On the fateful day of April 18, 2001, about 16 jawans of the Border Security Force (BSF) were brutally killed by the troops of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) and a frenzied mob of locals. The incident occurred in the Boraibari village in Kurigram district in the Rangpur Division of Bangladesh.
The Indian jawans were tortured, and their bodies were mutilated beyond recognition. The body of one of the BSF officers was hung from a pole, tied with ropes and ferried around like a dead animal. Some of them were shot through their eyes.
When the bodies of the BSF jawans were handed over to the Indian authorities, they showed visible signs of mutilation and torture. Most of them were shot dead at point-blank range.
Bangladesh Rifles intrude into Indian territory
India and Bangladesh share a 4,096 km long border, which was marked by the presence of large enclaves (Chitmohols) and counter enclaves until the historic Land Boundary Agreement of 2015.
Till then, India had 71 Bangladeshi enclaves while Bangladesh was in possession of 102 Indian enclaves. The two sides had disputes over the territorial rights of some of the enclaves and stretches of land alongside the border.
Bangladesh had staked its claim on the Indian village of Pyrdiwah (also called Padua), which is located in the East Khasi Hills district of Meghalaya. While border skirmishes between the BSF and BDR (now Border Guards Bangladesh) were not new, things spiralled out of control on April 15, 2001.
About 1000 troops of the erstwhile Bangladesh Rifles intruded into the Indian territory in the hopes of capturing Pyrdiwah. Although the act of aggression took the Indian Border Security Forces by surprise, the contingent of 31 jawans posted at the site held their ground.
In a day’s time, three other companies (more than 300 BSF personnel) were deployed in Pyrdiwah. Despite a flag meeting, the Bangladeshi troops refused to recede and demanded that the BSF show proof that the village belonged to India.
When the Indian side showed them the papers, the BDR escalated their demands and sought original documents. All the while, the Bangladesh Rifles made it clear that were carrying out orders from Dhaka.
While speaking to The New Age about the Bangladeshi adventurism in Pyrdiwah, the then BDR Director-General Falzlur Rahman had said, “During the liberation war in 1971 we had a training camp in Padua in Sylhet which Indian forces occupied until 2001.”
He had claimed, “BSF was constructing a road linkage between their Padua camp in our land and another camp of theirs 10 kilometres away during 2001, through the no man’s land and lands in our possession. I started sending ‘situation reports’ to the home ministry, but did not get any response.”
“I went through the laws and found that BDR can construct temporary operational camps in the sovereign lands of the country. Having no response from the government, our soldiers went there to acquire possession of the land by setting up three temporary camps to cordon BSF’s Padua camp on April 15 and 16 of 2001,” Rahman had informed.
Indian response and the ‘unplanned’ Boraibari siege
“Hundreds of people living in villages around the Meghalaya-Assam-Bangladesh trijunction, who had left their homes following the clashes, are yet to return. Meghalaya Chief Minister Mowlong said that the State shared a long border with Bangladesh and its people often suffered owing to disturbances on the border. An end to this problem was essential, he said. The Meghalaya government is providing food and relief materials to villagers who had to leave their homes because of the border disturbances,” the Frontline reported.
Patrolling was increased in the immediate aftermath of the Bangladeshi troops’ intrusion into the Indian territory. Gurbachan Jagat, who was the then Director-General of BSF, had issued an alert and said, “If they could suddenly get belligerent in Pyrdiwah, there was no way of ruling out similar incidents elsewhere.”
Meanwhile, the Border Security Force was chalking out plans to retaliate and capture a post located, deep within the Bangladeshi territory in Boraibari. A contingent of 50-60 BSF personnel, belonging to the 118 Battalion, entered the Boraibari village on April 18, 2001. They were led by Deputy Commandant BR Mondol.
India Today had reported that the choice of the post was wrong, given that Boraibari was not an ‘adverse possession’. Although the village was inhabited primarily by Indians, the Borabari residents were said to be antagonistic to India over alleged civilian killings.
“The BSF’s relationship with local residents is poor as they come in the way of smuggling, a prime source of livelihood for villagers on both sides of the border. Besides, most families in that area are part of a single extended family, separated by a line on the map which is difficult to define. To them, those guarding the ‘border’ are keeping families apart. The Indian side is certainly more vigilant in this matter and in the last five years almost a hundred villagers have died in BDR-BSF conflicts,” wrote Afsan Chowdhury in Himalmag.
The village had no clear demarcations unlike Pyrdiwah and lay next to the Assam border, separated by only a fence. Whether 118 Battalion Deputy Commandant BR Mondal was taking orders from the Ministry or acting on his own still remains unclear.
In the words of Gurbachan Jagat, “I asked for intensive patrolling. Crossing the fence was not part of the brief.” Reportedly, Mondol split the BSF contingent into 3 groups and led only one of them. His contingent had a total of 16 men. The 118 Batallion did not anticipate the chain of events that followed.
“Mondol had neither the numerical strength nor the firepower or the communication back-up that is crucial to counter-attacks. Mondol and the party walked through a gate along the fence and took a nullah to reach Boraibari. They were totally unprepared for what followed,” read a report in India Today.
The brutal killings of Indian jawans
The Indian jawans were discovered by the residents of Boraibari village. Announcements were made on loudspeakers by the local mosque that the villagers were in danger at the hands of the Indian forces.
The mosque authorities had incited the locals to gather, which in no time surrounded the BSF personnel. Aided by Bangladesh Rifles, the locals snatched away the wireless sets and weapons from the jawans.
According to BSF Director-General Gurbachan Jagat, the BSF personnel could have fired in self-defence but they are trained not to attack civilians. It is believed that Mondol felt that he could handle the situation, given that he was a Bengali.
India Today reported, “But the rule changes if there is a life-endangering situation like the one in which the BSF men found themselves. Why did the party not try and send out a wireless message to warn their seniors? “Mondol probably felt that being a Bengali, he could handle it himself,” says a BSF officer.”
According to a report in the Frontline, the BSF opened fire on a BDR camp while the latter gave the impression that none was stationed at the camp. “But they struck when the BSF moved closer to the camp. With the help of quick reinforcements from nearby border posts and the support of the people of the village, the BDR launched a full-scale counterattack.”, it said.
“Heavy exchange of fire continued for more than two days, forcing nearly 10,000 people to flee their homes. The bodies of BSF men were lying in the paddy fields for more than two days as the fight continued. The people recovered several bodies from the fields and handed them over to the BDR later. Two injured BSF men were flown to Dhaka by helicopter for treatment,” the report added.
The Indian jawans were brutalised and tortured in an inhumane manner and their bodies were mutilated and paraded like animals. Following the diplomatic intervention, Bangladesh Rifles withdrew from Pyrdiwah village on April 19, 2001, and handed over the bodies of martyred BSF Jawans on April 20 of that year.
India’s response to the Boraibari massacre
In the aftermath of the Boraibari massacre, the Indian government’s angst was directed toward the Bangladesh Rifles instead of the Sheikh Hasina government. The then Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh had remarked, ”It is now up to the government of Bangladesh to act against the perpetrators of these crimes and restore confidence and trust.”
Given that the Hasina government had been historically friendly to India and general elections in Bangladesh were near, New Delhi was cautious about its criticism of the Bangladeshi Prime Minister.
This, however, gave an opportunity for Sheikh Hasina to downplay the Borabari massacre and claim that the Bangladesh Rifles killed the Indian troops in self-defence. While she avoided tendering an apology over the brutal killing of Indian jawans, she had claimed to conduct an independent probe into the matter.
Do you remember the SIXTEEN #IndianBraves of 118 BN @BSF_India who laid down their lives #OnThisDay 20 April in 2001 at Baraibari, Meghalaya?#LestWeForgetIndia🇮🇳 The supreme sacrifice of our gallant border-men who fell to a dastardly attack by the erstwhile Bangladesh Rifles pic.twitter.com/55noilyg0C— LestWeForgetIndia🇮🇳 (@LestWeForgetIN) April 20, 2022
“It is well within our rights to review the relationship (between the two countries) if Bangladesh does not punish the perpetrators within a reasonable time,” Minister for State ID Swami had said.
Former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan, G. Parthasarthy, had even hinted at the Pakistani hand in the matter. “It could be Pakistan’s plan to open another front on India’s eastern sector in order to divert Indian troops from Kashmir where the passes will be opening shortly,” he told India Today.
The Indian government paid homage to the martyred BSF jawans and announced ₹10,000 to every family affected by the intrusion of Bangladesh Rifles in Pyrdiwah, and ₹2 lahks for the reconstruction of the village church and school. At the same time, the government also announced new 15 TV sets for BSF posts on the border with Bangladesh.
This article was first published in Opindia on April 18, 2022.