In Govindpura, something as simple as crossing a gate can be a matter of life and death.
The tiny hamlet, home to 38 Indian families, has fallen off the map to find itself on the wrong side of the border with Bangladesh. It is in a tiny strip which is very much part of India, but outside the fenced border. Located in a strip along the porous land border, which crisscrosses hills, meadows and barren lands, the village is very much part of India, but on the other side of the border.
People in this village of Karimganj district of Assam recall with a shudder how a woman paid a heavy price for this essentially bureaucratic bungling. The legend has it that when she started having labour pains late one evening, her husband rushed her to gate no. 40, which they had to cross to reach to a primary health centre barely two kilometres away. But the gate – the villagers’ only link with the rest of India – remains open only during the daytime, that too intermittently and the Border Security Force soldiers manning the border were not going to make an exception for her. Soldiers being soldiers, they didn’t budge, asking the harried couple to wait till the next morning. Umpteen knocks on the black iron gate of around six feet high went unanswered.
“The next morning, there was no need to take her anywhere. She was dead,” says Monilal Suklabaidya, who makes his living as a labourer.
The woman’s death, something that happened in the late 1990s and is now more a matter of folklore, is an indication of how an estimated 90,000 people live (or die) – literally outside the purview of the modern state, since numerous ‘border villages’ they live in happen to be part of India and yet remain outside the border.
Fencing on this zigzag border, which began in 1986 and is expected to be completed in March 2012, has left a substantial portion of the Indian territory including populated villages to its western side. But for the knee-high pillars marking the actual boundary, this strip is virtually merged with Bangladesh.
For more than two decades now, two rows of eight-foot high barbed wires mounted on a concrete base and layers of concertina wires between them, have been dictating the lives of these Indians.
As former BSF director general R S Mooshahary explained in an article he wrote as the Assam chief information commissioner, “By fencing off 150 yards border territory to Bangladesh side, India has practically disowned 149 villages with a population of about 90,000 in a vast tract of land. It amounts to abdication of sovereign responsibility to the people whose land and houses are outside the fence. The people and their property there are clearly at the mercy of another country as the fencing impeded the exercise of sovereign jurisdiction by India. At places, fencing has divided the homesteads, fishponds and the village markets rendering people’s life miserable.”
Thus, the 90,000-odd people are Indian citizens on paper, but for all practical purposes they are as good as outsiders. None of the welfare schemes of the central government is available to them in their villages, as readily acceded by various government departments in reply to right-to-information queries from Anoop Prakash, a Delhi-based lawyer and research fellow with the Centre for Civil Society who has been pursuing this vexed issue.
Worse, there is no compensation or rehabilitation scheme by the state or central government for these people. In fact, the government has looked the other way. The ministry of home affairs has admitted that its border management division does not maintain any data regarding the population residing in the border areas. The only exception is Tripura, where, a special package under the Indira Awas Yojna has been sanctioned for the fencing-affected people in four districts.
How do these people, citizens without state, then lead their lives? To find out the answer, I took a 40-minute drive from Karimganj to Govindpura.
Life in the margins
When a BSF soldier stopped me at the black iron gate through the border fencing, I said I wanted to meet Zakir Hussain, a villager. The soldier looked for the name in his records and asked me how I knew him. After checking my identity proof, he made an entry in a register and sent a local man to fetch Zakir. Only when he came to the gate did the soldier allow me to go through the gate – on the condition that I return in 15 minutes.
The village was some half a kilometre from the gate.
Zakir, 26, works as a security guard in a software firm in Chennai and visits his family during vacations. He and his neighbours soon opened up and presented a whole litany of woes:
Villagers are not allowed to store any more ration than what they get under the public distribution system.
If they need to bring home any construction material such as cement and bricks, they have to take written permission from the BSF and sometimes from the deputy commissioner of the district.
Then there is the gate, with its railway timetable-like odd timings (6-7 am, 9-11 am, 2-4 pm and 6-7 pm at this gate). The villagers had opposed the timings when the timetable came up two years ago. “Every time a visitor comes, we have to walk all the way to the gate to fetch them. Have you seen anything like this anywhere else?” Zakir asked. Bipul Namasidra, a carpenter, added: “Every time there is a social function at home, we have to inform the BSF soldiers in advance how many guests would be coming.”
Villagers, who earn their livelihood from marginal farming and livestock, are at the mercy of Bangladeshis from nearby villages. Zakir said that somebody from Bangladesh had stolen two of his bulls worth Rs 35,000 in the previous month. “Today, our cattle are unsafe. Tomorrow, they can take our people away or kill them. Who would want to risk his life?”
Under these circumstances, obviously, nobody would want to marry their daughter to a man from a ‘border village’. “I must buy land on the Indian side of the fence so that I can get married,” said Zakir. People here either find a match within the village or move to the Indian side of the fencing. “In a lot of families, marriages get delayed because of this factor. Everybody cannot afford to buy land on the Indian side and shift there. I can consider it because two of my elder brothers and I work in Chennai,” he explained.
My next stop was Lakhi Bazaar village. The BSF soldiers did not allow me to enter the village. Whoever I want to meet would have to come to the gate, they told me. “Only the village residents can enter the village. No guests.”
When I said I wanted to know more about the lack of facilities for these people, one of them opened up – of course, on condition of anonymity. “I interact with these people round the clock. They are living in misery. Even when the state government launches any scheme, it is only for people living on the Indian side. There is not even any NGO to help them.”
To make their lives a little less difficult, many people move to the ‘Indian side’. Habibur Rehman, a 68-year-old former primary school headmaster, and his family shifted from Niyamura (across the border) to Latu (inside the border) two years ago. He lost out on three acres of land but whenever he remembers the cross-border firings of 1992 and 1996 he thinks the move was worth it. “During such firings, BSF used to shift the civilians to a safe place, outside the line of fire. But once a bullet whizzed past just an inch away from my right ear,” Rehman recalled.
Echoing Zakir’s fears, he said, “We were very scared, especially for our women. They (Bangladeshi) would steal cattle and would even kidnap our people. The police station was across the gate, miles away. The BSF post was close by, but of no use.”
Roots of the problem
It all started on August 15, 1985, with the signing of the Assam accord between India and Bangladesh. The accord, among other things, aimed at sealing the border to prevent infiltration from Bangladesh to India and smuggling in both directions. However, a 1974 accord between the two countries stipulates that there should not be any defence structure within 150 yards or 137 metres of the interline boundary or ‘line zero’. The fenced border, constructed accordingly, was bound to leave the people in the 150- yard strip in a virtual no-man’s-land.
Ironically, more than a quarter century later, the purpose of the accord stands defeated as the illegal immigration of Bangladeshi citizens into India continues unabated. Between 1986 and 2010, more than 1,60,000 Bangladeshis were identified in Delhi, Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Tripura, Mizoram and Bihar. Smuggling too continues unabated.
Yet, the Indian government has failed to ensure the land border is thoroughly sealed.
All this brings us to the pertinent question: Why does not the government shift these Indians to the Indian mainland and end their miseries while also putting curbs on smuggling? Why this 150- yard strip cannot be declared a no-man’s-land? And why cannot these 90,000 people get compensation to buy the land in India?
Anoop Prakash, the indefatigable RTI activist, says: “Under the land acquisition act, compensation is given only when the government acquires land. In this case, the government has strategically acquired a narrow strip of land, almost parallel to the border. But it falls short of calling it acquisition and, hence, the question of compensation does not arise.”
Documents reveal that the Assam government did attempt to address the issue but only once. In November 1989, the state government made a move to rehabilitate the fencing-affected population and asked local officials to submit a scheme detailing a cost estimate for the acquisition of patta lands belonging to these people.
However, the matter ended there and the order was not implemented at all, forcing 49 people to move court. “No action has been initiated since 1989, though the assurance has been given by the respondents for early process,” observed the Guwahati high court in August 1994 while hearing three writ petitions from the affected people.
The court ordered the authorities to identify the Indian citizens who had been affected by the creation of ‘no-man’s-land’. Referring to the 1989 direction, the court ruled, “As it appears five years has already been elapsed, therefore it is necessary to fix time limit to complete the scheme. Accordingly the respondents are directed to provide necessary relief to the petitioners within four months from the date of receipt of this order.”
But there is a catch. The 1989 direction of the Assam government and the subsequent high court order are applicable only if the government declared this strip, inhabited by Indians, as ‘no man’s land’. Till date, it has not done so. “The day they (government) do it, they will be duty bound to shift these Indians to the mainland,” says Anoop.
“The government has denied these citizens the right to life which includes the right to free movement,” he adds. Mobility is the least these villagers demand. In July 2008, Karimganj residents wrote to the district deputy commissioner requesting him for no entry restrictions up to 8 pm. The official wanted the BSF to take the call. As there was no change in the situation, villagers wrote to the president of India, the prime minister, the national human rights commission, the union home minister and the Assam chief minister. Nobody responded. Anoop went to NHRC, alleging human rights violations. The commission, however, said the issue did not come under its purview.
The state government does not wish to admit that these Indians are willing to shift to the Indian side. “On the basis of my interaction with them, I can tell you that they are not willing to leave their villages. Why should they come leaving their paternal property?” says Karimganj district deputy commissioner Jiten Borgiyari, even as the three writ petitions show that they are very much willing to shift to India.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, officials of BSF, a helpless witness to the crisis, maintain that people in these villages will come to the Indian side only if they are compensated – a condition they do not see getting fulfilled in the near future.
Former BSF director general E N Rammohan is rather blunt in his assessment. He says sections of the ruling class too consider a porous border to their advantage as it allows illegal immigration of Bangladeshi citizens. Within days, they acquire Indian citizenship and become part of the ‘vote bank’, he says, adding that this is the principle for both the ruling Left in West Bengal and the ruling Congress in Assam.
Moreover, there is also a communal question.
Rammohan says, “During the fencing, every single Hindu village on the West Bengal border suo motu shifted to this side because they didn’t want to be exposed to the problems on the Bangladesh side. (But) Muslim villages wanted compensation for this.”
As a solution, he suggests, “Every single village must immediately be resettled behind the fencing. If the government has common sense, they will seal this border.”
Agrees Mooshahary, who has been articulating the issues arising out of this absurd situation. “I have been saying that if this is private land, the government should acquire it and give them compensation so that they can buy land somewhere else,” he says.
But will New Delhi listen?
“Not possible to rehabilitate these residents”
Karimganj MP Lalit Suklabaidya of the Congress has been making efforts to do his bit for the citizens living outside the border. “This is a bizarre situation. It is not the fault of the citizens living there. They are paying for the mistake of the government,” he says.
He raised the matter in the Lok Sabha during zero hour on December 23, 2004. The then home minister, Shivraj Patil, replied in writing on January 27, 2005: “Where villages and houses fall between the fence and the international border, the needs of the local people are being attended to by making gates at suitable intervals in the fencing which would enable people to go across the fencing. These gates are being provided after due consultation with the local people as per their actual requirements. It may, thus, be seen that there is no displacement of people due to fencing and efforts are made to cause minimal disturbance to the local people due to construction of fencing. At the present juncture, it is not possible to rehabilitate these residents.”
Suklabaidya wrote back to Patil on October 23, 2008:
“I have recently visited the area and the condition of about 2,500 families comprising more than 10,000 people living outside the barbed wire fencing is heart rending. Over the years their condition has deteriorated because their land values have come to zero, they are basically farmers and not skilled to work otherwise to feed their families. In view of the fact that they will not be rehabilitated as stated in your above letter, may I humbly request you to kindly consider paying adequate compensation so that these people could resettle themselves and survive.”
The matter rests there.
Meanwhile, fencing has not stopped smuggling
The 90,000-odd villagers have been suffering due to the fencing which was meant to put an end to smuggling across the border. However, the smuggling continues unabated – making a mockery of the people’s miseries. Fencing has only led to a lot of innovation.
Rais was 18 when he returned from Nagaland to his village, Nayamra (meaning ‘point of justice’). He was shocked to discover that the village where he was born and spent his childhood was no more within India.
Jobless and desperate, Rais soon started working as a sailor, smuggling sugar, tendu leaves, rice and Phensedyl (an addictive cough syrup that contains the narcotic codeine) from India to Bangladesh in boat in the dark of night. His agent would pay him Rs 100 after every successful trip – “excluding the commission to BSF troopers,” says Rais.
One night as he waved to his Bangladeshi agent signaling everything was under control, a bullet pierced his lower right arm. “After that night, I gave up that job,” says the 25-year-old, pointing to his arm which was rendered useless.
Rais now works as a labourer with the National Buildings Constructions Corporation. For Rs 120 a day, he helps workers erecting a fence on the bank of the Kushiyara river – close to the spot where he was shot at.
In his heydays, Noorul Islam was a pro at transferring articles across the border. He gleefully described the tricks of his trade: “Put the contraband right at the bottom and make three-four layers of permitted articles on top of that. Place a huge banana leaf on that. So, you will see that a banana leaf is floating in the river. An agent will receive the articles in Bangladesh.”
Smuggling was a child’s play in the old days. “During my childhood, there was no fencing here. It was all jungle. And there were many houses which were divided between the two countries, half on this side, half on that side. Bring the stuff in from the main entrance of the house which was in India and take it to the man waiting at the back door, located in Bangladesh side. Payments could be in cash or in barter goods,” Islam added.
A resident of Lakhi bazaar village, who requested not to be named, said the smugglers cut through thick bamboo sticks, put contraband like wine bottles and sugar in it and tie the sticks with thin ropes. At night, these bamboos are passed off to the other side right through the fencing. “A lot of times, it is done in connivance with the BSF. People are caught when they don’t keep BSF in the loop,” he said.
Dhubri district, 280 km west of Guwahati, has the Brahmaputra and Gadadhar rivers on three sides, making it a haven for cattle smugglers.
BSF seizes around 1,00,000 cattle annually on the West Bengal-Bangladesh border alone. “Roughly, on a seized to smuggled ratio of 1:4, it is about 4,00,000 to 5,00,000 cattle going to Bangladesh on a yearly basis,” notes former BSF director general R S Mooshahary.
Meat, leather industry and ancillary producing units in Dhaka thrive on cattle smuggled from Rajasthan, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh.
This appeared in May 1- 15 issue of Governance Now
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