Dhaka has not forgotten Felani Khatun. On January 7, 2011, the 15-year-old girl was shot dead by India’s Border Security Force on the India-Bangladesh border in Cooch Behar, West Bengal. She was attempting to return to Bangladesh with her father by illegally crossing the fence. Her clothes had got entangled in the barbed wires. She screamed for help, but got bullets instead.
Felani Khatun’s body was left in the open for hours as an example for others with the same idea. Photographs of the outrageous incident made it to the international media and India was forced to set up an inquiry. An internal tribunal of the Border Security Force found constable Amiya Ghosh not guilty. The BSF ordered a retrial.
Felani was one of the many Bangladeshi immigrants who had gone to India with hopes of a better standard of living. She was one of the estimated 1,000 Bangladeshis who have been killed by India’s BSF over the decade.
Bangladeshis understand that India shouldn’t allow illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, in a way that no country allows illegal immigration. They accept that India should deport illegal immigrants when it finds them. But they are unable to understand the brutality shown to Khatun. Sadly, hers is not an isolated case. Indiscriminate killing and abuse at the hands of the BSF is rampant at the border.
It is in this light that Narendra Modi’s comments about “illegal Bangladeshi immigrants” are being seen in Dhaka. Along with Modi, his fellow Bharatiya Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy’s comments about Bangladeshi migrants have also caused alarm.
The barbed-wire fence Felani Khatun was killed at, is a 2,880-km stretch across India’s border with Bangladesh, built by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in the early 2000s. Many Bangladeshis tend to illegally cross the border for a variety of reasons – reasons ranging from the cattle trade to simply looking for better work conditions.
While Bangladeshis acknowledge that neither illegal immigration nor unauthorized cattle trading is justified, they fail to grasp the point of killing these immigrants on the border. Felani Khatun’s killing has become a symbol of Bangladesh’s loss of trust in India’s commitment to justice. The comments of Modi and Subramanian Swamy, one a veteran BJP leader, the other a former cabinet minister, about deporting infiltrators have only added salt to this wound.
On April 18, Swamy had claimed that “one-third of Bangladesh’s population” lives illegally in India, and demanded that Bangladesh should compensate for this by giving India one-third of its land. A few days later, Modi warned that come May 16, illegal Bangladeshis should be packing their bags to be sent back.
Few Indians realise that there are illegal and legal Indian immigrants in Bangladesh too – that is inevitable when you share a border as difficult as the India-Bangladesh one. India’s longest border is not with China or Pakistan but with Bangladesh, and right from 1947 it has been a difficult line to seal off. There are too many people whose lives and livelihoods are scattered on both sides. The Bangladeshi government estimates there are 500,000 Indians working in the country.
When it comes to remittances from other countries to India, Bangladesh ranks fifth on the list, according to Silicon India. That $3.7 billion a year comes from Indians working in non-profit organisations, the garment and textiles industries.
Yet, the Indians in Bangladesh are not a matter of election speeches here. It is a valid concern if there are Indians who worry about illegal immigrants being a drain on India’s income and resources. But Subramanian Swamy said that allowing these “infiltrators” to live in India would threaten India’s secularism. Narendra Modi and his party’s manifesto have said that India would be a home for Hindus from other countries. “Where will they go? India is the only place for them. We will have to accommodate them here,” Modi has asked.
India, as any independent nation, has the right to deny “illegal immigrants” from anywhere, Bangladesh or Bhutan. But it is clear that the issue here is less illegal immigrants and more the religion they practice. It seems that the bigger threat to India’s secularism is not the Bangladeshi migrants, but Narendra Modi.
The BJP’s rhetoric is bad news for those who champion secularism in Bangladesh. An editorial in New Age, a daily newspaper, read: “What the Indian political establishments do not realise is that such election-time political rhetoric by people like Subramanian could give rise to communalistic reaction on this side of the border. If it so happens, and especially given the general displeasure of the Muslim population in India, such sentiment could even spread in some Indian areas bordering Bangladesh like wildfire.”
There have already been attacks reported on the Hindu community since these comments were made. While attacks on temples, looting of houses, vandalism and arson on Hindu property are sadly not rare, it is now feared that there may be a further backlash from the Islamists against the Hindu minority.
Academics and intellectuals have also expressed concern regarding the future of India-Bangladesh relations. The Dhaka Tribune
said in an editorial: “To raise valid concerns about illegal immigrants is one thing. To threaten purge-type policies is quite another, and ill befits the putative leader of the world’s largest democracy.”
Mahbub Hassan Saleh, deputy high commissioner of Bangladesh in New Delhi, has reportedly said he does not worry about Modi coming to power. Yet the country’s commerce minister, Tofail Ahmed, has indicated that the “illegal immigrants” row may put a strain on India-Bangladesh ties. The future does not look promising.
(Syeda Samira Sadeque is a journalist with the Dhaka Tribune in Dhaka, Bangladesh.)