Sinlung /
24 September 2012

Along the Assam-Bangladesh Border

Megha Bahree/The Wall Street Journal
At some spots, Bangladesh is about 150 meters across this river. But it’s close enough for the cell phone services to switch from Indian provider (Vodafone in my case) to Bangladesh’s Grameenphone. Shown, a BSF patrol boat near the Bangladesh border.
As violent ethnic clashes between Muslims and a local indigenous community of Bodos, which left nearly a hundred dead and almost half a million homeless, gripped the north eastern state of Assam, there was one explanation that was repeatedly offered for the tragedy: that the Muslims were illegal immigrants. They had found their way into Assam from Bangladesh through a porous border and had been displacing the Bodos for years in their own homeland and this was a matter of survival for the Bodos.

I went for a drive and a boat ride along 28 miles of the 167-mile border Assam shares with Bangladesh to see if we noticed any migrants pouring in and how difficult it is to man this border.
According to the Assam Accord, signed in 1985 by the government officials with the groups leading a six-year long protest against Muslim migrants, the central government was supposed to build a fence along the border with Bangladesh. Nearly three decades later, it’s finally coming up along most of it.

The fence is a giant wall of barbed wire, occasionally double layered, separating the two countries by a mere 150 meters, in parts.  Farmers till the land and cattle graze on both sides of this fence. Indian villagers go through big metal gates—which punctuate the fence and are opened at specific hours—to work on farmland on the Bangladeshi side. The Border Security Force, which patrols the area, controls the gates. The villagers are regulars who usually go in the morning and are back by late afternoon. They have to deposit their identity cards and sign in a register maintained by the BSF at these gates when they exit and on their return.

P.K. Wahal, Inspector General for the BSF in Assam, denies that there are any illegal immigrants coming through. His biggest problem, he says, is smugglers. Some of the more popular items that they try to sneak out of India include cattle, whisky, cough syrup, marijuana and motorcycle parts.
Megha Bahree/The Wall Street Journal
A BSF patrol boat near the Bangladesh border.
To do that, the smugglers come in hordes, in a coordinated attack from both sides of the border and attack the patrolling troops with bamboo sticks and a local instrument called “dhaan,” a 10-inch long blade, with a curved beak and set atop a wooden handle. As part of a treaty with Bangladesh, firearms are the absolute last resort for Indian troops. Mr. Wahal shows pictures of gashes and wounds sustained by his troops.

The BSF says that about 90% of the border has already been fenced. The areas that are still unprotected are so either because the government hasn’t yet managed to buy the land from the villagers in those parts, or because a river runs through it, making it impossible to put up a fence. But for the rest, troops, equipped with binoculars and night-vision goggles, man the border in six-hour shifts, round the clock. The one thing that is still missing here, according to the BSF, is floodlights. The area is supposed to get those, but is pitch dark at present, making their job harder.

One of the unfenced parts is Bina Char. Char means sand island. The quickest way to this BSF post, a tiny island, is by boat. With Bangladesh about 150 meters on the other side of the river, the residents in the area look similar, and share a similarity in dress, habits and culture, making it harder to tell—just on the basis of appearances—if someone is a local or not. BSF says it has sources in the area that help them figure that out.

The main problem here used to be cattle smuggling. Cattle can swim and so-called couriers would push a dozen, and more, at a time in the river, and swim behind them, holding on to their tails. But with an increase in boat patrolling in the last couple of years, that has decreased here. Cattle is smuggled partly for agriculture but also for consumption – Muslim-populated Bangladesh eats beef –  and for leather.

Some of the challenges can be domestic. In July, Bina Char was flooded with the rains swelling up the massive Brahmaputra river. BSF had to evacuate its men and they lived on civilian launches for a week.

Muslims make up 8.2 million of Assam’s 26.6 million population, according to census data. A common theory in Assam is that most of them are likely illegal. However, the Election Commission of India has questioned the identity of only about a 157,465 voters in Assam. Critics question that number and what to know how many others are there who aren’t registered to vote.

BSF’s Mr. Wahal doesn’t get into the politics of it. He says he doesn’t know if Bangladeshis poured through these borders in the past. Today they don’t, he says.


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