Some days ago, there was a long exchange of fire between forces on the Bangladesh-India border. Left dead were Indian Border Security Force commander Jeevan Kumar and Bangladeshi schoolgirl Nahida Akhtar.
How do you react to this news?
Well, for one thing, where's the news coming from? And then, are you Indian or Bangladeshi? How you react, it seems, must depend on your answers to those two questions.
The Bangladeshi reports? An Indian man crossed the border carrying several bottles of phensidyl, a cough syrup that is illegal in that country. After Bangladeshi forces "arrested" him, 100 BSF men from India "launched violent attacks" on civilian houses in the area and "looted cash, gold ornaments and other valuables." Hearing about this, Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) forces "rushed" there and tried to stop this assault. Upon which, "witnesses said" the BSF "opened fire on the BDR without any provocation." The BDR returned fire "in self-defense."
And the Indian reports? "Armed Bangladeshi villagers" started "taking away" an Indian national. When the BSF tried to stop this, BDR forces "opened fire on the BSF party without any provocation whatsoever." Though the BSF men stopped firing, "the BDR personnel continued firing." The BDR has links with "smuggler mafias", and they targeted Jeevan Kumar because he "checked smuggling in this sector." There are even reports that Kumar was tortured. Besides the two deaths, two other jawans were among four people who were injured in the exchange.
How do you make sense of these utterly different accounts of the same incident? (No links: if you want them, they are not difficult to find).
To start, you could look more closely at both reports, ask questions, find holes.
For example, you might ask who these armed villagers were. What were they doing there? Then again, their presence is reported only in Indian reports. Were they really there and really armed?
You might ask why the BSF killed an innocent schoolgirl. Then again, she was 1.5 km away from the firing. Did a stray bullet really travel that far with that deadly effect?
You might wonder who started the firing, because both sides claim that the other did and both use the identical formulation "without any provocation." You might puzzle over why villagers, armed or not, would take away an Indian. You might think it is absurd to believe that BSF men suddenly attack and loot houses. You might say that a smuggler of illegal drugs must be arrested and punished. Even if it was merely cough syrup.
All that, yet I wager that what you believe and which course resonates depends on whether you're Indian or Bangladeshi.
So I know Indians, outraged by this incident, who are calling for a strong military response against Bangladesh. They rail against the pusillanimity of a country that would be pushed around by a minnow like Bangladesh. Even if there was provocation, they say, Bangladesh cannot do this to an Indian soldier. That country seems to think it is India's equal, and our response should be so overwhelming as to rid them of such grandiose pretensions.
I know Bangladeshis, every bit as outraged, who point to this incident as more evidence of Indian bullying. Over the last five years, they say, the BSF has killed almost 400 innocent Bangladeshis for no reason: one every five days. To go with that toll, there are reports of rapes and assorted other harrassment by the BSF. Indians pay no attention to all this, which annoys Bangladeshis even more.
And I'm left to wonder, why is it that the way we consider incidents like this must be coloured by our national loyalties? Why must we believe our own country's version of events, even if it has holes, over the other's? (Then again, the other country's version also has holes).
Is it so hard to accept that when you have a tense border, you're going to have incidents like this one, and that's really why it happened? That if we want no more futile deaths like these, the real answer is for both countries to learn to live like neighbours, which they never have managed?
Whatever our patriotic impulses, the reality is that two families were shattered that day. Should a line on a map colour sorrow over those two tragedies as well?