On a dangerous journey

Published : Mar 14, 2003 00:00 IST

Bangladeshi nationals arrested by the Punjab Police in the Khem Karan sector on January 17, when they tried to cross into Pakistan. - REUTERS

Bangladeshi nationals arrested by the Punjab Police in the Khem Karan sector on January 17, when they tried to cross into Pakistan. - REUTERS

Risking their lives, thousands of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh cross the India-Pakistan border in a desperate attempt to find food and shelter.

PARADISE, thought Mohammad Illyash, was just a few hundred metres away. The problem was that there were hundreds of Indian soldiers standing between the small clump of scrub he was hiding in and the border with Pakistan. The soldiers, he feared, had just one objective that night: to kill Illyash and the three other Bangladeshi men who were with him.

Late on the night of February 5, Illyash and his friends Abol Makarm, Habibullah, and Mohammad Qasam began the journey they hoped would take them across the border that divides what former United States President Bill Clinton called "the most dangerous place on earth". The fixer who brought them by bus to the border town of Samba had told them that the journey would be simple. All they had to do was walk straight down a dried-up riverbed for some 7 km, taking care not to make any noise. Wages in Pakistan, the man they knew as Shah Hussain told them, were higher than anywhere in India. There, he claimed, they would neither face the hostility directed at Bangladeshi illegal immigrants in India nor the threat of deportation. He, however, did not tell them about landmines, electronic sensors, or electrified fences or razor-sharp barbed wire. Or about the Border Security Force (BSF) patrol that, believing terrorists were trying to cross the border, was now just a few metres away from the terrified men, ready to shoot.

Illyash and his friends were lucky. The BSF troopers who spotted them realised they were unarmed and were not terrorists. They are now serving a three-month prison sentence at the District Jail in Kathua. At the end of that time, they will be deported to Bangladesh - if, that is, Bangladesh is willing to take them back.

Dozens of others seeking to cross the India-Pakistan border never get to make another journey. On December 25, for example, two Bangladesh nationals were shot dead by troops of the Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry just a few kilometres from the area Illyash was interdicted. In this case, the Bangladeshis were coming in from Pakistan and were mistaken for infiltrators. Five other infiltrating Bangladeshis were killed in the Ramgarh sector on November 19, under identical circumstances. All they had on their bodies were Pakistani Rs.1,000, a sign that they had worked in that country for some time. Perhaps they hoped to take the money to their families living in India, or even Bangladesh.

Bangladesh nationals trying to leave India, on the other hand, seem to live usually to tell the tale. That, perhaps, accounts for the enormous groups of migrant labourers from Bangladesh trying to make the journey to Pakistan. In September, a group of 162 Bangladeshis arrived at the border town of Ranbir Singh Pura. Few paid much attention to the group, assuming they were migrant workers from Bihar and West Bengal, a common sight in North India. Late that evening, the group, which included 39 women and 64 children, set off for the border, making no effort whatsoever to conceal their movement. BSF border guards at the forward posts of Alla Mai Di Kothi and Badyal, trained and equipped to handle cross-border terrorism, had no idea what to do with the group. There was chaos again in November, when two groups of Bangladeshis adding up to 136 individuals, were picked up at Sanyal and Rajpura in the Hiranagar Sector; 38 more Bangladeshis, were arrested while trying to cross the border near Samba in December.

Security personnel seem to have no coherent system to deal with the massive flow of Bangladeshi migrants across the India-Pakistan border. Even arrest and prosecution are rare. BSF officials handed over the 162 Bangladeshis arrested in September to the local police. The police, however, refused to arrest the group. The reasons were purely pragmatic. The small police station in Ranbir Singh Pura simply did not have the means to feed and house hundreds of people, or to look after the special needs of infants.

Nor did any other security organisation in Jammu and Kashmir want to take on the job. The migrants were, as a result, put on a train to New Delhi, with no legal process being followed at all. Many promptly got off the train at Pathankot, just across the State boundary in Punjab. Dozens are believed to have made a second attempt to cross the border, and are part of the group arrested in November. While smaller groups like those of Illyash have a larger chance of being formally arrested and tried, the odds of their ever returning to Bangladesh are not high. While all the members of the group say they are from the Khagrachari Hill district, near Chittagong, they have no valid passports or any other form of official documentation.

At least some in the BSF seem to believe that stopping Bangladeshis from entering Pakistan is a waste of time. "We know the chances of our trying to deport them are next to non-existent," says one senior officer, "and no one has the time or resources to look after them here. Personally, I think we should just give them a cup of hot tea and send them on their way." Although no one was willing to go on record to admit as much, that tactic has been tried as well. The problem is that the Pakistan Rangers, the BSF's counterparts, are not particularly keen on such movement. On some occasions in the past, groups have been pushed across, only to be pushed back. Border guards sometimes threaten, or even kill, Bangladeshi immigrants in an effort to risk the run to the other country's territory. Indian troops, however, have now been clearly told not to use these tactics. The reason is not, sadly, humanitarian. The Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) is concerned that some Bangladeshis could be trained as saboteurs in Pakistan. No resources, however, have been committed to dealing with those interdicted on the border.

WHY are so many Bangladeshis willing to risk their lives to cross the border into Pakistan? Frontline found that most of those making the journey seemed to have no real knowledge of the situation in Jammu and Kashmir; they spoke no Hindi or Urdu. Almost invariably, the group was put together by agents operating among the millions of illegal immigrants in the slums in New Delhi.

Some were first promised jobs on construction projects or farms in Punjab, and then offered the option of going to Pakistan when they failed to find work. Others were nervous of eviction by the police in New Delhi, and felt Pakistan would be more sympathetic. It is also possible, although there is no real evidence to support the proposition, that some would-be migrants have families among the millions of Bangladeshis stranded in Pakistan after the war of 1971. Like Bangladeshi migrants to India, most work at bottom-end jobs in big cities, although a few have succeeded in working independently in small-scale fishing and similar enterprises. As in India, exploitation of this vulnerable community by urban police forces is rampant. Interestingly, in Pakistan there seems to be widespread trafficking in Bangladeshi women as quasi-slave wives for the rural poor.

Writing in Time magazine's September 25, 2000, issue, Hannah Bloch reported that since "the early 1990s, agents have brought women to Pakistan either by force or by promises of marriage and work." Once in Pakistan, one local resident told Bloch, "they are like chattel being sold." Bloch found that many Bangladeshi women were forced to remain in Pakistan against their will. Anwari Begum, as a teenager in Dhaka, was brought to Pakistan in 1990 after a six-month journey across India. Although it is unclear where she crossed the border, it is possible that the Punjab frontier was used by those who trafficked her. The Punjab border, now completely barricaded by high-voltage electrified fences, was at the time relatively lightly guarded.

Once in Punjab (Pakistan), Anwari Begum told Time, she was put on auction along with 50 other Bengali women. All but four were sold. Her husband purchased Anwari Begum for the equivalent of $1,800. The services of a priest were used to conduct an on-the-spot wedding. Now 28, the Bangladeshi woman lives in a Karachi women's shelter, where she found refuge after her husband started beating her. Although she wishes to return to Bangladesh, she cannot afford the cost of a ticket, and in any case has no travel documents.

There is at least some evidence that similar trafficking takes place in India as well. On October 2, police authorities in Gurdaspur, Punjab, arrested Bangladeshi national Kalam Sheikh, a key figure in a transborder operation that had trafficked hundreds of illegal immigrants. Twenty-three Bangladeshis, including 14-year-old Ajmera Begum and 15-year-old Sajida Begum, were arrested along with the man who intended to sell them. Sheikh, according to Gurdaspur Senior Superintendent of Police Varinder Kumar, admitted to selling women for between Rs.5,000 and Rs.10,000, depending on their physical appearance. Men in the group were made to work without wages, which were appropriated by Sheikh himself. If any of them complained, they were threatened that the police would arrest them. Interestingly, Sheikh used a property in Pathankot, just a few hours' drive from the Jammu border, to run his business. A sum of Pakistani Rs.9,000 was recovered from Sheikh, indicating that a considerable part of his business was carried out on the other side of the border as well. Sadly, the women Sheikh hoped to traffic will also have to serve prison terms for violating the Indian Passports Act and the Foreigners Act.

It is hard to arrive at any coherent estimates of the scale of such trafficking, particularly since most women see little incentive to sacrifice what little economic security they have as wives for time in jail or worse.

Most of them identify themselves as residents of West Bengal, not Bangladesh. One Tarn Taran resident Frontline spoke to claimed that she was from a village near the India-Bangladesh border, in the North 24-Parganas District in West Bengal. She was, however, uncomfortable about discussing details of her relatives at home, or of her life there. She also said that she had adopted the name `Kalpana' after moving to Punjab; she was earlier called Khairunnisa. Many police officials believe that such name changes and the use of fictitious West Bengal addresses are common tactics among illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. A Jammu and Kashmir Police investigation in Anantnag in 1999 found dozens of similar marriages between local men and women who claimed to be from West Bengal. "None of the women," says the district's then Senior Superintendent of Police Farooq Khan, "complained that they had been sold or were being kept against their wishes. There wasn't much we could do." Border guards entrusted with stopping cross-border movement share the same feeling.

The fencing of the Punjab border has not put an end to efforts to cross it. Nine Bangladeshis were arrested in the Khem Karan border near Tarn Taran while they were trying to cross over into Pakistan in August 2002. Three of the group were children - two-year-old Noor Ali, 13-year-old Mohammad Ali, 15-year-old Mohammad. The same month, a larger group of 34 migrants hoping to cross into Pakistan was picked up at Gurdaspur. Members of the group told the police that they had paid Rs.60 each to an officer of the Bangladesh Rifles, through a local agent, to cross safely into India. Since they found it difficult to find work in Punjab, they hoped to move further west where agents told them there were jobs to be had. It seems likely these arrests only represent a very small part of the numbers who actually cross the border into Pakistan, or back into India on their way home. Most of them seem driven solely by economic desperation. Several Bangladeshis are believed to have sold kidneys, as the recently detected organ trade scandal in Punjab revealed.

Officials in New Delhi ought to pay close attention to the lessons of people like Mohammad Illyash. No number of barbed-wire fences or machine guns, it is clear, can stop the movement of the desperately poor to where they think they might find food and shelter.

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