Killing of Muslim youth in West Bengal lays bare impunity of border forces, family demand justice

By Sukanya Roy, 

Coochbehar: A nineteen-year-old youth Sahinur Haque, hailing from the Madhya Balabhut village in Coochbehar, along the Indo-Bangladesh border in West Bengal, was allegedly shot to death by a BSF Battalion Commander on the night of 9 August. His apparent crime: playing video games on his phone a few metres away from his house.

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At around 7 pm that evening, after having eaten dinner with his parents, Sahinur left with a fishing net in hand, to catch fish at the chaura (pond) close to his house. His two brothers accompanied him. The net was cast, and the trio sat and waited while they played games on their phones, with earphones plugged in. For unknown reasons, a team of patrolling BSF personnel fired pellets from a distance. One of the pellets got lodged in Sahinur’s right shoulder, and he sank to the ground, screaming and writhing in pain.

Sahinur’s brothers, shocked and terrified, started nursing their injured brother. Within the next few seconds, a gypsy van pulled up and BSF men of 62 Battalion, F Company came streaming out, along with their Commander Ballam Ram. They wrenched Sahinur free from his brothers’ arms, who jumped into the pond to save themselves. They began verbally abusing Sahinur in Hindi, and one of the officers pinned Sahinur down with a knee to his neck. Commander Ram quickly emptied two bullets from his service revolver into Sahinur’s chest and waist.

By the time residents from nearby houses had gathered, alerted by the firing, Sahinur was already dead.

“This is just like what happened to the man (George Floyd) in America,” observes Kirity Roy, Secretary of Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM), a human rights organisation which has put out a statement condemning Sahinur’s murder. Roy’s unsaid implication is perhaps that while the circumstances of the killing are similar, there isn’t a similar outrage about this case.

Zia-Ul Sheikh, member of the local panchayat and one amongst the people who had gathered, told, “The BSF personnel began verbally abusing the womenfolk and threatened them with rape. They said they would fire into a couple more of us if we didn’t give away Sahinur’s body. It was the dead of the night, so we firmly refused to hand it over unless the DM or a politician assured us that the body would not be tossed away. Due to our number, the BSF was forced to leave.”

The deceased’s uncles, Kasem Sheikh and Abdul Haque, along with other villagers, went to the Tufanganj police station the next morning, to inquire about why the police had not started an investigation into the matter.

Sahinur’s parents, who struggle to make ends meet through weaving and daily wage work, had fainted from the shock of losing their son and were unable to make the journey. After protesting, the family was able to exert pressure on the police to register their complaint.

However, the Tufanganj police registered the case as a General Diary Entry (no. 041) and not an FIR.

Tilak Barman, the local District Human Rights Monitor, told, “It is routine that when poor and illiterate residents from the border areas go to the police, they are discouraged and told that the BSF is untouchable, no one can file an FIR against them. They brainwash the locals saying that taking action might instigate the BSF to slap a case on them instead. Because the events were so extreme, they were compelled to file a GDE.”

MASUM is of the view that this case must be treated as a custodial death since Haque was shot dead in the custody of the Battalion Commander. They condemn that the post-mortem was not carried out at the Tufanganj General Hospital, but in the BSF camp itself, without following official NHRC guidelines for custodial killings which require the presence of a Judicial Magistrate and the victim’s family members during the autopsy. They demand that an immediate FIR be launched under Sec. 302 (murder) against the accused officers.

The deceased’s uncle, Abdul Haque said, “We want answers, this matter has to be treated with seriousness. There is a constant fear of the BSF amongst us. They threaten us saying we are cow smugglers who will suffer terrible fates. We are scared to walk around freely at night. And now we have lost the life of our boy at their hands.”

This claim is corroborated by Kirity Roy of MASUM. “The BSF has always disguised their killings behind the pretext of being attacked by cattle smugglers. How could Sahinur have been smuggling cows, sitting in a village 4 kms away from the border? They have no real provocation for their heinous actions.”

This cold-blooded killing is an addition to the rapidly growing list of Indian and Bangladeshi civilians who have fallen victim to the Indian Border Security Force’s whimsical and prejudiced acts of violence.

In the areas along the 2,042 km India-Bangladesh border, at least 1000 Indian civilians are killed, tortured and raped by the BSF each year. Since 2010, at least 2000 Bangladeshi citizens have suffered similar atrocities, says a Human Rights Watch report.

“In not a single one of these cases”, Roy adds, “has a BSF officer been convicted.”

It is common knowledge amongst local activists that the BSF has been using pellet guns, same as the ones used widely in Kashmir, in the Indo-Bangladesh border areas since the 1980s.

Cross-border trade in cows, vilified by dominant political sensibilities, comes with a penalty that is largely paid by innocent civilians, who are shot at sight, or tortured and killed, on grounds of mere suspicion.

Adilur Rahman Khan, Secretary of Odhikar, a human rights organization based in Bangladesh told, “This is a one-sided attack by the BSF, encouraged by the aggressive policy of the Indian government towards minorities in India, and people living near the border in Bangladesh.”

In 2010, a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report titled, “Trigger Happy: Excessive Use of Force by Indian troops at the Bangladesh border” detailed accounts of people who were killed by the BSF for crossing the border to meet their relatives, including cases of young children beaten up for collecting firewood or grazing their livestock, and farmers tortured brutally for watering their crops at night. The victims allege that their freedom to move around on practical demands of livelihood and leisure is curtailed, and they are left feeling like objects of suspicion to be policed in their own lands.

The custodial killing of Sahinur Haque reiterates the need to hold public servants accountable to the atrocities they commit against vulnerable minorities.

TMC MLA Rabindranath Ghosh spoke to the grieving family and told the press that he would seek action from the West Bengal CM on this matter.

The deceased’s elder sister Esna Bibi is in grief. “My innocent brother was killed. It’s painful. I don’t know much about what is going to happen now. The men will know that better. I just hope that his death is not in vain and that we see justice done soon,” she said. To this, the main complainant and Sahinur’s uncle, Kasem Sheikh adds, “Sahinur did nothing illegal, his killing was unjustified. I trust God in heaven to make things right. But I want people down here to help us as well.”