More than three decades after Assam Accord was signed, itself the outcome of a six-year-long agitation, Sarbanda Sonowal happened to be the State’s first Chief Minister to go through South Salmara and Mankachar districts right up to the Indo-Bangladesh border to get a first hand view of the situation there. It comes as no surprise that he is not happy with what he saw. The border remains porous to this day, a continuing mockery of all governmental promises about checking illegal influx. In the border at Dhubri sector, there is a 6-km long section over land, as well as a 60-km long waterway section formed from the Brahmaputra and three other rivers. Both these sections remain open till date, easily accessed by infiltrators and cross-border crimil elements. As for the border portions that have been fenced, Chief Minister Sonowal learned from the BSF that parts of the fencing are in poor condition and the floodlights are not working properly. There is nothing ground shaking about these revelations. Barbed wire fencings once erected have to be maintained regularly; unless the floodlights are not solar-powered, these will need electricity or diesel to stay lit. So when the Assam CM sees for himself that long sections of border fencing are rusting away and collapsing, when he gets to hear that the BSF has little diesel to keep border floodlights lit at night, when he learns that the BSF itself is chronically undermanned to guard this part of the border effectively — then what is new about such findings?
In the year past, the media had widely reported the findings of the one-man Upamanyu Hazarika commission which laid bare before the Supreme Court the shocking porosity of this part of the border. That report showed how villages and cattle markets located bang on the border are serving as entry points for infiltrators and smugglers. It pointed out the need for creating ‘sterile zones’ along the boundary line to help the BSF police it properly; surprisingly, the Central and State governments are yet to articulate any policy decision on this matter. The report also asked for a review of the BSF’s ‘non-lethal policy’ which the UPA government had gifted so blithely to Dhaka as reward for its cooperation — but as a result of which the BSF has been left with its hands permanently tied in tackling crimils and terrorists moving across the border to this side. Successive governments at the Centre have kept mouthing platitudes about making the border non-porous, which Dispur has been hitherto happy to swallow and keep quiet. During Union Home Minister Rajth Singh’s visit to Assam last January when he went on an inspection of the border at the Karimganj sector, the promise was given to completely fence the Indo-Bangladesh border this year itself.
After the BJP-led alliance came to power in May, the Union Home ministry reviewed the border situation a month later and set the deadline to June 2017. Figures were given out that there were still 122 locations spread across 60.7 kms on the border without any physical barrier. Of this, fencing would be built to cover nearly 12 km section over land, while the remaining riverine section will have ‘non-physical, technological’ barriers, to completely seal the border. These barriers are supposed to include an array of ground sensors, high resolution cameras, radars, infra-red sensors and hand-held thermal imagers, integrated within a ‘command and control’ architecture. Considering the absence of power supply infrastructure to keep even border floodlights lit, it is not clear how the Centre will have such a command and control centre up and running along the border within a year. Having visited the border now, Chief Minister Sonowal wants the Indian Army to take over this fencing work, just like the fast and efficient fencing work it did along the Indo-Pakistan border. But the western border happens to be one of the world’s hotspots, with Pakistan, backed by its all-weather ally Chi, locked in eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with India. The Indo-Bangladesh border has had lower priority in New Delhi’s scheme of things, lulled as it has been by warm relations with the Awami League government in the last few years. But if Islamist forces succeed in breaking through in Bangladesh to India’s detriment, security at the eastern border will again be a serious matter for Assam and the Northeast. The Sarbanda Sonowal government should therefore keep the pressure on New Delhi to keep to its deadline in sealing this border.