A Great Divide

Policing the Indian-made India-Bangladesh border fence is imperilling those who live along it

BSF soldiers patrol a floodlit section of the India- Bangladesh border fence near the Murikhawa border outpost, near Siliguri (13 October 2008). {{name}}
01 November, 2011

THE REGION ALONG THE 4,095-KM-LONG India-Bangladesh border is among the world’s most heavily populated and impoverished. Meandering lazily through the Ganges Delta and the Sundarbans and straddled by 54 rivers, the border passes through a diversiform topography—part riparian, part alluvial land, part hilly terrain. Many rivers shift course without warning—the Ichamati, down one stretch, every six hours—and the lives and livelihoods of farmers on both sides are at the mercy of riverbank erosion. Historically disregarded by the citizens of both countries, who have a far longer common history than their independent statehood, crossborder activities like smuggling cattle, intoxicant cough syrup, wheat, sugar and rice from India to Bangladesh, illegal migration from Bangladesh to India, and human trafficking on both sides are flourishing. Ostensibly to prevent this, India began constructing, in 2006, the world’s longest end-to-end international border fence, a 2.5-metre-high, concertina razorwire-cum-barbwire, partly spotlit, partly electrified barrier scheduled for completion in 2012 at a cost of $1.2 billion, twice the original estimate. The border is patrolled by India’s Border Security Force (BSF), a Central government-administered paramilitary agency set up for peacetime border control but now tasked with everything from human-proofing to narcosmuggling prevention to stopping militant infiltration, and the Border Guard Bangladesh (earlier Bangladesh Rifles), a ‘first line of defence’ paramilitary unit with enormous powers.

According to the Bangladesh government and various human rights groups in both countries, the fencing has done more harm than good, and the BSF’s strongarm methods are incommensurate with India’s problems on its eastern border. (Despite this, in September, the Bangladesh government allowed the Indian government to erect the fence on the zero line, contravening the international norm of a buffer zone of nearly 140 metres between border and fencing.) Hundreds of cases have been documented of BSF brutality—verbal assaults, intimidation, rapes and killings—against both Indians and Bangladeshis living and working along the border region or dealing in legal transborder transactions. Indian villagers are often afraid to approach BSF border checkpoints to cross over to their farms and pastures, many of which have bestridden the border, the Partition’s detested ‘Radcliffe Line’, since the Bengal Presidency in the mid-19th century.

Following the release of Trigger Happy, the Human Rights Watch 2010 report which found that far more Bangladeshis than Indians have been killed by the BSF in their efforts to end cross-border smuggling, the Indian government called for restraint and recommended the use of nonlethal force. The Bangladeshi government and human rights groups in both nations have repeatedly complained about the BSF’s brutality. While the rate of killings seems to have decreased since January 2011, allegations of abusive behaviour persist. Until there are clear orders that alter operating procedures, and those who commit violations are promptly prosecuted by the local authorities, the abuses are unlikely to stop.