It was shocking to hear the news on October 17 of the death of Head Constable Vijay Bhan Singh of 117 Battalion of India’s Border Security Force in firing by the Border Guards Bangladesh along the international border in West Bengal’s Murshidabad district. This is the unit I commanded from 1996 till 2000 in Samba in Jammu and in anti-militancy operations in Assam and Manipur. It is a fine, well-knit unit whose jawans won three gallantry medals during that period.

It has been inducted recently on the Indo Bangladesh Border, where the operational conditions are totally different from the Line of control in Kashmir where it was deployed earlier. I am certain that the local commanders would have taken ample measures to familiarise the unit with operational requirements of this border.

It is very rare for the Border Guards Bangladesh to act aggressively as in this case, especially against Border Security Force personnel. The two border forces have the best of relations at all levels, with frequent frontier meetings at the Director General-level. In addition, regular flag meetings at the Unit Commandant and Company commanders are the norm, besides coordinated patrolling of the border. The Unit commandants can directly call their counterpart and resolve issues at the local level.

The credit for such improvement in relations between them goes to the Coordinated Border Management Plan signed by the Directors General of two forces in 2011. The plan required the nomination of Nodal Officers at various levels. These officials are responsible for discussing and diffusing any tension. They also conduct periodic reviews of border crime and identify sensitive areas for the forces to focus on.

The level of cooperation was so good that in an incident on the North Bengal frontier which I commanded from 2012 to 2014, we were able retrieve a bus load of civilians from Bangladesh within a couple of hours after telephonic request to my counterpart Sector Commander. The bus driver had crossed over to Bangladesh when a temporary barrier at the border manned by the Customs was erroneously left open.

Unprecedented incident

It is in this context that the firing incident is unprecedented, and that too during a flag meeting. The Border Guards Bangladesh say that their trooper fired in self-defence whereas the Border Security Force claims that action was unprovoked.

As per a statement of the Border Security Force reported in the newspapers, the Border Guards Bangladesh released two of the three Indian fishermen they had apprehended and told them to inform their India counterparts that a third man was still in their custody. This indicates that they did not have intentions of harming anyone to begin with.

The incident occurred on a stretch of the riverine border where it is difficult to identify the exact alignment of the boundary. As a result, it is possible for boats to stray and enter the waters of the neighbouring country. Besides, the possibility of Indian fishermen entering Bangladeshi waters intentionally cannot be ruled out because the river offers a rich catch of the prized hilsa fish.

A file photo of a Border Guards Bangladesh solider. Credit: AFP

It appears that when the Border Security Force heard about the Indian fishermen being apprehended, a patrol rushed out to the area from the nearest Border Out Post without any preparation. In their anxiety to get him released, they entered Bangladesh and got into an altercation with Border Guards Bangladesh troops. Some reports suggest that except for one, all the Border Security Force personnel were in civilian clothes. It seems obvious that the troops did not follow protocol for such contingencies.

That they did not retaliate when fired upon by Border Guards Bangladesh gives rise to doubt whether they were carrying weapons at all. If they were carrying weapons and did not fire even in self-defence, it points to the negative effect on the psyche of troops of the ill-conceived orders to refrain from using lethal force: the troops are loath to employ lethal force even in face of grave danger for fear of inquiries, resulting in criminals being emboldened and increased causalities to the men in uniform.

The incident appears to have occurred inside the Bangladesh waters implying that either the troops were not familiar with the alignment of the border or they were too brazen and overconfident of their ability to forcefully retrieve the fisherman apprehended by the Border Guards Bangladesh.

Need for soft skills

The incident also highlights the necessity of focussing on imbibing soft skills amongst Border Security Force jawans, besides focussing on operational aspects and the circumstances in which to use fire arms. A tactful handling of the situation by the sub inspector leading the boat patrol could have averted the unfortunate incident. It is also not clear why the mobile phones issued to each Border Out Post Commander was not used for informing the higher commanders and seeking their directions.

The implementation of the Land Boundary Agreement in 2015 has settled all boundary related disputes and paved the way for the demarcation of the border. This incident emphasises the need for the survey the be completed and border pillars to be constructed. The troops must know the border like the back of their hand. Regular patrols right up to the border will go a long way in enhancing the confidence of the border population and make the troops familiar with the boundary. The present emphasis on seizing cattle going over the border has led to this important aspect being overlooked because it ties down the troops to the fence. The area forward of fence thus gets neglected.

This incident between two border guarding forces is an aberration and all efforts must be made to ensure that the situation does not deteriorate.

Sanjiv Krishan Sood is a retired Additional Director General of the Border Security Force.