Border Violence Tests Fragile Peace on India-Bangladesh Frontier

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Diptendu Dutta / AFP / Getty Images

A man cycles past Indian Border Security Force (BSF) personnel as they patrol the border with Bangladesh, outside the Fulbari Border post some 20 km from Siliguri on Jan. 24, 2012.

A video clip showing a Bangladeshi man being beaten by Indian guards is testing the fragile peace on what has been called one of the world’s bloodiest borders. The footage, which was released on YouTube, shows an alleged cow smuggler being stripped and beaten by guards somewhere along the 1300-mile frontier that abuts the Indian state of West Bengal. Although it is illegal to export cows from India, demand from neighboring Bangladesh fuels a $500 million market, and an estimated 1.5 million cows are moved across the border each year. The incident made headlines in both countries, sparking fear of escalation.

(READ: A great divide — the troubled India-Bangladesh frontier.)

Although India helped Bangladesh gain independence from Pakistan in 1971 — Bangladesh was at the time “East Pakistan”, separated from its western half by the Indian landmass — relations between the two countries are frequently tense, particularly along the border. The illegal cow trade, arms smuggling, disputes over water rights and illegal migration regularly cause trouble. On Jan. 7, 2011, Felani Khatun,  a 15-year-old girl who was illegally crossing the border with her father to get married in Bangladesh, was shot dead. A man named Mohammed Rashed was shot and killed by the Indian border guards on Jan. 21, giving rise to anti-India sentiment in Bangladesh. Both incidents sparked outrage and are credited with fueling anti-Indian sentiment in Bangladesh.

Strained as the relationship may be, there are reasons for optimism. Over the last few years, the two countries have signed a series of agreements to ease tension on the border. In March 2011, both parties agreed on the use of non-lethal weapons by the border guards and in Sept. 2011, the neighbors inked a protocol agreement clarifying the demarcation of the land boundary. Experts say these modest steps may have prevented the violence from spreading. “When the news came out it created a lot of concern,” said Veena Sikri, a former Indian high commissioner to Bangladesh. But, she said, “ties between India and Bangladesh are very robust and one incident cannot be a setback as long as there is political will.”

Indeed, the reaction from both sides has been measured. India’s Border Security Force condemned the violence as “despicable” and eight soldiers were suspended. They also ordered a high-level inquiry into the affair. On Saturday, India’s finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee, said that the incident would not impact bilateral relations and that there was “no need to blow up such incidents.” Mukherjee also assured reporters in Kolkata that the two countries will “settle the matter through dialogue.” In Dhaka, meanwhile, Syed Ashraful Islam, a government minister, dismissed the video as “nothing new.”

They are wise to be cautious. Bangladesh is one of India’s most important trading partners, with trade totaling $5.09 billion in 2010-2011.  There is also fear that anti-Indian sentiment could be used as a pretense for a coup in Bangladesh, an outcome that would surely hurt both sides. “New Delhi needs to guard against becoming an unwitting cause for political instability in its eastern neighbor,” warned a recent editorial in The Hindu, an leading English-language Indian daily. Prosecuting the guards is a start, but the real challenge is preventing another incident. “Human rights abuses anywhere, everywhere [have] to be looked at,” Sikri said. “Action has to be taken.”

More: Read about India’s relationship with Bangladesh.