When you read or hear a story or view a scene or a picture, a movie should evolve in your mind. You reflexively make a mental picture in your brain of what you view and hear. These are your own sensory images. None of us has ever seen the paradise or the hell we are told we will face in our afterlife; still, we form a mental picture of what the netherworld would be like. Your images for a particular view or a story are subtly different from anyone else’s images. Your images blended with your unique feelings and emotions come flooding back when you come across the same view or the same story once again. Today, I am having a similar experience.
Last year in January, on a chilly Sunday night at my College Park residence in Maryland, I was reading the heart-breaking story of the violent and ruthless killing of Felani, a 15-year old Bangladeshi girl, by the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) and was transfixed as I was viewing the eerie scene of her motionless body distressingly dangling on a barbed-wire fence along the Bangladesh-Indian border at Anantapur, which was possibly not far away from her village. After I had read the story, I fixed my sight at the gruesome picture of Felani’s tangled dead body, still wearing a red frock and a pair of blue pajamas — perhaps her choicest dresses.
Felani’s father Nurul Islam had left his village at Naggeshwari Upazilla under the district of Kurigram in Bangladesh for Assam in India with his mother, after the death of his father and due to extreme poverty. Such migration, legal or illegal, is quite normal in this part of the world. There are also many Indians who, legally or illegally, are working in Bangladesh, especially in textiles and garments industries.
Nurul Islam was bringing his daughter Felani to their home in Bangladesh to get her married with a boy as arranged earlier by the guardians. On January 7, 2011, early in the morning, Nurul Islam and his daughter Felani were crossing into Bangladesh, by climbing over a barbed-wire fence using a bamboo ladder, through the Kitaber Kuthi Anantapur border. While they were crossing the fence, Felani’s clothes got tangled in the barbed-wire, which frightened her and caused her to scream in panic. Hearing her scream, the Border Security Force (BSF) of India on patrol opened fire at her. Felani was shot and killed, but her father had managed to escape. Felani was asking for water until her death, about 30 minutes after the shooting, but nobody was there to fetch her a glass of water. It was a clear act of felony on innocent Felani.
The dead body of Felani was hung on the fence for five hours before the body was handed to the authorities concerned in Bangladesh. On January 09, at night, Felani’s body was buried in the backyard of her home. Felani’s father Nurul Islam complained that he had received her daughter’s dead body but did not get back the gold ornaments she was wearing when she was killed.
The pall of gloom cast by the news of Felani’s death did not quite capture the sense of disbelief and sorrow that engulfed first the village where Felani was buried and then the whole country after the news along with the wretched picture of her dead body hanging on the barbed-wire fence was published in most of the newspapers in Bangladesh.
A movie, based on my sensory images of Felani, was evolving in my mind as I was trying to empathise with the bereaved family members. I attempted to visualise about Felani’s life — her childhood, her expectations, her fears and her last moment when all her dreams were shattered. In my mental picture Felani had appeared as a Durga, the girl I found in my childhood in “Pather Panchali”, the epochal 1955 Bengali drama film written and directed by Satyajit Ray. Felani in her childhood, like Durga in Pather Panchali, perhaps shared with her friends simple joys of life. Like Durga, Felani may be spent a lot of time sitting quietly under a tree, running after the candy man who passed by, viewing pictures in a bioscope shown by a traveling vendor, watching a ‘jatra’ by a troupe of actors and running away from home to catch a glimpse of the train after hearing the whistle of a speeding train.
In a poor family in Bangladesh, like that of Nurul Islam, an old equation rules: educating a boy will bring financial returns, but not so in case of a girl. Earning no income, a daughter is usually married off as soon as possible and removed from the family balance sheet. That is why Nurul Islam probably decided to arrange his daughter Felani’s marriage at her tender age of 15. Felani perhaps put on her choicest jewelries, dresses and facial make-ups, I was just imagining, as she was heading home — lest she was found unkempt, in case she had bumped on her way home into the prospective boy she was arranged to get married with.
Everybody knows that any law enforcement agency usually does not fire shots at unarmed persons, no matter the person is in the international border area during a war or on a street during a curfew, unless a person attempts to do something which may endanger the life of the law enforcers. Before directly shooting on Felani, the Indian Border Security Force could easily give warnings first by misfiring and if Felani was found carrying arms or smuggling goods they could use the last option of shooting.
After Felani’s tragic death, there were protests all over Bangladesh against the killing spree of civilians by the Indian BSF. Human rights organisation Odhikar in a fact-finding report released in January 2011, said that India’s Border Security Force had breached the border agreement between Bangladesh and India by killing innocent girl Felani Khatun. The report, which interviewed the victim’s family members, villagers, Border Guards Bangladeshi soldiers, police personnel and physicians, recommended that the Bangladesh government should ask India to give compensation to the family. The battalion commander of the 27th Rifles, Lt Col. Abdur Razzak Tarafdar, according to the report, said: “Felani’s killing by the BSF was not only a breach of international law but a gross violation of human rights and a display of barbaric inhumanity”. The report recommended that the government should take steps to end such violations.
Even Manabadhikar Suraksa Manch (MSM), a human rights organisation in India, protested against the cruelty of BSF. MSM Chairman Kiriti Ray said: “There is no rule in India to kill people by shooting. But BSF soldiers are not obeying the rule. Almost every day BSF is killing Bangladeshi people. In every case, BSF shows the same reason that they had to shoot at Bangladeshi smugglers and the smugglers attacked BSF first”. The MSM Chairman questioned: “Was Felani a smuggler? She was unarmed, she was tangled! How could she attack BSF?”
Felani was not the only Bangladeshi victim killed by the BSF. According to the international human rights group Human Rights Watch, in the year 2010 BSF killed 74, injured 72 and kidnapped 43 Bangladeshis.
Felani in Bangla means ‘a discard’, an unwanted person or a thing that is thrown away. It should be anybody’s wonder: “Why did her parents choose her name to be Felani? Was Felani an unwanted child?” No! The truth rather is quite to the contrary. Given the high infant mortality rate in rural Bangladesh, due to diseases, malnutrition and complicacies during childbirth, parents get frustrated when they lose one infant after another in succession. Parents, who are mostly illiterate and totally ignorant of modern medical science, put the blame of their babies’ death on someone else’s casting evil eyes on their newborns. In order to avert the evil gaze from their children and to make their children less attractive to the neighbours, frustrated parents, after the premature deaths of their earlier children, choose a weird name like “Felani” (a discard) or “Pocha” (rotten) for their newborn, hoping for his/her longer life.
So, Felani was a cherished baby to her parents. Her parents earnestly wished for her long life. But, BSF discarded Felani as an object to shoot at—perhaps as a part of their shooting practice. But we cannot afford to discard Felani, her story, her images from the album of our memory.
Neither Nurul Islam nor his daughter Felani Khatun was aware of the rules and protocols of the border security arrangements. Felani was merely climbing a ladder in the hope of translating a dream of her happy marriage into reality.
It is in no way expected of us to remain silent on January 07, the day Felani died for no fault of her own. Can’t we declare January 07 as “Felani Day”? Shouldn’t Felani’s death fire zeal in us for strengthening our will to guard our dignity and sovereignty?