BSF chief’s new directive may help improve relations with Bangladesh

Civilian killings a major irritant in bilateral ties between the countries

Border Security Force | Representative Photo: iStock

On January 7, 2011, BSF jawans shot dead a 15-year-old Bangladeshi girl, Felani Khatun, after she got entangled in the barbed wire fence while trying to cross back into her country. The photograph of Felani’s lifeless body hanging from the fence caused huge outrage in Bangladesh and West Bengal because Felani was no smuggler or terrorist and had only come to attend a kin’s marriage with her father.

What added to the outrage was that the BSF soldier responsible for shooting Felani was repeatedly acquitted in BSF courts. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) made amends by finally announcing a compensation of Rs5 lakh for Felani’s family.

S.M. Abraham Lincoln, whom the Bangladesh government appointed to represent Felani’s case legally in India, claimed the NHRC’s verdict “served to establish the fact that the killing was unjustified”.

“In the name of state duty, the offender killed an unarmed girl who did not deserve to be killed. The state can justify a killing if there is a cogent reason, but there was none here,” Lincoln has been quoted by the Indian media as saying.


Indian and Bangladeshi NGOs have long blamed the BSF for a string of abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture, and ill-treatment of both Indian and Bangladeshi border residents. The BSF, deployed to prevent cattle rustling, smuggling and illegal crossings, say they use force only when they come under attack. But as the Felani case shows, the BSF firing is quite often unprovoked.

“Indian government orders to border forces to exercise restraint and limit the use of live ammunition have not prevented new killings, torture and other serious abuses,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government’s failure to hold security personnel accountable has led to further abuses and the harassment of very poor and vulnerable populations.”

Bangladesh’s NGO Odhikar alleged that the BSF has killed at least 334 Bangladeshis since 2011 and committed other instances of severe abuse, including 51 killings in 2020.

Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM), based in West Bengal, says it has investigated at least 105 alleged killings by BSF in the border areas since 2011.

“Almost all these killings were unprovoked and the victims were unarmed civilians, and none of their families will ever get justice because the troops responsible go unpunished,” MASUM chief Kirity Roy said.

The border killings have become a major irritant in otherwise improved bilateral relations between the two neighbours. The Border Guard Bangladesh has relentlessly raised the issue in all its conferences with the BSF.

Finally, the BSF seems to be addressing the issue, albeit belatedly. BSF Director-General Pankaj Kumar Singh issued a strict directive to his commanders in mid-April to stop the killing of unarmed civilians.

The directive aimed at imposing “maximum restraint” on forces deployed on the border with Bangladesh.

“Our forces have been told in unambiguous language that they should fire only when they are fired upon,” an official who has seen the directive said. The message, he said, was clear: no unprovoked firing will be tolerated anymore.

The directive to BSF’s eastern theatre command was issued ahead of the Bengali New Year and at a time when the two countries are jointly and separately celebrating the golden jubilee of Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan.

The BSF played a huge role in backing the Bangladesh freedom struggle in its not-so-covert backing of the freedom fighters.

A BSF special issue on 1971 titled ‘Bordermen’ carries the account of one of its then company commanders, Parimal Kumar Ghosh, whose unit seems to have fought with rebellious Bengali soldiers against the Pakistani army from the first day of the Bengali resistance. Ghosh’s story has been extensively covered in Bangladesh media.

The BSF is the world’s largest border force with about 2,70,000 soldiers and officers. It guards India’s borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh, with two theatre commands commanded by an additional director general.

There has been a growing body of opinion in the Indian government and within the BSF that the hard approach to border policing necessary for a hostile border like the one with Pakistan was not appropriate for the border with Bangladesh.

India and Bangladesh have shared an excellent bilateral relationship, especially after the Awami League won the December 2008 polls and assumed charge of the government in Dhaka.

The Awami League, now in its third successive tenure in power, sees India as a close friend because of its role in helping Bangladesh achieve independence from Pakistan in 1971. The League spearheaded Bangladesh’s Liberation War.

The BSF’s current DG, Pankaj Kumar Singh, has obviously taken the entire historical and realistic perspective into account while issuing the “maximum restraint” directive.

Son of the legendary Prakash Singh, who also helmed the BSF in its formative years, Pankaj Kumar Singh is a decorated officer who has been on UN missions and served as ADG (East) in the BSF.

”He realises the difference of the two borders and the need for a different approach for Pakistan and Bangladesh frontiers,” said a senior BSF officer, who worked with Singh and is now retired.

Singh’s latest directive, which advocates zero tolerance for unprovoked killings, may not immediately end the problem of border killings because armed smugglers often attack border guards when challenged. But it may help avoid incidents like the Felani killing and water down a major irritant in bilateral relations between the two neighbours.