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India

Fencing the Porous Bangladesh Border

Syed Sajjad Ali, Agartala, India, December 14, 2006

A villager in Agartala,Tripura walks past the barbed wire fence constructed on the India-Bangladesh border. (Photo: Bapi Roy Choudhury)

In 1985 the government of India mooted the idea of constructing a fence along their common international frontier in the eastern part of the country. Subsequently, after deliberations at the highest policy-making levels, the decision was made to erect barbed wire fencing along entire common boundary with Bangladesh. The move to put up a barrier along the border was made to check illegal infiltration, contain smuggling and to frustrate militants who were using the border route to cross over into India to commit subversive acts.

In consideration of vital issues such as national security and the economy, India planned to build an eight-foot-high, double fence of rolled barbed wire stretched between concrete pillars. The multi billion-dollar project has already been implemented in many areas along the border, while work is progressing in others.

Northeast India has been struggling with with border-related problems that forced the central government to fence the boundary, according to P.J. Sebastian, a senior officer in the Border Security Force (BSF). The BSF is responsible for guarding the 2,545-mile (4,095-km) border with Bangladesh on the eastern frontier. The northeast's four states — Tripura, Mizoram, Assam and Meghalaya — share common boundaries with Bangladesh, but Tripura's geographical position is different from the rest as it shares an international border on three sides. Small corridors connect it with Assam and Mizoram.

Mainly due to its geographical disadvantages, the pattern of insurgent activity in Tripura is also different. Records disclosed by authorities show that tribal separatist outfits have established many hideouts within the state, and have set up transit, training and base camps in Bangladesh.

"Dhaka [the capital of Bangladesh] seems to have taken some measures against fundamentalists, but not with regard to Indian militants," said Sabestian. "Militants from Tripura and other states in the region continue to get support and abetment across the border."

It is officially acknowledged that the militants have participated in the kidnapping and killing of civilians as well as carrying out attacks on security forces after crossing the border from their camps. They then retreat across same border to evade security dragnets. Indian officials attribute this elusiveness as the main reason for not achieving the expected success in security operations against the militants. Even criminals try to flee to the other side of the border after committing a crime in Tripura.

Another dismal result of the porous border has been the illegal migration that began after India's independence in 1947, due to religious reasons. There was a massive exodus of Bengali Hindus from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to the neighboring Tripura, Assam and West Bengal states. The continued infiltration is a very sensitive issue in Tripura, and a source of ethnic unrest. Smuggling remains another problem that weighs heavily on the state's economy.

Relations between India and Bangladesh have been stained for the past few years and border troops from both sides have engaged in bloody skirmishes. In April 2001 as many as 16 Indian border guards and three Bangladeshi troops died in the deadliest border clash between the countries. The gun battle along Bangladesh's eastern Akhaura border, alongside Tripura state capital Agartala, erupted as talks between Bangladeshi and Indian officials in Dhaka on ending the conflict over the border fence and other security issues, ended without resolution.

The Indian government argues it is building the fence to prevent rebels, illegal migrants and smugglers from sneaking across the frontier. Bangladesh does not object to the fence, but it has asked India not to build it within 490 feet (150 meters) of the so-called 'zero line,' saying it violates a 1972 agreement between the two countries.

In a recent article, northeast India's prominent intellectual and writer T. Siamchinthang said: "The porous India-Bangladesh border in the North East has for long been a corridor for various armed militants in the region. Hence, the apprehensions of the Bangladesh watchers are that the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and fundamentalist parties like Jamal E Islam may create trouble for the North Eastern States. The fear was that Bangladesh might provide more support to ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] training camps along the border."

The fence project is intended to cover the entire stretch of India's eastern frontier. The federal government has sanctioned adequate funds to complete the work by end of 2007. However, the fencing has created a humane crisis as thousands of people have been evicted due to its construction. Those evicted have been subject to harassment, and are sometimes prevented from working in the region. The federal interior ministry has given assurances of proper rehabilitation for such evacuees, but very little evidence indicates that much assistance has been provided.

An Indian soldier watches as workers toil in the fields in Agartala,Tripura near border fence. (Photo: Bapi Roy Choudhury)

Construction of the border fence continues under the watch of Indian soldiers. (Photo: Bapi Roy Choudhury)

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