Soaring divisions along India-Bangladesh border fence

In Tripura, residents say barbed-wire barrier keeping out migrants threatens livelihoods – and their cultural spirit.

The fence aims to control unrestricted movement, but many villagers say it's damaging their lives [Pinaki Das/Al Jazeera]

Agartala, India – Zohur Ali has lived with divided loyalties since his birth in 1947, the year the British partitioned India.

Part of his sprawling ancestral home, a collection of mud houses with tin roofs in Tripura state, falls inside Indian territory, and part of it falls in Bangladesh.

Border Pillar 2058, one of many demarcating northeastern India’s 4,096-kilometre border with Bangladesh, sits right in the middle of his courtyard, splitting the family home into two countries.

“Partition divided us physically, but we lived as one in spirit,” said Ali. A few kilometres away, Border Pillar 2033 similarly divides his friend Rahman Bhuiyan’s house.

Members of both Ali’s and Bhuiyan’s families fought in Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971 to break away from Pakistan. “But we remained Indian citizens. It is a great country, and it helped Bangladesh become free. As a Bengali, I am proud of Bangladesh but also very proud to be an Indian,” said Ali.

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But Ali’s and Bhuiyan’s families, whose members are all Indian citizens, now face trouble over a barbed-wire fence India has been constructing since 1995 along its border with Bangladesh, to limit illegal migration and smuggling.

Bangladesh insists India must construct the fence 150 metres away from the border, under a bilateral pact signed in 1975. Whenever the Indians have deviated from this distance and built the fence closer to the border, Bangladeshi border guards have opened fire, in Tripura and elsewhere.

‘Giving them away’

Now, with a government in Dhaka that New Delhi considers friendly, India is honouring Bangladesh’s view and building the fence 150 metres away from the “zero-line” that demarcates the border. “That effectively throws us on the Bangladesh side,” said Ali.

According to a Tripura government survey, at least 7,123 families in the tiny state will lose their homes, land, or shops because their properties fall between the Indian fence and the zero-line.

“These people feel upset. They tell us we are giving them away to Bangladesh,” said Shahid Choudhury, a Tripura state government minister. As a result, hundreds of villagers such as Ali and Bhuiyan are furiously protesting the construction of the fence in Tripura.

In the Sonamura subdivision, demonstrations have been persistent and unwavering. When Sonamura’s magistrate Panna Ahmed ordered work on the border fence to resume in September after a long interruption, more than 1,000 villagers protested and threatened hunger strikes.

“I have to complete this project in my jurisdiction because the Indian government wants the fence completed, and the state government is bound by its directives,” explained Ahmed.

Border Pillar 2058, one of many demarcating India's 4,096-kilometre border with Bangladesh [Pinaki Das/Al Jazeera] 
Border Pillar 2058, one of many demarcating India’s 4,096-kilometre border with Bangladesh [Pinaki Das/Al Jazeera] 

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Only 10 percent of Tripura’s 856-kilometre-long border with Bangladesh remains to be fenced. But that is where the protests are most strident.

Villagers in these thickly populated stretches of the border say they are not against the fence per se, but demand it be constructed on the zero-line. “If that happens, we don’t lose our land and homes, they remain on the Indian side of the fence. We will then actually help the government construct the fence. Or else, we will become beggars,” said Ahid Mia.

Mia’s large family, like Ali’s, lives on 1.6 hectares of fertile land, all located along the border and on the other side of the fence. “We demand compensation and rehabilitation, some alternative livelihood if this fence has to come up,” said Mia.

Tripura’s left-wing government insists the compensation package must come from New Delhi’s coffers because it does not have the necessary funds.

Indian border guards patrol a divided village as a farmer cultivates his land [Pinaki Das/Al Jazeera] [Al Jazeera]
Indian border guards patrol a divided village as a farmer cultivates his land [Pinaki Das/Al Jazeera] [Al Jazeera]

‘Severely restricted’

But for others, the fence itself is a problem. Drummer Bappa Das, whose local music band plays during festivals and marriage ceremonies, said his income will drop sharply once the fence is completed.

“This was an open border, and my band would play for marriages, festivals and even government ceremonies in Comilla [in Bangladesh], more often than we get to play here in Tripura,” said Das of Motinagar village. “We just crossed over.”

“Now we find movement across the border severely restricted wherever the fence is up. Indian villagers with lands on the zero-line can access them once or twice a day when the border guards open the fence gates,” Das told Al Jazeera.

India’s goal in building the fence was to control unrestricted movement across the border, thus reducing the amount of illegal migration and smuggling.

“The fence has prevented [the] flow of commodities like fish and other food items. That affects the poor and the middle class on both sides. But it has not stopped [the] flow of high-value contraband,” said ML Debnath, secretary of the Tripura Chamber of Commerce.

For example, Debnath said, the flow of Indian-made Phensydyl cough syrup, which is often consumed by addicts who are denied liquor in Bangladesh under a national prohibition policy, has continued unchecked.

“This cough syrup is wreaking havoc with our youth,” said Bangladeshi social activist and business leader Sabera Ahmed Koli. “India must stop it for the sake of our younger generation.”

Indian and Bangladesh border guards greet each other - but relations have sometimes frayed over the fence [Pinaki Das/Al Jazeera]
Indian and Bangladesh border guards greet each other – but relations have sometimes frayed over the fence [Pinaki Das/Al Jazeera]

‘A real spoiler’

Debnath argued for a strong border presence to stop undocumented migrants and contraband but advocated an easy border regime allowing for movement of people and commodities. He welcomed the “border haats” – markets set up along the border, which India and Bangladesh are now installing to promote frontier trade. Two such markets are already operational in Tripura.

“We have asked for many more border haats; the demand for them is growing here,” said Jiten Choudhury, a Tripura lawmaker in the Indian parliament.

While many Indian border states such as Assam want tougher controls to prevent Bangladeshi migrants from crossing illegally, Tripura’s government and people have traditionally been friendly with Bangladesh and want greater connectivity.

Encircled on three sides by Bangladesh and populated mostly by ethnic Bengalis, that is hardly surprising. During the 1971 liberation war in Bangladesh, Tripura’s 1.5 million people – more than 70 percent of them Bengalis – sheltered 1.8 million refugees, almost all Bengalis, from what was then East Pakistan.

In a recent football friendly match between a Bangladeshi team and one from Tripura, packed crowds in the state capital Agartala shouted “Joy Bangla!” (“Long live Bangladesh!”).

A Tripura gas-fired power plant provides electricity to Bangladesh after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina allowed transhipment of its heavy equipment through the Chittagong port.

And an India-Bangladesh agreement now extends the submarine internet cable from the Bangladeshi coastal town of Cox’s Bazar to Agartala, boosting the prospects for the information technology industry in the industrially backward state.

“Tripura’s future growth depends on its relations with Bangladesh,” said Indraneel Bhowmik, a professor of economics at Tripura University in Agartala.

Many in Tripura, therefore, see the border fence as going against the friendly relations between Tripura and Bangladesh.

“Religion could not divide us, the partition also failed to divide us, but this fence threatens to divide us,” said Agartala resident Amar Ghosh. “It is a real spoiler.” 

A farmer sows crops on his land outside India's well-guarded fence [Pinaki Das/Al Jazeera]
A farmer sows crops on his land outside India’s well-guarded fence [Pinaki Das/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera