Around 5 pm on March 17, Krishnadhan Sarkar, officer in-charge of the Sabroom police station in South Tripura, received a call on his mobile phone. The caller told Sarkar that Border Security Force personnel had opened fire in a village called Chita Bari on the India-Bangladesh border.

Chita Bari, green and hilly, is located on the southern tip of Tripura. All that separates it from neighbouring Bangladesh is the river Feni. Electricity is scarce, and as in most border villages, mobile phone networks are almost non-existent. To phone the police, the caller had to sprint a few hundred metres north of the village to get reception.

When Sarkar finally arrived at the location where the firing had taken place – a small clearing on top of a hillock – he saw a middle-aged woman holding the lifeless body of another woman and crying. The older woman was Radhalaxmi Tripura, a daily wage labourer who lives in Chita Bari. The dead woman was her 28-year-old daughter, Suralaxmi Tripura.

Sarkar said that he saw two other bodies on the hilltop. They were that of Por Kumar Tripura, a daily wage labourer, and Min Kumar Tripura, who owned the rubber plantation where Por Kumar Tripura, Radhalaxmi Tripura and Suralaxmi Tripura were working that day. Two other people lay injured – one had been shot in the head, the other in his right leg.

Murder, says villager

Radhalaxmi Tripura said that around two hours before Sarkar arrived at the scene, she was winding up work at the rubber plantation when she heard her daughter scream. She said that Suralaxmi left for home early that day as there was no one to attend to her children – four-year-old Reshmi and 12-year-old Amar.

“When I ran towards her, I saw one of the BSF [Border Security Force] men holding her arm and trying to drag her into the woods,” said Radhalaxmi Tripura, who lives with her daughter’s family in a two-room bamboo house with a thatched roof, close to the hilltop where the bodies were found. She alleges that the security forces personnel were trying to sexually assault her daughter.

Radhalaxmi Tripura said that she raised an alarm, and was joined by 14 other people working in the plantation. She added that they rushed to the spot, where a scuffle took place. That is when, said Radhalaxmi Tripura, the Border Security Force personnel opened fire, killing her daughter, Por Kumar Tripura and Min Kumar Tripura on the spot.

Suralaxmi Tripura's 10-year-old son Amar and her mother Radhalaxmi Tripura. (Photo credit: Arunabh Saikia).

Karancha Tripura, the wife of plantation owner Min Kumar Tripura, recalled that her husband had gone to tend to his plantation after lunch, at around 2.30 pm. His sister, Indralaxmi Tripura, had accompanied him. She recalled that after some time, her sister-in-law came back running, and said that two security personnel had attempted to molest Suralaxmi Tripura and that Min Kumar Tripura was killed in the clash that ensued.

Self-defence, says BSF

The Border Security Force contests this version. Border Security Force deputy inspector general, Brijesh Kumar, told this reporter that his men resorted to firing in self-defence. He also alleged that they had been trying to foil an attempt to smuggle cattle across the border.

“The villagers were trying to smuggle some 30 to 40 cows into Bangladesh,” said Kumar. “When confronted, they attacked with machetes and axes, and we had to fire in self-defence.”

The water border between India and Bangladesh in this part of Tripura is quite porous, and the favoured route for an illegal cross-border trade in cattle, which feeds Bangladesh’s cattle markets. The task of apprehending cattle smugglers, handing them over to the police and confiscating the cattle falls largely on the Border Security Force.

Kumar denied allegations that the Border Security Force personnel had attempted to molest Suralaxmi Tripura. Instead, he accused the villagers of using her as a shield. “Cattle smuggling has become a major menace in the area, and often women are employed in the act,” alleged Kumar. “My men were surrounded by armed people, and there was little else we could do.”

A day after the incident, the Border Security Force initiated an internal inquiry. A preliminary report of the investigation, submitted to the Union home ministry, echoes Kumar’s claims that the two personnel involved in the incident – assistant sub inspector Abhay Singh and constable Rabi Datta, both from the Border Security Force’s 31st Battalion – fired only because there was no other way out. The report added that the two personnel had impeccable service records.

But the residents of Chita Bari have steadfastly stuck to their version of events, pointing out that the location where the incident occurred was at least 700 metres from the border fence – too far for it to be used as a cattle smuggling point. The village residents claim that they use the road through the hillock – on top of which the incident occurred – to go to their fields.

“What business do they [the Border Security Force] have here?” asked Radhalaxmi Tripura, seething with anger. “Aren’t they supposed to be guarding the border? The border is nowhere close.”

Excessive use of force

Two cases concering the incident have been registered at the Sabroom police station under which Chita Bari village falls. One is a complaint by the villagers against the Border Security Force personnel, and the other a complaint by the border force, accusing the dead and injured villagers of cattle smuggling.

The police are reluctant to comment specifically on either case.

“At the moment, we are more bothered about maintaining calm in the area, considering there is serious resentment among the villagers,” said Sarkar.

Sarkar said that the weapons of the two Border Security Force personnel have been seized and sent for a forensic examination. “Only when the report comes in can we be certain about what happened,” he said.

However, a senior police officer who is part of the investigating team, and who wanted to remain anonymous, told the this reporter that on the face of it, the episode had “all the signs of excessive use of force”.

The officer said that there have been instances in the past where residents of border villages have been involved in cattle smuggling.

“It seems there was a clash,” said the officer. “There’s a cut mark on the wooden part on one of the guns. Initial investigations suggest that they [the security forces personnel] could have avoided firing though.”

The officer added that not enough was known yet to ascertain whether there was indeed an attempt to molest Suralaxmi Tripura.

Politicians investigate

A fact-finding team from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), in power in the state for the last 24 years, visited Chita Bari on March 19. Lok Sabha member Jitendra Chaudhury led the team. The team accused the Border Security Force personnel of being high-handed. It also said that the deceased were unfairly accused of being involved in cattle smuggling.

The general secretary of the party’s Tripura unit, Bijan Dhar, said that the Border Security Force battalion should be withdrawn from that area immediately. “Certainly, there are crimes at the border, but our fact-finding team has confirmed that there was no cattle-smuggling that day,” said Dhar.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, which has announced a compensation of Rs 50,000 to the families of each victim, said it would not come to any conclusions until a detailed investigation was held.

“Unlike, the CPI(M), which seemed to have made up its mind, we will wait for the facts to emerge,” said Biplab Deb, president of the BJP’s Tripura outfit. “If the CPI(M) is so concerned, what is stopping the government from providing financial assistance to the family, like the BJP?”

Repeat offenders?

Border Security Force personnel face similar charges in two other incidents that took place over the past year in Tripura. Both occurred in Sonamura sub-division of Sepahijala, a border district.

On the afternoon of July 22, Ram Pal, a head constable with the force’s 145th Battalion, allegedly shot three bullets into the chest of Maya Khatun in a border village called Tarapukur. Khatun was killed instantly, according to a First Information Report on the incident. Her body was found a few metres from her house, which itself is a few metres from the border fence.

Then on December 23, mini bus driver Arabul Rahman was shot dead by a Border Security Force constable around 11.30 pm, according to a First Information Report filed with the police. He was returning home from a relative’s house in Sonapur, a neighbouring village.

The First Information Reports filed with regard to these two deaths show that the Border Security Force had, in these cases, extended the same defence as the one furnished regarding the Chita Bari firing. The border force contended that Khatun and Rahman were involved in cattle smuggling, and when confronted, they had attacked its personnel with sticks and knives.

Khatun’s husband, Bilal Hussain, who owns a small business supplying cow-dung to fertiliser companies, denied allegations that his wife was involved in cattle smuggling. He insisted that his wife had been alone at home when she was shot.

Maya Khatun's husband, Bilal Hussain, with their daughter Moni, and son Ripat. (Photo credit: Arunabh Saikia).

As in Chita Bari, two First Information Reports in connection with each of the two cases have been filed at the Sonamura sub-division police station. In each case there is one complaint by the victim’s family, and the other by the Border Security Force.

The sub-divisional police officer, Babul Das, said that while the police had carried out initial investigations in both cases, they were waiting for the forensic report to file charge sheets.

“Our investigation indicates that the BSF [Border Security Force] constables could have refrained from firing in both the cases,” said Das.

Rahman’s widow, Iduza Khatun, said that her husband used to drive mini buses. “He used to drive other people’s vehicles and would always be out,” she said. “How can he be a smuggler when he is hardly even there in the village?”

Iduza Khatun said that she was struggling to pay for the education of her children in the absence of her husband’s income. “If he was a smuggler, we wouldn’t have had to face so much hardship today.”

Left to right: Arabul Rahman's mother Shyamla Khatun, wife Iduza Khatun, and children Firdausi and Abdullah. (Photo credit: Arunabh Saikia).

Before being deployed in Sonamura, the Border Security Force’s 145th Battalion was positioned at Poonch in Jammu and Kashmir. According to Das, a possible cause of the two incidents was that the battalion operated with the “same conflict area mind-set”.

A senior Sepahijala district official concurred. He conceded that cross-border smuggling was indeed a reality across many parts of Tripura’s 856 km-long border with Bangladesh. But he questioned the need to shoot to kill.

“If the BSF indeed felt so threatened, they could have been shot in the leg,” he said. “But what justifies pumping three bullet into an unarmed woman’s chest?”