A border face-off

Published : Feb 28, 2003 00:00 IST

The incident on the India-Bangladesh border in which a group of Bangladeshis were blocked by that country's forces from entering their territory, underlines the growing tensions between the neighbours.

in Kolkata

THE India-Bangladesh border in West Bengal is a zone of tension all the time. Illegal immigration, turning back of infiltrators and incidents of smuggling mark the order of the day here.

The long and porous border, particularly in the North Bengal region, also provides easy passage to members of insurgency groups taking shelter in Bangladesh. The situation seems to have taken a turn for the worse after the change of government in Bangladesh last year, with Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) coming to power in alliance with Islamic fundamentalist groups such as the Jamaat-e-Islam, replacing Sheikh Hasina's more liberal Awami League.

Indian intelligence sources have claimed that the situation is being used by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to supply the extremist forces arms and ammunition. On this matter both West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and his counterpart in Tripura, Manik Sarkar, have repeatedly alerted the Centre and urged that the matter be taken up at the Central level with the Bangladesh government. Manik Sarkar even provided the Centre with a list of camps of extremists situated in Bangladesh and along the border.

Sources in the West Bengal government have said that over the last six months incidents of clashes between the Border Security Force (BSF) on the Indian side and the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) have been reported from different areas along the 2,216-km border in West Bengal. "Besides other issues, the immediate concern of the government is the problem of regular infiltration of Bangladeshi nationals into West Bengal who from there move to various parts of India, including Delhi and Mumbai,'' a government source told Frontline. Most of the illegal Bangladeshi immigrants are poor and cross the border in search of work. They mostly find employment as domestic hands and day labourers.

Recently in Mumbai and Delhi a large number of such immigrants were rounded up and sent to Kolkata with directions to have them deported to Bangladesh. "Despite evidence, in the absence of proper documents it is a habit with the Bangladesh government not to accept them as Bangladeshis,'' said a government source. The governments of the two countries have been at loggerheads over this issue for quite some time now.

The latest such incident took place when 213 nomadic people, who identified themselves as Bangladeshis, found themselves stranded in the no-man's-land in the Indo-Bangladesh border in Satgachi in Cooch Behar district of North Bengal. Neither the BSF nor the BDR would let them in. According to reports, the 213 Bangladeshis came from a community of snake charmers from the outskirts of Dhaka, and had gone to perform at a carnival in Munsigunj in Bangladesh on January 30. They were making their way back home when they were stopped by the residents of Kokabari village, who suspected them of being cattle thieves and handed them over to the nearest BDR outpost in Najir Gumani. The whole group, comprising 37 families, including 68 men, 65 women and 80 children, were made to enter India at gunpoint around 2-30 a.m. on January 31. However, intervention by the BSF led to their being pushed back into the no-man's-land.

The same day, 56 illegal immigrants from Bangladesh were rounded up in Delhi and sent to the border in Nadia, West Bengal. Even as 30 of them managed to get past the BDR and enter Bangladesh, 26 people, including nine women and six children, were caught on the border near Phulbari and refused entry. By their own admission, these Bangladeshis were mostly from Khulna district, and had come to India over 10 years ago in search of work. The residents of Phulbari, taking pity on them, offered them food and shelter. In the early hours of the next morning, the 26 Bangladeshis managed to slip into their country.

However, the group of 213 were not so lucky. Following a failed flag meeting between the BSF and the BDR and a fresh attempt by the BDR on February 1 to push into India a hundred people in the Jamaldah border in North Bengal, the situation took a turn for the worse. Both sides called in reinforcements, and security posts were put on high alert. The 213 people, caught between gun barrels on either side, faced starvation and the cold, until the Red Cross moved in from the Indian side to distribute food, medicines and plastic sheets. According to reports, the BDR initially refused to allow the Indian Red Cross to help them out, and threatened to open fire on the BSF if the people were not removed from no-man's-land. However, they backed off when the BSF threatened to retaliate.

With the BDR refusing to allow the Red Cross to provide relief to the group, it was up to the BSF to arrange for it on humanitarian grounds. P.P. Gupta, Assistant Deputy Inspector-General, BSF, said: ``As soldiers of a civilised country we cannot allow these innocent Bangladeshis to die without food.'' However, this act of the BSF was interpreted on the other side as definite proof of the people being Indians. BDR Commander Enayat Karim is reported to have said: "No security force would provide food to illegal immigrants.''

Although the Bangladeshis produced documents such as electricity bills as proof of their place of origin and provided names and addresses of family members, the BDR insisted that only the Bangladesh Union Council Card can get them inside their own country. The BDR also turned down the proposal of the BSF to record jointly the statements of the 37 families in the presence of mediapersons from both countries.

On February 3, on the fourth day, after yet another failed flag meeting between BSF and BDR commanders, the situation began to take an ominous turn. The previous night, the group's leader Din Islam was approached by a Bangladeshi civilian and asked to meet the BDR Commander at Nazir Gumani. According to Din Islam, he was set upon by the villagers and beaten up while the BDR men watched. Managing to escape, he made for no-man's-land, pursued by the Bangladeshis, who then turned on the rest of the group. They dispersed only when the BSF men and Indian village residents approached.

The next morning, after news of the failure of the flag meeting spread, agitated villagers from both sides, armed with sticks, stones, spears and other weapons, faced each other. Both the border forces were on alert and for nearly an hour the situation remained explosive.

Sensing imminent violence, orders came for the evacuation of Satgachi along the border. Although a large number of women and children, besides cattle, were moved to safer places, the men in the village were more inclined to stay put and fight it out. They too were asked to clear out. The BSF accused the BDR of inciting the Bangladeshis, digging trenches and moving heavy arms such as mortars and machine guns to the border. "It was an attempt to provoke the Indian troops to open fire, and a blatant ploy to create a human shield,'' said D.L. Choudhury, DIG, BSF.

Meanwhile, for the 213 people trapped between the two countries, the situation was worsening by the day. By the fifth day, they had to be shifted to another location, as filth made the original spot unliveable. With the cold and the dirt enveloping them, diseases were not far behind. Most of the people, including children, faced respiratory problems and contracted gastroenteritis. Though medicines were distributed from the Indian side, the squalor of their surroundings and the realisation that their country had rejected them, added to their despair.

West Bengal Agriculture Minister Kamal Guha, who hails from Cooch Behar, described the plight of the 213 people as "intolerable", and said that it was "inhuman" that so many women and children had to live in the open air in the cold without food and water. Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee sympathised with their plight. He pointed out that though those who were stranded were not Indian citizens, "we arranged for the Red Cross to reach food, water, medicines and tarpaulin sheets to them.''

The nightmare ended on the night of February 5, when the group of people stepped into Bangladesh, but they did not seem to stray too far from the zero-line, perhaps out of fear of the BDR. The BSF forwarded to the BDR documentary evidence such as electricity bills, cash memos and addresses, besides tape recordings in which individuals stated that they were indeed Bangladesh citizens.

On February 6, the 37 families finally disappeared from the area. According to the BSF, the BDR allowed them to go, but only under cover of darkness, to save itself from embarrassment. The BDR claims to have no knowledge of their whereabouts. According to K.C. Sharma, Acting Inspector-General, BSF, the 213 Bangladeshis were taken to Patgram village in Lalmonirhat district in the Rangpur area.

As for the snake charmers among them, most of their snakes were either dead or dying. Their nearly week-long ordeal had robbed them not only of their source of livelihood but also left them feeling abandoned and rootless.

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