Indian security forces guarding the border with Bangladesh have been accused of ruthlessly killing cattle-traders and other civilians without evidence of any crime.
A report by human rights activists says personnel from the Border Security Force (BSF), tasked with guarding the nation's vast borders against militants, human traffickers and drug- and livestock-smugglers, have killed more than 900 cattle traders over the past 10 years.
In none of the cases investigated by Human Rights Watch (HRW) was there evidence the person killed was involved in an activity that "would justify such an extreme response". Several victims were children. "The Border Force seems to be out of control, with orders to shoot any suspect," said HRW's Meenakshi Ganguly. "The border operations ignore the most basic rule of law, the presumption of innocence."
In India, the Hindu majority considers cows sacred. In most areas, it is illegal to kill or eat the animals, and allegations of "cow-killing" often trigger riots. But, in a huge but little-discussed trade, Every year, up to 1.5 million cows, worth about £316m, are smuggled into Muslim Bangladesh, accounting for more than half of the beef consumed in Bangladesh.
Much of the illegal trade is along the 1,300-mile border between Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal. Reports suggest border police routinely receive bribes to turn a blind eye to the smuggling of the animals, some from as far away as Rajasthan.
Many of the cases investigated by HRW, which interviewed more than 100 people, involve the deaths of poor farmers and labourers trying to boost their meagre incomes to work as couriers for the cattle traders. Alauddin Biswas, who lives near the border, told researchers his nephew was killed by border guards in March this year. "I went to see the body," he said. "It was lying five or six kilometres from our house. There were police and politicians. We all saw that the BSF had shot him while he was lying on his back. They had shot him in the forehead and the bullet had pierced through and was lying a few inches inside the ground. If he was running away, he would have been shot in the back. They just killed him."
Some cases involved people being killed as a result of cross-border firing or allegedly murdered without due cause, such as 13-year-old Abdur Rakib, killed while catching fish in a lake on the Bangladeshi side. A 15-year-old injured in the same flurry of bullets, Mohammad Omar Faruq, told the researchers he was grazing buffaloes in a field when shooting started. "A BSF soldier was standing at the border and loudly talking to the boy who was catching fish," he said. "It seemed that he wanted the boy to give him some free fish." The soldiers and the boy started to trade insults. "The boy ran and the soldier started to shoot. I was hit on the right hip and fell down."
There was no immediate word last night from the Indian authorities, but Bangladeshi officials said they were discussing with Delhi the possibility of border personnel being equipped with non-lethal arms, rather than guns. "We always request Indian government not to kill our people along the border whatever the cause is," Abdus Sobhan Shikder, the most senior official in the Home Affairs ministry, told the Associated Press. "But the people on the ground sometimes overstep."
Another Bangladeshi quoted in the report said he was tortured after straying across the border while cutting grass. He said the border guards blindfolded him, took him to a camp and tied him to a tree for a day. "I was beaten severely with a bamboo stick on my back and feet," said the man. "This went on for at least 45 minutes. Then the BSF men jumped on my chest, and kicked my head and face."