Delhi fiddles as frontier guards lay down lives

The bloody clashes over the past few days along the Indo-Bangladesh border that have reportedly claimed the precious lives of 16 BSF personnel once again highlight the oldest and the basic cardinal principle of war, or rather its quintessence-the element of surprise. As in Kargil two years back, this time too our forces were caught napping. Unfortunately, this has been the hallmark of all the major conflicts that India fought as an independent country, be it the 1947, 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak wars or the more recent 1999 Kargil conflict. No doubt, in the end India won the wars, but at a prohibitive cost in terms of both men and material. And in the latest instance too, the country may have been able to recover its lost territories from the clutches of the BDR, but at a steep price.

Despite reports over the years from every conceivable quarter about the uninterrupted free flow of Bangladeshis crossing the border into India, the Union Government has done little to effectively man the porous international border that stretches for 4000 km. On the contrary, it has diverted the focus of its attention to the western sector by increasing the BSF concentration there. There was even a media report recently on how, compared to the Indo-Pakistan border, the eastern sector is "understaffed." Moreover, the fencing work along the Assam stretch of the border is still not complete.

The current skirmishes along the Indo-Bangla border also point to the dangers of leaving disputes to posterity for solutions. This may help in improving relations between two neighbouring countries in the immediate future, but in the long run nagging bones of contention can flare up into full scale confrontation and cause irreparable damages. The bitter memories of the 1962 Indo-China conflict should serve as a grim reminder to this fact.

Despite clear demarcation, there are still pockets measuring 6.5 km along the Indo-Bangladesh border, which both sides claim. This is apparently at the root of the flare-up. Sector commanders of the BDR told mediapersons visiting the area recently that vast swaths of land along the Mankachar and East Khasi Hills belong to Bangladesh. It is better that such contentious issues are resolved at the earliest to avoid similar incidents in the future.

Having been caught off guard, India did precious little to adequately respond to the situation. The Union Government's response was very muted. Leave alone expressing any shock and dismay at the loss of its frontier guards or asking Bangladesh to apologise for its misdeeds, the government went overboard in giving a clean chit to the Shiekh Hasina government on the incident as if those 16 BSF lives account for nothing. It is true that the country was in no-win situation, as use of any force would have only provided ammunition to the hawks on the Bangladeshi side to up their anti-India ante. The country can not afford another hostile neighbour in its backyard as that would have only helped the insurgent groups in the Northeast. But on the other hand, sitting tight and doing nothing would severely dent the country's prestige. And this is precisely what the government appeared to be doing during the four-day crisis: lying impotent.

Instead of terming Bangladesh as the aggressor and telling it in clear terms to vacate Indian territory, the government wanted to put up a brave face as if nothing serious had happened. Against such a backdrop the best option before the Indian government was to use its diplomatic and economic clout to browbeat the Bangladeshi intruders. By using this channel, the government should have also asked Bangladesh in no uncertain terms to issue a forthright apology over the matter. But in the most disgusting and shameless manner, India brazenly chose to accept the latter's half-hearted regret without even batting an eyelid. This has not only blunted the image of a country that aspires to become a regional and global player, but also the morale of its security forces guarding the frontiers, which is more alarming. After all, no country can afford to forget the soldiers who lay down their lives in the line of duty for the sake of their countrymen.

The Members of Parliament too did not do the country proud when they shamelessly debated and raised a ruckus over the Tehelka issue on the floor of the House, but quite blissfully choose to ignore the ominous events rocking the nation's eastern frontiers. No citizen can be faulted for expecting the lawmakers in the highest representative body of the country to have reposed their unstinted confidence in the jawans fighting on the border and asked the intruders to vacate Indian soil through an unanimous resolution in the august House.

Even after the intruders withdrew and returned the bodies of BSF jawans in the most shockingly mutilated and decomposed state, the country did little to admonish its neighbour. Instead of registering its outrage, it was only too eager to mend fences. And in the most disgraceful manner India absolved the Bangladesh government on the matter, attributing it to the local BDR commanders. Sadly, it didn't even ask Bangladesh to explain the defacement of its soldiers. Did our jawans die in vain?

Having said that, friendly relations with Bangladesh, or for that matter with any country, should be in India's interest, rather than the other way round. The happenings at the border clearly prove that there is a lot left to be desired in the current state of Indo-Bangla relations.

Now that the intruders have voluntarily withdrawn the government should get down to brasstacks and initiate such measures that will prevent others from daring to undertake similar misadventures on Indian soil. The lessons of this warlike incident should not be forgotten all too soon as in the past. Or else posterity will continue to pay an unpleasant price.

[By Anirban Choudhury, Guwahati, April 21]