The fence divides more than just land

The fence divides  more than just land

With a towering razor-wire fence and heavily armed guards who shoot at intruders refusing to respond to their signals, the fence along the India-Bangladesh border is ominous and sometimes dangerous.

The fence, which snakes its way through paddy fields about 140 m inside India's notoriously porous border with Bangladesh, was built by the Border Security Force to prevent smuggling and illegal immigration. However, in the process, it has shattered many a dream and torn apart the lives of tens of thousands of people, cutting them off from family, friends, jobs and schools.

   In addition, around 200 people, mostly intruders are killed every year as they try to cross the border at night, either for smuggling or some subversive purposes even though human rights groups complain that Indian and Bangladeshi border guards have shoot-to-kill orders. Both the governments claim the victims are criminals and the trend needs to be checked. But the human rights groups disagree.

“We are often told that at least 50 to 75 innocent villagers get killed on the border in a year while tilling their land or simply wandering into each other's territory,” says Swapan Mukherjee of the Kolkata-based Centre for Communication and Development.
  Since the construction of the barrier began in 2003, tens of thousands of people in at least 200 villages are now in a geographical limbo - living in India, but on the wrong side of the border fence and thus with easier access to Bangladesh. They live inside a corridor the width of an airport runway, sandwiched between the Bangladeshi border and the new fence.

Sukumar Biswas, a 45-year-old farmer, gave up his fields and house when the heavily-fortified fence was built. Covered in barbed-wire, the fence is up to nine metres tall. "The fence has changed many of our lives completely. I had a spacious house and lots of hope for my family. But when the fence came up a few of us decided to move a few km inside Indian territory," Biswas explains.

  Tears well up in his eyes as a guard lets him through a massive iron gate into the fenced-off strip where his old house and fields are located near the village of Huda Digambarpur, about 170 km north of Kolkata.

 "We were literally afraid of losing our identity, but we have not forgotten our past and even retained the old name for our new village, but the land is not as fertile and life is not the same," says Biswas.

The fence, which the BSF authorities have begun building inside the international boundary, already spans about half of the 4,100-km India-Bangladesh border. The Indian Government is spending more than $20 million on the project and plans to ultimately extend it along the entire border in the next five years.

The iron border crossing gates at Huda Digambarpur remain closed on most days. The border guards say they have to shut the gates “sometimes” as they are unable to determine nationalities. Actually so: it is difficult to blame the guards as well. Smuggling is just rampant and it next to impossible for the guards to initially determine who is an innocent villager and who is not.

A select few are allowed through to pick up provisions but those who have to cross the barrier for work are often shut out and children who used to study at schools on the Bangladeshi side are sometimes unable to attend classes.

“We have tried stopping children from going to Bangladesh and have enrolled dozens of them in the schools situated in the Indian side of the border, but these are limited and far away,” Somesh Goyal of the Border Security Force points out rather reluctantly. “These are some of the genuine concerns, but stay back for the darkness to descend, and then you'll notice how the entire situation undergoes a change.”

Goyal is more than correct; the Indian authorities have tried to encourage its citizens living in the corridor to relocate their villages deeper into Indian territory, but so far few have heeded the call. The people on both sides share the same language and traditions. With very limited sources of earning a livelihood, villagers tend to resort to all kinds of smuggling.

Despite good relations between the two countries in the past, the border often turns tense these days due to disputes over trade, security and illegal immigration. India complains that Muslim insurgents have training bases in Bangladesh, a charge flatly denied by Bangladesh. And, adding to the villagers' woes, troops on both sides of the border exchange fire.

“When the firing starts or if illegal migrants are caught straying inside the Indian territory, they (BSF) seal the border and the fence gates,” rues Monirul Mollah, 52, a peasant whose fields are on the other side of the fence. "All I can do is watch and cry at my unattended crops.”
Prasanta Paul in Kolkata

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