‘Zero Tolerance’ and Lives on Either Side of Indo-Bangla Border

Representative image

Debananda S Medak
(The writer can be reached at debanandatimes83@gmail.com)

“In the border coordination conference, the BSF (Border Security Force) and the BGB (Bangladesh Guards Border) have adopted zero tolerance strategies to deal with smuggling of arms, explosives, drugs and human trafficking along the frontiers,” Additional Director General of BGB Mohmmad Jahid Hussain told reporters – (The Sentinel, Thursday 26 July 2018). Reportedly, this was stated after a four-day border coordination conference held at Tripura frontier headquarters in Shalbagan, 12 km north of Agartala on July 25, last.

Notably, four North-eastern states – Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura – share International Border (IB) with Bangladesh covering a stretch of 1880 km. A vast portion of this 1880 km of the IB has remained porous.

Relatively, though the eastern frontiers do not pose a security challenge to the Indian nation like that of the western one, the cross-border crimes and infiltration have been a matter of grave concern along the IB. Hence, it is quite significant to observe as to how this conceived idea of ‘Zero Tolerance’ will be put into action and strengthen the security personnel all along the unfenced areas.

The demarcation of the IB along the Northeast frontier was so arbitrary that it perpetually alienated thousands of families, clans, villages and communities, including their cadastral and non-cadastral lands, leaving them and their property deserted on either side of the border. Hence, the eventuality of the illogical demarcation has originated from the idea of informality across the border. Notably, during the post-independent period, this IB was imagined and arbitrarily drawn by the Colonial rulers to fulfill their capitalistic objective, and was never redrawn.

As a result, a village like Ghosgaon under Gasuapara Circle of West Garo Hills district, Meghalaya which was divided by the fencing, forced the BSF to abandon the border fence. Accordingly, the border at Ghosgaon still remains porous and the villagers from both the sides maintain a regular economic and social dependency. Significantly, the residents of Ghosgaon village are so neglected and isolated that starting from health access to the gathering of some essential commodities, they are forced to depend on the markets, towns and health institutions available in the Bangladesh territory. Moreover, to access the ancestral land, estates and other forest resources, villagers from either side cross the border on a regular basis.

The only weekly market located inside Indian territory is also openly accessed by the nearby villagers from Bangladesh. It must be mentioned here that, if the fencing is erected again to restrict the cross-border movement at Ghosgaon, the villagers on the Indian side will be starving. The BSF camp located adjacent to village pretends as if everything is right and rosy.

On other hand, the Pyrdiwah village, located barely 10 km away from the Dawki Land Custom Station (LCS) in West Jaintia Hills district, Meghalaya has a similar tale to tell. Right from the Dawki LCS, the stretch roughly covering around 30 km of the IB has remained porous for several years. The whole of Pyrdiwah village is situated along the No Man’s Land adjoining the IB pillar where Umngot river itself is the natural barrier. However, during the winter, as the river dries up, people from either side necessarily cross the border on various occasions. People residing in either side of the IB near Dawki still maintain cross-border marriage, rituals and religious linkage with the tribes of Bangladesh. Particularly in complicated pregnancy cases, villagers of Pyrdiwa call traditional midwives (Dhai) from Bangladesh.

In a recent visit, talking to this writer, Ajay Das (23), and Aklesh Santhal (21), two wage earners from Uttar Pottapur village under Sylhet district of Bangladesh said, “We work as construction workers (pukka mistry). Our village is just two-and-a-half km away from the IB. Every morning we cross the border and search manual works in Pyrdiwah and the adjoining villages.

We go back to our village in the evening. We are also engaged in constructing Border Out Posts (BOPs) of the BSF. Everybody knows that we are Bangladeshi. But they never refuse our labour. We have a peaceful coexistence. There are also labours like us who come from villages like Lalpunji, Songrampunji and Lamapunji of Sylhet district of Bangladesh.

Similarly, the people of Sabhapur village under Killamura Ward in West Tripura District, Tripura also maintain an economic, cultural and religious dependency on either side of the border. People from the villages like Palpara, Shahapur, Noamapara, and Killamura bear the same compulsion. All of these villages are located in and around Srimantapur LCS where more than 500 trucks from Bangladesh arrive loaded with cements every day. It will not be exaggerated to claim that the whole of Agartala is increasingly dependent on the cement imported from Bangladesh through Srimantapur LCS. Nevertheless, residents of these villages are yet to come out from poverty. Here too, there is no IB fencing erected so far. Talking to this writer, some residents said, “People from Indian side cross the border to buy hilsa fish and other essential commodities from Bohora Bazaar in Bangladesh territory.”
More importantly, a few elders of Sabhapur said, “Households of these periphery villagers are surviving mostly on illegal trade. They trade commodities like, ganja, phensydile, cattle and groceries etc.”

The elders added, “Job of crossing the porous IB depends on the attitude of the BSF personnel on duty. If he is convincible, people bribe him and cross the IB. However, if the security man on duty is not corrupt, people are restricted. In that situation, people cross the border by other means.”

Notably, unlike the Indo-Myanmar barrier, there is no free movement regime (FMR) along the Indo-Bangla border. More worrisome is the fact that, in many parts of the borderlands, since a number of villages fall under the No Man’s Land area of IB, they do not qualify to access welfare schemes which has been another reason behind their extreme poverty. This has, directly or indirectly prompted them to take resort of smuggling to survive. Moreover, according to standard, the No Man’s Land should be maintained within the radius of 150 metre. However, there are instances, where it is more than 600 metre according to the convenience of the security forces. But in doing so, the cadastral lands and the properties occupied has never been compensated in many areas along the IB.

Reordering IB in most cases did not follow the trajectory of the interests that the people inhabiting these areas held close to themselves. Many villagers remarked how it was also difficult to erase their association with the system of landholding dating back to the Zamindari system, citing their association with the neighbouring Seerpur district in Bangladesh. The villagers also cautioned against having a generalized view of traditional systems of landholding and illustrated how the division of border brought the two different systems of hills and plains under one administrative system.

Under this given situation, it would be interesting to observe how the recent ‘Zero Toelrance’ mechanism jointly adopted by the BSF and BGB will be maintained along the porous IB. Will that mechanism provide the poverty-ridden border dwellers an alternative livelihood, healthcare and an opportunity to revisit their once shared history, culture and economy? Along with the new mechanism, would the BSF and BGB also increase the strength of women personnel along the IB to deal with the situation? To what extent should they be controlled and dominated, depriving them from their basic human rights?