All national borders are imaginary. But some are more imaginary than others. And perhaps some nations are more imaginative too. Somewhere in the labyrinths of the New Delhi bureaucracy, tucked within the recesses of the Ministry of Home Affairs, is a bureau called the Department of Border Management. The DBM, sometimes with just the flourish of an ink pen, conjures the sinuous, unsteady line that separates the triangle of the subcontinent from the mass of Asia. India’s shortest border, according to the department, is its ninety-nine mile border with Afghanistan. This one is especially imaginary, since it’s been in Pakistani hands for the past seventy years. India’s longest border is the 2,545 mile line that encircles Bangladesh. This one is being drawn right now, with steel and electric light.
Travel along the border districts of the east and you will see it unfurling slowly through the simmering green farmlands of Bengal, turning the territory into a map at last. It is an improbable structure: a double fence, eight feet high, consisting of two parallel rows of black columns made of sturdy angle iron and topped with overhanging beams. The two rows of columns are draped in a tapestry of barbed wire, with spools of concertina wire sandwiched between them.
This imposing national installation is still a work in progress. It has been under construction since 1989; 1700 miles have now been erected, at a cost of approximately $600 million. There have been many delays and cost overruns, but when it is complete it will render precisely 2042 miles of the invisible border an impenetrable barrier, a gigantic machine for processing bodies—designed, in the words of the DBM, to prevent “illegal immigration and other anti-national activities from across the border.”
Whatever its inadequacies, it is already the world’s longest border fence by any measure.
Whether this is an appropriate or proportionate response to India’s perceived problem with its smaller neighbor is less certain. The issue of Bangladeshi migration into India has become part of the background chatter of Indian political discourse in the quarter century since work began on the fence, though in times of political turmoil it has been amplified into obtrusive static. Both the partition of India in 1947 and the 1971 war that led to Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan occasioned a massive influx of refugees into India. But migrants of these generations are now generally accepted as naturalized Indians. While the number of subsequent migrants is presumed to be significant, the figures most commonly cited are wildly divergent and unverifiable. In 2000 the Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina famously asserted there were no illegal Bangladeshi migrants in India at all, while three years later India’s Intelligence Bureau pegged the figure at 16 million. The Indian press routinely cites more sensational figures, which expand impressively each year. The unlikely sum of 60 million was a popular estimate a couple of years ago.
Just last year, during his election campaign tour of Bengal, Narendra Modi promised to send all illegal migrants “back to Bangladesh”—although, he reassured his audience, those who worshipped the Hindu goddess Durga would be “welcomed as sons of Mother India.” Nobody knows, of course, what proportion of the unknown number of Bangladeshi migrants are Hindu. Like all the other numbers, it is likely to be impressive. But it seems doubtful that the extravagant net that India is casting around Bangladesh will be up to the task of sieving Muslims from Hindus.
Whatever its inadequacies, it is already the world’s longest border fence by any measure. The infamous West Bank Barrier in Israel, for example, will stretch for 454 miles when complete. The USA-Mexico Wall covers an estimated 578 miles so far. Even the murderous Zonengrenze, which once divided Germany from the Baltic Sea to Czechoslovakia, spanned a mere 866 miles. The German wall is said to have claimed a thousand lives in its forty-year career. But according to a report by Human Rights Watch, the same number of people were killed by the Indian Border Security Force on the India-Bangladesh border in just one decade, between 2000 and 2010. The Bengal-based human rights organization MASUM, which contributed to that report, has documented hundreds of instances of the shooting, beating to death, and torture of Indian citizens by the country’s own armed forces along this border. Its website features a grisly gallery of photographs and even videos of victims, both Bangladeshis and Indians. Comparisons may be odious, but, inevitably, India’s long fence has acquired an ambiguous sobriquet, sometimes invoked with pride, more frequently with sarcasm: “the Great Wall of India.”
Journey along this border and you will occasionally see the proud steel fence falter. Sometimes it yields to a mighty shape-shifting river, sometimes to a sluggish creek. Or a stubborn hamlet of farmers and fishermen in mud huts who just don’t want to move from its path. Often it’s reduced to a ramshackle fence of bamboo or chicken wire. In the north it surrenders to an archipelago of land-locked political “islands,” an impossible territory, too complex to demarcate. And then it returns, all sturdy posts and glinting wire and blazing floodlights. But by then it seems less convincing. And in its place you begin to pick up threads of a more credible narrative.
You will meet activists who complain about the border guards’ brutality and farmers who complain that the guards don’t shoot at infiltrators anymore. Soldiers with bandaged eyes who complain that the villagers are hand in glove with criminals and villagers who tell you that the soldiers are in cahoots with smugglers. Small-town politicians will complain that the border floodlights are keeping the crops awake at night.
And you will realize, sooner or later, that they were all right. Theirs are all true stories, inscribed on a fiction, the one that no nation-state can live without: here is the border, a long line without width. That is Bangladesh. This is India.
That particular distinction dates back only to 1971, but the border itself has an older history—older in fact than either country. It can be traced to the 1905 partition of the Bengal province by the British colonial viceroy George Curzon, which created two administrative units: a Muslim-majority East Bengal and a Hindu-majority West Bengal. But this stroke of the imperial pen was so unpopular—widely regarded as a cynical act of divide et impera—that it proved counterproductive, stirring Indian and Bengali nationalist sentiments rather than fracturing them. As a result the division was eventually rescinded, and the line erased from the map of Bengal in 1911.
It had left an enduring mark however, and, later, as the anti-colonial movement for national independence gathered momentum, the subcontinent fractured along precisely the lines Curzon had foreshadowed. As the moment of independence approached, it became clear that British India would be rendered into two nations: the Hindu-majority country we now know as India and an overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan. The latter would take shape in 1947 as an unusual dominion, comprising two distinct and distant territories, one sandwiched between the western fringes of India and the eastern borders of Afghanistan and Persia, the other virtually encircled by India’s eastern provinces of Bengal and Assam. The territory of East Pakistan was in fact practically indistinguishable from the failed experiment of East Bengal.
Pakistan’s two halves were an anomaly, perhaps even an absurdity, but not entirely without precedent: consider Alaska—or Hawaii for that matter. However, within a quarter of a century East Pakistan’s Bengali population revolted against the rule of the less-populous but politically dominant West Pakistanis. A brutal military crackdown by the Pakistani Army in March 1971 provoked an armed uprising in the East. The bloody civil war led to an exodus of millions of refugees into Indian Bengal, Assam, and Tripura. In early December the Pakistani Air Force, anticipating Indian intervention, launched preemptive air raids on Indian air bases—only to be overwhelmed by Indian forces, who, in conjunction with the East Pakistani Mukti Bahini rebels, secured the surrender of some 90,000 Pakistani soldiers stationed in the east. The war was over within two weeks of India’s intervention, and the new nation of Bangladesh replaced the erstwhile East Bengal and East Pakistan on maps.
Sixty miles north-east of Kolkata, the Petrapole (India)–Benapole (Bangladesh) border is officially designated a “Land Port,” less an oxymoron than an irony given the surrounding landscape, a delta full of tidal rivers. No ships dock here, but it is the most significant point of contact between the two countries. So they do their best. There is a ceremonial plaza linking the two nations. India’s contribution is an oversized sculptural rendition of its fence posts,in granite. Bangladesh has huge a mural depicting its founding father, Mujibur Rahman, who was assassinated in a military coup in 1975. In the courtyard between, porters dressed in national livery—red jackets for India, green for Bangladesh—exchange loads, passing them mostly from Indian backs to Bangladeshi backs.
Overseeing them are platoons of soldiers from the Indian BSF (Border Security Force) and the Bangladeshi BGB (Border Guard Bangladesh) armed with automatic weapons. Every evening the BSF and the BGB stage a public show of martial prowess with synchronized goose-stepping marches before their flags are lowered and folded for the night. It’s modeled on the wildly popular “retreat ceremony” held at Wagah on India’s Western border with Pakistan—an elaborately choreographed pas de deux of martial pomp staged by the BSF and their counterparts the Pakistan Rangers at a border post between Amritsar and Lahore. But while the Wagah show is charged with aggression and the passionate and sentimental rivalry of two nations separated at birth, the Petrapole affair is an insipid dance. It reaches a low point when the national anthems are played over the loudspeakers, since Amar Sonar Bangla and Jana Gana Mana were both written by the same “national poet,” Rabindranath Tagore.
Petrapole is a strange town consisting mostly of an incongruously wide divided highway lined with monumental rain trees. But its true renown comes from its reputation as “Asia’s largest customs station.” And this achievement is manifest in the endless jam of trucks being slowly processed by the Customs and Excise Department. Here “Clearing and Forwarding Agents,” as they are called, make a good living, supervising the safe passage of Indian steel billets and machine parts to Bangladesh through thickets of bureaucracy. Their business has recently been streamlined, the paperwork eliminated by online processing, and shipments are cleared in seven days. But the clearing agents must still make the rounds to customs officials and border guards to lubricate their transactions. “It was actually faster without computers,” one of them tells me.
Outside the customs station a small convoy of Indian-made vehicles waits to be processed: three of the most patient ambulances in the world and a funeral hearse with a glass coffin in the back. What Bangladesh sells to India is much more modest, these days: some jute from the mills; hilsa fish used to be a big thing, but now it’s been banned; one perennial exportis human hair for the wig industry in India—itself a net exporter in hair—where Bengali hair is particularly prized for its quality.
According to a World Bank report, Bangladesh imports around $1.7 billion worth of goods from India each year. Its exports are a fraction of this, around $78 million. But the same report also acknowledges that “illegal trade between the two countries amounts to 3/4ths of regular trade.” In other words, $1.3 billion worth of goods are smuggled through that $600 million fence each year.
Sudip Haldaris a fisherman.1 He lives in a small hut on the edge of an Indian village called Jhaudanga on the banks of the turbid Ichamati river. Just an hour’s drive from Petrapole, the scene is idyllic: there are bright green paddy fields and craning, deferential coconut and date palms, and on the other side of the slow moving river the same scene resumes. Small figures sit on the opposite bank, idly watching the river flow. Like all border landscapes, this one is filled with symmetries. Half the time the river is sweet and half the time it is salty, Sudip says. It changes with the moon. And half the river is in Bangladesh. “We only go as far as that sandbank,” he says, pointing at an island in the middle of the stream.
It is in the middle of the Ichamati, while Sudip adjusts his oars to keep the boat in place, that he talks about his other job, the one he does at night: herding cows across the river to Bangladesh. “It’s much better money,” he says. “I can make more than a thousand rupees in a night.”
Sudip is just one of thousands employed in the biggest industry on the border. It is estimated that up to 10 million Indian cattle are smuggled into Bangladesh each year. The trade is said to be worth at least $500 million annually, and like all trade it is a matter of supply and demand. India has a surplus of cows but relatively little demand for beef. In Bangladesh it’s the other way around. The price of a cow in India can range from Rs 500-3,000. In Bangladesh: Rs 20,000-40,000. And this astonishing price difference is preserved by the strangest of market mechanisms: the border fence and the 70,000 soldiers of the BSF who guard it. They maintain yet another national fiction: that the cow is sacred to Hindus and its export for slaughter is prohibited.
Sudip’s moonlight career is one of the worst-kept secrets in India. The highways to Bengal are thronged with trucks ferrying cattle from distant states like Rajasthan and Punjab. And out here on the border it is an organized business, with its own hierarchies and designations. There are the ghatials, or buyers, the dalals, or brokers who arrange the deal, and the rakhals, or cowboys, like Sudip, who actually herd the cattle across the border. The fourth and arguably the most crucial player is the BSF. Their job is to provide the element of risk, without which the whole business would collapse. And so they catch cows some of the time and then auction them off again to the dalals. Or they turn a blind eye, for a fee. There are two ways to cross, Sudip says. “Line open,” when the BSF has been paid. Or the more difficult maneuver of a “pass” which usually involves releasing a couple of cows to divert the sentries in one direction while the rest of the herd crosses on the other side. “The dalals always draw up a game-plan for us,” he says.
“It’s like football every night,” says Ajay Kumar, a young BSF sentry back on the shore in Jhaudanga. He smiles wryly as he displays his sporting injuries, livid cicatrices on his arms. “This is what we do, catch cows all night, every night. Ask your friend Sudip, he know all about it.” And Sudip smiles with mild embarrassment. “But what can these people do?” the young soldier continues. “They have to make a living, just like me. And what can I do? There’s so much unemployment back home in Uttar Pradesh, this is better than nothing. But I have to stand around in the sun half the day and then run around like an idiot all night.” Doesn’t he ever use that gun? “Well, we beat up the Bangladeshis when we catch them, of course—why should they make all the money? But we can’t shoot. After all, Bangladesh is a mitr desh, a friendly nation,” he says with a sly smile. “But now Modi has been elected . . . so who knows what the hell will happen?”
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