24 April 2001

Retaliatory intrusion led to BSF deaths

24 April 2001
The Times of India


Retaliatory intrusion led to BSF deaths

By Siddharth Varadarajan and Manoj Joshi
The Times of India News Service

NEW DELHI: External Affairs minister Jaswant Singh appears to have
misled Parliament Monday when he said the 16 BSF men killed by the
Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) at Boraibari last week had gone on
``aggressive patrolling'' in order to deter fresh incursions from the
Bangla side.

The Times of India has been able to establish that the men were actually
part of a retaliatory force consisting of four BSF companies that was sent
into Bangladesh-controlled territory on an ill-conceived and highly risky
mission with no clear mandate. The operation, according to BSF
sources, had been cleared ``at the highest political level'' in New Delhi.

Conceived in haste as an act of retaliation for the BDR's continuing
occupation of Pyrdiwah on the Indo-Bangladesh border which began
two nights earlier, the mission aim was to take over the BDR's border
observation post (BOP) at Boraibari/Ruimari. And destroy houses there
to avenge the BDR's destruction of Khasi dwellings at Pyrdiwah.

Senior BSF officials visiting the border later were struck by how
inappropriate the terrain was for an operation of this kind. The BDR post
was in the middle of a flooded paddy field; and Ruimari was a large,
spread-out village. One officer estimates its population at about 5,000
inhabitants. Considering that the people there were hostile -- they are
Bangladeshis living on land that India claims as its own -- the plan to
burn their huts seemed especially foolhardy.

The operation began late night April 17 when about 240 men went
across. An alert sentry spotted some movement near the BDR post
around 4 am April 18 and sounded the alarm. The men who had
surrounded the post were sitting ducks. Villagers enraged by the fact that
one of the BSF companies had managed to set some huts on fire, ran
towards the remaining BSF men with dhaos. ``They were being fired
upon so they were pinned down and couldn't flee'', said a BSF official.
And the fact that they were lying in water and mud meant their guns

Once reports of the disaster at Boraibari reached Delhi, the Vajpayee
government became paralysed. BDR chief Maj Gen Fazlur Rahman
announced in Dhaka on April 18 that 300 BSF men had attacked
Ruimari/Boraibari and that 16 Indian and two Bangladeshi soldiers had
been killed. Though Union home secretary Kamal Pande was quoted by
PTI the same day as saying 16 jawans had been killed, the home
ministry refused formally to comment. BSF brass would only say that
18 men were missing. The external affairs ministry referred all inquiries
to home.

It was only on April 19 that the cabinet committee on security met.
Earlier in the day, Jaswant Singh told agitated Rajya Sabha MPs that
though the border situation was ``worrying'', the government was
``fully seized of it''. But he offered no details of how the BSF men had
been killed. It was finally on April 23 - nearly one week after the 16 BSF
jawans made the ultimate sacrifice - that Singh finally gave an
explanation. But it was a misleading one.

There was then little glory when the remains of two BSF jawans were
buried and 13 consigned to the flames near Tura in Meghalaya on April
21. Unlike Kargil, the government saw no purchase in sending the
remains to their hometowns or bringing their kin to participate in the last
rites. There were no ministers and politicians nor excited crowds. The
only witnesses were a clutch of top brass including BSF chief
Gurbachan Jagat and some despondent BSF jawans.

The crisis over, the government patted itself on the back. But while the
ends of statecraft may have been served, the truth about why the 16
soldiers died still needs to be told.

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