India’s Second Most Dangerous Border?

Map of the India-Bangladesh Border

Map of the India-Bangladesh BorderThe May 21-27 issue of The Economist describes the line separating India from Pakistan as “the world’s most dangerous border,” an assessment difficult to deny. But India’s 4023-kilometer (2,500-mile) border with Bangladesh is perilous as well.

The Indo-Bangladeshi boundary is in some respects more barricaded than that between India and Pakistan. Half of the border is already fenced; most sections consist of parallel barbed-wire fences, some of which are electrified. In theory, India is fencing off its entire extent. But the $1.2 billion project, originally scheduled for completion two years ago, has become bogged down. According to Vikas Kumar, progress has been slowed by “the riverine landscape and incomplete demarcation of the international boundary.” Fencing off the shifting river channels that abound in Bangladesh is no easy task.

India’s barricading of the border was propelled by geopolitical and demographic considerations. Illegal immigration is a major concern; estimates of the number of Bangladeshis in India range from two million to twenty million. Religious differences generate social stress; since most immigrants are Muslim, the sectarian balance in northwestern India is shifting, worrying Hindu nationalists in particular. Such anxieties sometimes morph into geopolitical fears. A 2009 report in Bengal Spotlight highlights these concerns, as can be seen in the maps below. The author argues:

Maps and tables of immigration from Bangladesh to India “West Bengal [in India] has 1528 km border lines to Bangladesh, out of which the fencing is completed up to 1200 km only. But it is evident that more than 500 km of this Indo-(WB)-Bangladesh Border Line is un-wired or critical through which the Anti Indian Elements are coming Day and Night. Government knows it very well. These areas are being used as “Muslim Bangla Corridor” or “Extended Bangladesh” as you like to emphasize.”

The Indian government’s main geopolitical worry focuses on the Bangladeshi sanctuaries supposedly used by insurgent groups from northeastern India. India once accused Bangladesh of harboring 190 militant bases, mostly linked to the Tripura insurgency. The rebels’ reliance on Bangladeshi havens is hardly surprising, as the Indian state of Tripura is almost engulfed by Bangladesh. By 2010, this particular rebellion had largely dissipated. But other northeastern Indian uprisings continue to simmer, and Tripura could easily flare up again.

Map of the Indian State of TripuraSmuggling, especially of weapons, is another concern. Most illicit trade, however, runs in the opposite direction, from India to Bangladesh. A variety of goods are bootlegged across the border, with many shipments carrying such mundane loads as rice and saris. More troublesome is phensedyl, a codeine-laced cough syrup made in India that is illegal in Bangladesh. Moving phensedyl is big business; between January 2009 and September 2010, Bangladeshi agents seized nearly two million bottles. Bangladesh is now pressuring India to take more stringent efforts against drug smuggling, offering to collaborate more extensively on security issues.

By most reports, the fence has done little to stop smuggling. Partly this is due to the fact that it is not finished, but it also reflects the inadequacy of the barrier itself. In many areas, villagers simply cross over on ladders. Elsewhere, smugglers have finagled more formal crossing points. Bribes are required to keep them open, and payments not uncommonly come in the form of sex. As a result, a linkage has developed between prostitution and smuggling across the Indo-Bangladeshi border. A recent article on the resulting sex trade in The Hindu, evocatively titled “No Woman’s Land,” describes the crossing system:

As against half a dozen legal entry points between the two countries on this stretch of the border, there are 17 illegal ones, called ghats [literally “steps”]. Like liquor vends, these ghats are auctioned and the ghat maliks [“crossing lords”] set their own rates of commission for permitting the illegal activity. There is also a loose network of line-men, agents and carriers who facilitate the smuggling of cattle, rice, shimmering nylon saris and phensedyl … across the barrier.

Owing to the porosity of the border, whether fenced or not, India relies heavily on military patrols to reduce transgressions. The Indian Border Security Force (BSF) is a gargantuan paramilitary organization, with some 240,000 employees. The BSF is much criticized for its violent enforcement measures. Human rights organizations claim that it has killed nearly 1,000 Bangladeshi border-crossers in the past ten years. According to some sources in Bangladesh, other violations are commonplace. The Daily Star claims that between 2008 and 2010, “64 Bangladeshis were tortured to death by BSF, … while 116 were abducted along the border,” allegations that India denies. International outrage was generated in January 2011, when a BSF guard shot and killed a fifteen-year-old Bangladeshi girl; her lifeless body hung from the fence for five hours before Indian troops hauled it away on a bamboo pole.

Although India apologized for the killing, its response was widely viewed as feeble, fomenting yet more furor in Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi government, however, played down the row, as it has been pursing rapprochement with India. Dhaka is currently pushing New Delhi to liberalize trade, focusing on the quotas that it imposes on Bangladeshi textiles. As Bangladesh runs a significant and growing trade deficit with India, such concerns weigh heavily on its leaders.

Meanwhile, construction of the Indo-Bangladeshi barrier continues. Determining exactly where the barrier will run is no simple matter, as we shall see in tomorrow’s post.

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