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The India-Bangladesh Border : "A Problem Area for Tomorrow"

Dr. Pushpita Das is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • December 08, 2006

    Statistics reveal that the Border Security Force (BSF) has so far, this year, apprehended 8,196 persons who were trying enter India illegally from Bangladesh. The numbers that successfully manage to evade the security forces on the border, is of course, much larger. Apart from the usual suspects, the militants and economic migrants, the recent political turmoil in Bangladesh has also resulted in many Bangladeshi political dissidents and people from the religious minorities attempting to sneak into India to avoid political and religious persecution.

    In an interview on 28th November 2006, the Director General of Border Security Force (BSF) described the Indo-Bangladesh border as a "problem area for tomorrow". He revealed that investigations into the recent terrorists bombings in India have indicated that militants are "freely using" the porous border to enter into India to carry out their heinous acts. According to the BSF Director General, the increasing numbers has made it virtually impossible to stop illegal entry despite sincere efforts by the security forces. Therefore, it is necessary that as much attention be given to the Eastern border with Bangladesh, as is currently given to the Western border.

    The Indo-Bangladesh border is highly porous making the illegal movement of people and goods a perennial problem. The terrain and the demographic composition of the border area make it conducive for Bangladeshis to sneak into India and also to get easily assimilated into the local populace. Migration from Bangladesh into India, especially in Assam and Tripura has primarily been driven by the quest for better economic opportunities. Many Bangladeshis have also crossed over into India to escape political and religious persecution. Over the years, the magnitude of this illegal migration had reached such an astounding proportion that it had begun to alter the demographic profile and threaten the socio-political fabric of the border states. The porous nature of the border and the constant flow of people have also made it easy for Indian Insurgent Groups (IIGs) to cross over into Bangladesh, where they have set up safe houses and training camps under the benign eyes of Pakistani and Bangladeshi intelligence services. The increasing influence of Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh has resulted in the large-scale push into India, of not only economic migrants, but also the foot-soldiers of jihad terrorism and pan-Islamic fundamentalism, all of which have the potential to destabilize the country and threaten national security.

    Evidence collected by the police in many recent terrorist incidents including the Mumbai blasts in July, the Varanasi serial blasts in March and attack on the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore in December last year point to an increased use of Bangladeshi territory by ISI backed terrorist groups like the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI). It is suspected that the recent bomb blasts in Jalpaiguri and Guwahati were also carried out by the IIGs on the behest of Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) stationed in Bangladesh. The recent weapon hauls in various Northeastern States indicate that Bangladesh has also become a conduit for arms trafficking. Smuggling especially of cattle, human and narcotics trafficking, counterfeit currency, kidnapping and thefts are quite rampant along the border.

    The hitherto neglected border along Bangladesh is gradually getting the attention of the Central government, bringing with it much needed money and manpower. Steps like raising additional BSF battalions, construction of more Border Out Posts (BOPs), erection of barb wire fences, building of roads along the border and acquiring new equipment are being undertaken for improving vigilance along the border to check infiltration. The BSF initially had 50 battalions, which was subsequently raised to 66, with more on the way.

    Construction of fences has been undertaken in two phases, with Phase I sanctioned in 1987 and Phase II in 2000. Phase I ended with the fencing of only 20 per cent (857 km) of the border, and even this was of limited utility since much of the fencing was subsequently damaged as a result of faulty construction designs and vagaries of weather. Under Phase-II, an additional 2429.5 km of fence was sanctioned and by 31st January 2005, 1275.4 km had been completed. For the first time, a 9.3 km fence has been erected between Mantri char and Kalaibari char. Additional Border Observation Posts (BOPs), along with helipads, have also been constructed on the chars, which could be used for emergency evacuation or deployment. In the current year, the Center has sanctioned Rs. 424 crore for the construction and repair of damaged fences.

    Proper roads are essential for effective patrolling along the border. Under Phase-1, 2866.39 km of border roads have been constructed and an additional 797 km has been sanctioned under Phase II. Patrolling on these roads and along the border has further improved with the recent acquisition by the BSF of Global Positioning System (GPS) gadgets, night vision binoculars and hand held thermal image intensifiers. Whilst the night vision gadgets help track infiltrators, the GPS instruments help the BSF personnel to navigate the winding riverine border.

    However, erecting fences along the border has not been without its share of problems. The inhospitable terrain, the largely undemarcated border area and consequent border disputes, the non-cooperative attitudes of the various state governments and also that of the Bangla Desh Rifles (BDR) are all hurdles in the way of effectively fencing the border. The state governments have not shown much enthusiasm towards the erection of border fences for a number of reasons. The rehabilitation of displaced people due to fencing is a contentious issue between the central and various state governments. More recently, the government of Tripura has alleged that the BSF is not adhering to guidelines announced by the Ministry of Home Affairs while constructing the fences. India is also facing stiff resistance from Bangladesh at 265 disputed spots as the security forces of both the countries differ on their perception of the location of the boundary. Bangladesh objects on the ground that the construction of any defensive structure within 150 yards of the international boundary is not permitted under guidelines agreed to in 1975. On the other hand, India maintains that it is demolition of defensive structures and not construction of fences that forms part of 1975 guidelines. It must be mentioned that the above mentioned contentious parts constitute only 7 per cent (297 km) of the 4095 km long India-Bangladesh border.

    Effective border management and maintenance of peace and tranquility along the border is only possible through mutual cooperation. For this purpose, India and Bangladesh have, down the years, jointly established a number of institutional mechanisms. These include the bi-annual meeting between the BSF and the BDR, the Home Secretary Level talks and the annual meeting of the Joint Boundary Working Group (JBWG). However these institutional mechanisms have failed to deliver any desired results, in the face of Bangladeshi intransigence towards Indian proposals. During successive meetings either at the Home Secretary Levels or at the BSF-BDR levels, Bangladesh has failed to respond to Indian concerns. The Indian side has been constantly raising the issue of the presence of the Indian Insurgent Groups (IIGs), especially the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and their camps inside Bangladesh. The BSF had also submitted lists of camps and hideouts of the IIGs in Bangladesh to the BDR and demanded the deportation of the general secretary of ULFA, Anup Chetia and other leaders of militant organizations. But as in the past, Bangladesh has refused to acknowledge the existence of any IIGs or their camps inside Bangladesh. The JBWG has a similar tale of woe. The JBWG was established in June 2001 to implement the Land Boundary Agreement of 1974. In July 2006, the officials of the JBWG met for the third1 time after a gap of four years to deliberate on the longstanding issues of border demarcation and exchange of enclaves and territories presently in the possession of the other side. The two-day meeting ended inconclusively with a decision to meet once a year.

    The Indo-Bangladesh border is well on its way to becoming a major headache for India unless the problems afflicting the border are not addressed urgently. The issues of illegal migration, smuggling, spread of Islamic fundamentalism from across the border etc. need to be effectively tackled. Measures like construction of fences and roads have to be undertaken on a war-footing. In addition, it is important to sensitise the border population about the strategic importance of their area and also get them involved in guarding the border. In this regard, the proposal of the Group of Ministers' in their Report on Border Management of 2001 that Village Volunteer Forces (VVF) should be created to assist the security forces in guarding the borders should be considered seriously. Further, proposals like issuance of photo identity cards to the Indian citizens living along the borders and work permits to the Bangladeshi migrants should be considered positively, and work-arounds should be found to take care of objections raised on various grounds. India also needs to constructively engage Bangladesh and develop trade and infrastructure along and across the border so that Bangladesh also has stakes in maintaining a peaceful and tranquil border.

    • 1. Earlier it was wrongly written second

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