September 11, 2005

Visit to WB-Bangladesh Border

Dr. J. K. Bajaj

I had an opportunity to visit India-Bangladesh border in Uttar Dinajpur district of Bangladesh and walk along the border fence for about 5 kilometers. The experience is worth sharing. Below is a short report.

The Enemy Within

We started from Kishanganj in Bihar. Kishanganj shares borders with Nepal on the north and Darjiling and Uttar Dinajpur districts of West Bengal on the east. Uttar Dinajpur district has a long border with Bangladesh on the east. This area constitutes the chicken-neck feature, where the northeastern flank of India is joined to the rest of India by a thin strip of territory which at places is perhaps less than 25 kilometers wide.

Kishanganj district today is 68 percent Muslim, Uttar Dinajpur 47 percent. Kishanganj town itself does not have many Muslims. But, as you drive out of the town the ambience begins to change. And within a few kilometers, the entire region begins to look alien. The road we took enters Uttar Dinajpur about 10 kilometers from Kishanganj town. The towns on the way to the border, especially in Uttar Dinajpur, have evocative names, names like Dharmapur, Goalpokhar, Debiganj. But you see hardly any Hindus on the road or in the town markets. Men are all in chequered blue lungis, which seem to be the Muslim uniform of the area; the lungis are so similar that they seem to have been all manufactured in a single lot. Women are uniformly without sindur and bindis; it seems weird, especially in rural Bangal. We came across only one group of women wearing sindur and bindis, inside a house in Debiganj; and they looked so vulnerable. Incidentally, it was festival time; it was the day of Bhadrapad Teej, which in these parts is the day when women fast and pray for the welfare of their husbands; on such a day dressing in their traditional best becomes part of religious observance for Hindu women.

There is another strange sight that we see on the road to the border through Uttar Dinajpur. All along the road and in the green fields beyond, we see an unbelievably large number of cows and bullocks. The area must have always been having a special concern for the cow; the name of the taluka is Goalpokher, the cowpond. But, the presence of such large number of cows indeed seems wierd. Cows and bullocks help in raising harvests almost everywhere in India; here, it seems as if a harvest of cows and bullocks is being raised. Incidentally, one of the BSF jawans we met later told us that cows are the least offensive of the goods smuggled across the border. And, on our return journey in the evening, the road was enveloped in a dense and unpleasant smell of the cooking of flesh.

About two hundred meters before the border, we are accosted by a jawan guarding the BSF camp. While waiting for his senior officer to arrive and permit us to move onwards, he expresses his disgust at the situation he is put in; he asks us that if the people around do not want to be guarded what should he guard, and why should he put his life at stake.

The border is marked by twin rows of barbed wire fencing. Unlike along the Pakistan border in Punjab, the fence here is not very high or very secure; it can be breached, and according to the jawans, it is often breached. There is a road running along the border at some distance from the fence. A couple of jawans is assigned to patrol each stretch of about 1.5 kilometers. They work in 6 hour shifts and a jawan puts in two shifts a day. They keep bicycling along their stretch of the border for 6 hours at a time, twice a day!

But the monotony and strenuousness of this exercise does not seem to bother the jawans. The jawans we meet were deployed on the Punjab border before being shifted here. The facilities on the Punjab border are certainly better and the border structures are more permanent and secure. But that also does not seem to bother the jawans too much. They are used to hardships. What bothers them is something else; it is not the hardship, not the lack of facilities, but the lack of fellow feeling amongst the people around.

Every jawan we meet seems deeply resentful of the behaviour of people around. All of them say that in Punjab they were among their own people, here they are among others. They do not put it in so many words, but their talk clearly conveys that they feel they are in hostile territory. They tell us that if they ever catch anyone crossing the fence, the people around unanimously insist that the interloper is one of their own. But when someone gets killed crossing the border, nobody claims the dead body, neither the people on this side of the border nor on the other.

It is this working amongst hostile people that seems to get on the nerves of the defenders. How does a jawan defend a border that is inhabited by hostile people? How does a country defend a border that has been so deeply infiltrated by people from the other side?

Dr. J. K. Bajaj

Centre for Policy Studies,

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