April 22, 2005

Rashomon on the border

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?


Kartik said...


That's the effect of having a volatile border ... not just here, be where it may ... the 39th Parallel, the McMohan Line, the Maginot back before WWII ...

How many people seriously believe there was anything gained from this incident? And yet, we aren't able to channel our collective indignance into words ... I find it tough ... and into actions, well that follows long after even words I suppose ...

Will this stop with us? ... Dramatization apart, I doubt there's anyone here who disputes the negative ...

Dreamer said...

"Why must we believe our own country's version of events, even if it has holes, over the other's? "
Well the same reason why we believe and trust our own family members over some third person. It is difficult to be clinical/unbiased/detached when you have some sense of belonging to one of the disputing parties- it doesn't matter whether that sense of belonging is by blood, by birth or by citizenship.

Anonymous said...

There are four truths. Your trusth, my trust, the truth, and of course, Dilip's truth.

Anonymous said...

There are four truths. Your truth, my truth, the truth, and of course, Dilip's truth.

Anonymous said...

being unbiased is probably impossible in this world... and therefore i would believe in the indian version of the story... and hence am utterly outraged and feel that a minnow like bangladesh shud show much more respect to our nation and we to ourselves...

Kartik said...


Why sir, if you take your sides with pride and stoicism, must you hide it behind the garb of anonymity? I sincerely hope that is not part of the national fervour too ...

We're all concerned about our country here ...

... but like Albert Einstein said (and I have no choice but to paraphrase, given my memory) - the senseless zeal of nationalistic identification is the biggest stumbling block to our moving forward as a species... simply put, as long as there is an unanswering response to the call of anything in the name of "patriotism", we will not see a truly humane world ...

Truly concerned? Help alleviate some of the material pain in the world...

Dilip D'Souza said...

Dreamer, there are members of my family I would not trust to take my kid across the road, and I mean that seriously. That puts what you say in a slightly different light, for me. And it makes me look at the incident on the border, and the conflicting reports, in a different light. What about you?

Anonymous: being unbiased is impossible, therefore we must choose to believe what we want to believe. Really? Why not look at it this way: because it is hard to be unbiased, we must be work hard to be sceptical?

Kraktik, liked your Einstein quotes. Suggestions on where I can find them?

Sriram, I tend to agree. In situations of great mistrust, a fence, distasteful though I find it, might actually save lives.

wise donkey said...

i didnt know the bangladesh version actually..

well what can i say? you have said it all when you said, "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?"

Primary Red said...

Having expressed views identical to those you condemn in this post, this blogger takes strong exception to your arguments.

The reason for Indians to stand with our soldiers -- and their version of what happened -- is that they stand vigil on the border, placing their lives at stake, so that we can live the free lives (a rarity in our hemisphere) that we lead.

Liberals seemingly revel in taking potshots at our boys -- just to make abstract points. It's all well & good to talk about the nature of truth ala Rashomon in smoke-filled parties and consequence-less blogs, but we're talking here about real Indians who've been tortured and killed -- so we can have these parties and blogs.

You wish to make an equivalence between the soldier who died protecting us, and the foreigners who care little about our interests, go right ahead. You live in a free country where such obscenity too is protected speech.

As for this blogger, who takes the unabashedly hardline Indian view but, like others with similar views, mourns even the Bangladeshi dead -- a point you conveniently omitted in your post, the life of an Indian soldier matters a heck of a lot more than the lives of those who he has died protecting our freedoms from. If we do not stand with our boys when they're in the trenches, who will?

Any other attitude insults the memory of our amar jawans. That we cannot let happen.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Primary Red, I haven't read your expressed views that you say I've condemned, and also about mourning the Bangladeshi dead, but thank you for telling me about them. I shall now go look for them.

My belief is this: the greatest tribute to our "boys in the trenches" is to go see them on the job, get a sense of what they do and in what conditions. This has been my (admittedly limited) attempt in the last several months. It opened my eyes, not least because of what they had to say about "standing for freedom" and the "glory of the country" and the "enemy", and the like.

It's one reason I wrote the Tehelka article I've linked to in my more recent post, and other pieces I've done. (My Outlook/Picador winning essay is another, which Outlook will publish one of these weeks I'm told).

The last thing I intend to do is take "potshots" at these men. Instead, I want to understand them and their work. I believe I owe them that much. I believe the ones I've met have appreciated my visits and efforts and writings.

If to you, all that's "obscenity", or "insulting their memory", fine: I will keep doing it because I feel I must.

Ashish1, "medieval Islamic country" and "irresponsible country" may make you feel superior, but it hardly conceals the fact that there are some things Bangladesh has done right (not all, but some) for its people.

Primary Red said...


Thanks for your response, which our blog appreciates very much.

This might surprise you, but we are co-travelers on the road of secularism and tolerance in India. We've long read and agreed with your many essays on communalism in India.

This is why, on this matter of our strong disagreement, we were very frustrated with your views -- this explains our rather harsh response, the tone of which we regret.

Sure, our soldiers find themselves in terrible places, sometimes with inadequate living conditions and terrible leadership, but this makes it ever more important for us to support them when their veracity is being questioned. We'll join you if you call for India to devote more national resources for enhancing the quality of our soldiers' lives.

While individual soldiers, frustrated with the misery of their posting, might not feel much connection to notions like "protecting liberty" -- they are indeed doing so. Afterall, there is no country besides India (in our region) that has the kind of liberty we do. Part of the credit for this must go to our soldiers, or do you not think that's true?

Our soldiers guard our freedom; their foe in this incident, the BDR, suppreses that of the Bangladeshi people. Surely, this places the two on completely different moral planes. In a moment of crisis, whose version then should we trust -- that of the sentries of freedom, or of the serpents to it?

Thats our point.

Kartik said...

Primary Red,

You seem too uninhibitedly slipping into the cliche of "freedom and we stand for it" ... sure we have freedom, but are we to comment on another nation's freedom / right of expression? This kind of attitude will just make life difficult for those on the border... for even the slightest though that we are "superior" to a said country and we must "suppress" it ... who do you think will be first in the firing line to implement that proposal? Think?

Sentries of Freedom... Serpents of it... draws chilling parallels to "War for Freedom and Liberty"... in a particular Asian country 2 years back... you justify that?

Dreamer said...

I wanted to word my comment as " Would you personally trust a family member or some third person" but stopped myself because, judging from the way you write, I expected you to answer the way you did. Very often people end up trusting the side they know better, not because they know they are right, but because they hope they are.
You said there are members of your family whom you wouldn't trust. But I am sure there are members of your family whom you would blindly trust too. Why doesn't your country deserve that blind trust? What makes you readily take a neutral stand that you might not be comfortable taking if it was a family member you trusted?

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. Let me make sense of dreamers argument. When our family members are involved our judgement is impaired. Hence we should strive to be similarly impaired when discussing international politics. Neat argument.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Dreamer, Mr Anonymous has answered you in one way. I might just add this: why should my country ask for my blind trust? (Why should anyone?) I know personally of things my country has done that dismay me: should I simply ignore those things and resort to this blind trust?

Primary Red, let's put it this way. I know of incidents inside this country where such forces as the BSF have done atrocious things and lied about it. Their veracity was questioned then too. Should I support them -- meaning the liars and thus whose veracity was being questioned -- then as well?

My belief is that the best way to support our soldiers is to understand what they do, in what conditions -- and, importantly, to punish those among them who give them a bad name by their misdeeds. This is a general statement that has nothing to do with the border skirmish of some days ago. I believe we do a disservice to our men by supporting them blindly.

This is why I think it is important to go out and meet them. I don't see the point in attributing these notions like "protecting liberty" to them when they rarely see it that way themselves. Few of them ask for more resources; in my experience, they ask for a clearer national understanding of what they are doing and why.

As for being the only country that offers liberty, and the serpents vs sentries, etc: put it down to cynicism if you like, but I don't see our countries that way. These are two countries trying to further and protect what they see as their national interests, that's all. Seeing it in terms of superiority and snakes only obfuscates that. In what sense, for example, are you able to assert that the BDR suppresses its people? What if I produced before you people who say similar things about the BSF?

And finally, our liberty is guaranteed by each of us who stands to defend it when it is threatened. Soldiers as well as us all. There can be no other way for a country to exist.

Dreamer said...

Mr. Anonyomous,
Sarcasm appreciated. Point taken:)

This would just spiral into an endless argument. Knowing that there have been incidents in the past where your trust has been misplaced, you choose to look at the BSF version with suspicion and I choose to give them the benifit of the doubt, hoping it is not one of those incidents again.

Dilip D'Souza said...


you choose to look at the BSF version with suspicion...

That's not quite right. For one thing, I'm sceptical of both sides' accounts. For another thing, I'm always wary of any accounts of accounts of events where notions of patriotism are involved, where I'm asked to believe "our" guys' versions for no better reason than the fact that they are "our" guys.

Anonymous said...

Political Correctness Vs Patriotism?

Without recourse for objective clarification into the matter isn't it better to take the side of your country rather than sit a fence?

Dilip D'Souza said...

Zerodegrees, actually I believe I am taking the side of my country.

Anonymous said...

I am trying to draw parallels between this incident and the Chattisinghpora massacre. Khalistan organisations and others such as Milli gazette etc blamed the Indian security forces. Others such as Pankaj Mishra etc put the Rashomon spin. There is an article in rediff that also puts a similar spin. There is also a rejoinder by Varsha Bhosle. Please read all of these articles and the subsequent news items and then talk about Rashomon etc. I rest my case.

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

I see what you mean. It would seem that our rose colored glasses differ but we are looking at the same thing.

I believe we need to clean house, but that it should be done ourselves and not by giving external entities a stick with which to goad us on.

We can already see the 'good' the UN is doing in the world.