister stop by in Delhi mid-May, as reports indicate.

bjp MPs feel that while India went out of its way to protect the interests of the Bangladeshi regime, the sentiment was not reciprocated. The Bangladeshi establishment stuck to the version that it was the BSF which had triggered the tragedy. And regardless of the embarrassment it caused India, Hasina made it clear that she had never apologised for the incident and had merely expressed regret.

Little wonder the ruling establishment is livid with what they perceive as a slight to India’s self-respect. S.S. Ahluwalia, bjp Rajya Sabha MP, rues: “This is Bangladesh. Jisko humne sub kuch sikhaya hai (the country we taught everything).” Even the allies are unhappy. Says bjd MP Prasanna Patasani: “We are now stuck on all sides. One side Pakistan, now Bangladesh. Our government should give a stronger reply.” Agrees the Shiv Sena’s Sanjay Nirupam: “Hume muh-tod jawab dena chahiye (We should give a crushing response).”

The bjp is embarrassed because it sees itself as an ultra-nationalistic force. Kishan Singh Sangwan, MP from Sonepat, Haryana, said at the parliamentary party meeting that the government’s weak response to the outrage against Indian soldiers will harm the bjp even more than the Tehelka expose.

For all the embarrassment to the government, there are some gains for the bjp. The party is planning to cash in on the communal fallout in Assam where elections are due in a few weeks. Rajen Gohain, bjp MP from Assam and state unit chief, says that anti-Bangladesh sentiments are already strong in Assam. “Yeh log Assam ko Bangladesh banana chahte hai (These people want to convert Assam into Bangladesh). Now after an incident like this, people will be more sympathetic to the bjp-agp alliance which is strongly anti-foreigner. Sentiments against foreigners will increase.” Does he fear a communal flare-up? Gohain is candid in his reply: “During election time, communal incidents can always take place. Now after this type of incident, the possibility is even greater of a sharp communal polarisation.”

The BSF, too, is disappointed with the bjp-led government. “They have done nothing to assuage the feelings of the BSF jawans,” points out a BSF official. DG Gurbachan Jagat is also hurt at the way BDR chief Maj Gen Fazlur Rehman has stabbed them in the back. When Rehman was here early April, the BSF hosted and toasted him and even organised a holiday for him and other BDR officials in Goa. The hurt is all the more because the Indian government failed to fashion an adequate response that could keep intact New Delhi’s delicate relations with Dhaka without letting down the men who guard the border.

Nitin A. Gokhale in Mancachar with Saba Naqvi Bhaumik and Murali Krishnan in Delhi