End The Exile: Why New Delhi Must Insist On Moving The India-Bangladesh Border Fence To 'Zero-Line'

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Jan 14, 2022 01:17 PM
End The Exile: Why New Delhi Must Insist On Moving The India-Bangladesh Border Fence To 'Zero-Line' A border fence between India and Bangladesh. (representative image) (Shazia Rahman via GettyImages)
  • Recent experiences show that Bangladesh is not averse to appreciating and acknowledging the sufferings that Indian citizens are put to due to the border fence coming up 150 yards inside Indian territory.

Lyngkhong, a small village on the India-Bangladesh border in East Khasi Hills district of Meghalaya, has been in the news (read this) recently since it risks being ‘cut off’ from India by the fence being erected along the international border.

Almost all the 90-odd inhabitants of this remote village reside along or very close to the ‘zero-line’, the border drawn arbitrarily by Sir Cyril Radcliffe that divided families and communities.

Erecting the fence along the 4096.7-kilometer-long India-Bangladesh border, which started in 1989 primarily to stop large-scale illegal migration of Bangladeshis into India and to curb smuggling, trafficking and other criminal activities, is an ongoing process.

The problem for lakhs of Indians spread across the states bordering Bangladesh--Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura--is New Delhi’s meek acceptance of Dhaka’s condition that the fence could be erected only 150 yards (a little over 137 meters or 450 feet) away from the ‘zero-line’ (the actual border demarcated on the ground).

Bangladesh had objected to India’s plan to raise the border fence along the zero-line citing a 1972 pact between the two countries (called the Indira-Mujib Treaty) that prohibits construction of any permanent structure within 150 yards of both sides of the zero-line.

Bangladesh’s military-backed and belligerently anti-India Jatiya Party which was in power in that country in the late 1980s, insisted that the proposed fence is a permanent structure and refused to allow the construction of the fence along the zero-line.

The Rajiv Gandhi government, instead of asserting India’s right to erect the fence along the zero-line in order to curb illegal influx from Bangladesh and stop cross-border crimes, acquiesced to Dhaka’s demand, and in the process, sacrificed the interests of millions of Indians living along the border. The fence has been coming up 150 yards away from the zero-line inside Indian territory, thus cutting off many Indian habitations and farmlands from the rest of the country.

In Bengal, Assam and Tripura, the fence has excluded Indian citizens from free access to the rest of the country. They can cross into India only through iron gates erected at some places along the fence.

The Border Security Force (BSF), which guards the Indo-Bangla border, mans these iron gates that are opened only twice or thrice a day. Indian citizens staying within Indian territory on the other side of the fence have to subject themselves to body friskings and through physical searches of their belongings as well as scrutiny of their documents every time they cross these gates.

As if this daily harassment isn’t enough, these Indian citizens are left at the mercy of Bangladeshi criminals and goons who frequently cross the zero-line.

The BSF has posts only on the Indian side of the fence and, in case of attacks on Indian citizens and properties on the other side of the fence facing Bangladesh, take a long time to open the gates and go over to the other side of the fence to ward off the Bangladeshi criminals and goons.

There have been lakhs of complaints by Indian citizens whose houses and farmlands lie on the other side of the fence about attacks by Bangladeshi criminals. These criminals, often armed, loot houses of Indians on the other side of the fence and take off with valuables, livestock and household goods. They (the criminals) also harvest standing crops in the Indian farmlands on the other side of the fence.

According to statistics given out by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to the Lok Sabha in August last year, about 76 percent of the international border with Bangladesh had been fenced till then. The remaining portion would be covered by physical fencing or, in riverine and other areas where erecting the fence is not possible, electronic and electrical surveillance systems are being installed.

According to the MHA’s figures, 3,141 kilometers of the 4096.7-kilometer-long border has already been fenced. This includes 1,638 kilometers of the 2,216.7 kilometers (of the India-Bangla order) that falls in Bengal, 210 kms of the 263 kms in Assam, 326 kms of the 443 kms in Meghalaya, 155 kms of the 318 kms in Mizoram and 812 kms of the 856 kms that falls in Tripura.

Rajiv Gandhi’s surrender to Bangladesh’s then anti-Indian rulers, thus, has been the cause of enormous suffering to lakhs of Indians who found their habitations and farmlands cut off by the fence. It was, for them, an evisceration far worse than the one inflicted by Radcliffe in 1947.

Apart from living at the mercy of Bangladeshi criminals, Indians cut off by the fence have also been denied easy and free access to schools, healthcare and many other facilities that lie on the Indian side of the fence.

The terrible hardships faced by lakhs of Indians have been widely documented (read this, this and this). Many have abandoned their houses and farmlands and moved to this side of the fence, leading lives bordering on penury.

The residents of Lyngkhong village in Meghalaya have avoided this fate for the time being. The strong objections they raised recently to the construction of the fence has halted the construction works.

Had the fence come up, all the 17 families of the village would have found themselves on the other side of the fence. They would have, for all practical purposes, been then reduced to the status of stateless citizens, like the lakhs of their fellow citizens who have been cut off by the fence.

But there’s hope for the people of Lyngkhong, and countless others who find themselves in similar predicament. Over the past few years, the Narendra Modi government has intervened with Dhaka and got the latter’s consent to erecting the border fence along the zero-line (read this).

A senior officer of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) told Swarajya from New Delhi: “Whenever local villagers raise objections to the erection of the fence on the grounds that it will cut off their dwellings and farmlands, the BSF takes it up with the Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB). We also take up the case with Dhaka at the diplomatic and ministerial levels and explain to Bangladesh the need to erect the fence on the zero-line. This takes considerable time and so far, Bangladesh has acceded to our requests on a number of cases over the past six to seven years”.

The MHA officer conceded that in the past, despite representations by countless Indians whose habitations and farmlands have been cut off by the fence, no government had taken up this matter with Dhaka. It is only after the Modi government came to power in 2014 that this issue has been given due importance.

But in the quarter century preceding Modi’s ascension to power, the fence has disrupted the lives and livelihoods of millions of Indians. The damage has already been done.

It is now imperative on the part of New Delhi to try and undo the damage.

New Delhi must impress upon Dhaka the need to move the fence to the zero-line. Dhaka must be made to see reason, and recent experience has shown that Bangladesh is not averse at all to appreciating and acknowledging the sufferings that Indian citizens are put to due to the border fence coming up 150 yards inside Indian territory.

This is borne by the fact that Bangladesh has consented to erection of the fence along the zero-line at many places over the past seven years on the present Modi government’s request. Dhaka must now be made to understand that countless Indian citizens have suffered enough and the existing fence needs to be moved to the zero-line. Bangladesh has nothing to lose, and lakhs of Indians have a lot to gain, once that happens.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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