In May last year, newspapers in Bangladesh reported that a teenager had been killed along the country’s northwestern border with India. Sixteen-year-old Hasibul Islam was shot dead at five in the morning as he was walking along the Kalabari border, in Rajshahi District. A soldier from the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) was said to have called to him. News of the boy’s death resulted in no uproar from civil society, perhaps because such incidents have become regular occurrences along the 2500-mile Bangladesh-India frontier. According to the Dhaka-based rights watchdog Odhikar, between 2000 and 2007, more than 700 Bangladeshis alone have been killed along the frontier, and many more have been wounded. (No organisation appears to be collecting similar statistics on the Indian side.) Shortly after receiving news of Hasibul’s death, this writer travelled to the far northern border village, a bumpy 10-hour bus ride from Dhaka. The intention was to understand how he was killed, and what his short life had been like living alongside what is fast becoming one of the most volatile border areas in the world today.
The bus dropped me off in Burimari, the last town before the fluttering flags of Bangladesh and India demarcate the margins of their respective countries. The border is now 60 years old, established with the creation of Pakistan and India, and from the outset contact between people on either side became complicated. Tension eased somewhat with the founding of Bangladesh in 1971, but not for long. The border with India here is also the gateway to neighbouring Nepal and Bhutan. A few of my fellow passengers walked nervously towards the checkpost, 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 across the raised bamboo barrier into Bangladesh. Shanties of stone-import companies lined both sides of the road; behind, under the burning sun, women and children broke boulders into small pieces using only hammers. The stones are destined for Dhaka and other cities in Bangladesh, fulfilling the insatiable appetite for raw material in the country-wide construction boom that is taking place.
Away from the dust created by the stone-breaking were fields of neck-high, ripening corn, and elsewhere the remnants of the rice harvest of just a few weeks previous. The land in this area is extremely fertile. I turned my head up and, in the distance, I could see what was to become a familiar sight – the barbed-wire security fence that India is building along the entire border. The eight-foot-high steel curtain winds through and divides villages, agricultural lands and markets. It separates families and communities, cutting through even inaccessible areas such as mangrove swamps in the southwest of Bangladesh and the forests and hills of the northeast. When complete, the fence will be a massive feat of Indian engineering, larger than the US/Mexico fence, the Israel/Palestine wall and the Berlin Wall all put together (see Himal June 2008, “The neighbour’s fence). While most of the fencing has been completed, portions of it remain unfinished, primarily because both sides are unable to accept where the border actually is in certain places.
New Delhi argues that the enforced boundary will lead to a decrease in illegal Bangladeshi immigration as well as in crossborder smuggling and militancy. According to official statistics from the New Delhi government, over the past three decades, 20 million Bangladeshis have illegally moved to India. Indian officials also say that there are camps within Bangladeshi territory being used by anti-India militants. Moreover, the fence is intended to delineate the recalcitrant populations who live alongside it – sorting out, once and for all, ‘Indians’ from ‘Bangladeshis’. This is a particularly sensitive issue, as many border communities in this area are continuous communities, sharing linguistic, ethnic and cultural similarities as well as longtime economic interdependence.
Depending on domestic political expediencies, consecutive governments in Dhaka have argued that the fence constitutes part of a wider aggressive stance adopted by India to maintain its position as the regional hegemon. It also criticises the construction as an outright attempt to undermine the Bangladeshi state by its more powerful neighbour. Dhaka officials regularly deny that any illegal immigration takes place into India from Bangladesh, and that the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) are successfully thwarting smugglers in the frontier areas. From both sides, the truth of these matters is frequently the first to be lost in the rhetoric.
Hasibul grew up and lived in the village of Ambari, a 10-minute cycle-rickshaw ride from the hustle and bustle of Burimari town. The quiet village, a collection of mud huts, is nearly surrounded by lush green fields; on the fourth side runs the Indian fence. The fields closest to the barrier on the Bangladeshi side are also Indian, belonging to Indian farmers who have the misfortune of owning land that is now officially seen as no-man’s land. According to a 1975 treaty, no defensive structures are allowed to be built within 150 yards of the boundary line, forcing the fence to be set far back from the actual border. This means that the fence has divided some of the most marginalised people in India from their fields. Officially, these farmers are still able to cultivate their land right up to the ‘zero line’, amidst the scrawny cows that nibble at the sparse grass cover. They present ID cards to border guards and, in return, are given a cardboard token that enables them to go through the fence to their fields, until the gates close for the night.
That is how it is supposed to work, anyway. In comparison to the adjacent fields of their Bangladeshi counterparts, the Indian-owned fields look notably untended. A Bangladeshi villager said his Indian neighbours are rarely seen on their fields these days, due to the trouble they are given by the BSF. As I walked into his family’s modest compound, a group of men also arrived from the direction of the fence, located a mere ten metres away from the house. Trotting unassumingly in between them were eight cows. These animals looked distinctly different from the emaciated local bovines. Elephant-tusk-sized horns crowned their heads, with camel-like humps on their backs and legs that appeared as powerful as those of thoroughbred stallions. They were unmistakably Indian.
I had, of course, seen such beasts before. It was last Eid when thousands of such cows were brought to the many cattle fairs in Dhaka, to be sold for qurbani (sacrifice). At the time, flower garlands had adorned their necks. Originating hundreds of miles distant, from as far away as Rajasthan and Haryana, Indian cattle fetch over 100,000 taka (around USD 1500) each – significantly more than their much smaller Bangladeshi cousins. These oxen had been washed in the nearby river before crossing over for before the last leg of their Subcontinental journey, into one of Bangladesh’s cities, where they are sold at weekly cattle fairs and sent to the abattoirs located in the city centres. This particular herd had been brought after Hasibul’s death, and followed the same procedure as when Hasibul was killed: passing through the gates that are interspersed along the fencing. These are the very gates that allow Indian farmers to cross the border into Bangladesh in order to cultivate their fields.
The village’s members convened under a square bamboo structure, raised slightly off the ground. Hasibul’s eldest brother was among them, a tall, slender man whose leathery skin made him look older than he was. There had been seven of them before the youngest, Hasibul, was killed. “He was shot over there,” said the brother (who asked not to be named), pointing at a recently harvested paddy patch just by the fence. The guard had been standing beside the BSF camp on the Indian side. “He didn’t die immediately,” the brother said. “He drew his last breath on the road. We were taking him to Patgram for medical help. We then brought his body back to the village and told the BDR what had happened. Another boy was also hurt by a bullet. He survived.” The costs for the funeral were shared among the villagers. “Why were Hasibul and the other boy shot at?” I asked. I had heard that since the construction of the fence, the BSF would sometimes shoot at innocent border villagers in order to show their superiors in New Delhi that they were doing their jobs, and that, indeed, there is a threat coming from Bangladesh. Was Hasibul a victim of the need to show a job being done?
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 repeated himself. Bangladeshis tend to have an official name and a daknaam, a nickname, and it is by this name that most people are known. This boy must have been familiar only with ‘Ata’ and not ‘Hasibul’. However, the brother soon corrected me again. Even his official name was not Hasibul, but in fact Hashikul – Hashikul Hussain. The press reports had obviously gotten the name wrong. This insensitivity is not particularly unexpected. Border villages such as Ambari, with no electricity and little literacy, are considered so remote and their inhabitants so unimportant that officials from the government, let alone journalists from distant Dhaka, rarely visit. I was the first outsider to come here since the killing.
“Ata was killed because of money,” the brother said. “We had come to an agreement with a BSF guard, who said that we could bring in some goods. That guard had ‘eaten’ [been paid off], but another, one we didn’t know, was on guard at the time. It was he who fired.” Of course, the ‘goods’ Ata was helping his brothers and the other men of his village bring in were cattle. New Delhi refers to the trade as smuggling, while Dhaka sees it as legitimate, thus rendering the animal ‘legal’ once it crosses over. Cow slaughter is illegal in all but two Indian states – West Bengal and Kerala – while killing a cow is prohibited under the Indian Constitution. Elderly cattle, as well as healthy ones for ritual sacrifice, are an important input from India. Ata’s job was to ensure that the animals stayed together as they came through the fencing, supposedly one of the safer tasks in the process.
The border guards are instrumental in this trafficking, guaranteeing uninterrupted operations and ‘legitimising’ the people involved in the cattle contraband trade. The border guards of both the BSF and BDR subsidise their meagre salaries with the money they earn. The income can be significant: according to the locals, they can get INR 1000 for a calf and, depending on size, anything up to INR 3000 for a mature animal. Most of the deaths and clashes that take place along the border seem to be due to guards believing that 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 village who had gathered around. “We buy the cattle; we do not steal them. And when we go to collect them, we get shot at. Why?”
The cow has been a traditional source of conflict, often violent, between Muslims and Hindus. In the context of Bangladeshi demand for sacrificial animals for Dhaka’s abattoirs, the conflict is additionally sharpened. Public discourse in India continues to be against cattle trading/smuggling, and of late the matter has taken on a nationalistic fervour. India does have the flexibility to provide legitimate export licenses, but the issue is so sensitive that few try to go through the official channels. Bangladesh, meanwhile, argues that Hindus have traditionally sold them their old, non-productive cattle. As Ata’s brother said, “The Indians want to sell, and we want to buy. This has always been the case.”
Meanwhile, India’s beef-export market is one of the fastest growing in the world, and the country is currently one of the largest suppliers of beef to both East and West Asia. In 1993, Bangladesh established 12 ‘cattle corridors’, which, to the annoyance of the Indian government, legitimised what it essentially saw as smuggling. However, the fees levied on the traders bringing in the goods through the corridors meant the trade became a major revenue earner for the Bangladeshi state. The success of the corridors drove up demand in India for cattle, and set in motion the gradual climb-down of the price of beef in Bangladesh. Exactly how many Indian cattle are moved into Bangladesh annually is difficult to say. Estimates range from every third head of cattle in Bangladesh being Indian, to suggestions that 20,000-25,000 animals are entering Bangladesh through West Bengal alone – every day. Some numbers suggest that around two million head of cattle cross the India-Bangladesh border every year, while the turnover from leather and meat exports from Bangladesh is said to be worth some INR 25 billion per year.
New Delhi maintains that, since the erection of the fence, the illegal trade in cattle is finally being curtailed. Those in Ata’s village, however, believe that the fence has merely required some adaptation. Paradoxically, they say that the barrier has made cattle trading safer. In the past, villagers were forced to risk going into India illegally, and procuring the animals themselves. But now, the cattle are simply brought to the frontier by their Indian counterparts, with the BSF keeping guard and ensuring that everything runs smoothly. Furthermore, the fence prevents 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.”
In the black
Life in a Bangladeshi border village involves accepting and living with contradictions, including conflict, insecurity and loss. Ata’s death has affected everyone in Ambari badly. He was entrepreneurial, well-liked, and he was killed for a mere 300 taka – what he would have earned per animal brought across the border. The villagers here are suffering from a kind of fatalism, a sense of acute powerlessness. The fence may have made the cattle trade a bit safer, but BSF jawans have not become less violence-prone. Needless to say, the guards have been bolstered by recent comments by Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty, the Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh, who stated that those killed by the BSF “are not innocent but smugglers”, thus clearly implying that such extrajudicial killings are justified.
I asked the villagers whether their lives would be easier if the cattle trade was legalised on the Indian side. They smiled to say yes, but added that they have no say on the matter. “The Bangladeshi government does nothing to help,” said one. “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 at the border.” Despite increased fears since the killing, Ata’s brother says that he will carry on cattle trading, as there is nothing else he can do. “How else will I feed my family?” he asks.
On the way back to Burimari, we again passed the colourfully painted trucks bringing stone into Bangladesh. Besides rocks, apples, oranges, coal, chicken feed and wheat are also imported through this crossing. The route is also used to bring in heroin, alcohol and phensidyl, a highly addictive cough medicine that has been banned in Bangladesh. 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 cycled past the official checkpost, the tourists from Dhaka nowhere to be seen; they must have had their passports stamped and crossed into India.
Before I left Ata’s village, I asked to see a photograph of him. The family did not have one. Strange, I thought. The teenager must have had one taken at least once in his life? But there was never any need to do so, his family told me. He did not go to school, did not have a passport, and did not own any kind of vehicle, which would have required him to have had a picture taken. Of course, there was no question of having family pictures, as such luxuries are not come by easily in these parts. What they did have was a photo of his dead body, one the BDR had taken just before Ata was buried. But I told them not to bring this out, for it would have upset his grief-stricken mother, who had already declined to talk to me about his death.
People who live alongside the India-Bangladesh fence are forced to operate ‘in the black’ because the state has failed to integrate them into the wider system. Theirs is a world of illegal migration and smuggling, because the official means to trade and visit family members across the border are not options open 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 and death is an anomaly in places such as Ambari. Ata may actually have been older or, more likely, much younger than the 16 years attributed to him at his death. He left behind no birth certificate. The discrepancy with his name itself speaks volumes.
Most of the population in these frontier villages cannot read or write. How, then, are they supposed to open bank accounts, much less apply for permits and visas? 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 a guide – for the privilege, and run the risk of getting shot at by a guard who has not been paid. The very thing that could possibly help them make a living – the border – is legally and officially closed off to them. Ultimately, this is far more of a barrier than the barbed-wire fence can ever be.
Regardless, life, whether in the black or otherwise, carries on in the shadow of the fence. The absence of any serious movement against it, anywhere, is simply because everyday social and economic relations continue in spite of it. The absence of recognition and authenticity invested in the fence by those who live alongside and those who police it will eventually make this endeavour a huge Indian folly. My bus back to Dhaka arrived on time. All the way to the capital, outside the window, I saw cattle in the fields of Ambari. I passed familiar emaciated Bangladeshi cows, happily eating grass, uncaring of the trouble that brewed around them.
~ Delwar Hussain is a doctoral student at Cambridge University, UK.