The India-Bangladesh border has become more volatile, but recent measures by the BSF will send a strong message to the infiltrators that they risk losing their lives if they venture into India.
Smugglers, traffickers and infiltrators have, since the end of May, suddenly become very aggressive along the India-Bangladesh border, especially the south Bengal sector of the international border. There have been numerous attempts by Bangladeshi criminals to breach the border, inviting retaliation from the Border Security Force (BSF). A number of Bangladeshis have died in firing by the BSF since June.
Under Home Minister Amit Shah, the BSF has adopted a ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards smugglers and traffickers who attempt to breach the border. The latter, almost all of them Bangladeshi nationals, have also turned more aggressive and desperate. According to senior BSF officers, there has been a discernible rise in attempts to breach the border in order to smuggle out cattle and other commodities and smuggle in fake Indian currency notes (FICN), drugs and people. “The criminals have also become more aggressive and whenever challenged, they attack our jawans, thus forcing us to open fire,” said a senior officer of the BSF’s Malda Frontier in central Bengal.
Most of the recent breaches have occurred along the international border under the Malda Frontier, which was carved out of the South Bengal and North Bengal frontiers of the BSF in 2010 to tackle rising criminal activities along this portion of the border. “Criminal activities and breaches have slowly come down in other stretches of the border that have been properly fenced. But it is this stretch that has remained problematic and become more so,” said the BSF officer.
This month itself, there have been 12 attempts to breach the international border, which is mostly riverine and thus cannot be fenced, under the Malda Frontier. The Malda Frontier is tasked with guarding the border along Malda and other neighbouring districts. Almost the entire stretch of the border under this formation of the BSF is populated by Muslims, most of them of Bangladeshi origin. Thus, say BSF officers, criminals from Bangladesh have close links with residents on this side of the border and receive help from them.
Last Sunday’s incident was a typical one. “A gang of about 40 Bangladeshi criminals attempted to cross the border through a rivulet (the notional border runs through the rivulet) and take delivery of cattle. Two of our men detected them and challenged them. They got aggressive and pelted them (the BSF men) with stones and attacked them with sharp weapons. They even tried to snatch an automatic rifle from one of them. Other jawans reached the spot and were forced to open fire. One Mohammad Dulal died in the firing and the others fled to the other side,” said the BSF officer.
Four Bangladeshi criminals have been killed in as many incidents this month itself. The death toll in June was eight.
A deputy inspector general (DIG)-rank BSF officer explained that most of the other stretches of the India-Bangladesh border in Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura have been fenced. ‘Smart fencing’ that includes an array of electronic surveillance equipment has been installed along the border in Dhubri in Assam (read this), making infiltration impossible.
The border in Dhubri is also riverine with hundreds of channels of the Brahmaputra flowing into Bangladesh through this stretch. Malda, through which the Ganga and other rivers flow into Bangladesh, is thus the only stretch of the international border through which infiltration is relatively easy now.
“The only way to guard the riverine border is manually. But it is impossible to have enough boots on the ground to maintain physical vigil along the entire stretch of the unfenced border here. That would mean round-the-clock deployment of thousands of men, which is impossible. Work, though, is on to install smart fencing along this stretch of the border as well,” said the BSF DIG. But even along the fenced portions of the border, criminals from Bangladesh often make attempts to breach the fence.
“There is a new desperation we have witnessed in recent months amongst smugglers and traffickers from Bangladesh. This desperation also makes them more aggressive and they challenge our men and attack us more often these days. Since it has become difficult for the criminals to breach the border at other places, it seems they are concentrating on this stretch of the border under the BSF’s Malda and South Bengal frontiers (in the districts of Dakshin Dinajpur, Malda, Murshidabad, Nadia and North 24 Parganas). And of this stretch, it is the stretch along Malda that is most infiltration prone,” said the DIG who did not want to be named since he is not the official spokesperson of the force.
Attacks by Bangladeshi criminals on BSF men are, however, not new. But the recent trend is that while the attacks were few and far between earlier and now, they have increased in frequency. “The Bangladeshi criminal gangs have become bolder. They know that we will fire as a last resort and so take advantage of that,” said a BSF officer who commands a battalion under the Malda Frontier.
“Typically, the infiltrators wait on the Bangladesh side of the border after dusk. On this (Indian) side of the border, their associates (who are almost always their relatives and friends) keep a vigil on the movement of our men and when they feel it is safe to cross the border or cut through or breach the fence, they give the signal to the criminals on the other side. When our men suddenly come across an infiltration attempt and challenge the criminals, they face the attacks. Our men patrol on foot and on bicycles either alone or in groups of two. Thus, the criminals feel they can overpower our men by attacking them,” said the BSF commanding officer.
“In the past, when detected, the Bangladeshi criminals would flee. But now they attack us. This is a worrisome trend. We are working out a new strategy to counter their new aggression and this trend to attack our men,” said the DIG.
Also, in the past, the Bangladeshi criminals used to operate in smaller groups of four to five, but now they operate in larger groups of at least two dozen and often much more.
“That is perhaps what has made them bolder and more aggressive. Another aspect that has come to our notice is that these criminals are always high on drugs and other substances, and that is also why they are so reckless. No sober person in his right senses, even a criminal, would be bold enough to take on armed and uniformed personnel,” said the DIG.
Top BSF officers say that earlier, their men would fire in the air to ward off the Bangladeshi criminals. “But that has continued for far too long and not acting tough has emboldened these Bangladeshi criminals. So it is time to act tough and send a stern message that the border, even the unfenced stretches, is inviolable and breaches will not be tolerated. Bangladeshi criminals have to understand that they can get killed if they infiltrate the border,” said a high-ranking BSF officer in Kolkata.
The ‘act tough’ message was passed on two years ago by the then home minister Rajnath Singh. The BSF top brass also told the Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB), which always used to vociferously protest BSF’s shootings of Bangladeshis trying to breach the border, that such breaches will not be tolerated and will be dealt with a heavy hand. The message was reinforced after Amit Shah took over as Union Home Minister in end-May.
“Attacks on our men will not be tolerated and our men will open fire on their attackers,” said the officer.
“The BGB top brass were told in no uncertain terms that it is primarily their duty to ensure that their nationals do not try to cross the border. They have to guard their side of their border. If they fail to do so and people from their side infiltrate into India, we (the BSF) will take strong action,” said the top BSF officer.
As a result, the BGB mostly remains silent or lodges only perfunctory protests when a Bangladeshi infiltrator is gunned down by the BSF.
Stepped-up vigil by the BGB on the other (Bangladeshi) side of the border has also made smuggling a high-stakes game. “There is a lot of money to be made from smuggling out cattle and some other commodities, and smuggling in drugs and even people wanting to take up residence in India. So they (the criminals) who are very poor, high on drugs and have little to lose have become more desperate now,” said the BSF DIG.
The Indo-Bangla border under the BSF’s Malda Frontier has, thus, become more volatile of late. But the strong action by the BSF of late, hope the force’s officers, will send a message to the criminals on the other side that they can lose their lives if they infiltrate into India. That, ultimately, may act as a strong deterrence.