A New Trouble For BSF On India-Bangladesh Frontier: Demographic Change In Bengal’s Border Districts Has Led To Spurt In Trans-Border Crimes

A New Trouble For BSF On India-Bangladesh Frontier: Demographic Change In Bengal’s Border Districts Has Led To Spurt In Trans-Border CrimesIndian Border Security Force (BSF) soldier. (TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images) (Illustration: Swarajya Magazine) 
Snapshot
  • The border villages are now dominated by Bangladeshis who are closely involved in trans-border crimes.

    This has made the job of the BSF and other central enforcement agencies tougher and much riskier.

That a steady influx of Bangladeshi Muslims into Bengal has changed the demography of the state, especially its border districts, is too well-known to merit repetition.

But what is little known is that this demographic change has led to a spurt in trans-border crimes that poses a tough challenge to the Border Security Force (BSF).

Close ethnic and religious affinities between people on the two sides of the 2,217 kilometre-long international border in Bengal has led to criminal gangs operating with impunity. Top BSF officers say that these gangs have close links with, and are supported and sheltered by, residents of villages on both sides of the border.

And with the passage of time, these gangs and their supporters have grown bolder and have started attacking the BSF and other security agencies whenever these agencies try to thwart their criminal activities.

Vast areas along the international border, especially in the districts of North 24 Parganas, Nadia, Murdhidabad, Malda, and Dakshin and Uttar Dinajpur have turned overwhelmingly Muslim-majority ones.

Almost all the residents of these areas are of Bangladeshi origin and maintain close ties with people on the other side of the border.

“Often, the residents on both sides of the border are relatives. And many are involved in trafficking, especially cattle, humans, drugs, arms and other commodities. They operate jointly and have stepped up their activities of late,” said a DIG-rank officer of the BSF’s South Bengal Frontier.

What the BSF officer left unsaid is that political, and the consequent administrative patronage, in recent years has led to these trafficking gangs getting bolder.

Not only have incidents of breaching the border increased, the gang members and their patrons in the border villages have started attacking the BSF and enforcement agencies which try to thwart their crimes.

There has been a spike in the number of attacks on the BSF by smugglers and residents of the border villages. The false narrative that they spin is that the BSF and other agencies harass them, and this earns them instant support and protection from Bengal’s ruling politicians.

The latest such incident was reported from North Dinajpur from a place near the India-Bangladesh border (read this). Customs officials, acting on a tip off, stopped a small truck carrying paddy towards the border and its search led to recovery of stolen murtis of Hindu deities made of stone, ashtadhatu and terracotta valued at over Rs 35 crore.

After the vehicle was stopped, local residents gathered at the spot and started intimidating the 11 customers officers. They threatened the customs officers, who sought help from the police.

Luckily for the customs officers, the police arrived at the scene promptly and rescued the former. Had the cops not reached on time, the customs officers would have been attacked and the truck driven away.

While the customs officers had a narrow escape, many BSF personnel haven’t been as lucky. In July this year, three BSF jawans were seriously injured by a group of drug traffickers in North 24 Parganas district. The traffickers attacked the BSF personnel with sharp weapons when the latter challenged them.

In July last year, cattle smugglers hurled bombs and cut off a hand of a BSF jawan in North 24 Parganas. “Such incidents are on the rise. Earlier, smugglers and traffickers would flee on spotting out personnel. Nowadays, they fight back,” said the senior BSF officer.

There have been countless faceoffs between BSF personnel and traffickers and smugglers. There have also been many minor clashes.

“The locals (residents of border villages) come out in support of the traffickers and smugglers whenever we confront or nab them. This is a new and alarming trend and proves that the smuggling and trafficking network has grown stronger and bolder,” said the BSF officer.

While the smugglers and traffickers used to attack BSF personnel with bamboo sticks and traditional weapons earlier, they now hurled bombs and even use firearms. Earlier this month, BSF personnel recovered a rifle with a silencer from a banana grove along the border.

That weapon was reportedly kept hidden in the grove by smugglers for use against the BSF. Officers suspect that the emboldened smugglers are in the possession of contraband weapons that they will not hesitate to use against the uniformed personnel.

It is a well-known fact that local Trinamool leaders (it was CPM leaders in the past) take the side of locals and put pressure on the BSF to leave them alone. “There is often a lot of pressure from local politicians not to ‘harass’ residents of the border villages,” admitted a commanding officer of a BSF battalion in North 24 Parganas.

‘Harass’ is a euphemism for the BSF trying to prevent illegal activities. Local politicians not only treat the Bangladeshi-origin Muslim residents of the border villages as valuable vote banks, but also benefit from the smuggling and trafficking.

The BSF has operational jurisdiction over a 15-kilometre band along the international border: the force can detain and interrogate people. But they have to hand over all cases to the local police, who then investigate and prepare chargesheets.

Very often, acting under instructions from ruling politicians, the Bengal police a highly politicised and corrupt force either set criminals free or prepare very weak chargesheets that eventually lead to their acquittal.

This encourages the criminals who have realised that the BSF has its limitations. That is why, say BSF officers, the criminals and their patrons in the border villages feel emboldened to confront and attack the border force.

The criminals know they can get away, thanks to the support and patronage of local politicians and the state police.

The porosity of the international border had always allowed smuggling. But, say BSF officers, residents of the border villages would rarely be involved in those illegal activities.

Thus, without local support, the smugglers and traffickers could not operate with impunity. But that has changed with the demographic transformation of the border villages.

These villages are now dominated by Bangladeshis who are closely involved in trans-border crimes. And that has made the job of the BSF and other central enforcement agencies tougher and much riskier.

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