Life and death in the Bangladesh-India margins

Delwar Hussain
2 March 2009

In the late spring of 2008, newspapers in Bangladesh reported that a teenager had been killed at a remote point along the country's northwestern border with India. They stated that 16-year-old Hasibul Islam was shot dead at 5am as he walked besides the Kalabari border, in Rajshahi district. The perpetrator was a soldier from India's Border Security Force (BSF).

Delwar Hussain is a researcher on Bangladeshi society, who is currently completing his doctorate on the India-Bangladesh border

Also by Delwar Hussain in openDemocracy:

"Bangladeshis in east London: from secular politics to Islam" (7 July 2006)

" Islamism and expediency in Bangladesh" (11 January 2007)The news of the boy's death resulted in no uproar from the usually vocal civil society of either country. This is surprising, as such incidents are becoming an everyday occurrence along the 4,000-kilometre border between Bangladesh and India. In 2000-07, more than 700 Bangladeshis and an unknown number of Indians were killed alongside the boundaries of the two states. Many more may have been wounded. The overwhelming majority lost their lives at the hands of the Border Security Force (BSF), the Indian paramilitary agency charged with protecting the border.

I travelled to the remote village where Hasibul lived and where the two countries meet. It was a bumpy ten-hour bus journey from Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka. I wanted to find out why the boy was killed as he took an early-morning walk, and what his short life was like living alongside what is becoming one of the most volatile border areas in the world.

An act of separation

The bus dropped me off in Bhurimari, the last town before the fluttering flags of Bangladesh and India which demarcate their margins. The border is now sixty-one years old. It was established in 1947 with the partition of the sub-continent and the creation of Pakistan and India. From the outset, contact between people on either side was made difficult. The tensions eased a little with the founding of Bangladesh in 1971, though relations did not remain amicable for long. At the point of my arrival, the border is the gateway to the neighbouring states of Nepal and Bhutan.

A few of my fellow passengers walked nervously towards the check-post, passports and visas in hand. They were possibly honeymooners going to Nepal or people visiting family members in north Bengal. In the opposite direction, noisy trucks carrying limestone from Bhutan trundled through the bamboo barrier into Bangladesh. Stone-import companies lined both sides of the road, where under the burning sun, women and children broke the huge boulders into small pieces using only hammers. The pebble-sized stone is destined for Dhaka and other cities in Bangladesh, fulfilling the insatiable appetite for raw materials in the construction boom taking place throughout the country.

Away from the dust thrown up by the stone-breaking were ripe, throat-high, cornfields and the remnants of the rice harvest from a few weeks earlier. The land is extremely fertile here. Beyond this, in the distance, I saw what was to become a familiar sight in the area; the barbed-wire security-fence India is building (including, in parts, floodlighting) around its entire border with Bangladesh.

Also on Bangladesh in openDemocracy:

Farida Khan, "Getting real about globalisation in Bangladesh" (15 April 2004)

Naila Kabeer, "The cost of good intentions: 'solidarity' in Bangladesh" (24 June 2004)

Liz Philipson, "Bangladesh's fraying democracy" (26 June 2006)

Farida Khan, "Muhammad Yunus: an economics for peace" (25 October 2006)

Timothy Sowula, "Bangladesh's political meltdown" (24 November 2006)

Firdous Azim, "Women and religion in Bangladesh: new paths" (19 December 2007)The almost three-metre-high steel curtain winds through and divides villages, agricultural lands and markets. It separates families and communities, cutting across inaccessible areas: mangrove-swamps in the southwest of the country, forests and mountains in the northeast. Many border residents have found their homes split in two, with kitchen and bedrooms in different countries. When complete, the fence will be one huge feat of Indian engineering -  larger than the United States-Mexico fence, the Israel-Palestine wall and the Berlin wall put together.

Delhi argues the boundary will ensure a decrease in illegal immigration, smuggling and terrorism sourced in Bangladesh. It estimates that since the late 1970s, 20 million Bangladeshis have illegally moved to India. It also says that there are camps on Bangladeshi land near the border which terrorists use as a base to attack Indian civilians. India also intends once and for all to delineate the recalcitrant populations who live alongside it, sorting out "Indians" from "Bangladeshis".

This is a particularly sensitive issue as communities in this region living in the border areas stretch across the borders of the neighbouring countries; they share linguistic, ethnic and cultural similarities as well as economic interdependence. Depending upon domestic political expediencies, successive governments in Dhaka have argued that the fence is part of a wider aggressive stance adopted by India to maintain its position as the regional hegemon and an attempt to undermine the state by its more powerful neighbour. They declare there are no illegal immigrants in India and that the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) are frequently thwarting smugglers in the frontier areas. 

An astonishing sight

Hasibul had lived all his life in the village of Ambari, a ten-minute cycle rickshaw ride from the hustle and bustle of Bhurimari. The quiet mud village is surrounded on all sides by lush green fields and also the Indian fence. The fields closest to the barrier on the Bangladeshi side are also Indian. These belong to Indian farmers who have the misfortune of owning land that now doubles-up as no-man's-land. This means the fence has divided some of the most marginalised people in India from their only source of food and income.

A 1975 treaty specifies that no defensive structures are allowed to be built within 450 metres of the boundary line. Officially, these farmers are still able to cultivate their land right up to the zero point. They present their ID cards to the border guards and in return are given a token which enables them to go out of the fencing to their field. The token is made of cardboard which they carry until the gates close for the night.

However, the reality appears different to the defined official routine. The Indian-owned fields, in comparison to their Bangladeshi counterparts, look untended, with typically gaunt Bangladeshi cows grazing the few weeds growing on them. I was later told by a Bangladeshi villager that their Indian neighbours are rarely seen on their fields these days because of the trouble they are given by the BSF.

As I walked into the family's modest compound, a group of men also arrived from the direction of the fence, a mere ten meters or so away. Trotting unassumingly in between them were eight cows.

The animals were astonishing. What made them so was that they looked like over-inflated monsters compared to the ones I had just seen grazing in the fields. Elephant-tusk-sized horns crowned their heads, camel-like humps arched on their backs and legs that appeared as powerful as thoroughbred stallions carried them. They were unmistakably Indian.

I had seen this type before. It was at the previous Eid when thousands of them were brought to the many cattle-fairs in Dhaka to be sold for qurbani (sacrifice). Flower-garlands adorned their necks at the time. Such Indian cattle originate thousands of kilometres away in places such as Rajasthan and Haryana, and fetch over 1 lakh taka ($1,000), more than their smaller Bangladeshi cousins. The men had just returned from taking them to the nearby river to be washed before the last leg of their journey of the sub-continent, which will end in one of the cities of Bangladesh. 

A death

The village convened under a square-shaped bamboo structure, raised off the ground. Hasibul's eldest brother was amongst them, a tall slender man whose leathery skin made him look older than he was. There were seven of them before Hasibul, the youngest, was killed. "He was shot over there", the brother said, pointing at a recently harvested paddy field just before the fence.

The guard had been besides the BSF camp on the Indian side. "He didn't die immediately. He drew his last breath on the road. We were taking him to Patgram [the nearest administrative town] for medical help. We then brought his body back to the village and announced to the BDR what had happened. There was another boy who also hurt by a bullet. He survived." The costs for the funeral were shared out amongst the villagers.

"But why were Hasibul and the other boy shot at?" I asked. I had heard that since the erection of the fence, the BSF sometimes shoot at innocent border villagers to show their superiors in Delhi that they are doing their job and that indeed, there is a supposed threat emanating from Bangladesh. Was Hasibul a victim of number crunching guards? Before the brother could answer, a young boy next to me whispered, "his name wasn't Hasibul. It was Ata". I ignored him, but he repeats himself.

Bangladeshis tend to have an official name and a dhaknam (nickname) which most people know someone by. This boy must have been familiar only with Ata and not Hasibul. However, the brother soon corrects me. His official name was not even Hasibul but Hashikul. Hashikul Hussain. The press reports had obviously got the dead boy's name wrong.

This slight is not particularly unexpected. Border villages such as this with no electricity or literacy are considered so remote and its people so unimportant that officials from the government, let alone journalists from distant cities never visit. I am the first outsider to come here since the death. A little embarrassed, we continue.

"Ata was killed because of money", the brother said. "We cannot do it if the BSF do not give us a line [chance]. We had come to an agreement with a guard who said we could bring the goods in. He had eaten [been paid off] but another, one we didn't know was there and so didn't feed, it was he who fired." The goods Ata was helping his brothers and the other men of his village bring in were cattle. Delhi refers to the trade as smuggling while Dhaka sees it as legitimate, thus rendering the animal "legal" or "illegal" depending on which side of the fence one is on. Cow slaughter is illegal in all but two Indian states (West Bengal and Kerela) and killing them is prohibited under the Constitution. Ata's job was ensuring the animals stayed together and didn't run off as they came in through the fencing, supposedly one of the safer tasks.

The border guards are very much instrumental in the trade, guaranteeing uninterrupted operations and legitimising the leaders. In return they subsidise their meagre salaries by the money they earn, 1,000 rupees ($17) for a calf and depending upon size, anything up to 3,000 rupees for an adult. Most of the deaths and clashes that take place along the border are due to guards believing they are being undercut. "None of the cattle come on import [legally], they all come on black [illegally]", stated the brother, as much to me as to the people from the neighbouring village who had now gathered to listen. "We buy the cattle, we do not steal them, and when we go to collect them, we get shot at. Why?" 

The cattle trade

The animal has been a traditional source of conflict, often violent, between Muslims and Hindus throughout much of the sub-continent's history. For Hindus, the animal is worshipped as the mother of all civilisation. For Muslims, it is the most respected animal to be sacrificed during important festivals. Public discourse in Hindu-majority India continues to be against cattle-trading/smuggling and has taken on a nationalistic fervour, conflating anti-Muslim and Bangladeshi rhetoric with the United States-led "war on terror" campaign.

India does have legitimate export licenses but the issue is so sensitive that no one will go through the legitimate means. Muslim-majority Bangladesh argues that Hindus have traditionally sold their non-productive and old cows to them. As Ata's brother said, "the Indians want to sell and we want to buy. This has always been the case". Furthermore, India's beef-export market is one of the fastest growing in the world. In fact it is one of the largest suppliers of beef to the middle east and east Asia.

Bangladesh itself established twelve "cattle corridors" on its side of the border in 1993. This legitimised what was until then seen as smuggling and began a major revenue-earner. The success of the corridors drove up demand in cattle in India and set in motion the gradual fall of its price in Bangladesh. The figures vary, but they are all large and difficult to verify. They range from saying that every third head of cattle in Bangladesh is Indian, to estimates of 20,000-25,000 animals entering per day through West Bengal alone. Some numbers suggest 2 million are sent annually while the turnover from leather and meat exports from Indian cattle in Bangladesh is worth over 25 billion rupees a year.

Delhi says that since the erection of the fence, the illegal trade has finally begun to be curtailed. Ata's villagers, however, believe the fence has meant the system has merely needed to adapt accordingly. They say that the barrier has paradoxically made cattle-trading safer. In the past when there was no fence, they would have to run the risk of illegally going into India and procuring the animals themselves. But now, they are simply brought to the boundary by their Indian counterparts, the BSF keeping guard and ensure everything runs smoothly. Furthermore, it prevents marauding BSF guards from terrorising the villagers. "The fence stops the BSF from coming into our villages, swearing at us and stealing our livestock", Ata's brother said. "In the past, they would come straight into our houses. They would even come and take our cows. Now they can't do that. It is much safer. They have to stay on their side." 

After life

Life in a Bangladeshi border village involves accepting and living with contradictions, including conflict, insecurity and loss. Ata's death has affected everyone here badly. He was entrepreneurial, well liked and for a mere 300 taka ($3), which is what he would have earned per animal brought in, he was killed.

The villagers are all suffering from a kind of fatalism. This is found in abundance throughout the country - notwithstanding the national election in December 2008 which heralded the return of democracy - but here it seems particularly acute, where people are even more powerless in face of the powers that be.

The fence has meant the trade is a little safer, but the BSF still kill with impunity despite agreements with them. The guards are, needless to say, bolstered by comments from Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty, Indian high commissioner to Bangladesh; he  argued that people slain by the BSF "are not innocent but smugglers", thus implying that such extra-judicial killings are justified.

I asked the villagers whether their lives would be easier if the trade was legalised. They smiled and said regardless of what they do, choices they make, the eventual decisions are out of their hands. "The Bangladeshi government does nothing to help. The BDR can't do much. They come when something has happened but all they say is ‘why do you do it in the first place?' This is what life is like for us in a border. This means sometimes we loose our people to bullets." They also believe that the fence is here to stay. "As long as the BSF are there", said one man "our lives will continue as normal". Despite increased fears since the incident, Ata's brother says he will carry on cattle trading as there is nothing else he can do. "How else will I feed my family?" he asks.

From a distance

On the way back to Bhurimari, we again pass the colourfully painted trucks bringing stone into Bangladesh. Apples, oranges, coal, chicken-feed and wheat come in through this border. The route is also used to bring in heroin, alcohol and phensidyl (a highly addictive cough-medicine which Bangladesh has banned), all on the black market. HIV/Aids is a real concern in the border areas, with truck-drivers and local sex-workers on both sides of the fence most at risk.

We cycle past the official check-post, the tourists from Dhaka nowhere to be seen. They presumably have had their passports stamped and already crossed into India. Before I left Ata's village I asked to see a photograph of him. The family didn't have one. Strange, I thought. The teenager must have had one taken of himself at least once in his life. There was never any need to, they said. He didn't go to school, didn't have a passport and didn't own a car, all of which would require him to have a picture taken. There is no question of having family pictures, such luxuries are not come by so easily in these parts.

What they did have was a photo of his dead body which the BDR had taken just before he was buried. I told them not to bring this out in case it would further upset his grief-stricken mother who had already declined to talk to me about his death.

Herein lies the crux of the issue. People who live alongside the Bangladesh-India fence have to operate in the shadows because they have not been integrated into the wider state system. Theirs is a world of illegal migration and smuggling because the official means to trade and visit family across the border are not available to them. They simply are not part of the paperwork world that enables these kinds of activities to happen legitimately. Even the recording of birth-dates and ages are still an anomaly.

Ata may actually have been older or most probably much younger than the 16 years of age attributed him at his death. There is no birth certificate. The discrepancy with his name may be due to the family actually not remembering what his exact official name was, something that is given at birth but never used. Worse still, most cannot even read or write. How then are they supposed to open bank accounts, apply for permits and visas? The very thing that could possibly help them make a living, the border, is legally and officially closed off to them.

This is far more of a barrier than the barbed-wire fence can ever be. People from distant cities own the import companies and it is they who are allowed to cross the border legitimately. Locals on the other hand pay 300 taka (100 to the BSF, 100 to the BDR and 100 to the guide) for the privilege, and run the risk of getting shot at by a guard who hasn't been paid. Regardless, life - whether in the shadows or otherwise - carries on in the shadow of the fence.

The absence of any serious movements against it anywhere across its enormous length, is simply because everyday social and economic relations still continue in spite of it. The lack of power and authenticity invested in it by those who live alongside it and those who police it will make this endeavour a huge Indian folly.

My bus to Dhaka arrived on time. Outside the window I pass familiar emaciated Bangladeshi cows, happily eating grass, unbeknownst of the fate that will befall them or the trouble that brews around them.

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