The issue that continues to cause severe resentment among common Bangladeshis is the issue of border killings. But surprisingly, on most occasions, there is no mention of such killings in the joint communique that are released after talks between the BSF and the BGB. However, a tranquil border and its professional management is essential as it will create new jobs, raise living standards, and provide wider social and economic opportunities in India and Bangladesh.
Every year, border pillars number 345 and 346 near the Kochar and Chapsar areas of Debipur Upazila under Bangladesh’s northern district of Panchagarh turns into an emotional sight for Bangla-speaking people from both sides of the India-Bangladesh border. These people gather there to meet their relatives and thereby exchange greetings and gifts. A Bangladesh Border Guard (BGB) official acknowledged that they unofficially allow people living in the bordering districts to meet on the no man’s land with the consent of the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) officials – thereby honouring the emotional bond and affection that exist between the people of these two next-door neighbouring countries. For a while, the barbed wire fence ceases to be a barrier for those who cannot afford expenditure for the government-approved regulations and visit each other’s countries.
You can also read: Malaysian Home Minister promises fast track immigration during Dhaka visit
Indian Home Minister Amit Shah, while inspecting recently the Mankachar BOP of India-Bangla- desh border in Assam, reviewed the Comprehensive Integrated Border Management System and reiterated the Modi government’s commitment towards providing the latest and the best technologies to the security forces to secure the frontiers and stop cross-border infiltration and illegal activities in the bordering areas of India and Bangladesh.
During the meetings of the Indian and Bangladesh border officials, which are regularly held under a joint institutional mechanism agreed upon by both countries, it has been pledged to work together to make the border area safe and secure for citizens of both countries. India and Bangladesh share the fifth-longest land border in the world, running to 4096.7 kilometers, including 262km in Assam, 856km in Tripura, 318km in Mizoram, 443km in Meghalaya and 2217km in West Bengal.
On the Bangladesh side, Mymensingh, Khulna, Rajshahi, Rangpur, Sylhet and Chittagong divisions are situated along the border. As per the latest reports, 3145km of border area has been demarcated by physical fencing, while the rest remains open – marked by pillars or natural boundaries like rivers.
According to the annual report of the Indian Home Affairs Ministry of 2021-22, “The Indo-Bangladesh border is marked by a high degree of porosity and checking of illegal cross-border activities has been a major challenge”. The Government of India has sanctioned the construction of border fencing with floodlights in two phases and sources say that the ongoing work is to be completed by March 2024. New border roads are also being constructed to enable border communication and operational mobility. However, the border fencing work is progressing at a slow pace in particular stretches of the border, especially in riverine and low-lying areas following difficulty in land acquisition due to dense habitation within 150 yards.
The India-Bangladesh Land Border Agreement in its opening para recalls the historical perspective of the border question stating thus, “The Nehru Noon Agreement of 1958 and the Agreement concerning the Demarcation of the Land Boundary between India and Bangladesh and Related Matters of 1974 sought to find the solution to the complex nature of the border demarcation involved. Three outstanding issues pertaining to an undemarcated land boundary of approximately 6.91 km, exchange of enclaves and adverse possessions remain unsettled.”
Both India and Bangladesh understand that “a settled boundary is an essential prerequisite for effective cross border cooperation. It reduces friction, helps neighbours consolidate mutually beneficial exchanges, and promotes confidence building in better relations.” However, things at the ground level are easier said than done.
In standard operating practice of geopolitics, international borders are to be clearly delineated – separating sovereign states by one dimensional lines. But in reality, many international borders are often contested and indistinct at times. India-Bangladesh border is no exception.
However, the Radcliffe line, as this border is formally known, is a testimony of many historical and momentous events of South Asia — from the partition of India in 1947, which resulted in the exchange of population, the mutiny and civil war in East Pakistan catapulting into a full-fledged liberation war, the onrush of refugees into India from East Pakistan and back thereafter the birth of Bangladesh as an independent nation.
Since then, much water has flown down the Ichhamati river. Some issues concerning the border have been resolved through mutual consultation, like the exchanging of enclaves. Other issues, which arise from the porous nature of the border, like illegal immigration, drug and human trafficking, cattle smuggling and use of the border areas by antinational elements on both sides to foster terrorism and criminal activities continue in spite of best efforts by the border guards of both countries.
The Indian political establishment, including the Union Government, has in official documents and oral presentation in both the houses of Indian Parliament stated that there has been since partition, large-scale illegal infiltration from East Pakistan and then currently Bangladesh, which has been taking place around the year. Due to the commonality of racial features, language and religion, many of these infiltrators have mixed with the local population and have, with the nexus of local agents, acquired Indian citizenship documents. Thus, they have stayed back in India never to return. This has not only put pressure on the country’s scarce resources, but also has changed the demographic profile of border districts. Only a very small minority of these illegal immigrants have been detected and pushed back to their country of origin. This issue is more pronounced in eastern states and north-eastern states like West Bengal and Assam.
Bangladesh has, however, in unequivocal terms, in official meetings and in domestic pronouncements, denied such infiltration from its soil into India. Many ministers, officials and diplomats of Bangladesh, of late, citing the current economic development of the country, have questioned as to why people from Bangladesh would risk their lives to illegally cross the border and venture into India when they have no economic benefits. These accusations and counter-accusations acquire a higher pitch during times of elections when browbeating the neighbouring country enables one to get political dividends in the process.
But the issue that continues to cause severe resentment among common Bangladeshis is the issue of border killings. Meanwhile, the Director General, BSF (India) during regular meetings justifies Bangladeshi’s killed on the border as criminals and commit to bring the number of deaths to zero. In spite of the public angst, surprisingly, on most occasions there is no mention of such killings in the joint communique that are released after talks between the BSF and the BGB.
Kamal Ahmed, an independent Bangladeshi journalist based in London, commenting upon a joint statement released after such high level talks, recently said, “Given the fact that considerable resentment exists in Bangladesh about border killings, why did our foreign ministry not insist on retaining some mention of the fact, without just expressing ‘satisfaction’? Is it our foreign ministry’s view that no resentment exists on our side about border killings? Does our government agree that those killed are criminals, illegal trespassers or involved in illicit trade and deserve to be killed?
Countering the charge, Bangladesh State Minister for Foreign Affairs Mohammed Shahriar Alam said such killings in recent times in the most points have come down to zero, although problems remain in some places like the porous border along Lalmonirhat district. While acknowledging that border killing remains an irritant to India-Bangladesh relations, the minister said that there is no lack of willingness on both sides and reiterated, “We never stepped back in raising issues in the interest of Bangladesh and its people.”
The minister said these issues were raised in the recent Home Minister-level talks in New Delhi during which the Bangladesh side asked its Indian counterpart to refrain from using lethal weapons. However, leaders of India and Bangladesh agree on the importance of effective border management for ensuring a peaceful, stable and crime-free border.
When the BJP-led government came to power in India, the then Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiran Rijiju alleged that there were 20 million Bangladeshi illegal immigrants in India, a number which is contested and debated on both sides of the border.
Bangladesh being one of the most densely populated land-starved nations of South Asia has never officially recognized the problem of illegal immigration. The ruling Awami League government, which is considered as pro-India, maintains a similar stance visa-vis the influx problem just like the earlier BNP-led and military-backed governments.
While the issue of illegal immigration continues to be debated hotly more in the eastern and northeastern Indian states, it finds its resonance in faraway places like Jammu and Kashmir, Maharashtra and Karnataka too. Different sources view that “the modus operandi for obtaining necessary documents such as AADHAR and ration cards facilitated by politicians and corrupt officials have been institutionalized over the years”.
Bangladesh’s Ministry of Commerce in a recent statement has said, “A joint feasibility study on a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) has been carried out after the two countries agreed for exploring a bilateral FTA (free trade agreement). The study confirmed that the CEPA would provide a sound basis for substantial enhancement of trade and commercial partnership between the two countries.” Sources in both India and Bangladesh reveal that the CEPA be implemented within the coming few months. In this context, a tranquil border and its professional management is essential as it will create new jobs, raise living standards, and provide wider social and economic opportunities in India and Bangladesh – thereby ushering in a peaceful, stable, and prosperous South Asia.