Reducing tensions along India-Bangladesh border: Role of local communities in promoting cross-border trust and welfare

Despite extraordinary diplomatic efforts and landmark agreements between the two countries, the ground reality along the border often reveals deep-seated animosities fueled by historical legacies, socio-economic disparities, and cross-border dynamics.

India-Bangladesh border (Photo: Twitter)

The border between India and Bangladesh spans over 4,096 km and is characterized by a mix of friendly relations at the national level and challenges at the local level. While diplomatic ties between the two countries have generally been extraordinary in last decades, the borderlands often present a different picture, marked by tensions, disputes, and security concerns. Being a former member of the Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB), I am familiar with the growing tensions and aggression displayed by border residents towards their neighbors.This phenomenon raises questions about the effectiveness of border management strategies and the underlying factors contributing to heightened animosity along the Bangladesh-India border. Through my tenure in the BGB, I gained insights into the localized grievances, socio-economic disparities, and cross-border dynamics that shape the security landscape in borderlands.India-Bangladesh border has been interdependent from its inception, with symbiotic relationships between societies on both sides resulting in a significant flow of economic and human resources. The diverse tales shared across the border create a 'border community'.

In recent years, India and Bangladesh have made significant strides in strengthening their bilateral relations across various sectors. High-level visits between the leadership of both nations have become more frequent, signaling a deepening commitment to cooperation and mutual understanding. These visits have resulted in the signing of several landmark agreements, such as the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) in 2015. This agreement, which came into force following the exchange of instruments of ratification in June 2015, marked a watershed moment in resolving longstanding border disputes between the two countries. As part of the LBA, the enclaves of India and Bangladesh in each other's territories were exchanged on July 31, 2015, and strip maps were signed. This historic agreement enhanced territorial integrity. Additionally, both countries have forged agreements related to security cooperation to address cross-border challenges effectively. One such agreement is the Coordinated Border Management Plan (CBMP), signed in 2011, which aims to synergize the efforts of both border guarding forces in checking cross-border illegal activities and crimes. 

Moreover, the settlement of the maritime boundary arbitration between India and Bangladesh, as per the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) award of July 7, 2014, has paved the way for economic development in the Bay of Bengal region. These agreements underscore the commitment of both India and Bangladesh to resolving disputes and enhancing cooperation across various sectors. Despite the extraordinary diplomatic relations between Bangladesh and India in recent years, marked by mutual respect, cooperation, and strategic partnerships, the ground reality along the border often paints a different picture. But why does this disparity exist?

As someone who has served in BGB; I've witnessed firsthand, the intricacies and tensions that define this volatile area. The roots of animosity run deep, stemming from a legacy of colonialism and partition. India's apparent big-brother mentality along the border has long generated animosity among Bangladeshis who live on the border. The actions of the border forces, tasked with maintaining order along the border, have also contributed to the strained relations. While the border forces' primary role is to uphold security, reports of heavy-handed tactics (using lethal weapon) and human rights abuses have eroded trust and fueled animosity among border communities. Despite several efforts to resolve border issues and improve collaboration between India and Bangladesh, border killings have remained far from zero throughout the years. Beside the Bangladeshi border, India's Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) guard five other borders and one Line of Control (LoC), yet there have been few reports of innocent civilian casualties along these borders. Unfortunately, justice often seems elusive, with many cases remaining unresolved or inadequately addressed and Justice is frequently disguised behind a "protest letter," leading residents to lose faith in the BGB. The fear of further harassment from the BGB and other law enforcement agencies in Bangladesh has led to many deaths going unreported. 

Consequently, the local population views both border forces with suspicion and distrust, considering them as antagonists rather than protectors of their rights and safety. In the context of border security, it appears that a distinct approach is adopted in handling the Bangladesh border, as evidenced by the comparatively low incidence of civilian casualties despite the deployment of the CAPF along other Indian border areas.

Role of local communities

Additionally, corruption within border forces on both sides of the border has exacerbated tensions and undermined confidence in law enforcement agencies. Enamul Haque, a notorious figure in the realm of cattle smuggling, implemented the "PAD" system, denoting its endorsement by both border security forces. However, this system became mired in corruption, as political cronies and certain law enforcement officials were reportedly bribed. Recent developments, including the apprehension of a former BSF officer linked to cattle smuggling in India, suggest potential complicity within the security apparatus. Furthermore, disciplinary measures taken against several BGB officers serve to underscore allegations of illicit conduct within the force.When those entrusted with protecting the border are susceptible to bribery and collusion with smugglers, it creates a sense of disillusionment and betrayal among the local populace. Furthermore, the prevalence of illegal smuggling activities, including drugs, gold, and cattle, has perpetuated lawlessness and instability along the border. The illicit trade not only undermines economic stability but also fosters a culture of mistrust and suspicion among neighboring communities (Despite providing the phensidyl factories list along the border,hardly any visible action seen by the counterpart).

Add to this, ethnic tensions, political manipulation, and language barriers hinder inter-community relations, fostering a culture of mistrust and blaming. Forcibly cutting crops or encroaching on Bangladeshi/Indian farmland near the border evoke anger and resentment among affected farmers. Loss of livelihood and damage to property exacerbate tensions between border communities.In some part of Bangladesh-India border, incidents of fishing and stone-collecting disputes in bordering rivers escalate into confrontations between fishermen and border security forces, fueling anger among affected communities. Out of discontent and deprivation, BD locals display hostile actions towards BSF personnel, including making distorted gestures and throwing stones at them. This unfortunate situation highlights the level of animosity harbored against India's Border Security Force (BSF) personnel. Such actions provoke anger and frustration among BSF personnel toward the BD local community.

Border security is not solely the responsibility of government agencies and law enforcement bodies; local communities play a crucial role in ensuring the integrity and safety of border regions. Their intimate knowledge of the terrain, social dynamics, and potential threats make them invaluable partners in efforts to enhance border security. During my tenure in the BGB, the then Director General (DG) of BGB issued an order - in case of any Bangladeshi killing the Border Outpost (BOP) commander would be posted to a remote area. This measure led to a notable decrease in border killings for that year, demonstrating the immediate impact of community involvement in border security, albeit temporarily. In response to the growing problem of cow smuggling, ex DG BGB proposed boosting local cattle rearing starting in 2012 to lessen dependency on illegally smuggled Indian cows. This technique has helped Bangladesh to achieve self-sufficiency in beef production while considerably reducing cattle smuggling. As a result, boosting socioeconomic growth in local communities can help to reduce border tensions significantly.

Building trust is key

Building trust should indeed be the first priority in moving forward along the India-Bangladesh border. Without trust between border communities and security forces, efforts to enhance security and foster cooperation will be significantly hindered. Therefore, prioritizing initiatives that promote trust-building measures is essential for creating a conducive environment for collaboration and mutual understanding. Even as both security forces participate in cooperative patrols, exercises, and cultural events as part of the Coordinated Border Management Plan (CBMP), it is essential to know that establishing rapport with the border population is eventually what is ultimately necessary to foster confidence.

Prioritizing community engagement, transparency, and effective grievance resolution through initiatives like regular dialogue sessions, community policing, and accountability mechanisms is crucial for fostering trust. Actively involving local communities in decision-making and respecting their rights will contribute significantly to building trust. One example of prioritizing trust-building measures along the India-Bangladesh border is the implementation of community policing initiatives. In some border regions, local residents are trained and engaged as volunteers to assist law enforcement agencies in patrolling and monitoring border areas.These initiatives aim to foster trust and cooperation between border communities and security forces by involving community members in security efforts and addressing local concerns collaboratively.Implementing justice and equality along the India-Bangladesh border will empower border communities and security forces, fostering trust, stability, and cooperation. 

Upholding justice and equality will cultivate confidence, inclusivity, and mutual respect among local populations, thereby mitigating tensions, fostering social harmony, and enhancing overall security along the border.

To summarize, the India-Bangladesh border presents a complex tapestry of friendly relations at the national level juxtaposed with tensions and challenges at the local level. Despite extraordinary diplomatic efforts and landmark agreements between the two countries, the ground reality along the border often reveals deep-seated animosities fueled by historical legacies, socio-economic disparities, and cross-border dynamics. The actions of border security forces, instances of corruption, and prevalence of illegal smuggling activities further exacerbate tensions and erode trust among border communities. However, it is evident that building trust between security forces and local communities is paramount to enhancing border security and fostering cooperation.

Promoting cross-border collaborations

In addition to prioritizing community engagement, transparency, and effective grievance resolution, further efforts are needed to address the underlying factors contributing to tensions along the India-Bangladesh border. This includes tackling socio-economic disparities, addressing historical grievances, and promoting cultural understanding and empathy among border communities. Investing in infrastructure, education, healthcare, and livelihood opportunities in border areas is essential for reducing vulnerability to exploitation by criminal elements and addressing the root causes of insecurity. 

Moreover, promoting cross-border collaborations in areas such as trade, tourism, and academic exchanges can foster greater mutual understanding and trust between neighboring communities.By promoting professionalism, accountability, and adherence to human rights standards within security forces, trust and confidence among border communities can be strengthened.It is also important to involve civil society organizations, non­governmental organizations, and local leaders in efforts to promote peace, stability, and cooperation along the border. These stakeholders can play a vital role in mediating disputes, facilitating dialogue, and promoting reconciliation between communities affected by border tensions.

Properly managing the complexities of the India-Bangladesh border necessitates a comprehensive strategy that recognizes and addresses both current security concerns as well as the deeper socioeconomic and historical causes of conflict. India and Bangladesh have the chance to develop a border region marked by peace and prosperity by implementing measures aimed at cultivating trust, promoting dialogue, and emphasizing the welfare of border communities, enriching the lives of both nations and their citizen.

(The author is a retired Bangladesh Army officer who served in the Bangladesh Border Guards (BGB).Views are personal)

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